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My Favorite Christmas Recordings #1 Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme: That Holiday Feeling

Bitter, cynical, and borderline misanthropic for most of the year, I reform for the holiday season and from mid-November to the last minute of Epiphany I’m all about the season.  Readers of Old Road Apples will find themselves under a constant barrage of holiday fare this season–from themed essays to book reviews to a countdown of my very favorite Christmas recordings.

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Here it is, Steve & Eydie standing tall at Number One!  Unexpected?  Maybe.  They would certainly be a dark horse on most people’s lists, but I’m not most people, and I’ve loved these guys since I was a little kid.  Remember those old promo anthologies I was talking about at the bottom of this countdown?  Steve and Eydie featured prominently in many of them, and those songs still resonate with me today.  I had a hell of a time finding it, in fact–the “new price” for this on Amazon is $42.95, which is robbery.  I bought mine for $24.95 from the artists’ web site and never looked back.

The title track is the first Christmas song I listen to each year, by tradition, because I’ve got that holiday feeling, of course.  The snappy little pop jazz duet is the perfect starting gun for the season, the cover of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is easily as good as Dean Martin’s version, and “Hurry Home For Christmas” just dares you not to sing along–then sing again in the shower, on the stairs, in the car….

Some of the tracks have a big band sound more like the music of the 40’s, some of it like late 50’s Swing–it fits in with my favorite Christmas music milieu.  With huge bonus points for “Sleigh Ride”–the merriest song of the season.  I wish my friends and I had half as much fun as the whoopin’ and hollerin’ on that sleigh ride–and with those whoops and whipcracks at the end of the song, I turned to my wife yesterday morning and said “Is it just me, or does that sound like Steve’s giving Eydie a little spankin’?”

“I know!” She said.  “I just thought the same thing!”  We busted a gut.  You should too.

1. That Holiday Feeling
2. White Christmas
3. Winter Wonderland
4. The Christmas Song
5. Baby It’s Cold Outside
6. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
7. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
8. Sleigh Ride
9. Let Me Be the First to Wish You Merry Christmas
10. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
11. What Are You Doing New Years Eve
12. Hurry Home for Christmas
13. That Ol’ Christmas Spirit
14. Happy Holiday
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My Favorite Christmas Recordings #2 The Carpenters: Christmas Collection

Bitter, cynical, and borderline misanthropic for most of the year, I reform for the holiday season and from mid-November to the last minute of Epiphany I’m all about the season.  Readers of Old Road Apples will find themselves under a constant barrage of holiday fare this season–from themed essays to book reviews to a countdown of my very favorite Christmas recordings.

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So, this isn’t a perfect album–it’s a wildly self-indulgent attempt by Richard Carpenter to create a sort of Christmas Magnum Opus, a collection of songs that range from orchestral to pop.  Much of it is brilliant, a bit of it isn’t–but all of it features the incredible, heart-breaking voice of Karen Carpenter.  And let’s be a little honest here.  I grew up on new wave and punk rock, but I am utterly and unapologetically in love with the tragic Karen Carpenter.  I’m two steps removed from fantasies of traveling back in time to try and save her from herself–two small steps.

The centerpiece of this record is “Merry Christmas Darling,” and that’s sort of like saying the centerpiece of the solar system is the sun.  It matters.  A lot.  In my mind, it’s the perfect Christmas song–romantic, sentimental, nostalgic, and a little sad.  Combined with Karen’s honeyed voice, it’s a mind blowing creation.  Pop music perfection.

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My Favorite Christmas Recordings #3 Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas

Bitter, cynical, and borderline misanthropic for most of the year, I reform for the holiday season and from mid-November to the last minute of Epiphany I’m all about the season.  Readers of Old Road Apples will find themselves under a constant barrage of holiday fare this season–from themed essays to book reviews to a countdown of my very favorite Christmas recordings.

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So, it’s Christmas Day, I’m busy with family stuff, and I’ve still got 3 album entries and the second part of “Christmas Traditions” to write and post–go ahead and call fumble, I’ve clearly dropped the ball.

If there is a singular voice of Christmas in our home, it is Ella Fitzgerald–what can I say about this legendary singer that hasn’t been said before, and by people who actually know what they’re talking about.  She’s slick, she’s deep, but still accessible in the way the very best of these holiday records must be.  Literally, I’m short of words, and there’s no hyperbole that can tell you how rarely that happens.  It’s just a perfect album, everything you want, and like several others it could (and almost was) the number one choice on this list, falling short only on sentimental value–the two records ahead of it simply evoke more memories and traditions.  No Christmas collection should be without it.

