Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Great Christmas Music Project, Part 2: Searching for the best versions of carols and chestnuts

My iTunes has 18 versions of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” 15 versions of “The Christmas Song,” and a dozen versions each of “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Away in a Manger.”

Many of them sound kind of the same. I like it better when a performer takes a Christmas carol or standard and adds a personal touch to make it stand out from all the other versions. I don’t want just another version of “Joy to the World,” I want to hear a version that stands out.

And I realize that there are plenty of versions of classics that stand out because they are horrible. That’s not what I’m talking about. I like a version that takes a standard, improves upon it and makes me want to listen again and again. The other, similar versions will still be there if I want to go back to the “same old, same old.”

All this comes into play as I continue to create the ultimate iPod playlist of the best versions of each holiday song. In part one, we talked about classics that have been covered by some or many people -- but not topping the original.

Now, a Christmas confession: I don’t like “Silent Night.”

I know. Shudder. I’ll get tossed out of the club for admitting such a thing.

Let me explain.

“Silent Night” can be a beautiful, simple song – especially when you know its history. The problem is that many artists pump it full of holiday hot air into some grandiose anthem. Stevie Nicks – whom I like – and Robbie Neville practically wrestle the song to the ground, strangle it and stomp on it for good measure on the first Very Special Christmas album.

In fact, few versions can compare to the typical candle-lit, a cappella version that is a moving and treasured part of the Christmas Eve service in my mother-in-law’s church. Way too many artists are more Stevie and less Good Shepherd.

So, part 2 of our Christmas Music Project will focus on the best versions of songs that have been standards for decades – more than a hundred years in some cases. The numbering picks up from the last post.

26)  “Silent Night/Away in a Manger/I Celebrate the Day” by Relient K

I know this is coming: “Hey, you just went on and on about how you don’t like ‘Silent Night,’ and it’s right here at the top of the list?’ What gives?”

True. This version is part of a medley and it starts with just Matt Thiessen’s voice and piano, two very simply performed songs about the birth in the manger before sliding into a very personal original song that talks of the impact of the momentous events in the manger, with the full band joining it. There are bells and chimes and wonderful, thoughtful lyrics:

“And the first time, that you opened your eyes did you realize you would be my savior? And the first breath that left your lips, did you know that it would change the world forever?”

27) “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by The Pretenders

There’s an interesting back story to this song, and I think The Pretenders nailed it. It’s supposed to be a sad song, and Chrissie Hyde and friends offer a slow, sparse and lilting version on the first Very Special Christmas album, which, despite Stevie’s wrestling and the worst Bon Jovi song ever, is one the very best Christmas albums of all time.

The song is from the Judy Garland film “Meet me in St. Louis,” and the family is bummed that they have to move from St. Louis to New York.  I get it. It’s tough to uproot and I do love St. Louis, even though the glorious Arch is decades away at this point. I wish there could have been a sequel, where Garland and crew realize that New York is EVEN BETTER and they lived happily ever after, especially starting in 1962 when they had the Mets to root for.

But I digress. The original was, in fact, kind of depressing, and Frank Sinatra had the line “we’ll have to muddle through somehow” changed to “hang a shining star atop the highest bough.” You can find many recordings with either verse.

But, here’s something I recently learned. We’ve heard for years the line, “Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow.”

I’ve heard some of my favorite Christian bands change that line to “if the Lord allows.” Turns out, that’s the way the song was written, and it was changed for the movie.

Anyway, The Pretenders capture it best, especially if you can find an early version of the CD, which has children talking before the song starts.

Bebo Norman nails it, too. I sneak his version into the playlist too and hope no one notices a repeated song.
We won’t be as long winded with the rest of the songs, I promise. But this portion of the list requires a little more explaination.

28) “The First Noel” by David Crowder*Band

Crowder’s a quirky guy, and does nothing the way you would expect. His “Oh, For Joy” release is a classic, in part because you never know where he’s going or how it will end up.

“Noel” starts simply with voice, guitar and drum tapping steadily like a metronome. Additional instruments slip into the mix, and Crowder adds new lyrics, building to a crescendo. It’s magnificent.

29) "Jingle Bells" by the Singing Dogs

Yeah, I know. But it’s still the most fun version. And the names of the dogs were Dolly, Pearl, Caesar, and King. True stuff.

30) “Here Comes Santa Claus” by Elvis Presley

Gene Autry wrote it, recorded it and first made it a hit, but Elvis’ version is wonderful. It’s right in The King’s wheel house.

