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We had asked readers to submit their favorite Christmas music, but the response was underwhelming, so I will inflict my own musical tastes upon you.
While working at another newspaper, a colleague wrote a column about Christmas music for every mood. While I have a great deal of respect for that former colleague, I may never forgive him for exposing my virgin ears and eyes – to the disbelief of my female colleagues in the office – to Wham’s! godawful “Last Christmas.”
Before the aforementioned female colleagues forced me to watch the ridiculous Wham! video of that song, I had never heard of it. The only way to expunge its insipid '80sness from my mind was to consider my own favorite Christmas music.
The Staples Singers, The Twenty-Fifth Day of December: This is a Christmas record I can listen to year-round and remains at the top of my playlist. Pops Staples and his children pay tribute to the season with their beautiful bluesy/gospel style in this 1962 release. Pops’ guitar is haunting throughout, and 23-year-old Mavis was already a powerful lead singer. Stately and full of grace, this record is guaranteed to put you in the spirit.
I fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite when I wandered into a building in downtown Minneapolis one day during a lunch break and heard members of the Minneapolis Symphony performing the 20-minute suite for the lunchtime crowd. Everyone knows the eight tunes Tchaikovsky selected to form the suite for concert performance, but I think few know the entire ballet. I have a sparkling two-record set of The Nutcracker Ballet by the USSR Symphony Orchestra under conductor Evgeny Svetlanov, a “Hero of Socialist Labour,” according to the liner notes, that makes for a great afternoon or evening of listening.
The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is a classic recorded for the 1965 TV special. I always pull that album out for the holidays, but I also enjoy the slightly spacey version of “Christmas Time Is Here” by the Texas trio Khruangbin, which was released as both a red and green vinyl 45.
I enjoy Greg Lake’s take on the season in Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1977 single “I Believe In Father Christmas”: “They said there’ll be snow at Christmas They said there’ll be peace on earth But instead it just kept on raining…”
When the commercialism gets me down, a surefire cure is to spin Christmas With the Ghostly Trio, a fractured take on traditional Xmas music by a trio of Milwaukeeans. This 1987 cult classic was produced by Violent Femmes’ drummer Victor DeLorenzo.
For sheer rock beauty, The Who’s “Christmas” from Tommy (1969) is a real pick-me-up. “Did you ever see the faces of children They get so excited Waking up in Christmas morning Hours before the winter sun’s ignited. They believe in dreams and all they mean Including heaven’s generosity.”
It ain’t Christmas without funk. That means James Brown’s A Soulful Christmas. In the funky title tune, Mr. Brown just wants his fans to know that he loves them because they come to his shows. The album includes “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” and the classic “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud, Pts. 1 & 2.”
Here’s another anti-commercialism message, courtesy of Miles Davis and vocalist Bob Dorough of Schoolhouse Rock fame, “Blue Christmas (To Whom It May Concern),” from Columbia’s 1962 Jingle Bell Jazz album. “Merry Christmas I hope you have a white one, but for me, it’s blue Blue Christmas, that’s the way you see it when you’re feeling blue Blue Christmas, when you’re blue at Christmastime you see right through, All the waste, all the sham, all the haste and plain old bad taste…”
A classic from 1968, The New Possibility, John Fahey’s Guitar Solo Christmas Album. Fahey turns “Joy to the World,” “The First Noel” and a dozen other classics into new acoustic steel-string possibilities. I have the original release of the album with Fahey’s scholarly take on the Christmas story. The record has been in print ever since its release, but subsequent printings do not include Fahey’s original liner notes.
The Stash Christmas Album, features 16 blues and jazz songs for the holidays, including Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Merry Christmas”), Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (“Christmas Night in Harlem”), Fats Waller (“Swingin’ Them Jingle Bells”), Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald and it goes out with a string of tunes from the great Louis Armstrong (“Cool Yule,” “Zat You, Santa Claus?” “Christmas In New Orleans” and a truly original rendition of “The Night Before Christmas”).
There. Not a Wham! in sight.