Here's a strange thing: I loathe the blues. Not in getting and wallowing in the blues. Not in a certain famous painter's awesome blue period. Not the color blue (cobalt and midnight, two particular favorites) or even Levi's blue jeans (brand loyalty - I'm big on that). No, I hate blues music. This from a former music critic. Let's not get into that. I've tried. I like some of it. But it's not my thing. And yet - and yet! - I love Charles Brown. Classy blues, someone once called that sound. Uptown blues. But I don't care about the classification. All I know is that my favorite Christmas song is "Merry Christmas Baby." It can't be Christmas in my house until I hear it. In fact, "Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues" is one of the all-time great Christmas albums. (As an aside, I love how really great Christmas albums always find a way, usually on the last song, to give a nod to the pending New Year.)
I have a lot of Christmas music. Too much, maybe. But I don't let it linger with my other CDs. It's a seasonal thing. Can't stand to look at it any other time. But then I play it incessantly right about December 1, which is pretty much the day I buy my Christmas tree. I am listening to Christmas music as I write this. I'm even feeling that too many nights have passed without an adequate number of red wine fueled eves sitting by the tree, illuminated only by the tiny white lights, getting deep into the mood. I've still got, what, a week? No problem. Time to soak in it.
For me, it all starts with "Merry Christmas Baby." It's like pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training. But from there, all hell breaks loose. All kinds of moods are lit and left littered about by all kinds of random songs. I'm open to interpretations. I love the classics. I love new stuff. In the right frame of mind, I'll go for cheese. (Is "Santa Baby" cheese? Say what you will, but you've gotta hear Eartha Kitt at some point before the big day.) I don't really want to hear that Santa got run over. I want to hear about chestnuts and having merry little Christmases. I just don't want it to be all Bing Crosby, even if the David Bowie duet of "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" is the Christmas equivalent of hitting one into McCovey Cove. I don't know how many times I've heard that, but every time I do, I stop and think: "Bowie and Bing. Wow."
With all due respect to Charles Brown, I'm going to tell you my three favorite Christmas albums - in order! - right now (you have to do it in order or you're just a gigantic wuss). And he's not in the trifecta. (How can that be, you say, if "Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues" is such a classic? Uh, because it's my opinion. Make your own list.)
1. "One More Drifter In the Snow," Aimee Mann. Now, this only came out in 2006, so you'll probably say it's the thrill of the new. But honestly, I've thought a lot about it, and "One More Drifter In the Snow" has all the elements of a truly great Christmas album - and then some. First, you've gotta cover some classics. Then you need to make them your own. You have to have fun but not be embarrassed to be doing a Christmas album or, alternatively, too earnest about doing a Christmas album. You should include an original so people see you're invested (hers is "Calling On Mary," and it's lovely - plus she includes a very great cover of husband Michael Penn's "Christmastime," a song they previously sang in duet.) But your selection process need be almost as precise as your renditions. And for God's sake, the woman opens up with Jimmy Webb's "Whatever Happened to Christmas." That's gold, people. That nestles up right next to "Merry Christmas Baby" in the Goodman household. There's so much to love on this album, from the beauty of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" to the bouncy hipness of "You're A Mean One Mr. Grinch," complete with Grant Lee Phillips' wonderful and nutty narration. Now, the only thing missing on this album is her "I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas," but I guess she didn't want to send everyone to the bottle (or worse).
2. "Christmas Songs," Diana Krall (featuring the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra). Yeah, I know what you're thinking: That I picked this because she's married to my musical hero or, thinking less of me, that she's a babe who sings and is an awesome musician (a weakness, to be sure). But no. This album came out in 2005 and, for me, struck the perfect balance of classics and redefinition. Listen, the entire album is worth the price just to hear her say, off the cuff, "I'm just crazy about horses" at the end of "Jingle Bells," the first track. That slays me every time. But there's something about the classics - and this album is all about familiarity - given over to jazz improvisation that just seems utterly perfect. I know some people take issue with Krall's vocal tonality but - odd to say - it's damned effective and near perfect on this album. Two things - other than, "I'm just crazy about horses" - sealed it for me on this album: I love her version of "Christmas Time Is Here" (don't get me started about my sentimentality for Vince Guaraldi and Charlie Brown); and she makes the room you're in feel warm. Now, a lot of people may overlook, snicker at or just plain not get that last point. But if you put this album on when you're decorating the tree, it'll come to you. And you'll appreciate it. Not only that, but there is an everlasting appeal to falling asleep by the tree (at least for me). And the one non-Christmas-specific song on the album, Irving Berlin's "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sleep" is the perfect theme song for that.
