Awhile ago I talked about how much I like Christmas music. Now that it’s actually December, I thought I’d talk about some of my favourite Christmas songs — sort of the reasons I like Christmas music so much. (Of course, I’ve been listening to it for over a month now, but I thought I’d hold off until December for your benefit…)
There’s a lot of good Christmas music out there, and I find that it’s hardly ever the originals that are the best. I don’t want a generic, straight-up version of Jingle Bells. I’ve heard these same carols every year for the last twenty years. No, good Christmas music needs to bring something new to the table: either exceptional covers, or great new songs.
So it’s usually, with a few notable exceptions, well-known artists coming out with Christmas albums that add to my playlists. Here are a few.
Holly Cole is a Canadian jazz singer. She has this sexy, smokey voice that just reeks of passion when she sings, and it’s that emotion that makes what she does amazing. Her very first EP was Christmas music, and she released a full Christmas album a number of years ago. The whole thing, start to finish, is fantastic. It’s a combination of songs of just her and her bassist and pianist — the Holly Cole Trio — and songs of them with a full orchestra behind them. Notable songs include The Wildwood Carol, ‘Zat You Santa Clause, If We Make It Through December, and Sleigh Ride.
But the best song on the album, my absolute favourite current Christmas song, and one of my favourite songs period, is the title track, Baby It’s Cold Outside. Now, most covers of this song, like the original, are kinda jazzy, upbeat renditions that seem to make the love spoken of in the song an everyday thing. Holly Cole takes it a different direction entirely. The song is smooth and sexy — really sexy — with a full orchestra behind it. A prominent flute highlights the interludes, a string section swells and backs up the singing, and the singing — oh, the singing. Holly Cole sings this with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies — who I’ll get to in a moment. They’re not just singing notes. They’re making love to them. There is such passion in Holly Cole’s lines, they’re in the moment, they’re telling a story. It is the most passionate thing I have ever heard. No other version of this song will ever be good now that I’ve heard this one.
The Barenaked Ladies
The Canadian band the Barenaked Ladies came out with a Christmas album a few years ago too. It keeping with their image as fun-loving, crazy, childlike performers, about half the album is just having way too much fun with the material. (They do a cover of Deck the Halls called Crosby Stills Nash and Young, wherein they sing the tune of Deck the Halls using only the lyrics, “Crosby Stills Nash and Young Crosby, Stills Nash and Young Crosby Stills Nash and. Young Crosby–” etc.) But the other half is some really great music. Some originals — Green Christmas, Footprints — are pretty well done, new takes on the theme. There’s a few Hanukkah songs thrown in, which is nice. Do They Know It’s Christmas? is packed with power and passion. But their two best are collaborations. Elf’s Lament is a song they do with Michael Bublé documenting how fed up Santa’s elves have become. It’s fun and catchy and takes great pleasure in the fact that they have at least four good singers to add to the harmonies. Their cover of God Rest Ye Merry Gentle/We Three Kings with Sarah McLachlan (see below as well — hmm….) is also spectacular. Jazzy and fun, great combinations of vocals, smooth transitions between songs and a wonderful blending of two great Canadian artists. Best version of God Rest you’ll find.
Since I mentioned her already, I’ll turn now to Canadian singer Sara McLachlan’s Christmas album Wintersong. I hadn’t listened to this album in full until this year, but what a tour de force it is. Her vocals are so strong and so passionate. She does a cover of The First Noel with a bit of eastern flavour that I really like. She covers Silent Night — probably my favourite traditional Christmas hymn — with reverence and passion. But her own piece Wintersong and her Gordon Lightfoot cover of Song for a Winter’s Night highlight the album for me. They’re just so full of love, and I think that’s so much of what this season is about.
Interestingly, so far all of the choices have been Canadian and have collaborated with each other (which I guess might speak more to the fact that they’re Canadian). Now I trend away for the last.
English 70’s prog rock band Jethro Tull released a Christmas Album this decade as well. The whole album is great, but I’ll highlight just a few songs. It tends to be a mix of original Christmas songs and jazz/rock intrumental covers of traditionals. Some of those covers are awesome — God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Greensleeved are favourites, as well as We Five Kings, where they have typically Tull fun with time signatures. Their originals are all spectacular, though. Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow, and Another Christmas Song are great folk/acoustic rock/prog rock songs. But best, and ranking as my second-favourite Christmas song ever, is First Snow on Brooklyn. It combines beautiful melodies, flute, acoustic guitar, and backing strings with great emotion and great poetry in the lyrics. I just don’t get tired of it.
There are of course some great songs that fall outside of these four albums. Kristin Chenowith’s album includes great songs like Home on Christmas Day and Born on Christmas Day. The music from A Charlie Brown Christmas is so classic. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra has a number of Christmas albums with favourites like their Wizards in Winter and their electric version of Carol of the Bells (one of my favourite overall Christmas songs). I searched a long time to find a really good version of the Huron Carol, and found it in a recording from somewhere of the Vienna Boy’s Choir. And of course the fun ones like Weird Al Yankovic’s The Night Santa Went Crazy and Jonathan Coulton’s Chiron Beta Prime. Music from the Muppet’s Christmas Carol and the muppets doing Jingle Bell Rock.
Funny how most of these songs feature many of the things I really like in music. There’s a reason I like them. But overall, I highly recommend all of the above. I’ve been listening to them for a month now, and will continue to do so until January.