Wednesday, December 05, 2012

My Christmas Mixtape - Side A: The Rock Songs


 1. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band - Santa Claus Is Coming to Town  "It's all cold down along the beach, wind whippin' down the boardwalk..." In the mid-seventies, Columbia Records sent out this live recording to radio stations. They did not put it on record until many years later. At the time the only way to get this, if you were a Bruce fan, was to record it off the radio. Which is exactly how this song ended up opening the rock side of my old Christmas mixtape. Now it can be found on numerous Christmas collection CDs. Bruce is not doing the traditional tune here, this is a cover of the Phil Spector version as done by The Crystals. As you can tell by listening to it, this recording captured Bruce and band at their absolute best.

2. Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song  Considered by many (including me) to be the greatest Christmas song ever recorded, this song was written by Mel Torme and Bob Wells in 1944. I consider Nat King Cole to have possessed the best male singing voice I've ever heard. Here he is graced with the perfect arrangement for a small jazz band with strings. I can only imagine what it would have been like to be in the recording studio when this was cut. I've enjoyed this song ever since hearing it on that Capitol Christmas album we listened to as kids.

3. Mindy Smith - My Holiday  In 2007, Mindy Smith released her third and best album, My Holiday. This record contained about half familiar Christmas songs and the rest were all new songs written by Mindy. The familiar songs are good but what really makes this album great is the quality of the original songs. The songwriting is exceptional and the whole recording has great vocals, instrumental performances, and production. This is my favorite Christmas album of the past twenty years. The songs from this album routinely show up on the most listened to section of my iTunes and since I only listen for one month each year, that should tell you something. 

Listen to Mindy Smith - "My Holiday"
     

4. Chris Rea - Driving Home for Christmas  Chris Rea has had an excellent career in Britain and Europe which is now in its fourth decade. He had a minor hit in the US with a track from his first album, but some mishandling by his American label lead to his inclination not to pursue a career here. The closest his tours ever brought him was Montreal; my brother and I drove ten hours each way just to see him in concert (it was well worth it). In 1988, "Driving Home for Christmas" was the title track of his Christmas EP, released in the UK. It has great British vernacular like "top to toe in tailbacks" which means bumper to bumper traffic. 
      
5. The Whispers - Merry Christmas Darling  "Another Christmas on the road..." This Carpenters classic has not had many cover versions, in fact it is the only one I know of and it works so well in a soul version that I had to include it even though you will hear the original later in this mix. This comes from an album called 'Tis the Season which was released in 1997. It featured a who's who of contemporary soul/jazz artists and even though each track had a different artist, the excellent production by George Duke, Russ Freeman, and Maurice White made the album sound cohesive and it is a true delight from start to finish.         

6. Donny Hathaway - This Christmas  Donny Hathaway was a gifted singer, songwriter, and musician whose musical creativity was cut short in it's prime by his tragic death in 1979 when he was but thirty-three years old. Those who know and love his music use the term genius without hesitation. He co-wrote "This Christmas" and released it as a single on Atco Records in 1970, the same year he released his first single ("In the Ghetto") prior to his debut album. "This Christmas" has become a modern standard, with countless cover versions, spanning most musical genres.    

7. Ray Charles - Winter Wonderland  Another artist who was and is no stranger to the term genius is Ray Charles. This track comes from his 1985 album, The Spirit of Christmas. The Raelettes sing backup.  

8. Keb Mo - We Call It Christmas  Keb Mo cut this warm slice of good holiday  feelings for the Columbia Records' 2003 label compilation, Christmas Calling. 
   
Listen to "We Call It Christmas"  
    

9. John & Yoko & The Plastic Ono Band With The Harlem Community Choir - Happy Christmas  "And so this is Christmas..." This has been a perennial Christmas classic ever since it was first released in 1971. I remember getting a festive green vinyl single when it first came out. Now you can find this on many various artist Christmas CD collections.      

10. Sting - Gabriel's Message  Sting contributed this track in 1989 for inclusion in the first A Very Special Christmas album, released to benefit the Special Olympics.  

