Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Christmas Play List

It's that time of the year when folks are creating their Christmas wish lists, with all the great stuff they hope to acquire for free. I know I'm working on my list. But, perhaps more importantly, I'm working on my Christmas Play List, a list of Christmas and holiday songs that don't suck. Songs I'm willing (and in many cases, even eager) to listen to. It's a good idea to make a list of your own, and it's important to get this list out early, so that friends and family don't make any mistakes and put on some horrible Christmas tunes (just think of all the bloodshed that could be avoided if people would just stop playing Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” for example).

Here are the songs on this year's Christmas Play List, presented in alphabetical order by song title, so that I could avoid the task of having to rate them. By the way, traditional songs and newer, original tunes are mixed together in this list.

- "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night" by Simon & Garfunkel  -  Simon & Garfunkel do the most interesting and innovative version of "Silent Night." They sing the first section of the song, while over it a news broadcast is heard. The song begins with the vocals and piano, and the newscast begins only a few moments later, and then increases in volume. The juxtaposition of the newscast (with its information on a series of murders) with the beautiful voices of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel singing "Silent Night" is incredible and effective.
- "2000 Miles" by The Pretenders  -  On the same album that found Chrissie Hynde in the "Middle Of The Road" and "Back On The Chain Gang" The Pretenders included this beautiful and moving Christmas song. Chrissie sings, "In these frozen and silent nights/Sometimes in a dream, you appear/Outside under the purple sky/Diamonds in the snow sparkle/Our hearts were singing/It felt like Christmas time/2000 miles is very far through the snow/I think of you wherever you go."
- “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Ray Charles And Betty Carter  -  Ray Charles and Betty Carter do what is probably the best version ever recorded of "Baby, It's Cold Outside." It's so cool, so sexy, so much fun. It starts off with a horn, but then quickly takes on a quiet, low-key tone, which is just perfect for this song. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" isn't specifically a Christmas song, but rather a winter song. For those unfamiliar with it, this song is a conversation between a man and a woman, in which he tries to convince her to stay the night. There is also the possibility that he slipped her a mickey, as in the woman's line, "Say, what's in this drink." The man ignores the question.
- “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Zooey Deschanel and Leon Redbone  -  This is a surprisingly wonderful and sweet rendition.
- “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews  -  This is a very playful, delightful version.
- “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Bebe Neuwirth And John Lithgow  -  Bebe Neuwirth and John Lithgow really play the song's inherent comedy well. Bebe Neuwirth is particularly wonderful in her reading of the line "Say, what's in this drink?" and also the line, "I ought to say no, no, no." She actually has a great voice. And John Lithgow is funny, especially in the improvised section. His "Bebe, baby" bit will get laughs from most listeners.
- “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Rory Partin  -  This is another strong rendition, which Rory Partin performs with his wife, Alexa James, joining him on vocals. It’s a bit faster than many other versions, and there is some great work on horns. This is a live version.
- “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” by Patti Page  -  This is actually a pretty cool tune, with a good rhythm. It paints a slightly different picture of Santa: “He lives up in the mountains like a hermit in a cave/Never had a haircut, never took a shave.”
- “Carol Of The Bells” by Dan Hicks And The Hot Licks  -  "Carol Of The Bells" starts as a beautiful rendition, but almost immediately takes a strange bent with what sounds like The Chipmunks. Then it goes into a hip, swinging scat version - with a bit of yodeling thrown in for good measure. This is certainly the coolest, best version of this song ever recorded. (There is even what sounds like a Louis Armstrong impression partway through.) "Carol Of The Bells" was composed by Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych in 1916.
- “Christmas Bells” by Patti Page  -  “Christmas Bells” is a catchy tune written by Harry Filler and Leonard Schroeder. It’s got a bit of swing to it, which is cool. It starts, “The Christmas bells are ringing/The holly’s at the window pane/I hear the children singing/It’s Christmas again/The fire place is glowing.” It’s one of those Christmas songs that paint an ideal picture of the world for the holiday, with lines like “Crowds of smiling people greet you everywhere.”
- “Christmas Eve Tonight” by King Teddy  -  "Christmas Eve Tonight" is a slow and sweet tune. The piano has an early rock and roll feel, and there is a cool saxophone solo that refrains from straying to allusions to other Christmas songs. Hurrah for that! And the vocals sound great. Here is a taste of the lyrics: "Childhood wishes/Childhood memories speak from long ago/Crystal snowflakes softly falling/Footprints in the snow/All your troubles, let them be/Lay them out of sight/Let it snow on Christmas Eve/Christmas Eve tonight." Simple, but nice. This isn't one of those ridiculously overly happy Christmas songs. And I dig the bass line.
