As the calendar days inexorably approach Christmas, the usual playlist combination of the same 20 or so songs, such as Mariah Carey’s, “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” Wham!’s “Last Christmas” and Andy Williams’ “Happy Holidays” inevitably will be heard on many radio stations, and at stores, malls, and restaurants, ad nauseum.
With the desire to maintain a happy balance of holiday spirit with musical aesthetics, the hunt for unusual holiday music gems is a perennial one. The good news is that the actual catalogue of holiday music is surprisingly vast and certainly varied enough to cover almost every genre to suit any music lover’s tastes.
Here are a few songs that are worth a listen that would likely fly under the radar of most programmed playlists.
“Baby Boy” – Jorma Kaukonen
Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane co-founder and acoustic fingerpicker extraordinaire Jorma Kaukonen has a significant body of work steeped in traditional blues, folk and old-timey music, in addition to his psychedelic jam-based electric rock. As he approaches 80, he is still going as strong as ever, streaming weekly YouTube live concerts from his Fur Peace Ranch guitar school in Pomeroy, Ohio.
In 1996, Jorma released Christmas on Relix Records’ American Heritage subsidiary. A limited release, Christmas contained a mix of acoustic and electric renditions of holiday songs like “What Child Is This?” and “Silent Night” along with some originals. It is the only release to date to include a Jorma Kaukonen keyboard performance as well as a song co-written by his wife, Vanessa. One song that stood out to me was his take on the West Indian Anglican Christmas carol, “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy.” Jorma’s rendition was likely inspired by the arrangement from Bahamian acoustic guitar finger stylist Joseph Spence.
With its simple fingerpicked acoustic guitar and gospel music ensemble vocals, “Baby Boy” also is reminiscent of Jorma’s greatest influence, the Rev. Gary Davis, who would play his acoustic guitar to lead the hymns of his congregation in his Harlem storefront church during the 1960s.
“Riu Riu Chiu” – The Monkees
In 1967, The Monkees took a break from their comedy sketches and lip synced mimed song performances for an episode entitled “The Monkees’ Christmas Show.” They performed an actual acapella version of the ancient (circa mid-1500s) Spanish villancico “Riu Riu Chiu.” Villancico is a poetic form indigenous to Spain and Latin America from the 1400s – 1700s that is associated with Christmas carols,
The basic theme of the song is the nativity of Christ and the Immaculate Conception. The villancico’s archaic Spanish language chorus goes:
Ríu, ríu, chíu, la guarda ribera, Dios guardó el lobo de nuestra cordera.
“[With a cry of] Ríu, ríu, chíu, the kingfisher, God kept the wolf from our Lamb [Mary, spared of original sin at birth].”
The song also references themes of the Incarnation and Christmas:
Éste que es nacido es el Gran Monarca Cristo Patriarca de carne vestido
Hamos redimido con se hacer chiquito Aunque era infinito finito se hiciera.
“This one that is born is the Great King, Christ the Patriarch clothed in flesh. He redeemed us when He made himself small; though He was Infinite He would make himself finite.”
Yo vi mil Garzones que andavan cantando Por aqui volando haciendo mil sones
Diciendo a gascones Gloria sea en el Cielo Y paz en el suelo pues Jesús nasciera.
“I saw a thousand boys (angels) go singing, here making a thousand voices while flying, telling the shepherds of glory in the heavens, and peace to the world since Jesus has been born.”
This somber, almost eerie rendition, shot in shadow with candlelight and muted tones, gave a decidedly different image to the otherwise nonstop silliness of the TV series. Impressive further still were the four-part harmonies of Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith, one of the few instances The Monkees displayed true group singing talent, as opposed to their usual spotlighting of the lead singer with studio musicians and singers in support.
“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” – Aimee Mann
When it comes to referencing depression, disappointment, suicide and bitterness, there are probably few artists that exemplify the 180-degree polar opposite of the silly lighthearted comedy of The Monkees better than Aimee Mann.
A brilliant songwriter whose lyrics often delve into psychological issues (she has an album titled Mental Illness), her most famous songs (“Save Me,” “Deathly,” “Wise Up”) are probably the ones specifically commissioned by Paul Thomas Anderson for his film Magnolia. The songs added critically-acclaimed gravitas to the highly distraught emotional scenes in the film that deal with despair, death, and other dark topics.
All the more reason why it’s notable that Aimee Mann’s rather melancholy-toned 2006 holiday album, One More Drifter In the Snow, contained a surprisingly quirky and nearly hilarious version of the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from the children’s book and cartoon, Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas. In retrospect, the song’s inclusion actually makes perfect sense, given The Grinch’s original disposition in the story before discovering the meaning of Christmas.
The juxtaposition of this song amongst Mann’s relatively sad stylings on the rest of the album is in keeping with her odd, dry sense of humor. At one of her concerts, she relayed the tale of how she developed a passion for boxing despite her frail frame, culminating in when she decked an incredulous Bob Dylan during one particular workout.
Mann’s soprano voice combines with guest Grant-Lee Phillips’s baritone and narration for a faithful and fun rendition of this often covered holiday classic.
