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My Grandmother Had The Best Christmas Music

If you’ve paid attention to my posted lists of my favorite Christmas music in previous years, you’ll see that it is heavily weighted towards music from long before I was born.  One thing I share with a lot of aging baby boomers (the folks who raised me) is that three names come to the forefront when thinking about Christmas: Jesus, Santa Claus, and Bing Crosby–though not necessarily in that order.

Crosby and Irving Berlin–the latter being the Jewish genius behind so many great, sentimental, World War 2 Christmas songs, most of which were showcased in the inter-connected movies Holiday Inn and (later) partial remake White Christmas.  The song “White Christmas,” written by Berlin and sung by Crosby, is far and away the best selling single of all time at 50,000,000+copies.  You read that right.  Fifty million plus–and that’s just the Crosby version.  Hundreds of artists have covered it since.  In my mind, White Christmas is forever tied to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” another Crosby song, sung from the perspective of an American soldier at war overseas, that tapped eloquently into the zeitgeist of the era. The opening scene, of White Christmas, with Bing Crosby singing the song to the exhausted troops, thousands of miles from home, artillery exploding in the background, focus on that line “…if only in my dreams.”

And therein lies the seed of why these songs were so popular and why they remain so.  America, in the course of a decade, emerged from a bitter depression and plunged into a desperate and all-consuming war–a war that not only effected every household in the nation, but gave pause to consider the implications of failure.  By 1948, it is safe to say that virtually all Americans knew deprivation, desperation, uncertainly, fear, and loss–as well as exultant joy, pride, confidence, and accomplishment.  The music of the time, heady at one moment, deeply sentimental the next, reflected that–and it’s fair to say that the era profoundly effected how we celebrate Christmas as well.

ASCUP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers has validated my own sentiments, released its list of the top 30 most performed holiday songs of all time.  Sadly, Mariah Carey is mentioned.

Top 30 All-Time Christmas Songs

1. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (1934)
2. “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” (1946)
3. “White Christmas” (1941)
4. “Winter Wonderland” (1934)
5. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1944)
6. “Sleigh Ride” (1948)
7. “Jingle Bell Rock” (1958)
8. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1949)
9. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (1945)
10. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (1943)
11. “Little Drummer Boy” (1958)
12. “Silver Bells” (1950)
13. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (1958)
14. “Frosty the Snowman” (1950)
15. “Blue Christmas” (1949)
16. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (1963)
17. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” (1951)
18. “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)” (1947)
19. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (1962)
20. “Carol of the Bells” (1936)
21. “Feliz Navidad” (1970)
22. “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” (1964)
23. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (1952)
24. “Last Christmas” (1984)
25. “Home for the Holidays” (1954)
26. “Wonderful Christmastime” (1979)
27. “Happy Holidays” (from Holiday Inn) (1942)
28. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (1994)
29. “Santa Baby” (1953)
30. “This Christmas” (1970)

It’s unfair to say that all the best holiday music came from the post-war years–I’ve got a Reverend Horton Heat album that says differently–but it’s no surprise the those songs top the lists.  Imagine if all we had for the season was George Michael singing “Last Christmas” or Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas”–two songs, and performers, I utterly despise.

http://www.vocativ.com/culture/music/most-popular-christmas-songs/

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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 #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.

roches

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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.

edge

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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 #26 Rhino Presents Home For 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.  You’ll note I’m beginning this a little early–that’s to give you a fair shake at picking up the top of the list .

Rhino Presents Home For Christmas Various Artists

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I would have rated this higher, but I wanted to do a countdown and also wanted you to see them first–this we have 26 entries for the 25 days before Christmas.  Think of this as a bonus.

These were the first Christmas CDs I bought, after stubbornly clinging to a box of old, popping and hissing second-hand vinyl I’d collected over the years, and are the closest approximations to the old promotional albums, many of them sponsored by Firestone tires, that my mother had bought at grocery stores when she was a young wife and mother. If you’re over 40, you may recognize these–or if you’re younger,
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you may still listen to them when you’re over the river and through the woods at Grandma’s house.  For that matter, I have the whole setof the old Firestone albums, picked up for dimes and quarters at thrift stores.

The Rhino albums feature many of the old favorites, and represent the perfect building blocks for a Christmas record collection.  There are some glaring omissions–Barbra Streisand, The Ray Conniff Singers, and the entire Rat Pack, but it’s a great start.  You need to own this one. Don’t fool around, though–this is out of print, and at present unavailable for digital download, but every season a few used copies show up on Amazon.com and places like that, usually for a pittance. Jump on ’em. It never hurts to have backups.

Disc A

1. Sleigh Ride – Leroy Anderson
2. A Holly Jolly Christmas – Burl Ives
3. Jingle Bell Rock – Bobby Helms
4. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Judy Garland
5. Carol of the Bells – Johnny Mathis
6. The Twelve Days of Christmas – Fred Waring & the Pennsylvanians
7. Jingle Bells – Bing Crosby & the Andrews Sisters
8. Boogie Woogie Santa Claus – Mabel Scott
9. Here Comes Santa Claus – Gene Autry
10. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree – Brenda Lee
11. I’ll Be Home For Christmas – Connie Francis
12. Joy to the World – John Fahey
13. Away in a Manger – Roger Whitaker
14. Oh Holy Night – The Orioles
15. Santa Baby – Eartha Kitt
16. Winter Wonderland – Johnny Mercer
17. Merry Christmas Baby – Charles Brown
18. Oh Little Town of Bethlehem – Paul Anka
19. We Wish You a Merry Christmas/Caroling Caroling – The Inner Voices
20. The Christmas Song – Mel Torme

Disc B
1. White Christmas – Bing Crosby
2. The Little Drummer Boy – The Harry Simeone Chorale
3. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! – Vaughn Monroe
4. Little Saint Nick – The Beach Boys
5. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus – Jimmy Boyd
6. Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy – Buck Owens and his Buckaroos
7. Ave Marie – Mario Lanza
8. This Time of Year – Brook Benton
9. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town – The Jackson 5
10. All I Want For Christmas is My Two Front Teeth – Spike Jones
11. Deck the Halls – Jackie Wilson
12. Silent Night – Mahalia Jackson
13. Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come – Jimmie Rodgers
14. Adeste Fideles – Bing Crosby
15. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer – Gene Autry
16. Go Tell It on the Mountain – Bobby Darin
17. Mary’s Boy Child – Harry Belafonte
18. It’s Christmas Once Again – Frankie Lymon
19. There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays – Perry Como
20. Auld Lang Syne – Guy Lombardo & his Royal Canadians