Tag Archives: Holiday songs

Holiday Music Countdown: Number 1, let heaven and nature sing

Merry Christmas! My musical advent calendar is at its end; here at last is my favorite holiday song.

1. Joy to the World (Whitney Houston and the Georgia Mass Choir)

I love a good gospel choir. And I’m as susceptible as anyone to the "money note" moment of a modern pop song — you know, the moment when the key changes and the singer hits that big, top note, and you get a shiver down your spine? Think of Whitney Houston’s version of "I Will Always Love You" and the key change at 3:09, and you’ll know what I mean.

Ms. Houston is the queen of the money note, and she uses it to great effect in "Joy to the World," recorded for the soundtrack to The Preacher’s Wife. She also does a little scat-style bit, and she plays off the excellent singing of the choir. Altogether, they transform the classic, stodgy carol into an expression of exhilaration and joy.

There’s no video for the song, but you can at least hear it on this YouTube clip.

I wish to you and yours a joyful, peaceful holiday. Merry Christmas!

Holiday Music Countdown: Number 2, let your heart be light

The final few of my favorite holiday songs. Last night we looked at the more cynical side. Tonight we tug on heartstrings. (Find previous holiday countdown posts here.)

2. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Judy Garland)

There’s a nice history of the origin of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in the entry on Wikipedia, including modifications to the lyrics before the song’s first recording and later, when Frank Sinatra found it not “jolly” enough.

Many artists have recorded this song, each putting his own style to it. I like Judy Garland’s original version best. For me, it’s the most touching, and the quiver in her voice adds just the right amount of tenderness and sadness but also a little hope.

Here’s the scene from Meet Me in St. Louis in which she performs it for the first time.

Holiday Music Countdown: Number 3, all the paper, tinsel, and the folderol

We’ve nearly made it through the month-long countdown of my favorite holiday songs, and now we come to the best of the best. (Find previous holiday countdown posts here.)

3. Merry X-Mas (To Whom It May Concern) (Miles Davis with Bob Dorough)

Jingle Bell Jazz album cover

In 1962, at the age of 36, Miles Davis was already a music legend. Three years earlier he’d released Kind of Blue, his masterwork, on which he’d collaborated with many of the great players and arrangers/composers of the time to develop a new style of jazz — cool jazz.

Executives at Columbia, his record label, pressured him to contribute a song to Jingle Bell Jazz, a Christmas album that they were compiling of music from jazz artists in their stable. He called in Bob Dorough, an unconventional composer and singer, to write lyrics and sing — one of few vocalists to perform on a Miles Davis recording. Gil Evans would handle the arrangement.

According to Jack Chambers (Milestones), Davis complained to Dorough, “What the fuck am I supposed to play for them? ‘White Christmas’?” (cite)

The resulting tune was “Merry X-Mas (To Whom It May Concern).” Dorough’s bitter and disenchanted lyrics trip along through the song, while Davis’s trumpet swirls around and punctuates the points.

One of the fun things about the internet is that you can find amazing and detailed information, particularly about an icon like Miles Davis. For example, we can discover that the song was recorded on August 21, 1962, in Columbia Studio A in New York. The performers included the Miles Davis Sextet plus Bob Dorough. The recording was finished in 12 takes.

I wasn’t able to find the lyrics anywhere, so I’ve transcribed them here.

Blue X-Mas (To Whom It May Concern)

Merry Christmas.
I hope you have a fine one,
But for me it’s blue.

Blue Christmas,
That’s the way you see it when you’re feeling blue.
Blue X-Mas,
When you’re blue at Christmastime you see right through
All the waste
All the sham
All the haste
And plain ol’ bad taste.

Sidewalk Santa Clauses are much much much too thin.
They’re wearing fancy rented costumes,
False beards,
And big fat phony grins.
And nearly everybody’s standing round holding out
Their empty hand or tin cup.
Gimme gimme gimme gimme.
Gimme gimme gimme.
Fill my stocking up,
All the way up.

It’s a time when the greedy
Give a dime to the needy.

Blue Christmas.
All the paper, tinsel, and the folderol.
Blue X-Mas.
People trading gifts that matter not at all,
What I call
Folderol. Bitter gall.
Folderol.

(Instrumental)

Lots of hungry homeless children
In your own backyards
While you’re very very busy addressing
Twenty-zillion Christmas cards.
Now, Yuletide is a season to receive, and oh to give
And ah, to share.
But all you December do-gooders rush around
And rant and rave
And loudly blare.

Merry Christmas.
I hope yours is a fine one,
But for me it’s blue.

I’m more a pessimist than an optimist. If I were a little more of a cynic, this would be my favorite Christmas song. As it is, I love the way it cuts through the glitter of the season. And I love the music, still sharp today, and the wit of the lyrics.

