So, are you in the holiday spirit yet? We are coming to the end of this bizarre year of virtual work and virtual friends and trying desperately to feel the uplift of Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and other seasonal celebrations. And it’s not easy, but there’s hope in music!
We host a holiday party with family and friends each December but, like everything else in 2020, the celebration this year will be over Zoom. I will miss the food, the seasonal cocktails — I make a Swedish hot toddy called Glogg — but most of all I will miss the effect that a great holiday playlist has on people’s spirits.
Music has always been my passion and I perhaps come by it naturally since my Dad was a record producer for RCA back in the day. My fondest memories were watching him dance with my Mom and sing along to holiday favorites from Sinatra, Crosby, Como and Ella Fitzgerald. True to family form, I spent many a paycheck on 45’s, then albums and then cd’s. They look good (and dusty) in my music room as I convert them all to a digital format.
The good news is we can now create our own playlists on Spotify or tap into the playlists of others for nothing more than a monthly subscription rate. So, here are my recommendations to get you in the holiday mood.
- Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), by Darlene Love
David Letterman invited Darlene Love to sing this tune every Christmas season and I looked forward to it the same way I do “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It’s my all-time favorite and has been covered by everyone from Bono to Otis Redding, but this version is the best.
- Santa Claus is Coming to Town, by Bruce Springsteen
Ok, I am from New Jersey so when I think of the Three Wise Men it generally includes Bruce, Bon Jovi and Frankie Valli. The joy of having seen Bruce and Clarence rock out to this song in concert only adds to the pleasure of hearing it year after year on record.
- Christmas In New Orleans, by Louis Armstrong
Only Louis Armstrong could open with Jingle Bells and then shift seamlessly into a New Orleans groove with the help of Benny Carter’s sax and his own incomparable trumpet. From the North Pole to Bourbon Street in a few magical measures.
- Santa Claus And His Old Lady, by Cheech and Chong
Listening to Cheech and Chong tell the story of Santa and his tricked-out sled never fails to bring laughter to a holiday gathering. They describe how Santa moved from the projects to the North Pole and figured out how to deliver presents all over the world with a little help from … well you know.
- Christmas In Hollis, by Run DMC
The beats at the opening will wake up any overstuffed holiday guest. You may have heard it first on movie soundtracks like “Die Hard” or “Less than Zero” but it’s a favorite that will make you want to add Adidas to your XMAS wardrobe. Old school hip hop from Hollis, Queens NYC.
- Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, by Chrissy Hynde and the Pretenders
What happens when a post punk, new wave singer reworks a 1944 Judy Garland classic (“Meet Me in St Louis”). Answer: Brilliance. One of the most beautifully rendered Christmas songs of our time and a tribute to Hynde’s ability to both rock and croon.
- I’ll Be Home for Christmas, by Bing Crosby
This heartbreaking song was recorded by Bingo in 1943 as a homage to soldiers who were stuck in Europe and the South Pacific during WW2. It certainly has a special significance this year with Covid forcing us to miss relatives and friends who also won’t be coming home.
- Gaudete, by Steeleye Span
Maybe too much Latin for some but the sound of Maddy Prior’s voice on this traditional 16th century Christmas Carol still sends shivers up my spine. Prior and Steeleye Span were never as popular as their English folk revivalist peers Fairport Convention, but they are still a pleasure to listen to.
- River, by Joni Mitchell
How does a breakup song (about Graham Nash) make its way to the pantheon of holiday tunes? Well, it’s Joni Mitchell and this Canadian can evoke a wintry holiday feeling better than anyone. I was surprised and delighted by Ben Platt’s stirring rendition in the first season of “The Politician.”
- The Christmas Song, by Nat King Cole
Though it was written and first recorded by Mel Torme, it was Nat Cole who made it famous. My Mom loved Cole and always said he had better phrasing than Sinatra, but what I think about most in this year of BLM is that he lost his TV show (as the first Black host) because it failed to attract a sponsor.
- Ave Maria
This is only the second religious song on my list, but it’s a gem. Chris Botti’s trumpet does this piece justice, even though it is best known in vocal renditions by Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, — and Beyonce.
- Happy Christmas: War is Over, by John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Harlem Community Choir
John Lennon was senselessly murdered 40 years ago this month and this song will forever bring tears to our eyes because of its message and beautiful melody, as well as the memory of this genius who was taken from our world way too early.
- The Greatest Christmas Novelty Songs, by Dr. Dimento
You get them all on one CD! “The Chipmunk Song,” “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” Corny, yes, but I have never put this CD on without an entire chorus of revelers singing every last word.
- A Christmas Card from A Hooker in Minneapolis, by Tom Waits
The title says it all. Not a song that gets the partygoers up off their feet but it’s a sad and thoughtful tune to play with the last port of the evening. With its jazzy intro and tale of Charlie and his recently incarcerated paramour, it makes you think about the folks who are not having a great Christmas.
- El Burrito De Belén, by Juanes
I first heard Juanes on MTV Unplugged in 2012 and have enjoyed his entire catalog even though I am not a Spanish speaker. He is an amazing musician as well as peace and social justice activist. This Venezuelan children’s XMAS song (“The Little Donkey from Bethlehem”) is an infectious sing along.
- Frosty the Snowman, by the Ronettes
Ronnie Spector’s New York accent on Frosty – pronounced Frwosty – is my favorite part of this song. OMG, I loved the sound of the Ronettes when I was in my early teens and this version of the XMAS classic is beyond fabulous.
- All I Want for Christmas Is You, by Mariah Carey
If you didn’t already love Mariah Carey’s co-written song just watch “Love Actually.” The New Yorker said Carey’s song was one of the few holiday tunes worthy of being added to the holiday canon and perhaps the same can be said about “Love Actually.”
- Do You Hear What I Hear, by Whitney Houston
This song is a plea for peace that was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bing Crosby had the first hit with it in 1963, but it is Whitney’s version that has achieved more than 3.5 million YouTube views.
Many artists have delivered holiday albums, but the results have varied in quality. My personal favorites include Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, the Beach Boys, Diana Krall, Mary J Blige, James Taylor