Take some time to enjoy the season’s best music
By Linda East Brady (Standard-Examiner staff)
Last Edit: 7 sec ago (Dec 21 2009 – 11:27pm)
Every Christmas, a Santa’s sleigh full of holiday albums appears in the store, alongside the perennial faves. You may have accumulated quite the collection of them over the years.
But often the problem with such prefab collections is that they contain one or two gems. But the rest? Lumps of coal.
Or you’ll get good music throughout, but it’ll be in too much of the same sound or style throughout the record.
Why not cull the best of your holiday music crop and make a mix tape of your favorites this year for your holiday party? You can even give them as parting gifts to your guests.
A fun way to get your project started is to think of a theme, and find songs to suit it. How about songs about snow? Maybe some Christmas rock ‘n’ roll from all eras?
Here’s an idea to get you going — The “Women of Song” holiday sampler. I’ve pulled 12 of my favorite holiday tunes by chanteuses of various genres.
The Pretenders — “2,000 Miles.” The Ohio rockers crafted themselves a fine following with their strong musicianship and a punk/socially conscious attitude. Their secret weapon is vocalist/composer Chrissie Hynde. On this, a Hynde composition, released as a flip-side to “Middle of the Road” in 1983, is a sweet and melancholy Christmas tune that sounds both very much in the now, and like an ancient English carol. Hynde sings a song loaded with complicated countermelody and wide vocal range with real beauty, and makes it sound deceptively easy.
Dinah Washington — “Silent Night.” Perhaps one of the most evocative of carols was given a reverent gospel delivery in 1962 by this Albama-born, Chicago-raised singer. She was better known as a salty, pop-based soul/blues singer along the lines of Ray Charles, but here on this holiday favorite, backed by a choir, she doesn’t go with overt period style. The results are beautiful and timeless.
Darlene Love — “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” One of my all-time favorite holiday albums is the Phil Spector-produced “A Christmas Gift to You,” a mid-’60s treasure rereleased this holiday season, featuring his able stable of talent doing holiday favorites against his legendary Spector Wall of Sound. Though it is hard to pick one song from this gem of a collection, actress/singer Love’s powerhouse vocals make this one a standout. She released a second collection of holiday songs, “It’s Christmas, of Course” in 2007.
Charlotte Church — “O Holy Night.” Welsh soprano Church caused a huge sensation in both the classical and pop world when she made her debut at age 12 with a crystal voice that sounded mature far beyond her years. Church performed for popes and kings and is the youngest artist to ever hit No. 1 on the classical charts. Her take on one of classical music’s most beloved Christmas songs is truly breathtaking.
Eartha Kitt — “Santa Baby.” It seems like every sexpot singer who slinks onto the charts takes a stab at this song, but no one does it equal to Ms. Kitt. The playful naughty-AND-nice girl tune, recorded in 1952, was Kitt’s signature song, as she sings her list to Santa in a way that makes the listener wonder just who is going to end up with the best gift of the night. Also an actress (who brought the cat into the role as the original Catwoman on the Batman TV show), the South Carolina-born Kitt’s purr defined the sophisticated sex kitten.
Joni Mitchell — “River.” Canadian Mitchell’s 1971 album “Blue” makes many a critic’s top-records-of-all-time lists, and part of the reason is this achingly sad song of loss and loneliness penned by this important songsmith. The character in this song has hurt the one she loves and pays the price with an empty holiday she longs to escape. This is another many have attempted to redo (Robert Downey Jr.’s version is especially noteworthy), but few capture the heartbreak found in the original.
Brenda Lee — “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Rockabilly has always lent itself well to Christmas novelty songs, and this 1963 jewel by spitfire Lee is no exception. She was a pop and country crossover sensation in 1963 when she scored this chart topper. Like Charlotte Church, she was a child prodigy, going pro at age 10. This one is just good fun to two-step with your family as you toss the tinsel on Old Tannenbaum.
Judy Garland — “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” For some, this sad-yet-hopeful tune defines the holiday. The song’s origins are from the classic film score for the 1957 film “Meet Me in St. Louis.” The song is a heartbreaker and Garland’s beautiful, tremulous voice is a perfect match for the material.
Kirsty MacColl and the Pogues — “Fairytale of New York (Xmas Song).” This 1988 collaboration between two of the most renowned Irish rock acts tells the story of an Irish couple who met as New York immigrants on Christmas Eve. MacColl duets here with Shane MacGowan, both singing heartily of their debauched disappointments in the New World. The traditional Irish jig music that pushes the song along is utterly catchy and makes the snarky tune a classic. MacColl perished in 2000 in a controversial speedboat accident while scuba diving in Mexico, but her good-natured raucous turn with the Pogues lives on forever with both the Celtic and punk set.
The Roches — “Star of Wonder.” Christmas carols are for caroling, and are thus meant for the a cappella treatment. The Roches, sisters from New York City, make this one, recorded in 1990, a chill-inducing keeper. The lyrics ring true and honestly full of wonder in the sisters’ understated, tender delivery.
Bette Midler — “Mele Kalikimaka.” Nothing says Christmas like a Jewish hula girl from Hawaii. The Divine Miss M sends her Christmas greeting in this catchy Hawaiian/swing tune that teaches how they celebrate the holidays in our 50th state. This song, from Midler’s 2006 holiday album, “Cool Yule,” is just plain fun!
Sixpence None the Richer — “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Here’s another Christmas hymn given a delicate, classic treatment by this winsome Austin, Texas-based Christian pop band. Leigh Nash’s delicate voice is never lost in the mix, as the production grows lush and builds to an elegiac climax in this song from 2008. The adorably animated angel video that accompanies the song makes this a sweet tune for the entire family.
Sources: Liner notes and biographical notes from the artists’ albums, their Web sites, www.allmusic.com, www.youtube.com
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