Have you finished your Christmas shopping yet? No? I get it. You’re avoiding the malls in fear of being bombarded with Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” or whatever pseudo-holiday songs are being spun by the latest manufactured boy band, right? That’s my theory of why online retailers are becoming more popular than ever. It’s best to shop in the comfort of your own home, where clothing is optional and you have control over the stereo. Commercialization of once sacred holidays can get bad enough, so there is no need to further sully a religious holiday with virtually every popular artist reaching out to milk the Christmas cash cow. Standby classics have been covered to death, and when it comes to original compositions, we all know the trend peaked with Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis”, right?
OK, so you may not share my enjoyment of that particular number. Unlike many out there, I don’t feel the need to escape holiday music. I try to embrace it, with some notable exceptions of course (see Mariah Carey, which I am intentionally not linking to this page). A great number of it is due to the family ties that I associate with particular songs or albums, but I like the idea of starving myself of a group of music only to indulge for just one month of the year. That being said, I still always aim to get my shopping complete as soon as possible to avoid the mall rush (which I did in record time this year).
The goal of this post is that I want to show some skeptics that not all Christmas music is bad. I’ve gathered a dozen tracks from a variety of artists, so if you have a wide taste in music you should find something you like. Some songs you may recognize, some you may not. Some are silly, some are serious. Some you may like, some you may hate. Nonetheless, I present to you The Armchair Maestro’s ChristMix Tape. Sadly, that’s the best name I could think up. I can properly call this a mixtape because with the dual-tape deck I bought for my home stereo a few days ago, this can now become a reality!! But I’m not about to ship tapes to each reader, so hyperlinks or MP3s it will have to be.
Be warned, many of the songs I’ve selected are originals, so they may not be what you’d expect for the time of year.
Tom Waits – “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”
See? What did I just tell you? I’m not about to start this tape with “Joy to the World”.
The title may seem comical on it’s own, but the lyrics tell a moving story about someone trying to improve their life around the holiday season. That is, until near the end of the letter as she comes clean about the truth of her situation. Hey, at least she thought enough of Charlie to write, albeit in an attempt to get some money out of him.
The soulful blues ballad arrangement proves once again that a piano and voice are often the only ingredients you need for a great song, especially if the vocalist has the character of Tom Waits. This was one of the first songs to pull me towards Waits, and when I learned it was his song that served as the opening credits theme to The Wire, I was sold. A few months ago, I grabbed copies of Rain Dogs and Blue Valentine (where this track came from), and look forward to one day getting more.
King Diamond – “No Presents for Christmas”
I have a feeling this song angered some of his fans who were with him from the early days of Mercyful Fate. To me, it’s just a laugh. Good, cheesy, fun. For a metal artist that regularly visits horror and occult themes, this is exactly how you’d expect Christmas to go, . References to more popular Christmas songs pop up, most notably an “I’m dreaming of a white… Sabbath!” line that would have Irving Berlin reaching for Annie’s gun in no time. Throw in some name-dropping of cartoon characters Donald Duck and Tom and Jerry, and you have a song fit for everyone in the family from your cherubic toddler to your Satanist grandmother.
King would revisit the holiday as part of the story in 2003’s The Puppet Master. Don’t get too excited, though. “Christmas” is a fine standalone song, but I wouldn’t blame you if an album detailing a couple’s gory transformation into undead puppets is too much for your Christmas spirit to handle.
John Zorn / Dreamers – “Christmas Time is Here”
A Dreamer’s Christmas has become a staple in my Christmas rotation. They are a group with serious chops, much like Trans-Siberian Orchestra but from another genre. However, this project is nowhere near as over-played as TSO (a group I do still enjoy), and is deserving of more listens.
