By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 7, 2019)
Don’t panic. Christmas comes but once a year; this too shall soon pass. I’m guessing you’ve already had it up to “here” with holly jolly Burl Ives and Rudolph with his frigging red nose so bright wafting out of every elevator in sight. I promise I am not about to torture you with the obvious and overplayed. Rather, I have assembled 12 fine selections that aren’t flogged to death every year; some deeper cuts for your Xmas creel:
All I Want For Christmas – The Bobs
The Bobs have been stalking me. They formed in the early 80s, in San Francisco. I was living in San Francisco in the early 80s; I recall catching them as an opening act for The Plimsouls (I think…or maybe Greg Kihn) at The Keystone in Berkeley. I remember having my mind blown by their a cappella renditions of “Psycho Killer” and “Helter Skelter”. Later, I resettled in Seattle. Later, they resettled in Seattle. I wish they’d quit following me! Anyway, this is a lovely number from their 1996 album Too Many Santas.
Ave Maria – Stevie Wonder
There are songs that you do not tackle if you don’t have the pipes (unless you want to be jeered offstage, or out of the ball park). “The Star Spangled Banner” comes to mind; as does “Nessun dorma”. “Ave Maria” is right up there too. Not only does Stevie nail the vocal, but he whips out the most sublime harmonica solo this side of Toots Thielemans.
Christmas at the Airport – Nick Lowe
As wry and tuneful as ever at age 70, veteran pub-rocker/power-popper/balladeer Nick Lowe continues to compose, produce, record and tour. This is from his 2013 Christmas album, Quality Street. I think a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination is way overdue.
Christmas in Suburbia – Martin Newell
Despite the fact that he has an ability to write hooky, jangly Beatle-esque pop gems in his sleep, and has been doing so for five decades, endearingly eccentric singer-musician-songwriter-poet Martin Newell remains a selfishly-guarded secret by many cultish admirers (of which I am one). But since it is the holidays, I’m feeling magnanimous-so I will share him with you now (you’re welcome). This is from his 1993 album The Greatest Living Englishman, which he did in collaboration with XTC’s Andy Partridge.
Christmas Wish – NRBQ
NRBQ has been toiling in relative obscurity since 1966, despite nearly 50 albums and a rep for high-energy, crowd-pleasing live shows. I think they’ve fallen through the cracks because they are tough to pigeonhole; they’re equally at home with power-pop, blues, rock, jazz, R&B, country or goofy covers. This one is from their eponymous 2007 album.
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring – Leo Kottke
In 1969, an LP entitled 6- and 12-String Guitar quietly slid into record stores. The cover had a painting of an armadillo, with “Leo Kottke” emblazoned above (no photo). In the 50 years since, “the armadillo album” has become a touchstone for aspiring guitarists everywhere, introducing the world to a gifted player with a uniquely syncopated, expressive finger picking technique. Kottke’s lovely take on a Bach classic is a highlight.
River – Joni Mitchell
Not exactly a jolly “laughing all the way” singalong; but this is my list, and I’m sticking to it. Besides, Joni opens with a “Jingle Bells” piano quote, and her lyrics are stuffed with Christmas references. An oft-covered song, but it doesn’t make a lot of holiday playlists.
Santa – Lightnin’ Hopkins
Best Christmas blues ever, by the poet laureate of the Delta.
Now, I happened to see these old people learning the young ones,
Yeah just learning them exactly what to do.
So sweet, it’s so sweet to see these old people,
Learning they old children just what to do.
Mother said a million-year-ago Santa Claus come to me,
Now this year he gone come to you.
My little sister said take your stocking now,
Hang it up on the head of the bed.
Talkin’ to her friend she said take your stocking,
And please hang it up on head of the bed.
And she said know we all God’s saint children,
In the morning Ol’ Santa Claus gone see that we all is fed.
Santa Claus – The Sonics
“I wanna brand new car / a twangy guitar”. These proto-punkers are local legends in my neck of the woods. Hailing from Tacoma in the early 60s, The Sonics are now generally acknowledged as major forefathers for the Seattle grunge scene of the late 80s-early 90s.
Stoned Soul Christmas – Binky Griptite
“Man, what’s the matter with you…don’t you know it’s Christmas?!” A funky sleigh ride down to the stoned soul Christmas with guitarist/former DJ Binky Griptite (ex-member of The Dap Kings). A clever reworking of Laura Nyro’s classic “Stoned Soul Picnic.” Nice.
A Winter’s Tale – Jade Warrior
Not a Christmas song per se, but it suggests a cozy holiday scenario right from Verse 1:
Ivy tapping on my window, wine and candle glow,
Skies that promise snow have gathered overhead.
Buttered toast and creamy coffee, table laid for two,
Lovely having you to share a smile with me.
A beautiful and evocative track from a woefully underappreciated UK prog-rock outfit.
‘Zat You, Santa Claus? – Louis Armstrong
The great jazz growler queries a night prowler who may or may not be the jolly old elf.