- "Christmas Is Coming Twice This Year" by The Hollytones  -  "Christmas Is Coming Twice This Year" is a wonderful little tune about how divorce affects selfish children. The girl, Ashley, says to her mom, "When we go to Dad's he gets anything we want. Are you going to let him do that to you?" She also asks, "Can't you afford to take care of me?" as she demands a larger television and a VCR. Then it's the boy's turn. Brandon tells his father he wants a lot of pornographic magazines and weapons. When his father expresses dismay, Brandon says, "All Mom's getting me is a stupid new computer. She says that violent stuff warps my head. She never lets me watch any slasher movies like you do, Dad. You know, sometimes I wish she were dead."
- "Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You" by Billy Squier  -  This song has a good beat, and a ton of heart. And Billy Squier's voice is just amazing - he really has a unique voice, and he puts it to excellent use on this song. "Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You" was originally released as the flip side of his 1981 single, "My Kinda Lover."
- "Christmas Time Is Here" by Vince Guaraldi  -  This famous theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas is a slow, sad, gorgeous tune. When people talk about the peaceful feeling of Christmas, I always think of this song. Because for me Christmas always seems to be a stressful time, and this song is the one thing related to the holiday that really does have a calming effect. It's the one indication or glimpse of that peace that is often spoken of. It has a special warmth that really affects me every time I hear it.
- "Christmas Wrapping" by The Waitresses  -  "Christmas Wrapping" by The Waitresses is absolutely one of the best Christmas songs ever written (I would say second only to The Pogues' "Fairytale Of New York"). It's totally fun, it has a great rhythm, and it has a sweet and happy ending. It tells the story of a woman who's tired and has decided to keep the holiday low-key. She sings, "So deck those halls, trim those trees/Raise up cups of Christmas cheer/I just need to catch my breath/Christmas by myself this year."
- “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid  -  "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is an excellent song by Bob Geldof and Band Aid. This was released as a single in November of 1984. Everybody from the pop world is on this recording, including David Bowie, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Wham, U2, Spandau Ballet, The Boomtown Rats, Big Country and Bananarama.
- "Donde Esta Santa Claus" by Toni Stante  -  Toni Stante's "Donde Esta Santa Claus" is a seriously fun and silly tune. There is a section that is just completely wonderful, where she sings, "I hope he won't forget/To crack his castanets/And to his reindeer say/Oh Pancho, oh Vixen, oh Pedro, oh Blitzen, Ole, ole, ole." Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. This is a song to brighten everyone's holiday.
- "Fairytale Of New York" by The Pogues  -  Who would imagine that the best Christmas song would be by an Irish folk-punk band? And who could guess that a song with the line "Happy Christmas, your arse, I pray God it's our last" would be one of the sweetest songs ever recorded? Well, "Fairytale Of New York" by The Pogues is by far the best song ever written for this holiday, and it is indeed truly sweet. It starts out on Christmas Eve in the drunk tank, and the man's thoughts turn to his woman and he says, "I've got a feeling this year's for me and you/So happy Christmas/I love you, baby/I can see a better time when all our dreams come true." The woman's part is included too (sung by Kristy MacColl), as she reflects back on their relationship: "When you first took my hand on a cold Christmas Eve, you promised me Broadway was waiting for me." They trade compliments and insults, while "The boys of the NYPD choir were singing 'Galway Bay.'" Kristy sings, "You took my dreams from me when I first found you." He replies, "I kept them with me, babe/And I put them with my own/Can't make it all alone/I built my dreams around you."
- "Father Christmas" by The Kinks  -  "Father Christmas" is one of the best Christmas rock songs. For those who are unfamiliar with this Christmas tune, here are some of the lyrics: "Father Christmas, give us some money/Don't mess around with your silly toys/We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over/We want your bread, so don't make us annoyed/Give all the toys to the little rich boys." The first line is, "When I was small I believed in Santa Claus, though I knew it was my dad." "Father Christmas" was written by Ray Davies.