The album also contains two excellent songs that were penned by band leader John Zorn (“Santa’s Workshop” and “Magical Sleigh Ride”), but jumping in with an interpretation of a recognizable song may be the better access point. I’ve heard versions of the song by other artists that I feel can’t hold up next to Vince Guaraldi’s famous rendition from Charlie Brown’s Christmas special, but they handle the song with the respect it deserves, keeping the tone light without taking too radical an approach. I’m particularly moved by the role of vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen on this track, but the entire band truly click as a unit.
To make amends for the Christmas gifts that a certain make-up coated vocalist from Denmark said wouldn’t arrive, the purchase of this album includes a sheet of stickers featuring several holiday characters and ornamentation. Being something of an album collector, those babies are going to stay in pristine shape, never to be stuck across my front door, pasted in a Christmas scrapbook, or, like all else under the sun, baked into a Christmas fruitcake.
Jethro Tull – “Birthday Card at Christmas”
I could have chose any song from The Jethro Tull Christmas Album, but went with the album opener for the energy and the lyrical content. It’s a dedication to those who have a birthday so close to Christmas that often gets overshadowed. I know I had an uncle with this dilemma (Chris, who was, as one might guess, born on the 25th), and Ian Anderson penned this song with his daughter in mind. Maybe this song will help cheer us such a person in your own life. If not, you can’t go wrong with “Cross-Eyed Mary”.
Re-recordings of older Tull tracks such as “Weathercock” and “Ring Out Solstice Bells” help bulk up the tracklist of the album. Unfortunately, the album is out of print, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be obtained affordably. I’m pretty sure my dad found his copy for a couple of bucks.
The Kinks – “Father Christmas”
I first heard this song in the movie Office Christmas Party, a decent modern Christmas comedy, but learning that it was a Kinks song I found rather interesting and may be my most lasting memory of the movie (that and a playfully-flirty Olivia Munn character). The Kinks are a band that I always fool myself into believing I have had limited exposure to. It turns out that their sound is always more diverse than I remember. Between this song, “You Really Got Me”, and “Living On A Thin Line”, I would have thought these were three different rock bands, and I’ve certainly heard other Kinks tunes that I may also have associated with other bands.
It seemed like a rare idea for 1977, but I was somewhat surprised to learn a music video was produced for “Father Christmas”. That may just be ignorance from my living solely in a post-MTV society, but I wonder how much play this thing received on TV and who would air it. It doesn’t encapsulate entirely what the song was actually about (a department store Santa who had an unpleasant run-in with some young hooligans) but the band does dress up in those shoddy-quality Santa Father Christmas suits with hook-on beards. And they sneer obnoxiously towards the camera repeatedly to let you know they are punk through-and-through, as if the lyrics didn’t give as much away already.
Jimmy Smith – “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”
Much to my surprise, Mr. Bean wasn’t the first person to make this song swing. I doubt that Jimmy Smith was the first either, but I’ve got to feature him here. Songs from his album Christmas ‘64 (re-issued as Christmas Cookin’ in what I’d consider an improved cover) likely had the bulk of their air-time nearer the initial release, so unless I’m listening to a jazz station I doubt I’ll be hearing this with much regularity.
I find some people can’t digest jazz music in the traditional instrumentation, so to some the use of organ as the driving force of the band gives Jimmy Smith’s album a cool factor that others miss. I happen to be in the camp that think no matter what you think of the music, jazz musicians manner of dress in the 60s and earlier, from their suits to their shades to their.. socks, possibly?? (well before someone’s “sock game” was considered worthwhile discussion) was a strong factor in the genre’s appeal. I mean, if someone can find me a cooler-looking band than the one off the cover of Ornette Coleman’s This Is Our Music, I’ll eat my hat. By which I mean my homemade sugar cookies styled in the shape of decorative winter toques. This IS a Christmas blog, is it not?
Anyway, Jimmy Smith. Super-cool. Listen.
