Ever the stickler for tradition, for me the season still begins with Santa’s wave, signaling the end of the Macy’s Day parade in New York and the start of the year-end count down. Only then do I allow myself to feel the gravitational pull toward my favorite songs of the season and reach for my sacks of little round discs (yes, I still have them) to drive the cold winter away.
So here are some of my favorites holiday songs. Let us know YOURS by posting a comment below. And celebrate the rest and best of the season, be it Christmas, Eid, Pongol, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, the Solstice or any other.
From our house to your house, for a bright 2012.
1. “The Wexford Carol” from “Songs of Joy & Peace, Yo Yo Ma & Friends,” Alison Krauss, vocals. Spare and radiant.
2. “Merry Christmas Baby,” title track from “Charles Brown and Friends.” Bluesy and swinging; a perfect accompaniment to a warm cuppa cheer.
3. “Run Rudolph Run,” Keith Richards. We know him as one half of the Glimmer Twins (Mick Jagger being the other), but what we didn’t know, until he released his highly readable “Life” last year, is that as a child growing up in Kent, England, he wanted to be a librarian, saying that “The library was the only place around where I willingly obeyed the rules.” Rocking and rollicking good fun, both this cover and the book between the covers.
4. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” from Bill Evans’ “Trio 64.” (Evans, piano, Paul Motian–sadly he passed away Nov. 22, 2011, drums–and Gary Peacock, bass). A Dec. 18, 1963 session was likely the reason for this seasonal classic. Hardly album filler, it’s a classic example of post-bop.
5. “Christmas Time is Here” from Shawn Colvin’s “Holiday Songs and Lullabies.” The Vince Guaraldi classic by one of my very favorite singers.
6. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from She and Him’s (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s) “A Very She & Him Christmas.” This year’s nominee for re-imagined standards, cue “zone out” on your iPod (or whatever device you have ) and chill after a long day of doing whatever it is you do to make the season bright. Zooey’s singing voice is as deadpan sardonic as many of her best film performances (“The Good Girl,” “All the Young Girls,” both terrific and underrated films). She also duets with and marries Buddy the Elf.
7. “Greensleeves” by Mason Williams. The composer of “Classical Gas” (which he quotes in the middle of this piece and which I used as the soundtrack for a Super 8 film montage I made in high school), he was also a comedy writer for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and introduced Steve Martin to the world. He was also the brains behind the Pat Paulsen for president candidacy in the turbulent election year of 1968. In the midst of assassinations, Chicago and Viet Nam, there was Pat Paulsen deadpanning for president and leaving all to wonder–was he or wasn’t he?
8. “Baloo, Lammy (Hush My little Lamb),” from “Song of Solstice,” featuring Sue Richards with the Jennifer Cutting Ocean Orchestra. A shout out to a former colleague of mine at the Library of Congress. Jennifer Cutting, one of the finest musicians I know. A winter solstice album for anyone who loves Celtic, Renaissance, classical and pop music.
9. “Dadme Albricias” from “Navidad Renacentista” by Capella De Minitrers/Carles Magraner. A sumptuous recording by the early music group formed in 1987 in Valencia, Spain. Dedicated to celebrating Valencian musical culture.
10. “Go Where I Send Thee” from “The Weavers’ (Lee Hays, Pete Seegar, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert) at Carnegie Hall.” The gold standard for the folk music revival of the 1950’s and 60’s. Begun in 1948 out of the disbanded Almanac Singers (Seegar and Hellerman), the Weavers personified the unification of folk music and political activism. The concert in New York City on Christmas Eve 1955 was the group’s sold-out triumphal return to the stage and a comeback of sorts for one of the few musical entities blacklisted during the McCarthy hearings. Seegar’s “release” from television’s blacklist didn’t end however until the late 60s when he appeared on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1968 (see number 7 above).
11. “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow,” performed by the St. Olaf Choir on “Songs from My Heart: Choral Music of André Thomas.” Gorgeous.
12. “All I Want for Christmas is You,” from Mariah Carey’s “Merry Christmas II You.” Sans the Bieber (thankfully), the tune gets the Carey treatment: plenty o’ sass and spunk.
13. “Mr. Santa,” from Suzy Boggus’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” A holiday version of the popular hit “Mr. Sandman,” penned by Pat Ballard, first recorded by the Chordettes (whose other big hit was “Lollipop”) in 1954. Youngsters out there will recall the cover of “Mr. Sandman” by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt from “Trio.”
14. “Sleigh Ride” by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. For the tuxedo clad Dino/Sammy/Frank-o-philes out there. Silly and fun.
15. “Winter Wonderland” from Rockapella’s “Christmas.” Bop shoo op.
16. “The Christmas Song” from the New York Latin Jazz Allstars off “Feliz Navidad.” Roasting hot.
17. “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” Patti LaBelle, “Christmas at Miss Patti’s.” Wistful and nuanced.
18. “Oublions l’an passé (Let’s Forget the Old Year),” the Washington Revels featuring Riki Schneyer, from “Le Temps des Fetes.” Spirited delivery of a traditional French Canadian tune authentically presented by the Washington Revels, under the musical direction of Elizabeth F. Miller. The Revels are dedicated to reviving and celebrating cultural traditions from across the glove through music, dance, storytelling, drama and ritual.
19. “Peace” by Norah Jones on “A Very Special Acoustic Christmas.” Nice. Really, really nice…
20. “Star of Wonder,” by the Roches on “We Three Kings.” Shimmering harmony from a trio of quirky sibs.
21. “Carol.” Chuck Berry. If the song title fits, include it.
22. “What’s So Funny ’bout Peace Love and Understanding.” Elvis Costello sings Nick Lowe on “Armed Forces.” Nothing. Nothing at all.