If you’d have said to me when I was a young adult that I’d be enjoying Christmas music later in my life, I would probably have laughed at you.
But here I am, it’s 2019 and I have many Christmas albums and it feels untrue how we develop and change. Now, it has to be said that any fascination for Christmas I had when I was younger had been turned right around by the time I hit my teens and in the intervening years some remarkable transitions have taken place in my life. These have caused me to re-evaluate why Christmas should be celebrated – and celebrated in a totally different way. But, back then I had exactly one Christmas-flavoured record. It revolved at 45rpm and had one song on each side. Now, I have more than thirty albums of seasonal music – mostly songs of faith and about the birth of Jesus but some that are just about the festival and carry their own joy.
This list may come too late for you to listen to them but at least it gives you some time to add to your own collection before next year. It is the nearer the day when the true love brought five gold rings than the day when we celebrate the birth of the Messiah – so perhaps you’ll find some jewels here for 2020:-
Well, back in the late seventies a friend bought me a copy of the Eagles’ 1978 Christmas hit (in its own picture sleeve – we didn’t usually have those in the UK, – so it was very exciting). A-side was a cover of Charles Brown’s classic “Please Come Home For Christmas”, B-side was a Henley/Frey composition, “Funky New Year” which was about waking up with a hangover. I loved it because the Eagles were the first rock band I seriously engaged with growing up. I was mocked at school for liking them – they were deeply uncool when “New Wave” came along. If you like either of these two songs then live versions of them can be found in the “Selected Works” box set, also in a promo solo disc called “A Night to Remember” and most recently, and expensively in the box set “Legacy”. The live recordings are from their 1999 holiday shows which were captured for posterity.
Other seasonal offerings from the Eagles camp? Not many and rather varied in quality I’m afraid. Original bassist, Randy Meisner appears on a CD EP which was sold by CDBaby online. It is by his short-lived band “Black Tie” who by now had slimmed to the a regular line-up of 4 including Jimmy Griffin, Billy Swan and Meisner and carries the imaginative title of “Black Tie II”. Amongst, its tracks it has the seasonal carol, “Away in a Manger”.
If you want a song to preface either version of “Funky New Year”, you could use a number by Eagles’ lead guitarist, Joe Walsh, “New Year’s Eve” which found its way on to the soundtrack of the Adam Sandler vehicle “The Waterboy”. It’s not clear when it was recorded and it’s not a masterpiece either lyrically or musically, but you might like it. Approach with caution.
Finally, in this section, we have a two-track promo release that the late Glenn Frey had a hand in. It’s by Max Carl and goes under the title Merry Maxmas. I think it must be quite rare, but it was released on Frey’s label “Mission records” and it has two tracks the pick of which is the knockabout rocker “Go Go Santa”.
Country Rock and bluegrass
Al Perkins recorded an album for a low budget set-up and they released it as “Smokey Mountain Christmas”. They even had to attach a sticker to the cover to tell you who was playing. Very tasteful with Al multi-tasking.
Richie Furay. On a compilation called “Southern Rock Christmas” which also has a track by Charlie Daniels, Richie, the former lead singer of Poco, is featured on a track entitled “Come and Praise Him/ Christmas must be Tonight”. Richie is one of two pastors on this list and one of two in the rock’n’roll hall of fame.
For my money, Bob Dylan’s album, “Christmas in the Heart” is a bonafide classic and I have spent some time explaining why I think so – most recently, here:
The songs divide fairly easily into three categories:- fun, family and faith, if you want to look at it that way.
Favourite songs (to my ears):
For the fun – “Must Be Santa”. (Hey, we’ve started singing it in church every Christmas day, and you wouldn’t have caught that phrase on my lips when I was 17).
For the family – “Little Drummer Boy” (Dylan’s record company put out a great little video to accompany this which can be seen on YouTube).
For faith – “O Come All Ye Faithful (Dylan actually sings the first verse in Latin),
“Hark! the Herald Angels sing”
“The First Noel”
and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (the finest vocal on the album but if you’re coming to this 2009 album for great vocals, then you’re perhaps in the wrong place. It is despite this an essential purchase – not least because the proceeds of your purchase will go to help feed the hungry.
And Bob Dylan’s contributions to the Christmas season do not end there. The original vinyl release of Dylan’s “Christmas in the Heart” comes with a 7″ single, one side of which plays Dylan’s rendition of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” – read in a voice which could be Santa himself.
