You’re driving to the nearest mall on attempt 2.5 to get your holiday shopping done. Attempt one was not as fruitful as you would have hoped, with the Foot Locker carrying the Kyrie 4s in every size but your dumb nephew’s. Attempt two was marked as a half attempt after the Cinnabon cheat meal you treated yourself to wreaked havoc on your intestines. Your resolve to make it through the holidays is dropping by the second.
Not helping matters is your local radio station, which has been recycling the same 20 Christmas songs ever since the last bite of turkey left the thanksgiving table. “Sleigh Ride” is a classic, no doubt, but you swear the next time you hear Johnny Mathis’ voice you’re gonna explode. And what’s worse, every time they DO play something novel, it’s downright awful. You know who was asking to hear Jane Lynch sing “Up on the Housetop”? Fucking nobody.
Are there really only a handful of decent versions of Christmas songs to carry us through December? Are you really stuck with the Christmas stylings of 109.1, WFML for the next thirty days?
No! There’s plenty of underappreciated greatness lying outside the public eye, especially when it comes to Christmas music. The beauty of the genre is that it’s an exercise in covers; there are only so many Christmas songs which have stood the test of time, and as such, everyone is putting their own spin on melodies which, even when butchered, can provide a rush of nostalgia.
It’s what makes it all the more impressive when an artist is able to make a song their own, by shining a new light on the same old songs that we all love.
To save your sanity this holiday season, I’ve put together a Spotify playlist of songs which, for whatever reason, aren’t yet a part of the American Christmas canon. This could be due to obscurity or novelty, but either way, they probably haven’t been assaulting your ears this holiday season. Full disclosure: my taste in holiday music skews to the more quiet, pensive type, partially because those don’t grate nearly as hard on the ears with repeat listens. Without any further ado:
I’ve also put together some notes on the songs I chose, and those are below. Give those a read and give the playlist a listen if you’d like!
“Greensleeves”, Liz Story “Greensleeves” falls into the ‘tweener’ class of Christmas songs along with “My Favorite Things”, where its status as a Christmas or Non-Christmas song seems to depend on the cover art (e.g. Clarkson=yes, Coltrane=no). Liz Story’s version of “Greensleeves” is a smidge more difficult to parse, as it appears on a compilation album titled A Winter’s Solstice, AKA December 21st, AKA not Christmas. However, I’ve chosen to count it under the “ABC Family 25 Days of Christmas Corollary”. Sue me.
Not that anyone who’s listened to it would want to strike Liz Story’s version of the song from their Christmas playlist. It is a solo piano piece, with Story utilizing improvised variations on the classic tune. She gives it a decidedly and fittingly winters’ vibe. Story’s playing melds dexterously quick finger movements with soft strikes of the keys to create an effect where the notes sound like snowflakes cascading on a winter’s night. They fall quickly, but their light weight causes them to flutter and shift with the air. Eventually falling to Earth, unable to defeat gravity, but able to exert enough agility to temporarily defy the ground’s pull.
Such images are conjured by Liz Story’s piano, and I cannot call her “Greensleeves” anything less than a masterwork. Close your eyes with and allow images of a cold winter’s night to dance in your mind.
“Santa Baby”, Daniella Andrade
I normally HATE “Santa Baby”. It’s a weird vehicle for sexualizing Christmas, in one of those kinda-sorta-tongue-in-cheek-but-also-kinda-not ways. I’m no prude, but we really could leave Christmas alone. Nobody needed an “I want to fuck Santa Claus” song, and it disturbs me to no end that people wanted one in the first place.
BUT, I really enjoy this version. What comes through in Andrade’s delivery is a mix of detachment, sarcasm, and innocence that takes the sexual charge out of the song. She sings it like it was requested by some creep at a Christmas party, and she’s making fun of the ridiculousness of it while also showing off her chops. The extremely lax guitar and lo-fi quality add to this vibe.
That Andrade is able to produce a highly listenable track from a song I’m reflexively disgusted by is no small feat. It comes off of her 2013 The Christmas EP, which is solid seasonal listening throughout, though this is the standout tune for me.
“Swingle Bells”, David Tobin
A decent choice if you’re like me and love the idea of “Jingle Bells” as a swing song but vomit in your mouth a little bit when you hear Diana Krall awkwardly scat or say “I’m just crazy ‘bout horses!”
“I Saw Three Ships”, Darol Anger
Hook me up to an IV drip of this string interplay STAT. Shit makes me feel like I’m living in the Christmas portion of an English historical drama. Where’s Keira Knightley?
“The Christmas Song”, Denis Solee
A laid-back instrumental rendition that is capable of evoking the scenes of a relaxed Christmas Eve by the fire, not with the words of a crooner, but with impeccably smooth ivory tickling, bass plucking, and a soft sax. I can dig it.
“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, “I’ll be Home for Christmas”, Leslie Odom Jr.
Hamilton is a cultural phenomenon, and Odom’s turn as Aaron Burr has become the stuff of legend, propelling him to legitimate superstardom (if you had said that sentence to anyone in 2013 they’d have looked at you like you had 3 heads).
These two songs are a bit more stripped down, letting Odom’s angelic voice take the lead, which is always a great decision. These cuts also capture a Christmastime mood that I, and many other people experience, which Odom captured when he said of the album: “I didn’t want it to be sad. I didn’t want it to be sullen. But I don’t think the album was really ever cheerful.” Odom’s voice is good enough to make a half-assed attempt sound great, but that’s not what’s going on here.