Incidentally, if Bob Dorough’s voice sounds familiar, it may be because he composed and sang many of the songs for Schoolhouse Rock. Think back to “Three Is a Magic Number” — that’s Dorough at work.

Holiday Music Countdown: Numbers 5 and 4, with waltzing and romancing

Another day clicks by and we draw ever nearer to Christmas — and to the end of the countdown of my favorite holiday songs. (Find previous holiday countdown posts here.)

5. The Christmas Waltz (Nancy Wilson)

“The Christmas Waltz” is another beautiful song that not a lot of artists seem to take on. I can’t figure out why — unless the waltziness of it frightens them. It is indeed a waltz, “in three-quarter time” as the lyrics say. How lovely and timeless those lyrics are:

Frosted window panes,
Candles gleaming inside,
Painted candy canes on the tree.
Santa’s on his way.
He’s filled his sleigh
With things,
Things for you and for me.

It’s that time of year
When the world falls in love.
Ev’ry song you hear seems to say,
“Merry Christmas.
May your New Year dreams come true.”

And this song of mine
In three-quarter time
Wishes you and yours
The same thing too.

Frank Sinatra recorded a stellar version of this, and if you know the song you probably know it from him.

I prefer Nancy Wilson‘s interpretation. (Of course I don’t mean Nancy Wilson of the band Heart. I mean the song stylist, “Fancy Miss Nancy.”) You can find it on Ultra-Lounge’s Ultra-Lounge Christmas Cocktails, Pt. 2. Nancy’s version sticks to the waltz tempo a bit more, so one could dance to it if one wanted. I’m content to sit and listen to how her warm voice and crisp delivery capture the song perfectly.

4. Baby It’s Cold Outside (Dean Martin, Brian Setzer and Ann-Margaret)

Why do I like “Baby It’s Cold Outside” so much? There are many reasons not to like it. It’s quite retrograde: Who today would say “there’s bound to be talk tomorrow,” “neighbors might think,” or especially “my maiden aunt’s mind is vicious”? One friend of mine called it “the date-rape song” because of the line “hey, what’s in this drink?” There’s talk of smoking, too. This is not a politically correct song in our enlightened times.

But I do love it. It’s a mini-musical of courtship. I love its flirtiness (“your eyes are like starlight now”). And it’s funny and sharp. “Think of my lifelong sorrow … if you caught pneumonia and died!” I know I’d laugh, and then I’d stay for at least a few minutes more.

Here’s the song’s original movie performance, from 1949’s Neptune’s Daughter. Yes, that’s Ricardo Montalbán serenading Esther Williams. Dig his swanky apartment with panoramic view and built-in, well-stocked bar, and her nifty fur cape.

UPDATE: The clip is no longer available, I’m sad to say. You can see a snippet of the number in the trailer for Neptune’s Daughter, along with a parallel version by Red Skelton and Betty Garrett from the same movie.

For recorded versions of this song, I’ve always liked Dean Martin’s, mostly because he’s such a smooth-talking charmer. The song fits his persona to a ‘t.’ The girl in the recording is nameless, just some studio singer. The way the song is produced she sounds like a chrous of girls, a whole roomful of long-stemmed babes that Dean is trying to date at one time — and apparently succeeding with.

An alternative is provided by the version with Ann-Margaret and Al Hirt. (Find it on Yule B Swinging Too.) Ann-Margaret is in full-on kitten mode, purring at Hirt’s velvety seductions. They’re not sparring at all; they’re both looking for ways for her to explain why she’s clearly not leaving.

And then there’s the Brian Setzer duet with Ann-Margaret on Boogie Woogie Christmas. I’ve come to like this one best. Ann-Margaret is a whole lot sassier and no less sexy, and Setzer is awfully ardent and persuasive. Who’d want to go out in the cold and leave behind someone so warm?

Holiday Music Countdown tangent: We need a little Christmas, and skating lessons

Bit of a hard day today, so I will hold my holiday countdown post until tomorrow.

Fortunately, I have a treat to tide you over, sent to me by frequent commenter Erich Maria. It’s a video of Mitzi Gaynor singing "We Need a Little Christmas" — but it’s more than just that:

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From an email exchange between me and Erich:

EM: You would think they would have gotten some kids who could ice skate.

CC: That’s a riot! Do you think the kids are falling on purpose? Too funny.

EM: I don’t know, but 0:09 she claps her hands and the kids behind her fall down. Then at 0:17, she stomps her boot down, someone else goes down. Could be a coincidence …

Watch and decide for yourself!

Holiday Music Countdown: Number 6, plus music history, world history, and geography lessons

Continuing my countdown of my favorite holiday songs. (Find previous holiday countdown posts here.)