And if you want to hear Dylan recommending some Christmas music both sacred and secular, why not wander the way of his radio show from a few years ago, “Theme Time Radio Hour”. Episode 34 which is a couple of hours long has Dylan waxing lyrical as he plays us classics like “Who took the Merry out of Christmas” (The Staples Singers), “Silent Night” (Huey “Piano” Smith), and the recording where Dylan learned “Must Be Santa”. Then if you’re feeling brave you could wander to Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour broadcast about the Bible where he promised: “For the next hour we’re gonna be playin’ music about Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, The Wisdom of Solomon, First Maccabees and Second Maccabees, First Samuel and Second Samuel, First Kings, Second Kings. We’re gonna be playing stuff that comes out of the Psalms and the Proverbs. You know all of these. Jonah and Malachi – how come nobody’s named Malachi anymore? We’re gonna be playing music that has something to do with Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And of course, The Book of Revelations. So, gather the family around the radio and hear the good news. Seek and you shall find”.
Okay, rein yourself in Mr. Writer, you’re getting off topic. Get back to Christmas.
When I first got interested in jazz, I searched around for albums that had some of the sidemen that featured on the Steely Dan albums of the late-70s and 80s. I found most of them on records by this guy, who was a well-known Fender Rhodes and piano player, if not exactly a critics’ favourite. He had Tom Scott, Steve Khan, David Sanborn…, he’d worked with Ron Carter, Sarah Vaughan, Maynard Ferguson, Mongo Santamaria, Paul Simon, Earl Klugh, Kirk Whalum… and I liked the way he played. I never knew why the reviewers didn’t get him.He spent quite a lot of time on CTI and when that label went under, he moved to Columbia. He then moved to Warners until that label foolishly dumped most, if not all of their jazz roster in a classic miscalculation.One of my few reservations about Mr James is that whether due to record label pressure or due to a personal inclination to follow musical trends, he occasionally took what was for me a misstep but, hey, what do I know – it’s all about taste.I do think that since he left Warner Brothers, he has been free to paint from a wider musical canvas and this has led him, amongst other things, in the direction of some wonderful Christmas music.
Where do I start? Well, the best of his catalogue in this category has to be one of the albums he has recorded with his daughter, Hilary James. Entitled “Christmas Eyes”, it includes some classic standards and carols but also some new compositions and songs I wasn’t familiar with. I would go with “A Star was His Nightlight” and “Bells of Paradise” has my personal favourites. Of the 13 tracks, 10 have vocals but there is something here for everyone.What else? Well, before Bob left Warner Brothers, he contributed to an album entitled “Warner Bros Jazz Christmas Party” which features a quite wonderful take on “White Christmas” which Bob undertakes with Bela Fleck which is just quite sublime. Also, on that set is the Bob James Trio’s take on “Personent Hodie (Sing Aloud on this Day)”, a tune which was revisited on “Christmas Eyes”.
Bob’s classical albums which blend harpsichord-sounds with piano and modern keyboard-sounds whilst not being obviously Christmas are good music to sit around the fire to. Choose “The Scarlatti Dialogues”.
Also, there’s a Blue Note album out there from the mid-90s, entitled “Jazz to the World” which has “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” by Bob’s band, Fourplay. The album is a little mixed in places, but highlights include “Angels We Have Heard on High” by Mike Mainieri’s Steps Ahead and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Herbie Hancock.
Having mentioned Fourplay, we can then move on to their own Christmas album, whose title track is Donald Fagen of Steely Dan‘s Snowbound. At this point, as well as Mr James, Fourplay were featuring the lead guitar of their second resident guitarist, Larry Carlton. He is featured to particularly good effect on the quartet’s version of “Amazing Grace”.
Mention of Mr Carlton must bring us on to a section on Steely Dan alumni, past and present.We would be extremely surprised to have found the sardonic and acidic wit of those master songwriters, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker turning their attention, collectively or individually to the subject of Christmas, but less surprisingly some of those who have worked with the Dan in the studio or in the touring band, have turned their hand to just those kind of recordings.
Top of my recommended list is the very obscure and hard-to-find Japanese release by long-time Danette, Carolyn Leonhart. Released in 1997 and then only on 3″ cd single (search out those adapters) and featuring family head, Jay Leonhart on bass, this is a great release. The lead-off track is “Hello, Merry Christmas” which is followed by “Christmas Candle Light” and then instrumental versions of both tracks. Difficult to obtain but search hard, this is delightful.
