Music to bring some year-end cheer your way, courtesy Etienne Charles, Cassie Ramone, Nellie Mckay, Palma Violets, Count Basie Orchestra, Elouise, Rhonda Vincent, the Daptone Records crew and more! Ho-ho-ho to everyone out there in Blurt-land!
BY JASON GROSS
Despite the endless barrage of the same holiday music mercilessly piped through stores in endless loops, each year actually does add some nice little presents of new Xmas music otherwise. If you wanna get through the shopping season with a piece of your sanity intact, we’d like to recommend these aural pleasures as a fine way to do that. You can hear all that Spotify carries of these songs and albums here at our special holiday playlist.
In addition, we asked the artists themselves offer up their own list of holiday songs they love, which we offer up to you here as another Spotify playlist to enjoy with 37 songs and two hours of music.
Culture Shock Records: http://www.etiennecharles.com/
The title might seem to be a misnomer- it’s not Cajun or zydeco music here but it’s definitely flavored by the Spanish culture that fostered Creole music. The festivities especially shine with guests like the droll Calypso legend Lord Realtor and R&B singer/Broadway star Mykel Kilgore, who does a nice take on “This Christmas,” though no one can top Stevie’s version. Other highlights include interludes from Hanukah on the klezmer-styled “Juliana” and “Roses of Caracas Waltz,” the raucous bish-bash drums of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” a salsa take on “The Nutcracker Suite,” the Django Reinhardt-like guitars on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and the low-rent holiday party of “Christmas Is Yours, Christmas Is Mine.” Multi-cultural-ism at its best.
Holiday faves from Etienne Charles
- Lionel Belasco “Maysotis”
- Ray Charles & Betty Carter “Baby It’s Cold Outside”
- John Williams “Somewhere in My Memory” (from the Home Alone soundtrack)
- Nat King Cole “The Christmas Song
- Elvis Presley “Blue Christmas”
Count Basie Orchestra
A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas!
I know, I know… Mr. Basie left us back in 1984 (who can forget his cameo in Blazing Saddles?) and you think you’re too hip for old school jazz. But damn if these guys aren’t having a good time here and living up to the title. Everyone knows the songs already but from the blaring rows of horns on “Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland” and “Sleigh Ride” to the easy shuffle of “Let It Snow” to the sweet Johnny Mathis cameo (“It’s the Holiday Season”) to the moody bop-like “Silent Night” to the breezy “Good “Swing” Wenceslas” (get it?) to the jiving take on “Little Drummer Boy,” you have a holiday record that you could easily share and enjoy with your grandparents, if not your parents.
Holiday faves from CBO Director/trumpeter, Scotty Barnhart
- Nat King Cole “The Christmas Song”
- Donny Hathaway “This Christmas”
- The Temptations The Temptations Christmas Card
- Johnny Mathis Merry Christmas
- Duke Ellington “The Nutcracker Suite”
Admittedly, you have every right to be suspicious of any music that calls itself “Blackgrass”- a goth take on bluegrass- but the settings here are so graphic that they’re moving, pushing aside any question of kitsch. The haunted, halting strings swirl around Elouise Walker’s cracked, broken voice, making a holiday hymn into a drawn-out, pained work of anguished beauty which reshapes the song and brings back fond memories of Chapel Hill grim realists Trailer Bride. Not a carol anymore but emotional and stirring nevertheless. And wouldn’t you want to see a black-clad chorus reenacting this? Get your gloom at https://soundcloud.com/user-481899170/silent-night.
Holiday faves from Elouise Walker
- Slim Whitman “Star of the East”
- Sex Pistols “Nookie”
- Earl Scruggs “Jingle Bells”
- Tom Waits “Christmas Carol from a Hooker in Minneapolis” (studio version)
- Ukefink “Oh Death”
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis
Big Band Holidays
Blue Engine: http://www.jazz.org/blueengine/
Another jazzy take on the holiday but a touch more formalist, even if the Basie gang would really dig it too (not to mention that Wynton’s dad guests on the Basie record). After a blaring start on “Jingle Bells,” award winning singer Cécile McLorin Salvant does a gorgeous take on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” followed by an appropriately sound effect-laden (and sensuous) take on Satchmo’s “‘Zat You Santa Claus?,” singer/actor Gregory Porter’s lush, warm version of “A Cradle In Bethlehem,” a Coltrane-like modal take on “We Three Kings,” Salvant returning for a bluesy version of “What Child Is This?,” Porter tag-teaming back in for “Merry Christmas Baby” in blues mode again and Salvant returning in Holiday (as in Billie) mode for “It’s Easy To Blame the Weather” and then finishing off with the joyous Basie classic “Good Morning Blues.” You might wish that he’d spend more time stompin’ at the Savoy than in the ballroom but you gotta give it Wynton- he knows his history, knows how to pick a good cast and he can have a good time too while schooling you.
