by Erik R. Slagle
Well, this isn’t quite going to cover 12 days, since I’ve only got 500 words to talk about holiday music that deserves to be in your collection. But soon stores will be decking their halls (actually, their PA systems) with standards that either warm your heart or send a chill down your spine—and not in the good way.
When you absolutely, positively can’t take hearing Britney’s “My Only Wish,” Mariah’s “All I Want For Christmas” or Bruce doing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (sacrilege here in Jersey, I know), escape to some collections of lesser-known renditions that might just renew your faith in Christmas music. Here are five to check out, from the peaceful to the novelty, and yes, even disco.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year (White Eisenstein): If the string-and-flute rendition of “O Come O Come Emanuel” doesn’t help you wind down and get back to how the holidays are supposed to feel … well, you might be living in a cave above Whoville. This all-instrumental album features acoustic guitar, bells, winds and strings from the duo of Lee Eisenstein and Brad White, and it’s an ideal CD to fall asleep to. No guarantees of visions of sugarplums dancing in your heads, but it’s about as close as you can come to a holiday CD you can meditate to.
What a Wonderful Christmas – Louis Armstrong & Friends: Another must-have for jazz fans should be this compilation attributed to Armstrong and featuring standard-bearers from Torme, Eartha Kitt, Peggy Lee, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Louis Jordan, and of course the great Satchmo himself. High points include Armstrong originals “Cool Yule,” “Christmas in New Orleans,” and “’Zat You, Santa Claus?”. Don’t download this collection though – find a new or used CD so you can read the liner notes and indulge in the story of how these collaborations came to be. It’ll be worth the few extra dollars.
Ray Conniff and the Ray Conniff Singers, We Wish You a Merry Christmas: In 1962 Conniff and his orchestra cut a Christmas classic that has worldwide appeal even 55 years later. Highlighted by a medley of “O Holy Night,” “We Three Kings” and “Deck the Halls” that stretches almost eight minutes, this album recalls Christmas memories of being a kid in the 80s as my parents looped this 33” inch vinyl almost daily. It’s full of rich, moving readings and lighthearted numbers, often rolled together in beautifully-arranged medleys (“Let It Snow!”, “Count Your Blessings,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is another fine example).
Holidays in Dementia (Dr. Demento): Does anyone else remember the song “Rusty Chevrolet” from Da Yoopers? No? Just me? This collection of holiday send-ups was worth the five bucks on Amazon just for that one song … but if that doesn’t convince you, get it for “The Twelve Pains of Christmas,” Ray Stevens’ “Santa Claus is Watching You,” and of course, “Christmas Wrapping” – the holiday staple from the band that was never heard from again, The Waitresses.
Christmas Jollies (The Salsoul Orchestra): Growing up, I thought mine was the only family that wore out a 33-vinyl of the album with the girl in the elf costume on the cover. When I went to Amazon years later to find my own copy, I learned from user reviews that I was far from alone—Christmas Jollies, an album of disco takes on holiday standards like “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Sleigh Ride,” and yes, “Silent Night,” has taken on a cult following of sorts. Makes me wonder if the Seventies saw Santas in red leisure suits and platform boots showing up to Studio 54.
Happy Holidays to one and all! See you in 2018!