There are actually some very religious lyrics in here, which is rare for a Santa-based song.

“Peace on Earth will come to all if we just follow the light. So let’s give thanks to the Lord above, ‘cause Santa Claus comes tonight.

Clockhammer has a wonderful version on the surprisingly essential "A Lump of Coal" CD.

31) “Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley

Sticking with The King. The song was around for nearly a decade before Elvis made it his own. Truth be told, Robert Gordon out-kings The King on his version. A bolder person would include that version. But since he’s openly channeling Elvis, it doesn’t seem right.

32)  “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by Bruce Springsteen

The song was already a standard when Bruce recorded this live version at C.W. Post, but it’s his song now. We’re even seeing others use his arrangement.

33) “Run Rudolph Run” by Keith Richards

Chuck Berry wrote it and made it a classic. But I love Keith’s loose and sloppy version.

34) “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” by Carrie Underwood

This has sort of a rolling piano lead that showcases Carrie’s beautiful voice. Most of the Very Special Christmas CDs are uneven, as you would expect from various artist releases. But No. 7 leaves me very cold – expect for this song. Confession: I keep this one on the iPod all year long.

35) “What Child is this?” by Raze

A very soulful version that we stumbled upon.

36) “I’ve Got my Love to Keep Me Warm” by Dean Martin.

 Lots of people have covered this Irving Berlin song that is more about winter than Christmas, but Dean croons it like he owns it.

37) “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” by Twisted Sister

I’m unapologetic about this. This version, set to the music of “We’re Not Gonna Take it” is brilliant and fun. True story: I was in Best Buy once and this song came over the sound system. I looked around and it seemed like everyone’s head was bobbing to the music.

Dee gets points for not backing away from a very religious song. It’s easy to fill a CD with secular standards.
“A Twisted Christmas” is actually a very, very good CD, especially for long-time fans who can pick out music from other TS classics like “Rock and Roll Savior” used as the foundation for carols. “Silver Bells” and “Let it Snow” also are standouts.

For an awesome version that still rocks hard, but not quite as hard, check out Third Day’s rendition.

38) “Sleigh Ride” by the Ronettes

One of the highlights from the classic and essential Phil Spector Christmas CD.

39) “Christmas Bells” by John Gorka

Almost always listed as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Gorka’s version appears on Windham Hill’s A Winter Solstice III. He’s rearranged it, and it’s just John and a guitar, which makes it easy to focus on the lyrics.
I confess I get choked up every time I hear Gorka sing: “And in despair I bowed my head, ‘There is no peace on Earth,’ I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song, of ‘Peace on Earth, good will to men.’ Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor does he sleep.”

True fact: The song is based on an 1863 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Times change, but maybe not as much as we think they do.

40) “Gloria” by Michael W. Smith

While Gorka song is sparse, Smith’s reworking of “Angels We Have Heard on High” is effectively bombastic. We get the kitchen sink here, with swelling choirs orchestras, rock guitars, soaring vocals. Like a thrill ride, it’s exhausting and fun.

For something that’s rocking and a little more subtle, I recommend “MercyMe’s wonderful version, also called “Gloria.” The band still tinkers with the lyrics, effectively adding “How could heaven’s heart not break on the day, the day that you came. Salvation’s reason to celebrate on the day, the day that you came.”

41) “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” by Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan

This is a wonderful weaving of “God Rest Ye” and “We Three Kings” with acoustic instruments. Canadians can rock, too.

42) “Joy to the World/Unspeakable Joy” by Chris Tomlin

This one, recorded live, absolutely rocks and sounds unquestionably joyful. And it’s a great song for the treadmill, too.

43) “O Holy Night” by Tracy Chapman

This is another one that gets overblown, but Chapman’s acoustic version is lovely.

44) “Merry Christmas Baby” by Laurie Sargent

I don’t know where I stumbled on this CD, “Snow Angels, A Hear Music Holiday Collection,” but it’s wonderful. This is another song that opts for a softer take. Not as bluesy as some of the versions out there, and those are closer to the song’s roots. But this one just clicks.

45) “Go Tell it on the Mountain” by David Crowder*Band

Speaking of a softer take, Crowder takes a song that has a message intended to be shouted, and, being Crowder, does in the other direction.

46) “Winter Wonderland,” by Johnny Mathis

We’re kicking old school now. My parents had the Johnny Mathis Christmas album, and this is the version I always think of, and it brings a smile every time.