3. "The Best Christmas Ever." (Various artists). You've gotta have an anthology on your list. I mean, I could have put "Christmas Songs by Sinatra" on here and got some props, but finding an album that pulls in 10 or 12 variations on the theme - and in case you forgot, the theme is Christmas - by a disparate bunch of singers is a real labor of love. Did you think I was going to put "A Very Special Christmas" on there (all three - or were there more - compilations?). Anyway, I think "The Best Christmas Ever" is tough to beat. And here's one very good reason: A stickler for the classics could say, "Any Christmas collection must have, no matter how painful, a version of "Twelve Days of Christmas."' Now, I hate that song. It's worse than the blues. But the Harry Belafonte version is pretty stellar. Not only that, but the album includes "Merry Christmas Baby" from Charles Brown, has Nat King Cole belting out "O Holy Night," not one but two songs from Hadda Brooks (a positive spin on "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and a strangely depressing, drink-em-up version of "White Christmas" - seriously, it's a shiv in your spine that dredges up all kinds of woebegone family Christmases; you'll never hear it again in the same way); an absolutely fall-on-the-ground killer version of "Silent Night Story" from Solomon Burke; ("Let's sing it again, for the world"), Aaron Neville completely owning the rights to "O Little Town of Bethlehem" - if you're going to include the song, it had better be from him - and the live version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" from Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton ("give it up, give it up, give it up"), though it cuts off. It's not a perfect album and here's why - too much blues for me. I could lose Pete Fountain's "Blue Christmas" and B.B. King's "Christmas Celebration," but that's just me. Still, if you're going to outshine this compilation, you REALLY have to bring it.
So, what else? How about some songs? Let's not kid ourselves. Putting an "album" together is tough work. Throwing a bunch of singles together is easy. I've got a lot of random shit in my collection. I've heard exactly one good version of "Frosty the Snowman" and it comes from, of all people, the Cocteau Twins. Honestly, name a better version.
I also love "Father Christmas" from "The Kinks." ("Father Christmas, give us some money. We've got no time for your silly toys.") That's a classic in my book. It got tossed onto one of the weirdest collections I have, the Rhino Records Christmas Sampler from 1996. (Where else are you going to find The Waitresses right before Buck Owens?). Not an album I'd actually push, but I'd definitely cull some songs from it. Like "Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight)" from the Ramones, the original "Christmas Time Is Here" from the Vince Guaraldi Trio and the definitive version of "Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful)" from Jackie Wilson - it is both joyful and triumphant and, need I say it - come and behold him, indeed. All told, it's a completely bizarre sampler, with LOTS of misses, but I've always loved the symmetry of "Father Christmas" as the first song, "Christmas Time Is Here" right in the middle and "Thanks For Christmas" from The Three Wise Men (aka XTC) closing things out. That's a great song.
Mrs. CrankyPants can't celebrate the season - or the day - unless she hears "2000 Miles" from the Pretenders, which is lovely and evocative. I have a soft spot for "Fairytale Of New York" from the Pogues. For my money, it's one of the most brilliant original Christmas songs ever recorded. If you want to debate that, you'd better put the 8 oz. gloves on. (Look, I'll cry at a cheesy commercial, so getting welled up over Christmas songs is nothing novel, but man that song just does it. Must be the Irish in me.)
Now, there's something about Christmas that makes pretty much every music artists at one time or another try to record a song. This is often a major mistake. You'd be surprised how many of the greats couldn't lay down a Christmas track that's worth a damn. Johnny Cash? Can't think of one I like. I so wanted to get into Otis Redding singing "White Christmas" but there is such a thing as trying too hard, even if you're a god. We could go on about this as it concerns one James Brown, but I'll give you this: "Soulful Christmas" works for me even when he name checks himself and Maceo. Why? Well, the bass line. End of story. But you could add, "Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, I love you" and praise its simplicity even when the song devolves into Norman Maileresque self promotion.
I mention these as a warning if you're going to argue for a certain song by a certain artist. You need to make the case. This is dangerous and holy territory. Many times - in many ways - a really spectacular singer just vomits on a classic. I, for one, won't stand for it.
Nah, I'm just kidding. I've got great tunes playing in the background. I've gone soft. You want to like something as your Christmas chestnut that doesn't really pass muster - why not? If it makes you happy in the holidays, then put it on. And sing it like you mean it.