Greg Lake – “I Believe In Father Christmas”
Classic rock radio tends to spin this one during the holidays, so even those in younger generations likely recognize it. This was apparently intended to be an anti-war / protest song of some form, but it took on a life of it’s own. If you like, the spot on the tape could be just as easily be reserved for with “Happy X-Mas (War Is Over)”, but I tend to associate that song with guilt-trip charity infomercial it would always play during. It may have been for a good cause, but in my ten-year old brain, it was an insufferable ad that got between me and my beloved Three Stooges reruns.
Furthermore, if you feel you’ve also heard this one too many times before, you could opt for fellow prog-rockers Yes and grab Jon Anderson’s “The Holly and The Ivy” or Chris Squire and Alan White’s “Run With The Fox”. Both are more obscure, but minus some of the keyboard passages, I’d say that Lake’s song is far less cheesy than either of those.
I’m not sure if Emerson, Lake & Palmer (Lake being Greg Lake) re-recorded this song or that they slapped the band’s name on it afterwards in hopes of selling more singles, but I first heard the song on the 2-CD set The Essential Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Since I no longer have that particular collection, I’ve had to look up their version online, but all links seem to point to what feels like a carbon copy. Help me out, people, and refer me to the 20-minute extended jam version complete with knife-stabbed keyboards and two-and-a-half tonne stainless-steel drums that I must be overlooking.
Oceansize – “Walking In The Air”
I’m always hard-pressed to say something negative about Oceansize, considering that I’ve spent sleepless nights wondering how much money it would take for them to reunite and play a one-off show in my apartment. An underrated rock band without question, and I can’t help but wonder what could have been had they broke into the North American market.
The original version debuted in a British animated feature titled The Snowman, which would sometimes air with an introduction from musical demigod David Bowie. A neat idea, but I can go without being led to believe the boy from this story and Ziggy Stardust were one and the same. When it comes to Christmas TV specials, this is one that I will always recommend to those that may have missed out on it. It’s one of those works where I’ll unashamedly admit that the combination of story and music has moved me to tears on more than one occasion. The illustrations in both the book and film were handled by Raymond Briggs, who still appears to be active into his eighties.
Once I learned this cover song existed, I pictured Mike Vennart’s take on the distinct vocal melodies that were once handled masterfully by choirboy Peter Auty. Instead, in a rarity for the band, the track was an instrumental. I am such a fan of the version from the cartoon that I had high standards going into my first listen. Shame on me for having any doubt, as Oceansize met them and produced a real epic.
AC/DC – “Mistress for Christmas”
You should know what to expect here. This is a hard rock band that formed in the 70s, with whom innuendo was mandatory, and that’s the way we liked it. If “You Shook Me All Night Long” makes you blush, then this song will have you turning as red as the jolly old elf himself. Venturing into Christmas music shouldn’t be considered to be an over-the-top move by AC/DC. This is a band that curated a soundtrack for a movie about possessed vehicles and soda dispensers, after all, and this diminutive quintet proved they could tackle the holidays with greater ease than Stephen King could tackle rock interviews.
One thing I’m admit is that back when I owned a copy of The Razor’s Edge, I would skip this song. Not out of dislike for it, but I really thought of it as a Christmas song. It also rocks as hard as many AC/DC songs, giving it credibility among their fans. In facts, it seems a good portion of AC/DC fans actually wished that the band made a complete Christmas album, much like Twisted Sister or Halford would create. With Axl Rose behind the mic and Angus being the only recognizable remnant of AC/DC, the band missed their chance. It’s a shame, as I would have got a big kick out of hearing “Carol of the Hell’s Bells” “Dirty Deeds (Put You On The Naughty List)” or “Angels We Have Heard on High Voltage”.
The Red Chord – “Black Santa”
Sorry about linking up to a 240p video. It’s all Metal Blade had to offer, and I try to keep my sources as official as possible. Anyway, this one may have a few hitting the fast-forward button if you can’t stand metal of the growled-vocal nature. Even if you can’t decipher what words are coming out of Guy Kozowyk’s mouth, the song title is enough of a thought-provoking statement as any.