11. Alison Moyet - The Coventry Carol  This beautiful song was also included in the first A Very Special Christmas album.  

12. The Pretenders - 2000 Miles  Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders released this Christmas single in 1982.  

13. Greg Lake - I Believe in Father Christmas  They said there'd be snow at Christmas..." Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, released this ode to innocence at Christmas back in 1975. Lake, who was never one for understatement, pulled out all the stops for this one including a signature riff by Prokofiev, full orchestra and choir. Over the next several years there were at least three different versions of this song recorded by ELP all with stripped down arrangements. Lake even did a revised version at one point. The version here is the original Greg Lake single with all the orchestral and choral bombast intact. I love this record.      

14. Tracy Thorn - Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Tracy Thorn was the appealing voice of British alt-pop/jazz-meisters Everything But the Girl, a duo that consisted of Tracy and partner Ben Watt.  In 2000 they put the group on hold to concentrate on raising a family. Eventually Ben became a very much in demand club DJ in London and started a record label, while Tracy embarked on a solo career making three exquisite singer-songwriter albums. Her Christmas album, Tinsel and Lights was the first happy surprise of the 2012 season, containing mostly originals. This old favorite has an intimate arrangement of primarily piano and that gorgeous voice.      

Listen to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"
   

15. Paul McCartney - The Christmas Song  In 2012 Paul finally did an album of standards, playing with a dream team of players including Joe Walsh and Diana Krall. Most songs got small jazz band arrangements which you can hear on this go at the old Mel Torme chestnut and which sounded so good, the listener was left to wonder why he didn't do this years ago. Paul's version was released as part of Starbucks' 2012 collection, Holidays Rule.      

16. David Bowie & Bing Crosby - Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth   This delightful duet comes from a 1977 TV special called Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas. Initially released on record only in England, I have an import 12" vinyl single that has the complete long version that includes the dialogue introduction from the show. The song minus the dialogue is now fairly common on American CD Christmas collections. For this mix we had to go with the long version. Bowie reportedly hated "Little Drummer Boy" so the producers had "Peace on Earth" written specifically for the show. Sadly, Bing Crosby died shortly after recording this show.       

17. Chrissi Poland - I'll Think of You On Christmas Back in 2006, a good four years before her wonderful debut album/EP, Chrissi Poland released a Christmas single on iTunes (where it's still available). It's a nice piece of pure pop that will surely bring a smile to your face. I have the Mariah Carey Christmas album and there's nothing on it any better than "I'll Think of You On Christmas".      

Listen to "I'll Think of You On Christmas"
   

18. Elton John - Step Into Christmas Elton John got into the swing of Christmas with this peppy party single released in 1973. Like most Elton John songs, Elton wrote the music and Bernie Taupin wrote the words. This was on the rock side of my old mixtape.    

19. Paul McCartney - Wonderful Christmastime  Another party song, this time from Paul McCartney, who recorded this all by himself and released it as a single in 1979.  

20. The Kinks - Father Christmas The Kinks released "Father Christmas" as a single in 1977 and it has become a perennial favorite of rock radio. It's about a gang of kids beating up a department store Santa (Father Christmas in England).  
   
21. Larry Saklad (Alan Mann Band) - Christmas On the Block  Alan Mann was a local musician in Philadelphia who developed a following in the 1980s. In 1986 he released this poignant Christmas song as a local single. Larry tells the story behind the song on his website. "… Alan Mann was late getting home to his girlfriend, and somewhere in West Phila-Overbrook, had a vision of the wonderful lights decorating a School For The Blind, feeling both the irony and magic of how that must be for those students, that “their’s is the most beautiful Christmas On The Block”, and had the whole song written by the time he arrived." 

He did make a video which got some play on MTV. Mann was tragically killed in 1987. His keyboard player Larry Saklad has kept the spirit of this song alive over the years and this year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the original, he recorded a new version minus the kid chorus. The original was also part of my old mixtape.  