Also, a Dan sideman from earlier in the day. Michael Omartian has an album where layer-on-layer of keyboards are built up to great effect on traditional Christmas carols. One track even borrows the intro from a Dan arrangement. Very nice.
The aforementioned Larry Carlton released “Christmas at My House” in the late 80s. More recently, (2001), Michael McDonald turned his attention to what Christmas means to him on “In the Spirit”. The Leonhart disc is best but these two are worth a spin as well.
It took Mr Brubeck an awful long-time to get around to solo piano releases. Trios, quartets, septets, whole orchestras but very few solo releases and all of those in the last few years of his career and life. “A Dave Brubeck Christmas” is, however, a good one, especially on those tracks which are meant to sound late night and sad and melancholy. Choices? “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Farewell, jingle bells”. Check out “To Hope! A Celebration”, “Classical Brubeck” and “Songs of Praise” for more faith-themed (Christmas & Easter related) compositions by Mr Brubeck.
Vince Guaraldi. A classic Christmas film often has a classic Christmas soundtrack and that’s certainly the case for Mr Guaraldi’s Trio recordings for “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. No solos from Snoopy but if seasonal piano-bass-drums is your thing, you could do worse.
Alexander Zonjic. Alexander Zonjic has worked with Bob James on his album “Ivory Coast” which I love and appears on a live DVD from the same period. His “Pipers Holiday album which he recorded with Ervin Monroe is a great disc and combines classical and jazz flutes styles in a very evocative fashion. The opening “Christmas Images” accurately shows what you will find here.
UK Glam Rock of the 70s. I was born just too late to appreciate this too much first time around, but it didn’t take me long to catch up. The obvious things are Slade‘s “Merry Christmas Everybody” and Wizzard‘s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” but my highest commendation here goes to a personal favourite, Alvin Stardust. In 2003, he released a great album entitled “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” which features, carols, standards and new compositions done in rock’n’roll and glam stylings. My favourite, here, is the last track, “The Reason”, co-write by Mr Stardust and Scottish guitarist, Stuart Barbour which is a great little number. By the time that the former Shane Fenton released that album he’d been dabbling in Christmas music for about a decade. He had a minor Christmas hit in 1985 with “So Near to Christmas” which on the 12″ single was backed by a medley of Christmas carols. On another obscure release, he had recorded “Don’t Forget at Christmas” (a romantic ballad) and “Noel” (a reworking of the Christmas Carol, The First Noel).
I started off with a category marked music of the 70s and talked mostly about music made after that time but by artists who were at their peak during that era. Songs actually from the 70s, and not to be missed, include T.Rex‘s “Christmas Bop” which was completely overlooked at the time and the sublime, “Lonely This Christmas” by Mud.
Glam rock might belong to the Seventies, but it doesn’t end there. First there are bands who have self-consciously tried to re-capture the spirit of the Christmas records of the era. Top of the tree in that regard are British band, The Darkness, with their two Christmas singles “Christmas Times (Don’t Let the Bells End)” and (the better of the two) “I Am Santa” (which must be listened to whilst watching the video to achieve full effect).
Some bands from the Seventies who were at the head of the glam movement are still around in one form or another. Sweet‘s “Let it snow!” has some merit.Other projects look back on a golden era – check out “It isn’t really Christmas until Noddy starts to sing” a song in praise of the classic Slade hit we mentioned which is performed by the Occasional Flames and features Slade drummer, Don Powell as well as Paul Cookson and Les Glover.
Classics for your children. Acorns, they say, don’t fall far from the tree and having talked already about Bob James and his daughter, Hilary, we must mention Hilary’s Christmas single which has been delighting me this year. Cunningly disguised as Miss Hilary and the Flying Trapeze, she has delivered (pun intended!) “The Big Red Sleigh”. It doesn’t sit easily alongside “Christmas Eyes” but if you have children, or if you are just a full-grown child yourself (like me), then you are going to love this so much.
Older Christmas treats for children? Back to the Seventies for The Wombles, “Wombling Merry Christmas” and the related and later mash-up “I Wish it could be a Wombling Merry Christmas Everyday” with Roy Wood of Wizzard. If your family doesn’t get it or you’re not from the UK, resort to showing them the video on YouTube. Who can resist a Womble playing lead guitar?