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My Favorite Christmas Recordings #4 Chieftans Christmas: The Bells of Dublin

Bitter, cynical, and borderline misanthropic for most of the year, I reform for the holiday season and from mid-November to the last minute of Epiphany I’m all about the season.  Readers of Old Road Apples will find themselves under a constant barrage of holiday fare this season–from themed essays to book reviews to a countdown of my very favorite Christmas recordings.

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At best, I’m ambivalent towards Celtic music, if for no other reason than because a few close relatives of mine have, after a lifetime of identifying as descendents of snobby British folk, have become “just add water” deeply felt Irish.  When my mother bought a kilt a few years ago, that was pretty much the last straw–although it’s great at Christmas, because there is always some kind of crap they’re selling to people who wish they were Irish, whether it’s glossy photography books of rolling green hills and cold, shitty sheep farms, or CDs of hyper-melodramatic mediocre Irish musicians from PBS–like “Celtic Women” or “Celtic Thunder” or mom’s cheeseball (with nuts) favorite, Daniel O’Donnell.

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The Chieftains, though, are the real deal–not some box of made for TV marketing tools, and this is one of the best Christmas albums out there, chock full of tradition and reverence.  My favorite track, the “St. Stephens Day Murders” isn’t what you might think if you know a little about Irish history–a hilarious and very familiar tale of internecine holiday conflict.

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My Favorite Christmas Recordings #5 Reverend Horton Heat: We Three Kings

Bitter, cynical, and borderline misanthropic for most of the year, I reform for the holiday season and from mid-November to the last minute of Epiphany I’m all about the season.  Readers of Old Road Apples will find themselves under a constant barrage of holiday fare this season–from themed essays to book reviews to a countdown of my very favorite Christmas recordings.

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You step from hard city night into the welcoming, familiar warmth of spilled beer and cigarette smoke.  The tender, washing pint glasses behind the bar, nods acknowledgement.  The waitress smiles, eyes like coal sparkling beneath a tangle of crow black hair, reflecting a the light of a half dozen bare bulbs. Peanut shells crack beneath your boots on the warm, wide plank hardwood floor.  You pick the obvious stool, throw one massive leg over the seat, and take off your gloves, loosen the buttons on your coat.

You don’t even need to reach for it.  Two fingers of Yellow Rose Straight Rye in a highball glass, an inch from your right hand.  In the beat of a heart you throw it down, a double, warm and crisp.  Say what they want about Yanks, they know their way around whiskey–you’ve had more than enough of those fucking Laps and their fucking vodka. Just as quickly, the glass is full again–half a glass with two ice cubes.

“Hey, Big Man.” She’s found you–just a matter of time: febrile fingers on your hunched, knotted shoulder, she leans in, kisses you on the cheek. Her breasts press against your bicep.  “You’re early, this year.  Good weather?”

You nod, take another drink. Her scent is like anise over a vale of vanilla–you could breathe it like pure oxygen and be sustained.  In another world, another lifetime…maybe. No. You’ve known a hundred girls like her, so young, intoxicated by the magic. You find your pipe, pack the bowl, and light it.  The clean, aromatic smoke drifts around your head like a wreath

“We could–” She whispers.

“No, Ivy. Not this year.”

The rooms like flicker out, the stage left glowing as the band struts out on stage, road-worn and weary.  Guitar, stand-up bass, a simple drum kit and piano.  They pause to check tuning then turn to the crowd and go straight to their work…dum, dum, dum…three bass beats and the rock-a-billy guitar kicks in, the music swirling like a wild hurricane….

The Reverend Horton Heat owns Rock-A-Billy and has since long before hipster clones crowded seedy bars to hear them roar, and this Christmas album is a treasure as well as a standard of how a band can honor the traditions of the season while not just raising the bar but changing the approach to the bar.  From the first note of the first song, a rollicking ride with Frosty The Snowman, there is no disappointment to be found.  It’s a perfect album and shouldn’t be missed.

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My Favorite Christmas Recordings #6 The Roches: We Three Kings

Bitter, cynical, and borderline misanthropic for most of the year, I reform for the holiday season and from mid-November to the last minute of Epiphany I’m all about the season.  Readers of Old Road Apples will find themselves under a constant barrage of holiday fare this season–from themed essays to book reviews to a countdown of my very favorite Christmas recordings.