- “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" by Spooner Oldham, Tammy Rogers, Oteil Burbridge, Billy Crain, and Marco Giovino  -  This excellent instrumental rendition has a southern rock folk vibe that I dig. So by the time that familiar section of the song comes round, I’m already completely on board. This version, on The Southern Christmas Songbook & Hymnal CD, has a fun vibe that this song usually lacks.
- “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” by Willis Jackson  -  “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is a song I’ve never really cared much for. But Willis Jackson finds something delicious and wonderful in it, and I actually wish it went on a bit longer, as the horn is excellent at the end. There is a disco element to it, but it doesn’t overpower the song. It’s the lead sections on saxophone that really make this rendition something special.
- “Here Comes Santa Claus” by Dan Hicks And The Hot Licks  -  This is the coolest version of "Here Comes Santa Claus." It has swing, it has scat, and it has fiddle and some jazzy piano. What more could anyone ask for?
- "I Believe In Father Christmas" by Emerson, Lake & Palmer   -  Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "I Believe In Father Christmas" is a beautiful song, though it's about the loss of innocence. It was written by Greg Lake and Peter Sinfield. This song features some excellent lyrics, including these lines: "They sold me a dream of Christmas/They sold me a silent night/They told me a fairy story/'Til I believed in the Israelite/And I believed in Father Christmas/And I looked to the sky with excited eyes/When I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn/And I saw him and through his disguise."
- “I Can’t Help It, I Just Like Christmas” by Rick Moranis  -  This is a very silly tune. As you might guess, the song is about a Jewish man who enjoys the Christian holiday. And every time he sings the line, “I know it’s not supposed to be for us,” he cracks me up. This song has a great country atmosphere, with some nice work on guitar.
- “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” by Willis Jackson  -  Often, instrumental is the way to go to avoid the pitfalls of the Christmas covers, and Willis Jackson does a beautiful instrumental rendition of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”
- "It's Christmas And I Wonder Where I Am" by The Bob And Tom Band   -  “It's Christmas And I Wonder Where I Am" is about that most wonderful of holiday traditions - getting completely sloshed. The vocals are sung as if by Dudley Moore in Arthur. Here is a taste of the lyrics: "I had a beer at my brother's/Had eggnog at my mother's/Then two bottles of wine/Which automobile is mine?/It's Christmas and I wonder where I am/Someone caught me dancing with a snowman/A policeman came and put me in his car/He said, 'Are you drunk?'/And I said, 'No, man, but could you drop me off at the next bar?'"
- "Jingle Bell Rock" by Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker  -  “Jingle Bell Rock” is one of those classic Christmas songs that's actually pretty cool. This version is from 1961, and actually reached #21 on the Billboard Hot 100. It's the saxophone part that really works, though the section right after it in which they trade off lyrics is a bit annoying. But pay attention, and you'll hear a reference to Chubby Checker's "Pony Time," which was also released in 1961.
- “Jingle Bells” by The Ventures  -  Some Christmas songs only work as instrumentals. The Ventures prove that "Jingle Bells" is one such song with their excellent rendition of the holiday classic. The electric guitar does what would be the vocal line, and it sounds great. The Ventures take what is normally a rather stupid song, and make it cool.
- "Joy To The World" by Aretha Franklin  -  Aretha Franklin can really belt out a tune like nobody's business. She makes "Joy To The World" seriously rock in this gospel-flavored number. This is certainly one of the best versions of this song ever recorded. There is enough power here to make even the staunchest of atheists cry out "Hallelujah."
- “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” by Ella Fitzgerald  -  Ella Fitzgerald's version of "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" is one of the best renditions of this song. But of course Ella could probably make any song sound cool. "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" was written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn.
- "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" by Wynton Marsalis  -  Wynton Marsalis’ version of "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" is very cool. Wynton breathes new life into the song, finding interesting place for improvisation.
- “Little Drummer Boy” by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts  -  "Little Drummer Boy" is one of the better songs played during the Christmas holidays, and this version by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts is probably the best ever recorded. It's close enough to the original to not upset the traditionalists too much, but has a wonderful rock edge to please everyone else. The rock element takes over nearly three minutes in for the instrumental section of the song, and features some great guitar. Joan Jett has an awesome voice, and the backing vocals are also particularly wonderful on this rendition.
- "Merry Christmas" by The Cameos  -  "Merry Christmas" is an original tune performed by The Cameos. It was recorded in 1957, and has that great 1950s rock vibe and fun backing vocals. This is a song for your Christmas sock hop.