“White Christmas” – Aimee Mann vs. Eric Clapton vs. Iggy Pop
Irving Berlin’s Oscar-winning “White Christmas” is irrevocably connected with Bing Crosby, thanks to the latter’s performance in the movie Holiday Inn, and is calculated to be the biggest-selling record of all time, with an estimated 100 million cumulative units sold, encompassing, singles, album inclusions, and compilations. It has never been out of print since 1949.
Therefore, it can be fascinating to compare how artists in the 21st century might approach the song and attempt to do it justice without resorting to parody or gimmicks, such as a metal, punk, or heavy metal version.
Aimee Mann included a version of “White Christmas” on the aforementioned One More Drifter in the Snow. Opting for subtlety, she went with a sparse arrangement of voice and jazz guitar with vibes and percussion accompaniment.
At the suggestion of his wife Melia, Eric Clapton released Happy Xmas in 2018. Containing two Clapton originals and some obscure holiday covers from artists like Sonny James and Lowell Fulson, “Slowhand” also did bluesy versions of popular Christmas songs including “White Christmas.” The Claymation music video for the song could easily be viewed as an analogy to Clapton’s view of his own life – that the gift of the blues and a guitar could only be provided by Providence, or in this case, a bluesman guided by Santa Claus, i.e. the spirit of Christmas.
In a surprisingly restrained performance, replete with a 1950s style chorus and brass arrangement reminiscent of Frank Sinatra, Iggy Pop’s basso profundo on “White Christmas” is a far cry from what a listener might expect from the Godfather of Punk – and ironically the closest of the three musically to the original Crosby version.
“Christmas Time Is Coming ‘Round Again” – The Mavericks
When it comes to bands with a retro 1950s and 1960s feel to their original music, The Stray Cats, Los Lobos, and The Mavericks would surely top most critics’ lists. Hey! Merry Christmas!, the Mavericks’ 2018 Christmas release, has such a thorough foundation in Americana roots that any of its originals could easily be mistaken for an obscure 50s or 60s cover tune, so smoothly do they complement their covers of Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and “Happy Holidays.”
With a nod towards nostalgia and a hefty dose of respect towards tradition and family gatherings, lead vocalist Raul Malo and guitarist Eddie Perez told Entertainment Weekly how classic Christmas songs like “Happy Holidays” (also covered on Hey! Merry Christmas!) influenced the writing of the originals.
“Christmas Time Is Coming ‘Round Again” sounds like something that easily could have been culled from a pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys record. The seamless ease in which The Mavericks can slide between holiday originals and classics is a testament to their songcraft and dedication to the genre, while keeping the rock and roll percolating with their signature Latin salsa and horn arrangement touches.
“Silent Night” – Boyz II Men
One of the main progenitors of the acapella revival that started during the 1990s, Boyz II Men was Motown’s flagship beacon during that time. However, in 1993, the group had only recently come out with its groundbreaking Cooleyhighharmony and were still subject to the will of Motown’s star-making system. This included the requirement of producing a holiday music record, Christmas Interpretations, which was chock full of original tunes by the members of the group (Wanya Morris, Shawn Stockman, Nathan Morris and Michael McCary) and multi-instrumentalist, singer, producer and future Motown star Brian McKnight.
Each song was produced by whichever member(s) wrote it, often in conjunction with McKnight. The impression is similar to that of the Beatles’ White Album, where the writer/lead singer relegated the rest of the band to a subordinate support role for their song. However, there is one cover song on Christmas Interpretations: a sublime interpretation of “Silent Night” that truly sounds like a group effort. Not surprisingly, it is the only track credited to Boyz II Men.
“城市聖誕節 (City Christmas)” – Elizabeth Chan
People with the courage, confidence and faith to pursue their dreams in spite of the odds are always inspiring. In the case of New Yorker Elizabeth Chan, the added pressures that can come from a Chinese/Filipino family’s preoccupations with having financial security and respectable professions make her decisions and subsequent success even more laudable.
In 2012, Chan left a coveted executive position at Condé Nast. She had been diagnosed with a stress-related heart arrhythmia and realized the prestigious job that she inwardly loathed was slowly killing her, and she needed a change – fast.
Chan chose to pursue her dream of becoming a songwriter, having abandoned it earlier after an unsuccessful record contract deal at age 15. This time, however, not only did she want to be a songwriter, but she resolved to only write Christmas songs, a move that made her a certifiable lunatic in the eyes of her immigrant parents. After striking out in pitching her songs to artists like Kelly Clarkson, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to release her songs on her own, resulting in her first song, “Fa La La” reaching number 7 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart.
Over the course of nine more releases and over a half-dozen more Billboard chart hits entirely devoted to Christmas-themed music, Elizabeth Chan has been hailed as “The Queen of Christmas” by The New Yorker, Variety, and USA Today. “Best Gift Ever” is her most popular song on Spotify.
However, the one you will probably never hear on the radio in the Western Hemisphere is:
“城市聖誕節” or “City Christmas,” which Chan wrote and performed in Mandarin.
As noted earlier, the amount of Christmas and holiday music is vast, and this is but a tiny sampling. Nevertheless, if any of the songs listed here can put a smile on one’s face after all of the turmoil of 2020, how can that be considered anything other than a good thing? Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Header image courtesy of Pexels/cottonbro, cropped to fit format.