In Ten Tracks: Christmas Songs

Ten songs of the season that can always put me in the mood for Christmas

In 10 Tracks: Christmas Edition full playlist

Trim Up the Tree/How the Grinch Stole Christmas  Written for the 1966 animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ famous Christmas story by Seuss and Albert Hague. Hague went on to play the music teacher in the TV series adaptation of ‘Fame’ as well as the movie version, and he also wrote a couple of standards, most notably ‘Young and Foolish.’ This cheerful song is sung by the Whos as they decorate their homes and village for Christmas: ‘Trim every blessed needle on the blessed Christmas tree/Christmas comes tomorrow/Trim you, trim me!” It’s the only song not co-opted for the dismal live-action film version of The Grinch. Probably a mistake. This is one of those songs that can put me in a Christmas mood instantly, no matter what else may be happening.

Nutrocker/Emerson Lake & Palmer  This boogie rock track was originally recorded by a group of session musicians at Rendezvous Records and produced by Kim Fowley in 1962. It later became a live staple for Emerson Lake & Palmer and their version was released as a single in 1971 as well as being featured on the group’s live album Pictures at an Exhibition. In both versions, the song was arranged as a feature for the pianist, with Keith Emerson going full-tilt boogie-woogie. I’ve always loved the energy of this number and it shows a side of ELP that puts them in a different light than a lot of their prog-rock comrades

Christmas Island/The Dinning Sisters w/Bob Atcher  This song was written by Lyle Moraine and originally recorded by The Andrews Sisters with Guy Lombardo in 1946. Its timing corresponds with post-WWII interest in exotica and the music of Hawaii and other Pacific Islands, and I love it for bringing that flavor to my Christmas playlists. It’s been resurrected and recorded by a ton of artists since around 1990, including Kristin Chenoweth, Leon Redbone, and Bob Dylan. It’s this version that I’ve always loved since it was included on the Capitol Records Christmas CD Merry Christmas, Baby: Romance and Reindeer from Capitol. It is without question hands down my favorite Xmas collection. If I could have only one Xmas CD that would be it. That’s right, it would beat out the Phil Spector Xmas album which, for me is amazing,

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree/Brenda Lee  Johnny Marks was like the Burt Bacharach or Linda Perry of Christmas. Although he was Jewish, Marks specialized in writing Christmas songs, and he was incredibly successful at it. He wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” which produced a hit for Gene Autry, “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Silver and Gold” for Burl Ives, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” for Bing Crosby, and “Run Rudolph Run” for Chuck Berry. But for my money, Marks’ best song is the rockabilly number “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” which became a signature tune for Brenda Lee. A lot of folks seem to agree, with the song clocking in at 4th in a list of downloaded Christmas songs in 2008. Country pianist Floyd Cramer is in the band and that strolling sax solo is by Boots Randolph (of ‘Yakety Sax’ fame). And Brenda gives her thirteen-year-old all, hiccuping through lines like “Later we’ll have some pumpkin pie/and do some caroling.’

Ain’t Nothing Like Christmas/Shelby Lynne  This feels like the only song that can follow Brenda Lee. Same rockin’ country groove with a lyric about the joys of the season tinged with a little naughtiness. Lynne and her beau get busy behind the tree with the presents while the family is gathered in the kitchen watching it snow. I can imagine Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty duetting it up on this one: “I’ll bring the nog/you put on the log/it’s a Christmas party.”

Sleigh Ride/The Ronettes  It doesn’t matter how many times this comes on during a holiday season, I’m always going to be pulled in by the smart phrasing and the intimacy of Ronnie Spector’s delivery. Besides her timing, it’s the way that she always is singing just to you and you alone. The arrangement is the standard Sleigh Ride we’re all used to but the minute those drums kick in you know we’re going for the Cadillac of sleigh rides. Another element that makes this a fan favorite are the Ronettes’ backup vocals –“Ding a ling a ling a ding dong ding”. When the track ends, you’re not where you were three minutes ago. Merry Xmas.

Christmas Must Be Tonight/The Band  Robbie Robertson was never going to be able to resist the urge to write a Christmas song, and of course, it would not be a slick feel-good holiday tune. The song is a simple, dignified nativity retelling with a rootsy Americana arrangement that’s boosted by Rick Danko’s lonesome vocal and as always, the orchestral organ work of Garth Hudson. Included on Islands, the group’s much-maligned final, contractually obligated, album for Capitol Records. 

Christmastime Is Here/Vince Guaraldi  West Coast pianist Guaraldi composed and performed music for all of the original Peanuts animated specials, but none are more well known than his work on 1965’s Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown. Two versions of this gorgeous, meditative holiday song were recorded: one instrumental and one featuring lyrics by producer Lee Mendoza. Since then the song has been covered dozens of times and is featured in more movies and commercials than can probably be identified. A beautiful little respite from the craziness and chaos of the holiday season.

December Will Be Magic Again/Kate Bush  Kate recorded this song in 1979 and performed it live on an Xmas special, but it was not officially released as a single until the Christmas season of 1980. I bought the 7” single as a British import at Newberry Comics in Boston. Like so many of her songs, this one is all about the feels as the lyrics summon Bing Crosby and mistletoe before parachuting us out along the rooftops of London (like Mary Poppins) before dropping back to earth with the snow. Whew! Musically it’s all Kate’s warm piano and tinkly icicle light bells and soft-focus strings. And Kate’s elfin backup vocals in exquisite harmony and synchronization. Like a giant Christmas cookie that you can’t get enough of.

Christmas Wrapping/The Waitresses  There aren’t a ton of original Christmas songs by new wave bands, but the Waitresses really rose to the occasion here with the raucous tale of a woman who decides to spend the holiday home alone but meets a guy she’s been chasing after all year when she runs out for cranberries. “You mean you forgot cranberries too?” It would all be too cutesy except for Patty Donahue’s sarcastic vocal style, coming in somewhere between a truck stop waitress (appropriate) and sassy hat check girl. The song was written by the group’s leader Chris Butler and recorded by the band for 1981’s ZE Records sampler A Christmas Album. The album featured ZE artists (including Christina, August Darnell, Suicide) doing original Christmas songs. Love this song as a reminder of the time period (the early ’80s), the fact that we all sometimes want to be alone during the Christmas season…maybe…and a tip of the glass to Donahue, who passed away of lung cancer at the age of 40 in 1996. The song has been redone by Kylie Minogue and The Spice Girls. 

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