► Making Spirits Bright. I’m a sucker for Christmas songs. And I love the classics– traditional hymns, songs from black-and-white holiday movies, and the jazzy Vince Guaraldi holiday tunes (you know, the soundtracks to the Snoopy specials).
In my book, you cannot get any better than a crooner Christmas, with a jaunty bass line and tinkling silver bells and the smooth vocal stylings of Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby (my favorite) and even Harry Connick, Jr.
That said, this playlist goes the other direction. It highlights some of Christmas music’s unusual suspects, songs that may not have you breaking out the tap shoes and top hat but that just might have you rocking around the Christmas tree.
► In order of personal preference:
8 • Christmas All Over Again • Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers ► Tom Petty is a man for all seasons. Including Christmas. And a lot of Christmas movie soundtracks.
7 • Blue Christmas • The Lumineers ► This take is a modern, spare, kind of hip and haunting acoustic rendition that still hearkens to the lonesome, howling quality of the Elvis Presley version of this song I so love.
6 • Santa Claus is Back in Town • Kenny Chesney ► Let’s be honest: This song has the same exact tune as “Merry Christmas, Baby” (see #2). That’s blues, baby. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
5 • Please Come Home for Christmas • Jon Bon Jovi ► If not for Christmas, then by New Year’s night. Bon Jovi nails this tune, but for a different vibe, check out the Phil Spector recording as sung by Darlene Love.
4 • Baby, It’s Cold Outside • Seth MacFarlene and Sara Bareilles ► So many people have covered this song, and honestly I pretty much like them all, even the snippet of the song featured in the movie Elf as performed by Zooey Deschanel and Will Farrell. For an interesting vocal pairing, listen to the version by Rod Stewart and Dolly Parton, but for a bit of a role reversal, listen to the recording by Olivia Newton John and John Travolta (yes, of Grease).
3 • Cool Yule • Louis Armstrong ► Ok, so this pick borders on the classic crooner Christmas I said I would stay away from, but it is a pretty non-traditional song. And so very cool.
2 • Merry Christmas, Baby • Elvis Presley ► Elvis can’t help but to have a blue Christmas, no matter what the song title. This song simply adds Christmas lyrics to a standard blues arrangement and then slows down the tempo. But it works. And I love it.
1 • Run, Rudolph, Run • Cast of Million Dollar Quartet ► Sometimes called “Run, Run Rudolph,” this is a rockabilly Christmas song of the finest order. Even if it’s not the real Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, or Elvis Presley. Don’t miss the “Hurry up, y’all” in the middle of the song–that little ad-lib really brings it on home for me.
Apparently I am not the only one who digs this song: It has been covered by everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Kelly Clarkson, including Jimmy Buffet, Sheryl Crow, Los Lonely Boys, Luke Bryan, Bryan Adams, Billy Ray Cyrus, and even Hanson. Personally, my other favorite versions are by Sara Evans and Chuck Berry, whose original recording first popularized this song. ■
► Bonus Tracks [that keep the Christ in Christmas] »
» Born in Bethlehem • Third Day ► This tune does a bit of time-traveling. One of my favorite non-traditional Christ-centered Christmas songs, this song addresses the baby Jesus directly but fast-forwards to the future sacrifice the “humble Savior” would someday make, asking the baby if he knows what’s coming and assuring the baby of his ultimate victory. This song presents the saving grace of Jesus was not just as his birth but also as His death and resurrection.
» I Wonder as I Wonder • Julie Andrews ► This Southern Christmas carol epitomizes the Appalachian folk song: austere in melody and meaning, with no clear origin to speak of, surviving across time through oral tradition.
* This first example is an instrumental duet on the hammered dulcimer and the guitar, traditional Appalachian musical instruments, as performed by Steve and Ruth Smith, “a duo from Western North Carolina near Boone who play a blend of Celtic Appalachian traditional and original music.”
* This next example by the incomparable Julie Andrews pulls together the power of vocal dynamics and the beauty of the spare yet complex musical arrangement of this piece.
The video is really just a visual mode for the audio recording, more for listening than watching.
unless otherwise noted * graphics, photographs, text © 2016 hilary hall
► In the queue » Songs of the Night (for New Year’s Eve) •