22. Jim Croce - It Doesn't Have To Be That Way Jim Croce wrote and recorded this catchy Christmas tune which was released in 1973 both as a single and on the album Life and Times. Jim left us way too soon that same year in the crash of a small plane. He was only 30 years old.  

23. Chris Squire & Alan White - Run With The Fox  Starting in the late seventies, all of the members of Yes made solo albums; none of them were as good as a Yes album, but the best of the bunch was easily Chris Squire's Fish Out of Water album (1975). Chris Squire & Alan White wrote and recorded this track and released it as a single in 1981.   

24. Jethro Tull - Ring Out Solstice Bells  Far less pompous than Jethro Tull's first "Christmas Song" ("Christmas spirit is not what you drink," 1972), this is actually a feel-good Christmas tune from Ian Anderson and the lads. "Ring Out Solstice Bells" comes from Tull's 1977 album, Songs From the Wood.

25. Rotary Connection - Peace At Least  "Peace At Least" comes from Rotary Connection's Christmas album, Peace (1968). I could tell you all about it, but I found a great piece on the blog Less But Better by Ben Malbon. Ben writes: ""Peace at Least" is an extraordinary, uplifting and just plain funny Christmas track. It's one of thirteen tracks on the Christmas concept LP 'Peace', by Rotary Connection, the psychedelic soul band formed in Chicago in 1966, with the dazzling Minnie Riperton at the centre. I could wax on until next Christmas as to why Rotary Connection are one of the best bands of all time, about how unearthly Minnie Riperton's five octave vocal range was, how flawlessly tight and complete Charles Stepney's arrangements were, and how they influenced everyone from Earth, Wind & Fire to The Orb to hip hop. But I'll stick to "Peace at Least" for now.  

'Peace' was released at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968. This is tangible throughout the LP (never more than on "Christmas Love"), but you sense it clearly on "Peace at Least". It mixes classic Rotary Connection big band sounds and swirling arrangements, with a story about Santa smoking 'mistletoe'. "Peace at Least" (often mistakenly labeled as "Peace at Last") is unrestrained and full of mischief, but I also think it captures the idealism and love that was bubbling through parts of American culture in the late-60s as many Americans struggled to come to terms with what was happening in South East Asia.   

The LP was hugely controversial at the time, with many record stores refusing to stock it. And in fact the cover art became the basis for a famous issue of Billboard magazine in which a bloodied Santa was superimposed upon a Vietnam battlefield. It's one of those LPs that works sensationally well as an LP listened to in its entirety, capturing the spirit of a very different America of 40 years ago."

Listen to "Peace At Least"
 

26. Norah Jones - Peace This is not really  a Christmas song, but it has been included in so many Christmas collections that it's become a Christmas song in the same way that Peace cards work as Christmas cards. Plus, it works really well after "Peace At Least", so we are happily on the bandwagon. This track originated as a demo that was included on a six track EP, First Sessions, released in 1991 prior to her first album. It was a limited release of approximately 10,000 copies which were available on Jones' website and at live shows.

27. Sara Gazarek & Jane Monheit - Come Spend Christmas With Me  "Come Spend Christmas With Me" is new for 2012. The combination of these two amazing talents is truly special. From Sara's website: Once in a while all the stars align to make something beautiful and meaningful possible. This holiday season they have done just that by bringing internationally acclaimed vocalists Jane Monheit and Sara Gazarek together in duo to sing a new Christmas song, Come Spend Christmas With Me. With its playful lyrics and memorable melody, it’s sure to become a holiday favorite. Both Jane and Sara are passionate supporters of animal rights. What better way to help than to do what they both do best – sing – and donate all the proceeds to the ASPCA. Come Spend Christmas With Me was composed by Larry Goldings (music) and Cliff Goldmacher (lyrics). As you can tell from the lyrics, two friends on opposite coasts are trying to get each other to visit for the holidays by telling what each coast has to offer:   

28. Willie Nelson - Pretty Paper  Willie Nelson wrote this song in 1963 when it was recorded and became a hit for Roy Orbison. Willie recorded his own version as the title track for his Christmas album released in 1979. A classic.    

