A Decent Holiday Mix

Graham LeBron
12 05, 2015

Hi folks. It's that time of year again. I'm betting that if you grew up in the United States, you've been subjected to Christmas music your entire life. And maybe you even like some of it. Or maybe you did like it at first, but after decades of the same songs each winter, they become like familiar seasonal headaches that you begin to dread around Thanksgiving time. As I've gotten older I've learned to embrace many things that I used to actively dislike, like Phil Collins, Don Henley, and eggplant.  And in the case of Christmas music, mostly because it is inescapable. Even if you don't leave your house, it will still get to you through your computer, TV, radio, phone... I do find joy and even comfort in some of them, so, this year, I decided to create a holiday mix that doesn't suck. 

This is compiled from years of study, friends and family recommendations, and a lifetime of listening. I have carefully selected holiday inspired tracks that won't make you want to tear your ears off. I hope you can enjoy this as much as I do. I remember back in 2000, my family came to Oakland for Christmas. It was the dawn of the CD burner and my sister and I spent some time creating our very own Holiday mix. It turned out pretty well and many of those songs are included. This mix is intended for adults, not that it is explicit (I left out the Snoop Dogg Christmas album) but because some of those kids Christmas songs I just can't take. As you can see, there's a lot of good on here, old and new. Over the years, I've explored various compilations, many of which have a few great and unexpected songs, like the Cocteau Twins' version of "Frosty the Snowman" or the Eurhythmics' "Winter Wonderland" from the classic "A Very Special Christmas" series, featuring an iconic cover by Keith Haring. A few years ago, there was a semi indie compilation called Holidays Rule that was pretty good. I particularly like the pedal steel laced Fruit Bats track on that one, which I've included here. 

As far as consistent Christmas albums, I always end up going back to the classics -- a great example is "A Christmas Gift for you from Phil Spector."  Fueled by his trademark "Wall of Sound" production, driven by the magic of "The Wrecking Crew" studio band, and filled with familiar hits by his artists like Darlene Love, The Ronettes, and The Crystals, it certainly stands the test of time. Released in 1963, it actually made 142 on Rolling Stone's 500 greatest albums of all time. It was supposedly the inspiration for The Beach Boys' first Christmas song, also released in 1963, "Little Saint Nick," such a rocking original holiday tune. 

The very next year in November of 1964, they released "The Beach Boys' Christmas Album" which is another classic. The influential British music mag, NME, actually just posted an article about it, noting how odd it must have been for fans to hear a Christmas album from a group known for songs about sun, surf and girls. I think they still sound great, and other folks must have agreed because the album ended up going gold. Apparently, the reason they made the album in the first place is because Brian Wilson was so into Phil Spector's creation. Supposedly, he has said it is his favorite album of all time. He actually attended recording sessions for it and played piano on the song "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" but was dismissed by Spector due to his substandard piano playing. Jeez!

Smoothed out on the R&B tip, James Brown's "A Soulful Christmas" or the even larger compilation "The Complete James Brown Christmas" are both great. The original songs are much better than I would've expected, and he even gets deep on "Let's Unite the Whole World at Christmas Time" and "Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year." A Motown Christmas from 1973 is no slouch either, with great versions of classics by The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, and The SupremesAnd I can't leave out Stevie Wonder's Christmas Collection either, his rendition of The Little Drummer Boy means Christmas time is here for me.

There is another version of The Little Drummer boy that I can't go without hearing at least every December. "My Little Drum" is from my favorite holiday album, The Vince Guaraldi Trio's "A Charlie Brown Christmas" from 1965." 

Vince rearranged the tune so perfectly that it has been known to bring me to tears. The way he changes the original progression, playing the melody in a different rhythm while shifting the chords over the sustained pedal tone bass note on the piano is absolutely beautiful. Just magical. This is how I want to feel every Christmas. Honestly, this song, and the album, are up there in my tops of all time.  Not to mention the fact that it contains "Linus and Lucy," possibly one of the greatest, most fun, and most iconic instrumentals ever written. No wonder it became the de facto theme song, and the first song on this mix.  I have such great memories of watching the Peanuts' TV special "A Charlie Brown Christmas" for so many years, listening to this reminds me of the power music can have -- that it can instantly take you back to a time when things were simpler. If I'm really being honest, I've pretty much always had great memories of the holidays until a few years back when a couple of winters got really heavy. This album makes me feel better and reminds me that the holidays are supposed to be about sharing with family and friends, and each year I find I'm beginning to get back to that happy Christmas place. 

Speaking of happy places, I've always enjoyed the duet between Bing Crosby and David Bowie on another great version "The Little Drummer Boy," so I was thrilled when Will Farrell and John C. Reilly did an exacting re-enactment of it. I didn't realize Bowie didn't want to sing the song, so the writers for Bing's Christmas special quickly whipped up the "Peace on Earth" part for him. Interesting story, actually.

Another happy place I can go to is "Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas." Originally aired in 1977, it is one of the greatest Jim Henson productions ever. A sweet Christmas story about a poor otter single mother, Ma Otter, and her loving son, Emmet. It's actually a twist on the classic Christmas tale, "The Gift of the Magi." For years, it would air every winter and my sister and I would watch it religiously. They released it on DVD eventually, so we could watch it whenever we wanted, which we still do. I recommend the DVD if only for the fun outtakes and behind the scenes stuff. I'm a sucker for a good Muppet show. 

The Muppets in general have a number of great Christmas classics, they just aren't on Spotify. John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together is a also pretty wonderful, with a decent soundtrack that includes a version of aforementioned "Little Saint Nick." Go Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem!

Oh, and of course I can't leave out The Beatles, though Spotify does, because Christmas Time (Is Here Again) is a jam.

That's about all I have to say for this one. There are almost 60 songs, clocking in at just over 3 hours. It oughta last ya through dinner and beyond. 

So, what am I missing? Are there great songs you think I've left out? Let me know!



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