Two albums of Christmas music from the head Season. His most recent album is “Tis the Seasons” and way back in the early Sixties, Frankie, Bob Gaudio and the original line-up recorded “Seasons’ Greetings”. The recent album is the place to hear today’s voice, the older as the falsetto stuff – take your pick!
It has oft been said that the Reverend Green would sound good singing the phone books. Phone books don’t really seem to exist anymore in these internet days but thankfully he has near 50 years of recordings to turn to, so we don’t need to worry about that anyway. His Christmas title is “Feels Like Christmas” which has been re-released a number of times with different covers and an edition with a bonus track. Favourites here are “What Christmas Means to Me” and “O Holy Night” and, yes, that voice sounds good on them all.
Now, this is a hidden nugget for those who like your Christmas music in an alternative vein (I’m not really sure what that means). Ms Tracy who has been described as a “femme fatale for the thinking man” has come up with an album that is beautiful and threatening on this her most recent release. It is something of a musical sandwich (but that description doesn’t do it any kind of justice). The outer layers are carols and Christmas Hymns but in the centre is something much darker. 7 tracks tell that the coming of the Christ which brings love and warmth into the heart of humans, and then the track “Room 19” tells of a man who has died alone in his locked room over Christmas and he lies there undisturbed while the holidays continue. Complete with a reference to a Gideon’s Bible: if this doesn’t move you then nothing will.
All About Eve.
On the whole, I’ve tried to concentrate here on albums that work as a complete recording. Here’s one that doesn’t quite achieve that, but I love Julianne Regan’s voice, so it gets in. It’s much more a kind of electronica or something than you might expect from All About Eve with treated vocals and keyboards taking the forefront. Covers of songs like Wham’s “Last Christmas” and Aled Jones’ “Walking in the Air” don’t work for me, but “December Revisited” is beautiful and the rest of the album works well. The album is entitled “Iceland”.
Sufjan released five Christmas EPs between 2001 and 2006. They are now gathered in a boxset. They are quirky, interesting and alternative (there’s that word again). If you want music that sounds homemade, sincere, heartfelt and minimally produced. The majority are songs of faith but there’s lots else too.
Recorded towards the end of her career, “Christmas Spirit” is a beautiful record, produced by Michael Omartian (who produced her “Cats Without Claws”, and “She Works Hard For the Money” albums) and it occupies very different territory than her Giorgio Moroder both lyrically and musically. Content is all about faith and family, similar to the Dylan album, but here the vocals excel. Best Tracks? “Christmas Spirit” and “Lamb of God” would be my choice.
In 2003, Jethro Tull released a disc imaginatively titled “The Jethro Tull Christmas Album”. They re-recorded all their Christmas and winter-themed material with some new material and a cover of Martin Barre’s solo recording “A Winter Snowscape”. About 5 years later, they performed in a carol service in St. Bride’s Church in the City of London (I had a small role in arranging the service), in order to raise money for the homeless. The following year, this recording was added to the original disc to make a double album. Consequently, we get carols, choral pieces, readings, instrumentals and even a little of “Thick as a Brick”. Who’d have guessed? Anyway, great album that grows on you. Favourite track? For me, “First Snow on Brooklyn” which is very poignant.
Roger McGuinn. Mr McGuinn, formerly of the Byrds, has not to my knowledge ever done a Christmas album, but each month he records a traditional folk song for his website for free download with the intention of preserving our folk music heritage. Each December, his Christian faith inspires him to choose a carol or folk song with a nativity theme. Check out McGuinn’s Folk Den.
A small clutch of tracks that must be heard: Some great vocals here: Kate Bush: “December Will Be Magic Again”; The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl: “Fairytale of New York”; Stevie Nicks: “Silent Night; Panic Room: “O Holy Night”.
They also serve who get played less often: U2, “New Year’s Day” and “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)”, Bruce Springsteen “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Merry Christmas, Baby”, Bob Seger “Little Drummer Boy” and “Sock it to Me, Santa”, Spinal Tap “We 3 Kings”, Bobby Boris Pickett “Monsters’ Holiday, Judie Tzuke and the Tzukettes “Christmas with the Tzukettes”, Kirk Whalum “The Christmas Message”, Rick Wakeman “Christmas Portraits”, oh and let’s not forget, Alice Cooper‘s version of Santa Claws (is coming to town) (and yes, it really is spelt like that – this after all is Alice)..
And don’t forget the timeless classics of Nat, Bing and Frank. There’s still plenty of room for the standards.