Holiday faves from Wynton Marsalis
- Ella Fitzgerald “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas “
- Louis Armstrong “Christmas Night in Harlem”
- Duke Ellington Orchestra “Peanut Brittle Brigade”
- Lambert, Hendricks & Ross “Deck Us All with Boston Charlie”
- John Coltrane “Greensleeves”
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
It’s A Holiday Soul Party
Sure it’s as retro as the Wynton and Basie records listed here but if you have a jones for Jones’ mid/late ’60’s revival, you’ll be full of holiday joy to learn that this is her best record in years. Armed with a great voice and a great band, it’s hard for her to go wrong and her wonderful bleeding heart politics are upfront with the self-penned opener about Hanukkah and another original, “Ain’t No Chimneys In the Project,” that the Godfather of Soul would appreciate. She even transforms some over-trodden classics: “White Christmas” is done via pre-comeback Tina Turner and “Silent Night” is done via the bluesy soul of Bobby Bland, “Little Drummer Boy” gets the funk, “Silver Bells” goes from gospel to Stax nicely and an instrumental take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” could have wandered out of an Al Green/Hi session. A holiday soul party indeed.
Holiday faves from Gabriel Roth- Dap-Kings producer/band leader
- Freddy King “Christmas Tears”
- Otis Redding and Carla Thomas :New Year’s Resolution”
- James Brown “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”
- Binky Griptite “Stoned Soul Christmas”
- Shaladas “Sha-la-da-la-la It’s Christmas”
“WEED (All I Want for Christmas)”
Courtesy of the always-surprising, fun-loving pop-cabaret chanteuse comes this sweet, light-hearted tribute to cannabis. Sharing the spotlight with Minneapolis scenester/R&B singer Maurice Jacox (who croons the verses) and set aloft by cheerful horns, McKay not only craves the chronic but takes on the ill-fated war on drugs in a rap/Jamaican-toast style (“40% of present penitentiaries/are on a pot-related charge”) on this delightful ditty which name-checks Willie Nelson, Jimmy Carter and Machiavelli. Also, the video is a hoot, with McKay dressed up as a giant pot leaf, funning around stores and playgrounds and making friends wherever she goes – watch it above, as the editor and I agree it is indeed a must-view, and it out-Mileys everyone’s favorite weed fan, Miley Cyrus. (Parents: Send the kids down to the basement first.)
Holiday faves from Nellie McKay
- Jimmy Durante “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”
- Elvis Presley “Blue Christmas”
- James Brown “Santa Claus Go Straight To the Ghetto”
- Vince Guaraldi “Christmastime Is Here”
- John Lennon/Yoko Ono “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”
“Last Christmas On Earth”
Rough Trade: http://www.roughtraderecords.com/
A weird little number from this English indie rock band, the regal pace and ethereal keyboards, strained, sad vocals and shouted sing-a-long chorus (“We can’t even cry/’Cause we just wanna get nowhere”) takes the title seriously- it’s not just a romantic goodbye but also an apocalyptic bye-bye with poor ol’ Rudolph being shot down and pleas to Santa and Jesus ignored. Yet even in its gloomy message, it’s somehow moving in its own way and desperate for compassion, making it an appropriate holiday song nevertheless.
Holiday faves from PV drummer Will Doyle
- Chuck Berry “Run Rudolph Run”
- Ramones “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)”
- Julian Casablancas “I Wish It Was Christmas Today”
- Bing Crosby and David Bowie “Little Drummer Boy”
- The Fall “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”
Christmas In Reno
Ramone’s a busy bee – in the last decade, she’s been a member of Bossy, Vivian Girls and the Babies. Now on her 2nd solo album, the NJ native makes the historic link between Spector Wall of Sound and shoegaze, which is only appropriate ’cause the later couldn’t have existed without the former, right? Unlike Uncle Phil though, she goes low-key, with gorgeous voices and echoed guitar and occasional percussion in a one-woman show. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” sounds like the girl group classic it’ll always be and the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick” is turned into an Animal Collective out-take (which is only fair) but Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” is transformed into dream-pop heaven and McCartney’s icky “Wonderful Christmastime” is transformed into enigmatic psychedelic folk, the Elvis classic “Blue Christmas” turns into a brief wall of guitar fuzz and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin Around the Xmas Tree” trounces the original’s melody and seems to almost question the holiday spirit. When she does get the spirit back on “Sleigh Ride,” she seems to casually and mysteriously slip in and out of tune and lets her guitar bury her voice on the Peanuts classic “Christmastime Is Here,” only going (relatively) straight on the closer, “The Christmas Song.” Altogether, a gorgeous, subversive little record.
