Album: Barenaked for the Holidays
Performer: Barenaked Ladies
Writer: Ed Robertson
You might remember the “most celebrated Canadian alt-rock band of the mid 90s” Christmas history with their song “Green Christmas” which was used in Ron Howard’s 2000 live-action Grinch movie. I don’t want to talk about that song… or about the fact that that was one of my favorite movie for a couple years. I want to talk about this pretty Christmas song from BNL’s 2004 Christmas album. It’s always nice to hear an original Christmas song but I think it’s often difficult to pull them off without being completely corny or derivative. I think that “Footprints” is a success. It’s an interesting concept, telling the story of a relationship which has ups and downs but ultimately has a happy ending. That whole story is told through the couple taking a stroll in the snow.
Song: Christmas Waltz
Album: The Magic of Christmas
Performer: Natalie Cole
Writer: Sammy Cahn & Jule Styne
The Christmas Waltz is probably my favorite Christmas tune. I just really love the melody. The song is pretty simple, it basically describes a bunch of Christmas-y things and then wishes everyone a merry Christmas! This recording is a little bit over-orchestrated for my taste BUT isn’t over-orchestration kinda what Christmas is all about? The fact that it’s played by the London Symphony Orchestra and sung by the incomparable Natalie Cole makes up for the schmaltz. There’s a really nice jazz trio that comes in near the middle which breaks up the orchestration nicely.
Song: Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Album: David Grisman’s Acoustic Christmas
Performer: David Grisman
Writer: J. Fred Coots & Haven Gillespie
This was my favorite new (to me) Christmas album of the year. I’m a sucker for acoustic bands playing jazz and that’s pretty much what you get with David Grisman. This rendition of Santa Claus is Coming to Town is SWINGING. I’m a really big fan of the harmonized melody with mandolin and fiddle and a moment with mandolin and banjo. And the bass gets a little break which is very nice.
Song: The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
Album: Louis Armstrong & Friends, What a Wonderful Christmas (compilation album)
Performer: Mel Tormé
Writer: Mel Tormé & Robert Wells
I’ve never described anyone’s voice being “smooth as silk” but I just can’t find a better way to describe Mel Tormé’s voice. With key changes and a lot of chromaticism, the melody to The Christmas Song isn’t exactly easy to sing. Tormé captures it beautifully in this stripped down live version. There’s some tasteful jazz trio with clarinet to back him up but that silky voice is really the star.
Song: Jingle Bells
Album: Brad Paisley Christmas
Performer: Brad Paisley
Jingle Bells is an essential christmas classic. Brad Paisley takes it to new levels in this countrified instrumental rendition of the tune. He repeats through the form multiple times and treats it as an extended guitar solo. Some really fun stuff happens. On each repeat there’s an added beat before the traditional “hey!” which rhymes with the line “oh, what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh.” I’m also in love with the chromatic baseline at the top of the 5th time through the form which ends out with the comical “five golden rings” melody. This is a super fun rendition of a song you’ll hear a thousand times over the holidays.
Song: Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday
Album: The Original Soul Christmas
Performer: William Bell
Writer: William Bell, Booker T. Jones
Year: 1968 (song release), 1995 (album release)
This album is full of the best soul artists and their renditions of Christmas classics. This particular selection is an original song by William Bell with instrumental arrangements by Booker T. Jones. I’m not usually a fan of artists writing their own Christmas songs, but this one definitely works. You just can’t go wrong with good soul vocals and impeccable horn arrangements from such a huge name in soul music.
Song: Step Into Christmas
Album: Caribou (1994 remastered re-issue)
Performer: Elton John
Writer: Elton John, Bernie Taupin
This song was a single in Elton John’s “Yellow Brick Road” era. It’s a poppy 70’s Christmas song that manages to be really fun without being too terribly corny. My favorite part of the song is the turn around into the second verse. There is a keyboard part that sounds like 8-bit sound effects for a video game. I love this song because it’s classic Elton John and a simply enjoyable Christmas tune.
Song: Let it Snow/The Last Christmas Medley You’ll Ever Need to Hear
Album: Christmas the Cowboy Way
Performer: Riders in the Sky
Writer: Jule Styne, Sammie Cahn
I’ve listened to Riders in the Sky play music “the cowboy way” since 2007 when one of my teachers suggested that I might enjoy them. They bring their cowboy wit, charm, and superb musicianship to this unique Christmas album. This track lives up to it’s name which boasts that it’s “the last Christmas medley you’ll ever need to hear.” It uses ‘Let it Snow’ as the vehicle for 14 of the most popular Christmas songs. The first round through is instrumental, so it’s a test of your Christmas song knowledge. The next time through they utilize their classic vocal harmonies to help you out with the snippets that may have gone by a little too fast. Enjoy this 15-songs-in-one treat today!
Song: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Album: Jingle All the Way
Performer: Béla Fleck & the Flecktones
Writer: Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin
The Flecktones are a collection of some of the most innovative and inspired musicians living. The core group includes the Wooten brothers and Jeff Coffin with Béla Fleck at the helm. The band creates music which bends genres and features musicians who take their instruments to the cutting edge of what can be done musically. It was a complete joy for me to find this album four years ago. I remember first listening to this particular song at my parents house when I was home for my first Christmas break from college. I had it blasting over their computer speakers for a week straight. There is something infectiously joyful about their take on the melody with the instruments trading off each note. I can’t ever listen to this song just once.
Song: Christmas in New Orleans
Album: Christmas Through the Years
Performer: Louis Armstrong With Benny Carter’s Orchestra
Writer: Dick Sherman, Joe Van Winkle
I spent the week before Christmas last year visiting my grandparents in Gulfport, Mississippi. We took a vacation within a vacation to New Orleans at the tail end of my visit. I spent one of the days there roaming the streets on my own and fell in love with the city. I was blown away by the unique architecture and by the age and character of the city. Highlights of that day included having my palm read and speaking at length to the shopkeeper of a local bookstore. The moment that will be burned in my memory is a picturesque view of the St. Louis Cathedral at dusk against the backdrop of twinkling Christmas lights, decorations, and horse drawn carriages. The city will forever live as part of a beautiful winter fantasy for me.