29. The Waitresses - Christmas Wrapping  This great record has been a perennial favorite for many people ever since it first appeared in 1981 on The Waitresses album A Christmas Record. "Christmas Wrapping" still gets to me after all these years. This was also on my old my old mixtape.    

Listen to "Christmas Wrapping"
   

30. Livingston Taylor - My Perfect Christmas Day  This happy pop tune is from Livingston's 2006 album, There You Are Again .   

31. Lou Ann Barton - Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree  "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" was Lou Ann Barton's contribution to the excellent 1983 collection, An Austin Rhythm & Blues Christmas. This version has all the energy and spirit of the 1958 Brenda Lee original.  

32. Elvis Presley - Blue Christmas  I decided that "Blue Christmas" needed to be on here, so I went to the iTunes library and checked out 20 other versions. Although many of them were great, the test was, is this version better than Elvis, and none of them were. Elvis' take on "Blue Christmas" is from his 1957 LP, Elvis' Christmas Album.  

33. Bonnie Raitt & Charles Brown - Merry Christmas, Baby  "Merry Christmas Baby" is an R&B Christmas standard written by Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore. It has been covered by many artists including Otis Redding, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley, to name a few. This version, recorded by Bonnie Raitt and Charles Brown, is included on A Very Special Christmas 2, released in 1992.  

34. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals - Please Come Home for Christmas  "Please Come Home for Christmas" was first released by Charles Brown, (who co-wrote it) in 1960. There have been so many covers, it's become a very bluesy Christmas standard. The Eagles had a hit with their cover in 1982. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals did a very tasty version, which they released as an internet single in 2011.   

Listen to "Please Come Home for Christmas"
   

35. Mick Jagger & Joss Stone - Lonely Without You (This Christmas)  Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart collaborated, with vocal contributions from Joss Stone, on the soundtrack of the 2004 film remake of Alfie, predating by a good seven years, their association in SuperHeavy. "Lonely Without You (This Christmas)" comes from that soundtrack and works well in this bluesy section of the mix.  

36. Darlene Love - Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)  "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is a Christmas holiday song originally sung by Darlene Love and included on the 1963 Christmas compilation album, A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records. The song was written by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry along with Phil Spector, with the intentions of being sung by Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes. According to Darlene Love, Ronnie Spector was not able to put as much emotion into the song as needed. Instead, Love was brought into the studio to record the song which became a big success over time and one of Darlene Love's signature tunes. (Wikipedia).  

37. Clarence Clemons - The Christmas Song  Even though there are already two versions of "The Christmas Song" on the mix, Clarence's soulful sax version sounded so good right about here that I had to include it. After his death in 2011, this 1981 recording (along with a vocal track, "There's Still Christmas") was found and released as an internet single. I love it when people are passionate about their music. Lisa A., wrote the following Amazon review:  "What a wonderful gift this is for fans of Clarence "The Big Man" Clemons especially after our heartbreak when he passed away this year. As I listen to these beautiful songs, my tears are flowing and it's still hard to believe he's gone. Wherever he may be, I'm sure he has his sax with him and he's playing his heart out like he always did. Thank you Clarence for all the wonderful music and times you shared with all of us!"  

38. Billy Mack - Christmas is All Around  Which brings us to the Love Actually portion of our program. Love Actually is the 2004 romantic comedy, directed by Richard Curtis that has become my favorite modern Christmas movie. Curtis always uses a lot of music in his movies; he uses it well and he has great taste. Most of the music in Love Actually is not Christmas music, but in the opening scene, singer Bily Mack (Bill Nighy) is making no secret of his distaste for the recording session that is crassly turning the Troggs' "Love is All Around" into a Christmas song,   

39. Olivia Olson - All I Want for Christmas is You  The penultimate scene in Love Actually takes place at the big finale for their school's Christmas pageant, Christmas Eve and several plot threads intersect during the performance of "All I want for Christmas is You", sung by Joanna (actress Olivia Olson, eleven years old at the time). Of all the recorded versions of "All I want for Christmas is You", I like this one the best.  

