I am not feeling particularly Christmassy this year. I say that at one time or another every year, but it feels fairly acute right now. Too much other stuff getting in the way, not enough time to ponder and savor. (Not enough liquor? Could be.) The terrible shooting in Connecticut yesterday doesn’t help, either. In the face of that, something so trivial as a random stroll through my Christmas library probably ain’t enough, but here goes.
“Christmas Day”/Bruce Springsteen. From a widely circulated bootleg called Merry Christmas From Asbury Park, this is an ass-kickin’ live track recorded in 2001. The song was originally recorded by bluesman Detroit Junior in 1960, and it too kicks ass.
“Such a Night”/Aaron Neville. Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas has been around since 1993, which scarcely seems possible. Like “Christmas Day,” “Such a Night” is an old R&B number (originally recorded by the Drifters and also by Elvis), and it fits so well on Neville’s album you scarcely notice that it’s not a Christmas song at all.
“Joy to the World”/Blind Boys of Alabama with Aaron Neville. In 2003, Allmusic.com dismissed the Blind Boys’ album Go Tell It on the Mountain thusly: “Here is the third Five Blind Boys of Alabama record on which the legendary Southern gospel quartet has to have celebrity guests collaborate with them in order to get played on National Public Radio”—a spectacular burn on both record label marketing practices and NPR. The album has its moments (as any record with Mavis Staples, Solomon Burke, and Shelby Lynne would), but it doesn’t make the heavy rotation at our house.
“The Christmas Song”/Mel Tormé. The story of how this song came to be written is pretty famous now: Tormé and collaborator Robert Wells tried to remedy a California heat wave by thinking about Christmas, and the result was a song for the ages. Tormé didn’t make a full Christmas album until 1992, and by that time he was becoming better known for his oddball TV appearances (Night Court, Seinfeld) than for being one of the great saloon singers of the 20th century.
“Soulful Christmas”/James Brown. The most anthologized song from James Brown’s 1968 Christmas album and fine enough, but it’s not in the same league as “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.”
“Christmas Is Going to the Dogs”/Eels. First heard on the soundtrack of the Jim Carrey film How the Grinch Stole Christmas, this is your basic indie-rock take on the holiday. It’s pretty good.
“Winter Wonderland”/Sherrie Austin. A country singer from Australia turned TV actress turned country singer again turned Broadway perfomer turned country singer again. This is tagged in my library as coming from a compilation called Totally Adult Christmas Tuneup, but I can’t find any references to such a collection online, so I can’t say for sure where the hell it really comes from, but it’s a rockin’ good version of the song.
“Sleigh Ride”/Ramsey Lewis Trio. Christmas music is about creating atmosphere, and for those of us among the elderly, it’s often the atmosphere we recall from when we were kids, when Mom was in the kitchen baking cookies, Dad was in the living room reading the paper, and we were geeked up for a holiday that seemed as though it would never come. And that usually means listening to Mom and Dad’s music—the only music we had before we had music of our own. So an instrumental record like The Sound of Christmas by the Ramsey Lewis Trio—however much we might enjoy it on its own merits now that we’re old enough to understand it—is charged with the electricity of the way life used to be.
“White Christmas”/Partridge Family. You know how I feel about the Partridge Family and the incredibly well-crafted records that featured many of the Los Angeles session players known as the Wrecking Crew. Given all that, I wish I liked A Partridge Family Christmas Card better than I do. Like “White Christmas, ” many of the tracks melt the snow we got this week. They’re gone before you know they’re on.
“When a Child Is Born”/Johnny Mathis. German singer Michael Holm charted this in the States in 1974. The Mathis version missed the American charts entirely, but was #1 in the UK at Christmas 1976—a season we will revisit at this blog at least once before Christmas 2012, or my name isn’t whatever my name is.