Holiday faves from Cassie Ramone:
- Mariah Carey “All I Want for Christmas is You”
- The Carpenters “Merry Christmas Darling”
- Boston Pops Orchestra “Sleigh Ride”
- Wham! “Last Christmas”
- The Ramones “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)”
Yule Analog Vol. II
Very Special Recordings: http://superhifimusic.com/
Following up on last year’s wonderful novelty, if you can’t get enough of trombone-led dub versions of holiday classics, here’s where you can cash in. Silly as it sounds, it’s a hell of a lot of fun- catchy, spacey, adventurous without being too outré and it’s oh so unique. Bassist/bandleader Ezra Gale leads the troop through some new takes on old classics and some surprises- you might think you know “What Child Is This” but not with wild guitar solos and an even more cosmic take on “What Version Is This?” follows. Ditto the delicate but buoyant “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and the more interstellar “Dance of the Sugar Plum Versions” and a strident take on “O Come All Ye Faithful” later redone as in a drawn-out, heavily echoed style as “O Come All Ye Versions.” And just when you think you’ve heard it all, there’s the original, hilarious ska/calypso flavored “Please Santa Bring Me An Echoplex.” Languid joy even for those of you who don’t partake in the holy herb.
Holiday faves from Ezra Gale:
- Jimi Hendrix “Little Drummer Boy/Silent Night/Auld Lang Syne”
- Otis Redding “Merry Christmas Baby”
- Nat King Cole Trio “The Christmas Song”
- Kurtis Blow “Christmas Rappin’”
- The Cheetahs “A Message to Santa Claus”
Upper Management: http://www.uppermanagementmusic.com/
If you’re a country fan who’s been naughty (as in bad), maybe LeAnn Rimes, Claire Lynch or Jessie James Decker have the holiday music you deserve but if you’ve been nice (you have, right?), then give them this bluegrass star a try, now making a long overdue follow-up to her 2006 holiday record. Maybe it’s because she has a gorgeous voice that she doesn’t use to over-sing and go all diva or maybe it’s the simple, modest arrangements (including fiddle, mandolin, banjo, steel guitar) that do the trick. It also helps that Vincent throws in some good originals too: the yearning, sweet “Dreaming of Christmas,” the heart-broken “Christmas Time” and the adorable, Western Swing of “Milk & Cookies.” If that wasn’t enough, there’s a joyous, funny, star-packed version of “Twelve Days of Christmas” that would burst the Grand Ole Opry, including The Oak Ridge Boys, Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels, Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap, Larry Gatlin, Jeannie Seely and Pam Tillis and an extraordinary nine minute medley where she seamlessly weaves through six Xmas classics, backed only by piano. Let’s see any bro-country act top that.
Holiday faves from Rhonda Vincent:
- Emmylou Harris “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem”
- The Isaacs “It’s Christmastime Again”
- The Isaacs “Santa Claus Is Real”
- Ricky Skaggs & James Taylor “New Shining Star”
- George Strait “Christmas Cookies”
Leaving it to the blues to give us a more realistic take on late December than most of pop culture can deliver to us. This collection is much more varied than you think and despite being all over the place then, it’s also a lot more consistent than you’d expect, drawing mostly from more recent acts. Need some dirty, innuendo-filled blues? Try Popa Chubby’s stinging guitar on “Back Door Santa” and Stax legend Steve Cropper’s “Let’s Make Christmas Merry, Baby.” Downhome funk anyone? Try Larry McCray’s “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'” with its B.B.-like guitar. Downhome blues is covered here too with Kenny Neal’s take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” Need a wild stomp with echoed harmonica? Try James Montgomery Band’s version of “Deck The Halls.” There’s even a girl group/Chuck Berry mash-up (Annie Marie Lewis’ “O Come All Ye Faithful”), rockabilly meets R&B (Debbie Davies’ “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus”), slow-burning metal (Eric Gales’ “Little Drummer Boy”) and even an odd, enticing acoustic-then-electric instrumental (Leslie West’s “Silent Night”). A bizarre, botched take on John/Yoko’s “Merry Christmas (War Is Over)” is easily counted with a pair of old school classics- Charles Brown’s re-make of his own “Merry Christmas Baby” and the gorgeous minimalism of Lightnin’ Hopkins “Santa.” Proving once again, sometimes it’s fun to have the blues.
Much like the Xmas special it originates from, Phoenix/Bill Murray’s “Alone On Christmas” looks better on (virtual) paper- would have been funnier to have the video of Murray’s ‘duet’ with Chris Rock from the show. A happier holiday can be had via your favorite online ordering overlord Amazon and their Indie For the Holidays compilation which includes Rogue Wave, Fruit Bats and Reverend Horton Heat. Even better holiday cheer can be had via Alligator Records’ compilation A Blues Christmas, which culls tracks from their ’92 and ’03 holiday albums and features Koko Taylor, Shemekia Copeland, Elvin Bishop & Marcia Ball. If the Super Hi-Fi record sounds tempting and you want your dub with a taste of lounge jazz, try Astrocolor’s Lit Up: Music For Christmas. And though it’s half of a greatest hits live collection, Nick Lowe and Lost Straightjackets’ The Quality Holiday Revue (Yep Roc) does feature a few some nice holiday choices like his own drool “Christmas at the Airport” and a rollicking take on the spiritual tune “Children Go Where I Sent Thee” though you’d be better off tracking down his full Xmas album, 2013’s Quality Street (Yep Roc).