- "Merry Christmas, Baby" by James Brown   -  James Brown did what is probably the best version ever of "Merry Christmas, Baby." His voice sounds amazing, and the horns are fantastic. There is something undeniably sexy about this rendition, with its bluesy tones. "Merry Christmas, Baby" was written by Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore.
- “O Tannenbaum” by Vince Guaraldi  -  A Charlie Brown Christmas begins with Vince Guaraldi's arrangement of the traditional Christmas tune "O Tannenbaum." This is by far the best rendition I've ever heard of the song. It begins with a truly pretty piano solo of the song's main theme. And then the song takes on a cool jazz groove, while retaining the piano's beauty from the opening moments. Vince Guaraldi certainly makes this song his own, and in doing so greatly improves upon it. And I dig that great work on bass.
- "The Pause Of Mr. Claus" by Arlo Guthrie   -  "The Pause Of Mr. Claus" is dedicated to the members of the F.B.I., and in his introduction to the song Arlo talks about the difficulties of having that job. Like "Alice's Restaurant," the song itself is quite short (it’s the wonderful story that is nice and long). Here are some of the lyrics: "Santa Clause has a red suit/He's a communist/And a beard, and long hair/Must be a pacifist/What's in the pipe that he's smoking?"
- "The Pretty Little Dolly" by Mona Abboud   -  "The Pretty Little Dolly" is one of the funniest, silliest Christmas songs ever recorded. It was written by Jim Fisk, and sung by Mona Abboud. Here is a taste of the lyrics, sung in a little girl voice: "The pretty little dolly can sing/The pretty little dolly can shout/Hold her footsies high above her head, and she passes out/The pretty little dolly can plead/The pretty little dolly can beg/And she screams in realistic pain when you break her leg."
- “Pretty Snowflakes” by Patti Page   This is a very playful tune about winter and snow, not about Christmas specifically, and perhaps that’s part of what makes this one so good. It’s really a delightful song. “Pretty snowflakes/Pretty snowflakes/Falling down from the sky/How I wonder where you come from/As you flutter by.” Of course, it does have that overly optimistic portrait of humanity present in so many Christmas songs, with lines like, “The whole world is smiling and bundled up tight/Oh, what a wonderful sight.”
- “Santa Baby” by Wendy Malick  -  Wendy Malick doesn't have the greatest voice, but for the compilation NBC Celebrity Christmas, she picked a song she could have some fun with, and she certainly does that. Who wouldn't get her a sable coat when she playfully teases, "I've been an awful good girl"? This is one of the most fun of all the songs on this album. At the end she sings, "Hurry down my chimney tonight," and then purrs. There is some nice work on guitar by Tim Pierce, and on piano by Ellis Hall.
- "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" by Joseph Spence   -  Joseph Spence does the absolute best version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town." He hardly sings it at all, just mumbles a few of the lines, and that's what helps to make it such a great version. Because, seriously, those lyrics aren't any good. And it's wonderful how he calls him "Santy Claw." And his guitar work is fantastic.
- "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" by Bruce Springsteen   -  Bruce Springsteen introduces his famous rendition of "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" by saying, "It's all cold down along the beach. The wind's whipping down the boardwalk." He asks his band if they've all been good "and practicing real hard." He then asks the audience if they've been good. The audience responds. And Bruce teases them, "That's not many. You guys are in trouble out here." This is certainly one of the only versions of this song worth listening to, mostly because Bruce Springsteen is clearly having fun with it. Another thing that makes recording worth listening to is the part where he breaks the song down and sings, "You better be good for goodness sake." He does that twice during the song. And the last thing making this worthwhile is of course Clarence Clemons on saxophone.
- "Santa Claus Is Watching You" by Ray Stevens   -  "Santa Claus Is Watching You" is a song about the paranoia engendered by the Santa Claus myth. The best part of this song is the alarmed little child shouting out, "He's everywhere! He's everywhere!" This song also has Rudolph laid up from a busted hip (from a Twist contest), and his replacement is a camel named Clyde. Why not?
- “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy” by Buck Owens  -  Buck Owens’ “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy,” which he co-wrote with Don Rich, is a very playful song. Here is a taste of the lyrics: “Santa looked a lot like Daddy/Or Daddy looked a lot like him/It’s not the way I had him pictured/Santa was much too thin/He didn’t come down the chimney/So mama must have let him in.”
