I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas music. It tends to walk the tight rope between the sublime and the unbearable, with many perceptions on those points being pretty wide too.
As such, even though it’s a popular move, I think the idea of releasing a Christmas single, or even a whole album, to me is kind of a risky move artistically speaking. But, that’s what artists do; they push the envelope and they take the big risks. Or they go right for the cheese with impunity, knowing that a lot of people groove on Christmas music, whether they expect it from the artist in question or not! An important aspect of all this is simply that I really want to love Christmas music. So, often it works out for me. It’s amazing what simple willingness will do for you.
So, this year, I thought I’d gather another collection of Christmas songs from the rock and pop and jazz quarters, representing the best of the bunch (or just the most unexpected and weird and completely sentimental) just like last year. Well, ten of them anyway. Some you’ll know, some maybe you won’t. But, either way, here’s hoping that some of these tune will find their way onto your own personal Christmas mixes this year – even if you don’t celebrate Christmas!
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Fa la la la la, and indeed, luh la la, la.
It’s that time of year again when you’re desperately trying not to hear all of those same holiday favourites as you navigate your way through the malls and main streets in search of the last minute items to check off of your list. Yet, sometimes those songs really are your favourites.
So, with that in mind, here are 10 versions of some of those Christmas songs and some new ones you’ve might never have heard, from acts you know (and maybe some you don’t!) that can make your days both merry and bright. Here they are! Read more
Listen to this track by concept-wielding orchestral-folk auteur and major Christmas music fan Sufjan Stevens. It’s “I Saw Three Ships”, an eminently seaworthy Christmas carol as it is featured on his 2006 Songs For Christmas boxset.
The song comes from a long-running project from Stevens, a prolific recording artist used to putting together home recordings in short order. Initially, the recordings were meant as gifts to friends and family. Hey, it was Christmas! But, eventually the songs recorded for the series of EPs over the course of five years that made up this set of recordings began to coalesce into a bona fide project fit for a release meant for a wider audience – us.
Walking through the mall while Christmas shopping this year, you might think that Christmas music is a fairly limited subject for a whole boxset from a guy better known for his concept albums of original material that comes from unique angles. But, there’s tons of Christmas music out there that isn’t as well known as some of the songs you’ve heard in the mall lately. And Stevens decided to write some original songs to boot, arguably matching the spirit of those traditional tunes. This added up to 42 tracks of Christmas cheer!
The Songs For Christmas project spans five volumes, recorded from 2001 until 2006. The box in which the material was collected includes stories, posters, stickers, and comics. It’s a Christmas morning all in one box. And while he was at it, Stevens went and recorded one of my favourite Christmas tunes of all time, and one of my favourite versions of it, too.
So, just what makes this version so compelling, exactly? Read more
Listen to this track by Anglo-Irish folk-punk posse, featuring guest vocalist, and songwriter in her own right Kirsty MacColl. It’s the 1987 Christmas classic single, “Fairytale of New York”, a story of dreams, drama, dissolution, and drunk tanks all taking place during, or in the context of, the Christmas season. The song appears on the band’s high watermark album If I Should Fall From Grace With God, produced by Steve Lillywhite (Psychedelic Furs, U2, Simple Minds) released in January 1988.
Lillywhite was married to Kirsty MacColl, and when the song needed a guide vocal, Steve asked Kirsty to provide one. Originally, the song had been written with former bassist and vocalist Cait O’Riordon in mind. But, O’Riordan had left the band by the time singer Shane MacGowan and banjoist Jem Finer had finished it. When the band heard Kirsty’s vocal, they knew they were onto something.
The song would be an enduring one, forever associated with Christmas, and narrowly missing the coveted Christmas #1 that year (25 years ago!). But, what is it about this song that resonates so well with audiences? Read more
Listen to this track, a yuletide assault from two-piece blues-indie heroes, the late, lamented White Stripes. It’s their Christmas tune from 1998, and something of a rarity, “Candy Cane Children”. This was an early single from a band who had yet to break through, yet clearly had the juice even this early on.
The song is on the books to be one of a number of early singles from our heroes to be re-released from Jack White’s Third Man Records.
Have a great Christmas from the Delete Bin, and as of this past December 18, happy birthday to us – the Delete Bin mark II has been going for four years! We’ll be taking the next week off, so see you in the New Year!
