By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2023)
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. Christmas comes but once a year; this too shall soon pass. I promise I won’t torture you with the obvious and overplayed. Rather, I have curated 15 selections that aren’t flogged to death every year; some deeper cuts (and a few novelty items) for your Xmas creel.
Happy Crimble, and a Very New Year!
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 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! 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.
Blue Xmas – Bob Dorough w/ the Miles Davis Sextet
The hippest “Bah, humbug!” of all time. “Gimme gimme gimme…”
Christmas at the Airport – Nick Lowe
Wry and tuneful as ever at 74, 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 overdue.
Christmas in Suburbia – The Cleaners From Venus
Despite the fact that he writes hook-laden, Beatlesque pop gems in his sleep, and has been doing so for five decades, endearingly eccentric singer-musician-songwriter-poet Martin Newell (Cleaners From Venus, Brotherhood of Lizards) remains a selfishly-guarded secret by 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).
Christmas Wish – NRBQ
NRBQ has been toiling in relative obscurity since 1966, despite nearly 50 albums and a rep for 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 is from their eponymous 2007 album.
I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas – Yogi Yorgesson
I first heard this tune about the “joys” of holiday gatherings on “The Dr. Demento Show” . It always puts me in hysterics, especially: “My mouth tastes like a pickle.”
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. In the 50+ years since, “the armadillo album” has become a touchstone for aspiring guitarists, introducing the world to a gifted player with a unique and expressive finger picking technique. Kottke’s lovely take on a Bach classic is a highlight.
River – Joni Mitchell
Not 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 the lyrics are stuffed with Christmas references. Oft-covered, 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.
Sleigh Ride– The Ventures
I’ve never personally seen anyone “hang ten” in Puget Sound; nonetheless, one of the greatest surf bands ever hails from Tacoma. This jaunty mashup of a Christmas classic with “Walk, Don’t Run” sports tasty fretwork by Nokie Edwards and Don Wilson (sadly, co-founder and rhythm guitarist Wilson passed away last year at the age of 88).
Sometimes You Have to Work on Christmas – Harvey Danger
Ho-ho-ho, here’s your %&#!@ change. We’ve all been there at one time or another. I have a soft spot for this music video (It’s a Wonderful Life meets Clerks) because it features one of my favorite neighborhood theaters here in Seattle-The Grand Illusion.
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/DJ Binky Griptite (formerly of The Dap Kings). A clever reworking of Laura Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic.” Nice.
A Winter’s Tale – Jade Warrior
Not a Christmas song per se, but it certainly evokes a cozy holiday scenario:
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 track from an underappreciated UK prog-rock band.
‘Zat You, Santa Claus? – Louis Armstrong
The great jazz growler queries a night prowler who may or may not be the jolly old elf.
What begins as a performance of “Everlong” turns into a rousing Christmas medley in this 2017 performance by the Foo Fighters on Saturday Night Live. Good grief!