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The second of two albums called “We Three Kings” in a row on this list, this one, by the three sisters known as The Roches, this is another one I bought on a whim from a discount rack in a department store, and in the years since I’ve bought half a dozen additional copies to give as gifts to relatives and especially good friends.  The Roches’ songs are vocal-driven, deeply harmonious but pleasantly quirky.  You haven’t heard voices mixed together quite like this before, and that’s a very good thing.

The subject of Christmas music is a study in minute differences of interpretation and presentation, with literally thousands of albums covering a genre in which just a few dozen songs are counted as “classics” and “standards.”  The Roches make it interesting, weaving their unique voices together to create something that is both fun and beautiful.

This stuff is interesting enough to listen to loud and traditional enough to let play quietly in the background while you nibble cookies, cold shrimp, and from a cracker and cheese tray with your 89-year old aunt Julie.

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My Favorite Christmas Recordings #7 The Edge of Christmas

Bitter, cynical, and borderline misanthropic for most of the year, I reform for the holiday season and from mid-November to the last minute of Epiphany I’m all about the season.  Readers of Old Road Apples will find themselves under a constant barrage of holiday fare this season–from themed essays to book reviews to a countdown of my very favorite Christmas recordings.

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This one is getting harder to find–it’s out of print and less people are seeming willing to let go of theirs, so your work is cut out for you.

I bought this for one song: the super-classic Waitresses holiday hit “Christmas Wrapping.”  I loved the Waitresses, their brilliantly hilarious lyrics, and “who the fuck cares” approach to rock and roll stardom.  They were a rock and roll band with a punk rock soul beneath their new wave spirit.  No song encapsulates their essence better than Christmas Wrapping: cynical, smart-assed, irreverent, and in the end just a little soulful.  The way Patty Donahue rips through this breezy, ultimately joyous tale of seasonal dysfunction…ah, what a band.  It broke my heart to learn of her death of lung cancer at the tender age of 40.

Early death haunts another of the super-classic Christmas anthems on this anthology.  Kirsty MacColl joined The Pogues to record my family’s favorite Christmas song, the achingly bittersweet Fairytale of New York,

a tale of immigrants’ love and aspirations gone sadly, bitterly wrong, that so perfectly captures the wistful/joyful dichotomy of the season.  Only adding to the mood is the knowledge that MacColl died on a Christmas vacation in Mexico, at the age of 41 and at the height of her career, struck down by a Mexican tycoon’s  recklessly piloted speedboat while swimming in a marine sanctuary–her killer using his power and influence to escape justice.

This album is worth the price for these songs alone, but they’re just the beginning. The third classic here in the now-iconic duet “Peace On Earth” by David Bowie and Bing Crosby.

Other high points come from Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famers The Pretenders and The Ramones, as well as one of the more under-appreciated bands of my college years, The Smithereens.    Get this one before you can’t.

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My Favorite Christmas Recordings #9 Christmas With The Rat Pack

Bitter, cynical, and borderline misanthropic for most of the year, I reform for the holiday season and from mid-November to the last minute of Epiphany I’m all about the season.  Readers of Old Road Apples will find themselves under a constant barrage of holiday fare this season–from themed essays to book reviews to a countdown of my very favorite Christmas recordings.

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Pushing into the top ten, these records could be stacked in just about any order and I’d be happy.  It’s that close.

“Frank Sinatra. Dean Martin. Sammy Davis Jr.” Really, what else do I need to say?  As genres go, my favorite Christmas tunes lean towards cocktail-ready, hipster-jazz/swing, and these songs are classic.  Most notable is Dean Martin’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” that suddenly controversial chestnut that’s drawn the ire of a few cranky feminists (trying to raise, happy, healthy, empowered daughters–rather than sullen and paranoid defeatists, we’re partial to confident, bright-eyed, and joyful feminists around here) and some sallow young men who would curry their favor: the argument is that it is a song about date rape, that the woman wants to leave but the man won’t let her, and that the line “say, what’s in this drink?” very clearly demonstrates that the man has drugged her cocktail.

http://www.salon.com/2012/12/10/is_baby_its_cold_outside_a_date_rape_anthem/

http://www.salon.com/2013/12/19/the_6_creepiest_baby_its_cold_outside_covers/

If you’ve never savored the joys of something largely because other people think it’s naughty, then this is your chance.  Turn up the stereo, pour a glass of eggnog, and bask in the smooth Dean-o delivery while reflecting on the simpering paranoia of the articles cited above.