Listen to this track by saxophone immortal John Coltrane and his classic quartet (Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and McCoy Tyner on piano). It’s the perennial holiday favourite “What Child Is This”, or as it is credited: “Greensleeves”, with those two pieces having the same melody, with lyrics added by hymn writer William Chatterton Dix in 1865.
This song was recorded during a specific and very celebrated phase in Coltrane’s career, when things were really gelling with his band, many of whom believe was the greatest collection of musicians in jazz over a long-term recording period between 1961 and 1965. This period corresponded with Coltrane’s work on the Impulse! label, with whom he’d stay until his untimely death from liver cancer in 1967.
The song itself has an even older pedigree than Coltrane’s classic period of course. It has been connected with King Henry VIII, he who provided a number of creative ways to get out of being married during a time when that wasn’t an easy thing to do. In the meantime, evidently, he was a songwriter. I’m not so sure about the facts on that one. It seems kind of unlikely to me.
It’s a melancholic, beautiful little tune no matter who wrote it. “Greensleeves” is about being rejected by a true love, which is a pretty solid theme no matter what era it comes out of. And in a Christmas context as “What Child Is This?”, it’s used to tell the story of the birth of Jesus; not just about the joy of that event, but also through its minor key suggests the shadow of human brokeness, too. So what makes Coltrane’s take on that so compelling? Read more
Listen to this track by angelically voiced singer-songwriter and Christmas fan Shawn Colvin. It’s “Love Came Down At Christmas” as taken from her seasonally-flavoured 1998 Holiday Songs & Lullabies album , which is comprised of crisp and tender renderings of seasonal favourites, matched with restlful lullabies.
This song is a retelling of the Christmas story, infused with a sort of spiritual wonder. Yet, to me the ideas in this song are less about a religious message, and more about the universal themes of aiming one’s sights for greater awareness of, and connection to, those around them. What better message is there for this Yuletide time of year?
Aided by producer and fellow Christmas music fan Doug Petty, Colvin produced a record that put original songs alongside traditional holiday songs. The result is something deeply personal, yet accessible too.
But, where did this record come from, exactly?
Listen to this track from folk music enthusiast and Santa Claus BFF Bob Dylan. It’s “Must Be Santa” a track from his album Christmas In the Heart, released around Christmas time 2009.
On this track, Dylan and his band rock out the popular children’s tune in an accordion-driven jam, the accordion in question actually played by Los Lobos’ David Hildago. The effect is a kind of a zydeco-meets-polka, matched with an exuberant call-and-response vocal exchange.
Is a straight ahead Christmas album kind of an unexpected move from the guy who wrote “Idiot Wind”, “Rainy Day Women 12 & 35”, And “All Along The Watchtower”?
Well, maybe a little.
But, Dylan has always followed his own path, even from the earliest days of his career. And, the conception of this album and the rendering of the songs on it followed a path that Dylan has always followed anyway.
And which path is that?
Listen to this track by high-voiced Yes frontman, and holiday season enthusiast Jon Anderson. It’s the Christian-meets-pagan holiday favourite, and sang straight-up, “The Holly & the Ivy” as taken from Anderson’s 1985 Holiday-themed (sort of) LP Three Ships. This is a sort of stealth Christmas album, in that it also features some wintry, yet not specifically Christmas-related original songs by Anderson alongside traditional Christmas carols.
The song is clearly derived from a pagan past, with images of the titular holly and ivy having once been important elements to the religions of the late Roman empire, and also of Druidic religions that dominated the British Isles before they were Christianized. This suits Anderson’s milleu perfectly, having been an old hand at using pan-religious imagery and language in his songs, both with Yes and without.
But, what of the songs on this album? Read more
Listen to this track, a classic Christmas melody from West Coast jazz proponent and Charlie Brown soundtrack purveyors Vince Guaraldi Trio, featuring Guaraldi himself on piano. It’s “Skating”, a piece is featured on the soundtrack of Charlie Brown Christmas, a TV special first broadcast in 1964, and since a part of everyone’s Christmas viewing pleasure into our Twenty-First Century.
Vince Guaraldi was an established jazz pianist and plugged into the West Coast jazz scene from the 1950s, having played with Vibraphonist Cal Tjader on one of my favourite West Coast jazz albums, Jazz at the Blackhawk. He was an established recording artist even before his work on the Charlie Brown Christmas project, but his music – lyrical, accessible, and somehow perfectly capturing the whimsy and innocence of the subject matter – would be his greatest impact as a part of many a childhood, and across generations of holiday TV special enthusiasts.