Friday, November 4, 2011

Christmas Music: Covers Of Traditional Holiday Songs

There are a lot of traditional songs associated with Christmas, and they all get a lot of play during the holiday season. (Yes, there is entire season during which these songs are played - not just on the holiday itself. Why is that? Why do we accept that?) Sadly, the great majority of these songs are irritating and obnoxious, and there is just no getting away from them. They are played in every store and most restaurants, as well as on the radio, all through the month of December (and even in late November, damn them).

However, there are some good versions of a few of these songs available, by artists such as Bruce Springsteen, The Ventures and Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. So for those who wish to be festive but not obnoxious in their holiday music selections, here are a few ideas.

"Little Drummer Boy" by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts are an excellent rock and roll band. And they still put on an energetic and entertaining concert. For those who haven't yet had the opportunity to see this band perform, it's highly recommended that you make the effort. The band's newer material stands up with their early classics.

And Joan Jett has always chosen interesting songs to cover. Her version of Tommy James And The Shondells' "Crimson And Clover" is a great example. And on that same album, I Love Rock 'N' Roll (1981), is her cover of the Christmas song "Little Drummer Boy."

"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.

(For another good version of "Little Drummer Boy," check out the rendition by Bing Crosby & David Bowie.)

"Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" by Bruce Springsteen

As for rock versions of traditional Christmas songs, Bruce Sringsteen's version of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" is among the most famous and most loved. Bruce Springsteen introduces his rendition by asking 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, but not as enthusiastically as Bruce might have hoped, so he 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.

This is a live recording from December 12, 1975. This song is included on the 1995 holiday compilation Christmas Of Hope.

"Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" by Joseph Spence

For a much stranger and even cooler version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town," check out Joseph Spence's rendition. His is the absolute best version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town." Joseph Spence 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.

It's wonderful how Joseph Spence calls him "Santy Claw." And his guitar work is fantastic. This is a live recording. It's included on 1995 Dr. Demento compilation Holidays In Dementia.

"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. Versions of this song are included on The Ventures albums Christmas Album (1965) and Christmas Joy (2002).

"Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" by Wynton Marsalis

Another excellent instrumental version of a holiday song is Wynton Marsalis' rendition of "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" Wynton breathes new life into the song, finding interesting place for improvisation. His version was recorded in from 1989 and appeared on his album Crescent City Christmas Card.

"Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" was also included on Christmas of Hope (1995).

"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 done. There is enough power here to make even the staunchest of atheists cry out "Hallelujah."

"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 broadcast includes bits about Martin Luther King and a proposed march in Chicago, as well as information on a series of murders. The juxtaposition of the newscast with the beautiful voices of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel singing "Silent Night" is incredible and effective. This song is just under two minutes long.

This song was included on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme (1966).

These choices should help folks who are hoping to put together a good mix for their holidays. There are also several excellent original rock Christmas songs that should round out the collection.

(Note: I originally posted this on December 4, 2010 on another site.)

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