What I especially appreciate about these efforts is how much care has been put into them. This isn’t some cobbled together, hastily assembled celebrity Christmas album that may as well be titled A Quick Influx of Cash. Odom himself said that making a good Christmas album is “a lot different than singing at a Christmas party. You want to make sure that it sounds sincere and honest.” That attention to detail and desire for sincerity comes through on these two emotional ballads, and they are great additions to the genre.
These songs are really only on this playlist because of how new they are, having come out in late 2016. I think that in due time, Odom’s Christmas album will become a part of the go-to American Christmas music canon. He’s too talented, too charming, and the music is too good for it not to. So enjoy it now, before constant plays through the years make you sick of it.
“O Christmas Tree”, George Tidwell
Tidwell’s trumpet is fantastic, and the piano playing manages to avoid being a complete Vince Guaraldi rip-off, which is commendable, since his version of “O Tannenbaum” is iconic enough to inspire imitation. Kudos to this track for not trying that.
“Xmas Done Got Funky”, Jimmy Jules
(See song title)
“Winter Wonderland”, Earth, Wind & Fire
That’s right—Earth, Wind & Fire made a Christmas album! It was released just a few years ago, in 2015. However, unlike Leslie Odom Jr.’s Christmas album, this one really should have been titled A Quick Influx of Cash. This track is really the only one where I can feel them channeling their old selves, and E, W&F are so damn good that their watered down, half-assed stuff is still pretty great.
“Frosty the Snowman”, Beegie Adair
For Christmas music especially, I favor the simplicity of a piano/bass/drums trio. Highlights of this song are Adair’s piano variant of the “Thumpety Thump Thump” from the original, and the extended stretch of improvisation that we get for the second verse.
Beegie Adair could also totally be a name from a random name generator and I’d be none the wiser.
“Here Comes Santa Claus (Live)”, “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer (Live)”, The Oscar Brown Jazz Trio
Live performances! Again with the piano/bass/drums, I know. I have such a type. But I enjoy these performances because I think the live aspect lends them a warmth that is lacking from a lot of holiday music production. You can hear the airiness and residual rattling of the snares on this track where it’s often missing in studio-recorded Christmas music, even on jazzier cuts.
“I Wonder as I Wander”, James Gaertner
A solo piano track which, similar to Story’s “Greensleeves”, begs to be listened to with eyes closed. Though this particular hymn carries more heaviness than most Christmas songs, it’s a really beautiful arrangement that I enjoy much more without the lyrics. Gaertner does a great job to make it listenable without losing the pure punch that the song is designed to carry.
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, David Shoenberg
If you’ll indulge me, a word on the religious aspect of Christmas. “Hark!” is my favorite religious Christmas song, and I think far too often its performances are a miss. Yes, the song is supposed to represent the moment when “a multitude of the heavenly hosts” appears to shepherds in order to give glory to God. Artists from Bing Crosby to Mariah Carey take this to mean that it should be belted out as a swelling, grand piece that starts near the top and only goes up. Glory is, as another hymn tells us, meant to be expressed in excelcis deo.
I have a different view. David Shoenberg’s rendition understands something fundamental about the holiday that is missed by those grandiose interpretations. The “newborn king” was, after all, born in the humblest of places, with the lowest members of society in attendance. If we learn anything from the nativity, it is that the seemingly shoddiest of circumstances often hold those people and things which are most precious. It makes little sense to me for the heavenly hosts to be a loud revelry trumpeting from the mountaintops in a story where everything is humble, understated, quiet.
This is how “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is supposed to be done. Shoenberg shows that true beauty is in subtlety. That glory can be given softly. That the “king of kings” would, of course, be born in a manger.
Shoenberg understands that, as my favorite theologian once said, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
And finally, the most underplayed and underappreciated piece of Christmas music out there:
“All I Want for Christmas is You”, Mariah Carey
Just kidding. It’s actually:
Windham Hill Holiday Guitar Collection, Various Artists
The whole thing. For my money, this is one of three indispensable holiday albums, along with Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas and Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song. But while those two are rightly recognized as titans of the genre, this compilation album is oft overlooked. This despite containing some of the most ponderous, beautiful music I’ve ever heard, Christmas or not. As the title suggests, this is an album consisting entirely of acoustic guitar covers of Christmas classics. As with the previously listed songs, the featured artists are able achieve the remarkable feat of imposing their own sensibilities and creative flourishes onto instantly recognizable and beloved songs. The technical skill of each of the featured guitarists is undeniable, and it’s easy to find yourself astounded by their ability to merge pure precision with unbelievable beauty.
What’s more, the Windham Hill Holiday Guitar Collection is one of the more adaptable holiday albums out there. By that I mean that it works both for people for whom the holidays are the most joyous time of year, as well as those who find the season to be one of grief and woe. Its acoustic aesthetic lends it a relaxed, almost melancholic sensibility to satisfy those experiencing a blue Christmas, while not entirely sacrificing the hope and joy that pulses through the melodies we’ve hummed for decades.
While I would argue that the whole album is essential listening, there are certainly highlights. If you only wish to skim off the top, I think the best songs are Steve Erquiaga’s “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” and “Angles We have Heard on High”, Steve Morse’s “Carol of the Bells”, and finally Sean Harkness’ gorgeous cover of my favorite Christmas song, “Christmas Time Is Here”. Those four songs belong on every Christmas playlist. If you still haven’t heard them I implore you to listen now. You won’t be disappointed.
And that’s the playlist! Thank you so much for listening and reading, I hope you enjoyed it.
Finally, I’d like to wish you a safe, happy holidays from NQN. Thanks for reading in 2018, and we’ll see you next year!