Despite the best attempts of Mannheimer Steamroller, Rosie O'Donnell and Kenny G to melt the holiday song into a cheesy Christmas cacophony, I still look forward to listening to the sounds of the season each year. We used to hand out a mix CD of our favorite Christmas songs after each year's family dinner. But with the advent of iTunes and iMix, I can now share my favorite Christmas mix with you, if you care to have a listen.
Here's a smattering of Christmas songs starting with some of my favorite versions of the classics...
O Tannenbaum - Vince Guaraldi Trio - "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is still the best "Old School" TV Christmas special. The jagged animation, the melancholy plot, the one liners...nothing beats Lucy Van Pelt telling Charlie Brown instead of toys, she really wants real estate for Christmas. But it wins by a hair over The Grinch Who Stole Christmas mainly because of the soundtrack. Who would have thought to put a jazz soundtrack on the very first animated Christmas special? Jazz trios are a dime a dozen but you can always tell the Vince Guaraldi Trio by his signature piano riffs. It's the reason the Vince Guaraldi soundtrack is my favorite Christmas CD. And I love this jazzy version of O Christmas Tree.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan - Legend has it that the Ladies and Sarah recorded this song backstage before a concert. The bass just kicks this sleepy tune into overdrive and McLachlan's voice sounds heavenly. This is by far my favorite Christmas song ever recorded. I could listen to it every day in December.
Jingle Bells - Bing Crosby - This tune has been relegated to the domain of five year old choirs singing for their parents at the annual Christmas recital. And of the hundreds of versions of this song that have been recorded, it's amazing that some of the first recordings are still the most original. This jazzy upbeat version of Jingle Bells from Bing will keep you tapping your toes no matter how many times you hear the song.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Chris Issak - Who knew the rockabilly balladeer was also a great Christmas crooner? His Christmas album gets a lot of airplay around our house and his version of Little Christmas is an instant classic.
Silent Night - Sixpence None the Richer - A slightly more upbeat guitar version of Silent Night. Close runner up: Shawn Colvin's version
I'll be Home for Christmas - Frank Sinatra - I'm not a big fan of the Chairman of the Board but the man could belt out a hell of a Christmas tune. I love the beginning of this song - the chorus is humming "Silent Night" but then Frank comes in with a very soulful "I'll be home for Christmas"
O Holy Night - Tracy Chapman - Unless you count Placido Domingo, I don't think you could get a more soulful voice singing this song.
Greensleeves - Vince Guaraldi Trio - I can never tell "Greensleeves" from "What Child is This" but I do know this is a great instrumental version of the song.
Christmas Time Is Here - Ivy - A super sexy version of the tune...if you can use "sexy" to describe a Christmas song.
Little Drummer Boy - Bing Crosby and David Bowie - This is just a beautiful version recorded for a British TV Christmas Special. Bing and David overlay melodies like they've been singing together for years. An odd but fantastic pairing.
The Christmas Song - Nat King Cole - What would Christmas be without Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Ok, my wife actually heats up the Ches nuts in the microwave but that image doesn't really capture the true feeling of the holidays. Anyway, what would Christmas be without Nat King Cole? Cole's classic version of this song is still my favorite.
What Are You Doing New Years Day? - Ella Fitzgerald - Ella's renditions are by far some of the best Christmas songs around. This is my favorite because it's a very "shy" version.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Jack Jackson - The kids won't want to listen to this jazzy version of Rudolph but you will.
...and my favorite "new" and original Christmas songs.
Happy Christmas - I think it goes without saying that John Lennon wrote the best modern day Christmas song.
Mele Kalikimaka - Bing Crosby - Bing makes his appearance once again on my mix. The man was just a Christmas Singing God.
Soulful Christmas - James Brown - If every artist made Christmas songs "their own" like the Godfather of Soul, we wouldn't have to endure fifty versions of Silver Bells that all sound exactly the same. "Funky Christmas" is one of my favorite albums and this is one of my favorite songs.
Christmas Night In Harlem - Louis Armstrong - It's good to see that people actually want to spend Christmas in Harlem again.
Blue Christmas - Elvis Presley - The Elvis Presley Christmas CD is one of my favorites and this is still my favorite version of the song.
Blues for Christmas - John Lee Hooker - The off-beat trumpet melody in the background of this song haunts me well after the Christmas season is over.
Please Come Home For Christmas - Johnny Winter - The live version of Johnny Winter and Friends singing "Please Come Home" is very soulful. The studio version (not recommended) is more of what you would expect from Johnny Winter singing a Christmas song - not too good. Close runner up: Aaron Neville's voice was meant to sing sad songs and his rendition of Please Come Home is no exception.
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - U2 - I still don't know what relieving the debts of a bunch of Third-World African nations will do to make the world a better place except make many corrupt dictators very merry for Christmas. How 'bout fighting for property rights for those poor Africans trying to farm in the desert, Bono? Anyway, to become a rock legend, you should be required to record one good Christmas song. Bono has checked that one off his "To Do" list.
So if you're not in the Christmas mood yet, give the songs a listen. I hope they get you in the spirit as much as they do me.