The entire album is wonderful–these guys recorded a lot of holiday music over the years, and the folks assembling the collection clearly chose the crispest versions of the most classic of the lot.  Most of the tunes you’re looking for are here–and there’s nothing to make you want to scoot forward a few tracks to that song you’ve been waiting to hear.

1. I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm – Dean Martin
2. Mistletoe And Holly – Frank Sinatra
3. Christmas Time All Over the World – Sammy Davis, Jr.
4. The First Noel – Frank Sinatra
5. Baby, It’s Cold Outside – Dean Martin
6. I Believe – Frank Sinatra
7. Silver Bells – Dean Martin
8. The Christmas Song – Sammy Davis, Jr.
9. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing – Frank Sinatra
10. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer – Dean Martin
11. The Christmas Waltz – Frank Sinatra
12. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! – Dean Martin
13. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Frank Sinatra
14. Medley: Peace On Earth/Silent Night – Dean Martin
15. Jingle Bells – Sammy Davis, Jr.
16. White Christmas – Dean Martin
17. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear – Frank Sinatra
18. Winter Wonderland – Dean Martin
19. I’ll Be Home For Christmas (If Only In My Dreams) – Frank Sinatra
20. A Marshmallow World – Frank Sinatra
21. Auld Lang Syne – Frank Sinatra
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My Favorite Christmas Recordings #10 Ultra-Lounge Christmas Cocktails Part One & Part Two

Bitter, cynical, and borderline misanthropic for most of the year, I reform for the holiday season and from mid-November to the last minute of Epiphany I’m all about the season.  Readers of Old Road Apples will find themselves under a constant barrage of holiday fare this season–from themed essays to book reviews to a countdown of my very favorite Christmas recordings.

51FnMsu4M8L 51tz5amwdSLWriting this, I’m not sure that I shouldn’t just chuck the list, put these as the the top two, and end this now.  As it stands, these would almost certainly be my “desert island” choices if I could pick just two albums that would have to do it for me for the rest of my days.  All kinds of good stuff is here, jazz and swing, from Dean Martin to Jackie Gleason.  That’s right: Jackie Gleason.  I bought this on a whim, not knowing a lot of the stuff that was on here, and I’m glad that I did–it turns out that there are a lot of songs out there I wanted, but didn’t know that I wanted.  I could write a tremendously long list of all the high points, but the “just the facts, ma’am” on this one is that there are over 40 cuts from big time artists, many of which you’ll never, ever hear on the radio, which makes them worthwhile in and of themselves.

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My Favorite Christmas Recordings #12 Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song

Bitter, cynical, and borderline misanthropic for most of the year, I reform for the holiday season and from mid-November to the last minute of Epiphany I’m all about the season.  Readers of Old Road Apples will find themselves under a constant barrage of holiday fare this season–from themed essays to book reviews to a countdown of my very favorite Christmas recordings.

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The review on Amazon.com says the same thing I was going to say: The Christmas song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire….) is one of the truly great Christmas songs of all time, rivaled by giant hits like White Christmas, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, and There’s No Place Like Home For The Holidays.  As I mentioned before, this recording–on vinyl–was an element of the foundation of my Christmas music collection and it a must own.  No debate.  Likewise, his cover of Oh Holy Night is so perfect, so reverent, it gives this avowed atheist shivers, if not spiritual ambitions.

The title song is magnificent, capturing the very essence of the season, and Cole’s version is the quintessential recording of it.  The only downside is, on newer versions, the inclusion of the deceased  singer’s ghoulish, computer-generated “duet” with young daughter Natalie.  Yech.

I still like this recording in vinyl–I’ve got the newest version, but it sounds like they’ve been monkeying around with it too much.  The tones are a little cold, and the song order is different–which is jarring but not ultimately damning.  Still, I’d recommend an earlier mix if you can find one, even (especially?) if it means missing the few “extras” added with the record company re-mastered the album

1. The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You) [1961 Version]
2. Deck the Hall
3. O Come All Ye Faithful
4. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
5. O Tannenbaum
6. O Little Town of Bethlehem
7. I Saw Three Ships
8. O Holy Night
9. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
10. A Cradle in Bethlehem
11. Away in a Manger
12. Joy to the World
13. The First Noel
14. Caroling, Caroling
15. Silent Night
16. Buon Natale (Means Merry Christmas to You) [*]
17. All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth) [*]
18. The Happiest Christmas Tree [*]
19. The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You) [*]