6. Little Drummer Boy (Up the Khyber) (Hoodoo Gurus)

Kinky album cover, by the Hoodoo Gurus You young’uns may not know about the Hoodoo Gurus. Back in the mid- to late-80s and into the 90s, a wave of Australian bands enjoyed success in the alternative rock world. Men at Work and Midnight Oil were probably the best known, but the Hoodoo Gurus were more my style. Lots of twangy guitars, catchy tunes, big hair. Good stuff. Look at the videos for "I Want You Back" and "Like Wow Wipeout." It’s like a time machine back to college for me, I’m telling you. Anyway, years later I picked up Lump of Coal (the virtues of which CD I’ve harped on several times this month), which opens with a storm of drums and some twangy guitars: "Little Drummer Boy (Up The Khyber)." It’s been among my favorite Christmas songs ever since. A bit about the song title: Like many Americans, I have a limited grasp of world geography. I didn’t spend much time thinking where the Khyber might be. I suppose I figured it was a river in Australia, as that’s where the Hoodoo Gurus hail from. Perhaps I had a faint memory about something called the Khyber Pass, but I didn’t stress my poor brain worrying about it. Today I took it into mind to wonder where the Khyber might be, and what it might be. Wikipedia made clear that no river in Australia was involved, and that the Khyber is instead the mountain pass that links Pakistan and Afghanistan. But what does an Asian trading route have to do with a Christmas song? You might guess that the three wise men were supposed to have come on this route, or maybe that the Hoodoo Gurus happen to be big fans of the history of trade. I don’t know for sure. But it happens that "Up the Khyber" is the name of a song by Pink Floyd, off the album More — an instrumental that features an extended, frenetic drum solo … just like that in the Hoodoo Gurus song. Wikipedia: the gift that keeps on giving.

Holiday Music Countdown: Number 7, O Canada!

Only six shopping days ’til Christmas — but seven songs to enjoy. Here’s the next tune in my highly-subjective holiday music countdown. (Find previous holiday countdown posts here.)

7. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (Barenaked Ladies & Sarah McLachlan)

There’s not a lot complicated about my affection for this version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." It’s traditional yet unconventional; spunky and a little offbeat as Barenaked Ladies songs always are; and musically pretty as Sarah MacLaughlin songs are. It doesn’t sound particularly Canadian, but maybe my ears aren’t tuned to detect that frequency. I found this on a compilation (Maybe This Christmas), but it’s also available on Barenaked for the Holidays. I’d not heard of this album before tonight — the things one learns when writing blog posts! When I discover a new holiday album, I look to see if it includes songs that I don’t recognize — often a good sign. In this case, there are several Hanukkah songs and several original songs, all of which I’m unfamiliar with. Joy! I bought it and am currently listening. I’ll provide a full report soon, but early indications are that I’ve found some new favorites here. (The opening song, a manic version of "Jingle Bells," has already won my heart.)

Holiday Music Countdown: Number 8, the admission’s free

I realize some people are weary of holiday music by now — particularly those who work in retail and have been listening to it since well before Thanksgiving. But we’re getting to my very favorite songs now, and the best is yet to come! (Find previous holiday countdown posts here.)

8. Step Into Christmas (The Wedding Present, Elton John)

Cover of A Lump of Coal

Elton John (now Sir Elton Hercules John) released "Step Into Christmas" in 1974 on the underappreciated album Caribou. It’s upbeat and energized, and there’s everything in the world to recommend it. But the version I prefer is by The Wedding Present, a band from England that has a strong post-punk vibe. For this song, they’ve kept the vibrancy, but they’ve dropped a lot of the polish and bounciness, as well as Elton John’s characteristic piano and keyboards; in their place they’ve substituted buzzy, distorted guitars. The singer, David Gedge, has a raspy quality to his voice, and sings with a noticeably more British accent than Sir Elton does. (The Wedding Present is from Leeds, England, much farther north than Elton John’s Middlesex.) The result is a more abrasive song that manages — counter to the standard image of punk and post-punk — to be melodic and happy. Although I grew up in the 70s and still love much from that decade, I lean a bit to the 90s version, the one by The Wedding Present. Which version anyone prefers is a matter of taste, of course. I’d love for you to listen to both and give your opinion. There’s a video of each on YouTube, but the audio quality is so poor for both that I’d hate for you to judge on that basis. (Listen if you like: Elton John and The Wedding Present.) You can check out a sample of the Elton John version, and I suspect you’ve heard it elsewhere. The Wedding Present’s version doesn’t seem to be readily available though, so I’ll share it with you here: "Stepping Into Christmas" by The Wedding Present. Which is your favorite? Leave a comment or send me an email. (Bob, I think I can guess which you prefer, but maybe you’ll surprise me.)