- "Santa's On His Way" by The Ad Libs  -  While The Ad Libs' tune, "Santa's On His Way," isn't fantastic, it definitely has charm.  A good deal of its appeal is in its a cappella delivery.  And I can't help but like the lines, "Don't you know little things you say and do/Will make ol' Santa Claus think an awful lot of you." And the second time she sings it, she changes the second line to "Will make ol' Santa Claus bring a lot of things to you."
- “Santa’s Workshop” by Dan Hicks And The Hot Licks  -  "Santa's Workshop" is hilarious. Try not to laugh out loud while listening to it. It's not only the lyrics, but the delivery, as he sings lines like, "Come on, boys, gotta make about a million toys/Gotta paint one red, paint one blue/Paint that one over there blue too." It's the pause before "blue too" that sells it.The song features silly and wonderful backing vocals. And when the song couldn't possibly get any better - or sillier - along comes a kazoo solo.
- "Silent Night" by Elvin Bishop  -  Is it possible to turn "Silent Night" into a rock song and make it work? Absolutely. Elvin Bishop's version is seriously good, and it does have a bit of a gospel flavor to it. Great work on piano and excellent backing vocals make this rendition even better.
- "Sock It To Me Santa" by Bob Seger And The Last Heard  -  Yes, long before The Silver Bullet Band (and even before The Bob Seger System), Bob Seger had a band called The Last Heard. And with that band he recorded a Christmas song titled "Sock It To Me Santa." This song freely borrows from James Brown's "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag," but it's a lot of fun and you get the feeling that James Brown wouldn't mind at all.
- “Somebody Stole My Santa Claus Suit” by Dan Hicks And The Hot Licks  -  "Somebody Stole My Santa Claus Suit" starts with a great instrumental introduction, complete with "Jingle Bells" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" teases. Then it kicks in with some great lyrics: "Deck the halls and what the hell/I still got my jingle bell/So, sucker, you can keep the suit/'Cause frankly I don't give a hoot." This song is a bit of folk, a bit of swing, a bit of jazz, and just a whole lot of fun. It features an instrumental section that is wonderful. And the female vocalists are delightful as they sing, "Did somebody steal your Santa Claus suit?"
- "Teddi's Song (When Christmas Comes)" by John Mellencamp  -  John Mellencamp's "Teddi's Song (When Christmas Comes)" is actually a sweet song. The lyrics are a bit on the weak side, but the feeling is so positive and bright that it's hard to dislike the song. Here is a bit of the lyrics: "When Christmas comes/The world will lay down its arms/When Christmas comes/We'll all sing 'Silent Night'/Lots of toys for the girls and boys/Hope, hope, hope it's a peaceful world/When Christmas comes."
- “The Twelve Gifts Of Christmas” by Allan Sherman  -  "The Twelve Gifts Of Christmas" is of course a parody of "The Twelve Days Of Christmas." So what makes this parody better than most of the other parodies of that song? Part of the humor of this song comes from forcing a lot more words into a line than should fit. For example, "On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me/An automatic vegetable slicer that works when you see it on television, but not when you get it home." And more of the humor comes from the little explanations Allan Sherman inserts after a line. For example, after the line "And a Japanese transistor radio," he sings, "And it has a wire with a thing on one end that you/Can stick in your ear, and a thing on the other end/That you can't stick anywhere, because it's bent." And for those who find "The Twelve Days Of Christmas" tiresome by like the sixth or seventh verse, Allan Sherman can totally relate. In his parody he sings, "And all that other stuff" sometimes, rather than actually listing everything again and again.
- "The Twelve Pains Of Christmas" by Bob Rivers Comedy Corp.  -  "The Twelve Pains Of Christmas" is probably the best of the many parodies of "The Twelve Days Of Christmas." It lists all (well, not all - only twelve) things that are very annoying about the holiday, including "Five months of bills, sending Christmas cards, hangovers, rigging up the lights and finding a Christmas tree." As the song continues, more details are added, and that's when it gets really funny, particularly the guy who is trying to rig up the Christmas lights. He gets more and more frustrated, saying, "What - we have no extension cords?" and "Now why the hell are they blinking?" and "One light goes out, they all go out." This is a song that most everyone can relate to.
- “Winter Wonderland” by King Teddy  -  This is a great early rock and roll-style rendition, done as an instrumental, the saxophone doing what would be the lead vocal line. This is one of the best versions of this song I've ever heard. It's just pure fun, and is almost enough to put me in the holiday spirit. I love the section that is just drums and saxophone.

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