Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Great Christmas Music Project, Part 1: Picking the best versions of each holiday tune

I love Christmas music. This is not a secret.

I start looking for new releases around October and sneak off each November to build iTunes playlists so we can start listening as soon as it is socially acceptable. This runs contrary to my decorating philosophy, which is to wait until the second week of December.  

Several years ago I created what I thought was the ultimate Christmas music playlist that would be perfect for our five-hour drives to and from Illinois. Aside from the usual artist-specific playlists, I created a monster playlist that included every single Christmas song in the collection – all 1,000+ songs.

The idea was to set the playlist on “shuffle” as we pull out of the driveway and jingle all the way to the Land of Lincoln, with a wonderful salad of styles, eras and artists.

Good idea, in theory. Here’s where went astray. There are some standards that just about everyone records. “O, Holy Night” sung by a dozen different artists is still a dozen times we heard “O, Holy Night.” And a little a-rump-a-pum-pum goes a long way. The family rebelled about half-way through the trip. Lucky for them, Santa had already made his lists because I’m sure their thoughts were coal-worthy.

So I devised a new plan. Rather than include every song, I included the best version of each song. That way we avoided multiple airings of “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and still enjoyed the variety of styles and artists.

But this was a monumental task.

I noticed songs fell into several categories.

You have the carols that have been around for a 100 years or more, many times sounding pretty much the same. Points here to those artists who tried to shake things up a little.

You have comparatively recent songs – still around for decades – that also have been recorded by many people. Think “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Then you have more recent songs that have been recorded by many people, but the original version stands head, shoulders and antlers above the rest. Think Nat “King” Cole’s “The Christmas Song.”

Then you have original songs that, depending on the artist, can be wonderful and refreshing or stale cookies.

I love them all.

So here’s Part 1 of the list, sometimes with an explanation.

First we have the classics from the original artists, or at least the artists who made the song popular, that are getting covered by other performers.

1) “Happy X-Mas (War is Over)” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

The idea of a protest song weaved into a Christmas song isn’t my idea of making merry, but Lennon was so incredibly talented that he pulls it off. Not everyone can. Billy Joel, I’m talking to you. “Christmas in Fallujah” is horrible.

2) “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney

Where Lennon was so talented that he could take something subversive and make it a classic, McCartney is talented enough that he can produce a song that sounds like he churned it out while everyone else in the studio was taking a lunch break with a melody – and probably the lyrics – made up as he went and make it a classic, too.

3) “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby

4) “The Christmas Song” by Nat “King” Cole

Two songs covered by everybody -- and the originals are still the best

5) “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses

Perhaps the only Christmas classic with the word “damn” in it.

6) “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Gene Autry

I confess I don’t like any versions, perhaps tainted by the depressing Rankin-Bass special. But Autry’s original has an old-school charm.

7) “Do They Know it’s Christmas” by Band Aid

There are a surprising number of versions of this out there now. It’s on its way to being a standard.

8) “A Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives

9) “The Little Drummer Boy” by the Harry Simeone Chorale

This was originally called “Carol of the Drum” and recorded by the von Trapp family. But Harry Simeone changed the name and his 1957 version is the earliest one that most people know and love.

10) “Step into Christmas” by Elton John

Elton’s homage to Phil Spector was released within weeks of the Mets appearing in the 1973 World Series. The Wedding Present’s version is pretty neat, too.

11) “Father Christmas” by the Kinks

12) “I Believe in Father Christmas” by Greg Lake

There’s a full Emerson, Lake and Palmer version out there, too. I like U2’s cover, but the original is still the best.

13) “Christmas Must Be Tonight” by The Band

Robbie Robertson has two very different versions of the song he wrote and recorded with The Band, and they are all awesome.

14) “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee

Lee was only 13 when she recorded this hit.

15) “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms

My wife hates this song. I was surprised it was considered rockabilly. The Hall and Oates versions -- they each recorded one as two sides of a single -- is darned good, too.

16) “2000 Miles” by The Pretenders

The Pretenders have two melancholy Christmas classics. This one's an original, the other will appear later.  

17) “Last Christmas” by Wham!

It seems like everybody has a version of this now

18) “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” by Darlene Love

The U2 version is great, but this is Love’s song, recorded first on the Phil Spector Christmas album from 1963. Fun fact: Love sang background on the U2 version. I might throw both versions into the playlist if I’m feeling sassy.

19) “All I Want for Christmas” by Mariah Carey

Everybody seems to be jumping on this song now. And the original, too, echos back the the Phil Spector Christmas album, released 50 years ago this year.

20) “Please Come Home for Christmas” by Charles Brown

The Eagles probably made this a modern standard, but Brown’s bluesy original is a classic.

21) "Christmas is the Time to Say 'I Love You'" by Billy Squier

Billy is loose and bouncy and fun in this live recording.  

22) "Feliz Navidad" by Jose Feliciano

For a fun, loud treat, check out El Vez's version on the Punk Rock X-Mas CD. 

23) “The Chipmunk Song” by The Chipmunks

I know. There are a number of covers out there – at least one with the Chipmunks joining in. The Lost Dogs’ version is great, too! The version I saw on "Glee" last week, not so much

24) "Christmastime is Here" by the Vince Guaraldi Trio

There are two versions of the jazzy song on the essential soundtrack, both are wonderful.

25) "Santa Baby" by Ertha Kitt

True fact: This was co-written by Joan Javits, niece of the former New York senator. Madonna should have owned this, being the Material Girl and all. Instead, she goes all Betty Boop in her version on A Very Special Christmas. Ertha purrs to perfection in the original.

But that's part one, with many more to come. You're free to disagree. Share your opinions in the comments.

Here's the link to part 2 of the project, which focuses on best versions of carols and chestnuts.


Warren "Zvon" said...

Hey Dave. Great list. Years ago I had the single "Step Into Christmas" by Elton John. There was another Christmas song on the flip side. I liked the flip side better. Have you ever heard it? I think it may have been called "Ho,Ho,Ho" though I'm not sure.

Dave J. said...

Here is a treasure-trove of LPs recorded to MP3. From when the album was your only choice for a playlist. But these albums can be wear thin on hearing many songs all in the same style.

Stubby said...

Its true, most of those songs had their best version the first go around. You'd have more fun picking the best version of the traditional carols (Silent Night, et. al.). But, though I can't dispute one's preference for the Wham take, my favorite version of "Last Christmas" is from Linedance Fever. Its EPIC! Give it a try. Its still a free download.

Mets Guy in Michigan said...

Thanks, guys!

Zvon, I think it's called "Ho Ho Ho, Who'll be a Turkey at Christmas.

Dave J, that IS an amazing site!!! I'll be checking out those classics!

Stubby, your blog is one of my favorites! I'll check out that Linedance Fever cut!