Does it really matter what race Santa is? I don’t see a problem. He’s based off a real person, but the characterization has undergone so many transformations, and it’s enjoyable to see what people come up with. Isn’t he usually magic, so can’t he transform his appearance as he flies through different regions of the world like a chameleon or shape-shifter? I believe that’s the kind of ingenuity that helps him fit down chimneys.
Or is the black referring to the sooty condition of his body and clothing after manoeuvring through said chimneys? Or is it a nickname the elves gave their moody boss the year they switched to a computer-based naughty/nice tracking system without his blessing? Does the real meaning matter all that much? If you have to know, it was supposedly based off a mentally challenged man they knew and featured such quotes of his like “The penis was from heaven and it went to hell”. Yeah..
But that riffing though! If this doesn’t fill you with Yuletide joy while slamming in the moshpit, you have no soul.
Paul Bley – “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”
Now I’ll bring things back to Birdland with a return to jazz, and the sole slice of Canadian content. I rarely think of Paul Bley as being Canadian, and not just due to the fact fellow Montrealer Oscar Peterson can cast quite the shadow. I do find it interesting to learn I theoretically cast votes in the same elections as a musician I admire, but I don’t view Canadian-created art in any form as a separate category. I welcome any Canadian music recommendations, but hardly ever intentionally search for it.
Rounding out this powerful trio are two jazz titans with Charles Mingus on bass and Art Blakey on drums. As most Jazz 101 courses should inform you, both men went on to be renown leaders of their own bands soon after this session. That alone should make this a worthwhile listen, eventhough they are here in a less-flashy context and serves as more of a supportive foundation. There is a reason they call the bass / drum combo a rhythm section (some Music 101 you probably didn’t need).
I found this song on my re-issued copy of Introducing Paul Bley, so be careful which edition you pick up as this song is not on all of them. What I enjoy about Bley’s take on the song is that it seems to move and evolve over such a short time span. You only hear the main melodies played in a more traditional sense one time in the song, though through the chord changes you should still recognize the basic tune. As he touches back on the melody near the end of his soloing, it doesn’t bookend quite the way I anticipated, with it concluding somewhat abruptly. I like an artist who can keep me on my toes.
Captain Beefheart – “There Ain’t No Santa Claus on the Evening Stage”
One of the more polarizing figures in rock music, but it’s my list so I’ll include who I want. It ends sort of how it starts, with a raspy voiced singer that is an acquired taste. Waits has his share of more mainstream recognition, while the man once known as Don Van Vliet seems to be more greatly misunderstood. I dig the guy’s music, but if I were to attempt a coherent translation to the lyrics of this one, I’d show you how even a fan could misunderstand him.
Take a bluesman who scribes outside-the-box lyrics and give him a band capable of playing multiple genres competently, and let them run loose with experimental instrumental motifs. That pretty much captures most of the Beefheart I know. If that doesn’t sound easy to swallow, it may not be. Take it from comedian Marc Maron. However, that doesn’t describe all his music. For examples of his more palatable arrangements, look to songs like “I’m Glad” from Safe As Milk or “Too Much Time” off Clear Spot. Those may pull you into the Beefheart camp if this avant-garde Christmas carol doesn’t instantly speak to you.
Then again, he’s not for everyone. Don’t be a slave to out-of-date technology, and be free to reach for the eject button with the gusto of Rudolph after getting that overdue sleigh ride invite. Or, for a substitute you’re even less likely to bite on, maybe this falsetto cover version is more up your alley.
I always want to spice up my holiday listening experience by finding something new each season, so if anyone has any recommendations, send them my way. If you want to go through the trouble of producing a full-blown mixtape and mailing it to me, then go ahead. I won’t give you my contact info directly, but when it comes to personal information on the internet, I probably cover up my tracks worse than The Wet Bandits.