40. Leon Redbone - Christmas Island  No one takes you back to the forties like Leon Redbone who seems to have time traveled here. "Christmas Island" is the title track of his Christmas album, released in 1987. This Hawaiian Christmas song has been recorded by many, but it originated in the 1940's with the Andrews Sisters backed by Guy Lombardo and his orchestra. Redbone's version sounds at least that old, and his warm baritone sounds great for late nights at Christmastime.    

Listen to "Christmas Island"  
   

41. Joe Williams - What Are You Doing New Year's Eve  There's something about the union of Christmas music and jazz that really works. Longtime jazz singer Joe Williams recorded That Holiday Feeling in 1990. His smooth voice, combines with perfect jazz ensemble arrangements to create the ultimate late night Christmas album. In fact, every year after everyone in the house went to bed on Christmas Eve, I would put this album on while arranging the presents under the tree. There are loads of versions of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve", but I never heard any that I like better than this.    

42. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison - Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas   I originally had a different version of this song at this position in the mix. Hamish Stuart actually made a lovely Christmas EP but his take on this song was a little too straightforward to follow Joe Williams. I needed something a little bit jazzier. So I sampled all of the versions in my iTunes library (49 of them), and I found this jazzy version that fit perfectly between the Joe Williams and the Carpenters tracks, from a most unlikely source. Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison are two country singer-songwriters who, it just so happens, are married to each other. I've followed Kelly's career for some time now, and if you don't know her, you may have heard of her sister, Shelby Lynne.    

Listen to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"
   

43. The Carpenters - Merry Christmas Darling  "Greeting cards have all been sent..." After Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song", this is my next favorite Christmas record. Many consider The Carpenters to be lightweights or a guilty pleasure, or both. I like The Carpenters (and I don't feel the slightest bit guilty about it) primarily because I can't get enough of Karen's voice which was a magic, one of a kind gift. To my ears, her voice was sort of a female counterpart to Nat King Cole. We can only guess what she might have done with her career, had her life not been tragically cut short due to complications of anorexia. As for them being lightweights, sure they had a lot of top forty hits, and they are known for covering some of the best American songwriters, but this song is a Carpenters original, written by Richard Carpenter and Frank Pooler. It was an immediate hit when it was first released as a single in 1970 and it's retained its popularity over the years. This is another one that gets to me every time. 

 Listen to The Carpenters - "Merry Christmas Darling"  

44. Mindy Smith - It Really Is (A Wonderful Life)  The original songs that Mindy Smith wrote for her Christmas album are just so good that I couldn't resist including one more. The joy in this song is reflected in the slightly jazzy arrangement, and the feeling is hard to resist, just go with it.  

45. Bobby Darin - Christmas Auld Lang Syne  Bobby Darin released "Christmas Auld Lang Syne" as a single from the album, The 25th Day of December, both 1960.  

46. Dan Fogelberg - Same Old Lang Syne "Same Old Lang Syne" was released as a single in 1980. It was also included on the 1981 album The Innocent Age. According to Dan Fogelberg, the song is autobiographical and happened pretty much as described in the song. Just because it's Christmas, I'm going to drop the cool track description and say that I just love this song. I don't care if his hits were sappy, the man had a gift for songwriting and performance, he died way too young, and I miss him.  

47. Dougie MacLean - Auld Lang Syne  Dougie MacLean performed about the best version of "Auld Lang Syne" I've ever heard. "Auld Lang Syne" was written by Scottish bard Robert Burns and this track comes from Dougie's 2005 album, Tribute, which, according to his website, is a "unique and sensitive cover version of 200 year old songs and tunes written by Robert Burns, Robert Tannahill and Niel Gow."    

Jump to:  Side B: The Funny Songs  
Jump to:  My Christmas Mixtape: Expanded and Reconfigured for 2012

 











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