Snowman Photo Credit: Jason Bolonski
When last Dappered brought you an article on holiday music, I was asked to shine a light on the new-for-2011 songs and collections of the season. By definition, this excluded just about everyone’s favorites, no matter the genre.
This year has seen a few high profile additions to the canon (like this one, this one and this one), but by and large, it’s a fairly bah-humbug year for good new releases. Mostly. This is pretty fun. And this is an entirely different kind of Christmas music experience.
Which means I can share some of the holly jolly from seasons past. Some are obvious, some more obscure. But for me, they share a common ability to define that which makes the season the emotional and cultural annual experience, those that have already come and gone and those still to come.
THE CLASSICS: Vince Guaraldi – A Charlie Brown Christmas – $7.34
The holiday standard. Guaraldi’s eternally hip sixties beatnik jazz is simply the sound of the Christmases of my youth. Chances are, yours too. It’s not Christmas without it. End of subject.
He was a music legend for a reason. This marked the birth of the Christmas album as a Pop album. With his “Wall Of Sound” production and stable of notable pop stars of the day, including Darlene Love, The Ronettes, and The Crystals, this album’s joyous gospel elements brings more to the collection than it gets credit for.
There never was anyone like Ella Fitzgerald. And there never will be. This 1960 recording is just about the happiest holiday collection ever – Ella doesn’t really do sad, at least not on these favorites. Instead, she treats them with the same originality and sass that she brought to the popular hits of her day. Guaranteed to put everyone in a good mood at your Christmas party.
RECENT RECOMMENDATIONS: Annie Lennox – A Christmas Cornucopia – $9.99
Annie’s 2010 holiday collection allowed her to drape traditional, mostly festive holiday songs like “The Holly And The Ivy” and “Angels From The Realm Of Glory” in fittingly friendly arrangements. Her voice has not aged a bit since her days in The Eurythmics, but there is a great deal more gravitas and warmth in these surroundings. Her one original, “Universal Child” is a lovely Christmas lullaby with anthemic aspirations.
Brandon Flower’s Sin City-powered modern arena rock would seem a strange context for Christmas music. And sometimes it is. But often it’s every bit as wantonly fun as any of their best singles. “A Great Big Sled” benefits from an inspired lyric, a hugely memorable melody, and a perfect amount of Christmas magic. While “Boots” is a more Cinemascope-like experience: dramatic, moody, over-the-top and ultimately, uplifting.
What’s not to like? Even Sarah haters have to admit that this is just about the perfect context for what she does best. It’s all quite tasteful yet it’s far from cloying. Her voice shines in arrangements that feature relatively subtle seasonal attributes like sleigh bells and harp. Pick it up for her interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” and her own “Wintersong.” Buy it for “Song For A Winter’s Night,” whereupon Sarah transforms Gordon Lightfoot’s original into a remarkably moving and comforting winter hymnal. Her vocals on that track alone are worth the price of the whole album. Also, this is one of the best collections for snuggling up in front of the yule log with your sweetie and a warm winter toddie.
NEW ARRIVALS: Various Artists – Holidays Rule – $9.99
This is 2012’s standout collection. With a solid line-up of hipster approved indie artists like Calexico, Andrew Bird, and the Heartless Bastards, Holidays Rule shines on contributions from Fun (“Sleigh Ride”), The Shins (Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime”), Rufus Wainwright (with Sharon Van Etten on “Baby It’s Cold Outside”), and The Civil Wars (“I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day”). Sir Paul himself delivers up a traditional version of “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)” with an assist from Diana Krall on piano. This is a really well rounded collection of traditional and less familiar yuletide songs. Best holiday party host gift of the season.
Former Everything But The Girl singer Tracey Thorn retreats from her recent electronica records and gets back to her roots. It is all about her voice. As it should be. Focusing mainly on songwriters from the indie rock world (she covers holiday songs by Sufyan Stevens, Low, Ron Sexsmith and Stephen Merritt), the arrangements are simple and allow Tracy’s voice to shine. This works especially well on Jack White’s “In The Cold Cold Night,” Joni Mitchell’s “River” and her lovely original “Joy.” Definitely the quiet-time collection of the year.
SINGLE SERVINGS: The Pogues w/ Kirsty MacColl – “Fairytale Of New York” – $0.99
This has become something beyond a cult classic. Why is this my personal favorite Christmas song? Because like the holidays themselves, this is by turn sad and empty, robust and hearty and all of a sudden achingly beautiful. It’s also rambunctious and crude. In general, it’s a bit messy. Just like the holidays. And it’s all because the back and forth between The Pogue’s Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl is something to behold. Truly special.
Recorded for a 1977 television special, this is one of those strange cultural collisions that happened a lot back then. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” is the biggest selling holiday song of all time. Was then. Is now. So his pairing with David Bowie, who had recently put his Ziggy Stardust character to pasture and was about to enter his insanely fruitful Berlin era is truly something. But all of that is easily transcended by this moving proto-mashup.
Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben… oops, Benjamin, Gibbard is the perfect foil for this melancholic classic. His earnest, boyish vocals are perfect for this plaintive holiday favorite. The band brings their own brand of the famous “Wall of sound” of the Phil Spector’s original to this version (think reverb on everything), and it works. And like the holidays often can be, a little lonely and sad.
Easily the most downer Christmas song ever. A dark, cynical and disturbingly affecting hymn to a Holiday that seemed to be more myth than reality as played out here. It’s a bit angry, completely epic (yeah, I hate that word too, but it really seems to fit in this instance) and somehow beautiful. Best of all is the yummy prog-rock goodness that brings it all together.
This is simply one of the best holiday songs to come out in some time. And like the best, it’s melancholic and lovely, with a sense of the spareness of a winter’s day. It’s just piano, cello, and Brandi’s vocals. Beautiful stuff.
UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES EVER – This.
(with the exception of a white elephant gift.)
Tim Johnstone is a former Virgin Records Label Rep and current award winning Music Director and on-air host at KRVB, which was awarded the FMQB AAA station of the year markets 50+. He also writes a blog that’s a collection of the absolute best the internet has to offer. It’s a must read, and you can check it out here.