47) “River” by Sixpence None the Richer

I know its Joni Mitchell’s song, but I’m convinced that Leigh Nash has the voice of angels.

48) “The Holly and the Ivy” by George Winston

I discovered “December,” George Winston’s collection of piano solos, while attending University of Missouri, when the head of the residence hall had it blasting from his room. There are many amazing songs on there, but this one is my favorite.

49) “Cool Yule” by Louis Armstrong and the Commanders

I went to New Orleans a few years ago for an education writers conference and really got into the music, which seemed to flow from every other store front on Bourbon Street. I’ve found a couple New Orleans themed Christmas CDs, and this song is one the best of that group.

50) “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” by Chicago

I am the least musical person you know. I cannot play an instrument, I cannot sing and I can barely clap in time. So it was a big deal that I got to be in an elementary school Christmas concert as part of the Sixth Grade Boys Chorus, which you could not get cut from. This is the song we sang. Chicago’s version was undeniably better. We never performed again, and I don’t think that’s entirely my fault.

51) “Happy Holiday” by Andy Williams

52) “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Andy Williams

Williams, for many years, was apparently the king of Christmas, and his 1963 album, which contains both of these songs, was one of the most popular holiday collections ever.

53) “The 12 Days of Christmas” by Bob and Doug McKenzie

Yes, it’s a silly song to begin with. So if you’re going to be silly, you might as go all the way. “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a beer….in a tree.”

54) “Baby, it’s Cold Outside,” by Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera

As people have started pointing out, it’s kind of a creepy song. The line “What’s in this drink” has call kinds of icky undertones. So, if you’re you are going to have a racy, sort of icky Christmas song, might as well go for Cee Lo and Christina, who seem to revel in such things. The written lyrics refer to the people in the song as “mouse” and “wolf.” OK.

55) “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella” by Young Fresh Fellows

If you want the soft, mellow version, Heart has a nice one. This one rocks! And it morphs into the “Welcome Christmas” song from the Grinch. Awesome! It’s on the glorious “A Lump of Coal” disc.

56) "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" by John Mellencamp

Another song from the first "Very Special Christmas" album. Perfectly captures Mellencap during is "Lonesome Jubilee" stage when the bad was playing all those rootsy instruments.

57) "Do You Hear What I Hear?" by Seventh Day Slumber

These guys are Christian rockers, and this version is pretty heavy.

58) "Mary Did You Know" by Kutless

Another of my favorite Christian rockers 

That’s the end of part 2 – and I've made some additions to the first part as I've uncovered some more classics. Next we’ll hit one some New York-themed holiday songs.

Here's the link to part 1 on the project, which focuses on the original versions of songs that are covered by other artists.


Jeffrey Horve said...

Glad that Twisted Sister as well as Bob & Doug made the list! Great picks!

Stubby said...

OK, now you've done it. Now we're going to have a SERIOUS disagreement about Christmas music. You can not out "Merry Christmas Baby" Charles Brown. You just can't. I've heard hundreds of versions of that song (yes, I have the Snow Angels CD) and none of them can touch the smokey soul of CB's 1956 Aladdin version (technically, Johnny Moore's 1948 version is the "original"--featuring a young Charles Brown who Moore basically ripped off, but that's another story). There are two songs I need to hear to know its Christmas (thanks to WCBS-FM)--Frankie Lymon's "Its Christmas Once Again" (originally by Tommy Edwards) and "Merry Christmas Baby" by Charles Brown. No other artist's version will do.

"Oh Holy Night" is probably my favorite Christmas song of all time--certainly among the carols--and the Iceman Jerry Butler's version is so perfectly beautiful, it gives me chills every time I hear it (they don't call him the Iceman for nothing).

I can't argue on the rest, though I like NRBQ's take on "Jolly Old St. Nicholas", Ray Charles and Betty Carter do a kick-ass "Baby Its Cold Outside", and I'll take my "12 Days" silliness via Sascha Burland's "The Chickens Are In The Chimes".

But, seriously, Mets fan to Mets fan..."Merry Christmas Baby" HAS to be Charles Brown.

Mets Guy in Michigan said...

It's a tough call, to be sure, Stubby! I do love the Charles Brown version -- and I love the version with him and Bonnie Raitt, especially!

I've never heard the Frankie Lymon song, but I'll check it out!

Good call on "Last Christmas," I downloaded that tonight, along with the Rosebuds album!