Nielsen is out with its annual report on the popularity of Christmas music on the radio. The station in your town that’s rotating the same 200 warhorses for another year is doing it by popular demand in its purest form. Many stations see audience numbers go through the roof every December. Your mileage may vary, though. I know a few people who detest Christmas music. As for me, I enjoy it, and at least once each December (and it’s been only once the last several years), I put my holiday library on shuffle and write about the first 10 songs that pop up. And here we go.
“Christmas in Jail”/The Youngsters. In 1956, the National Safety Council actually commended the Empire label for releasing this, an obscure Los Angeles vocal group’s B-side about the consequences of drinking and driving. I added “Christmas in Jail” to my library last year thanks to Any Major Dude With Half a Heart, which has posted many fine Christmas mixes over the years. The links are live right now, so go get ’em.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem”/Aaron Neville. It’s been 20 years now since the release of Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas, which has been in the hot rotation at our house every year since. Neville’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is not one of the standout tracks on the album, but it’s pleasant.
“Silent Night”/Charlie Musselwhite. On which the great bluesman does it on the harp, and it’s one of the best versions here is.
“The Christmas Song”/Bobby Timmons. From the pianist’s 1964 album Holiday Soul, Timmons plays it straight for a while, then flies off into improvisation around the familiar chord changes, which is a great way to keep warhorses sounding fresh. Tip of the porkpie hat to bassist Butch Warren, proving how hard a guy can swing playing one note at a time.
“The Big Night”/The Tractors. A rockin’ good record from 2002 that ought to be more popular than it is. You want trivia, you got it: According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), the Tractors liked to record in one take with one microphone.
“Christmas Time is Here”/Chicago. The production on Chicago XXV: The Christmas Album sounds 10 or 15 years out of date for a record released in 1998—what’s with all those drum machines?—and the lead vocalists, Bill Champlin, Jason Scheff, and/or Keith Howland, are simply trying too hard to be merry and bright. The album is better when it pops up a track at a time in shuffle mode—or if you go straight to “Christmas Time is Here,” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is largely spared the album’s worst tendencies.
“Greensleeves”/James Taylor. This is a from a bootleg of various live recordings Taylor made between 1969 and 1971, including appearances on The Mike Douglas Show, The Johnny Cash Show, and his own 1970 BBC special. Just as it is when you see him today, Taylor’s audience banter is quite charming on the BBC cuts; he refers to “Greensleeves” as a “little thing I wrote myself.” This is one boot you really ought to have. It’s fabulous. So go here while you still can.
“Ring Out Solstice Bells”/Jethro Tull. Ian Anderson’s music has always been steeped in the folk music of Olde England, and The Jethro Tull Christmas Album is, too. “Ring Out Solstice Bells” first appeared in 1977 on Songs From the Wood, but Tull had considered the season long before that, on “A Christmas Song” in 1968. Both were re-recorded for the album in 2003. Back in the 70s, “Ring Out Solstice Bells” was released with an animated video, which is here.
“I Want You With Me Christmas”/Roomful of Blues. The 1997 album Roomful of Christmas is a pretty raucous party record in general, but “I Want You With Me Christmas” is a slow-dance number originally recorded by soul crooner Jesse Belvin.
“Baby Its Cold Outside”/Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery. Sweet mama I am sick of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Every version of it sucks. It’s always sung today with faux-retro ironic detachment, and it’s more creepy than cute. This is probably the least offensive version there is (what with its being an instrumental and all), from Smith’s 1964 album Christmas Cookin’. As much as I love Smith, who’s the second-most-played artist in my laptop library, Christmas Cookin’ doesn’t rank too high on my list. Half the tracks are combo recordings (like “Baby It’s Cold Outside”), which are great, but on the other half, Smith plays with a full orchestra, which has never sounded right to me behind his mighty Hammond B3.
Since I am somewhat starved for time and inspiration this month, we will probably do this again before the 25th. Maybe. It could happen.