Of all the magical aspects to the holiday season, from classic movies to family recipes to neighborhood outdoor decorations, the one that enthralls me the most is the music.
I probably have close to 90 Christmas CDs. As much as I love the pantheon of carols such as Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” I also treasure more obscure singers, songs and arrangements that bring fresh sound to these old chestnuts.
“(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays” by Perry Como. Look for the less heard 1959 stereo version. While the 1954 original is solid, this one soars. It starts out slowly with a plaintive Como nearly singing a cappella as the background singers later come along with an orchestral sound that gets the heart pumping to a rousing woodwind-driven crescendo. If you don’t have goosebumps by the end, you probably don’t have a pulse.
“Here Comes Santa Claus” by the Mills Brothers. The combination of the men’s harmonies matched to the simple instrumentation is foot stomping. And when lead singer Donald says “now listen children” you feel he is talking to you. I only wish it was longer than 1:48.
“Do You Hear What I Hear?” by the Blind Boys of Alabama and Taj Mahal. Next to Bing Crosby’s traditional version, this is the best rendition of the song due to its gospel-like arrangement. You won’t believe it is the same song once you hear this.
“Children Go Where I Send Thee,” a traditional spiritual sung by Peter, Paul and Mary backed by a chorus from 1988’s “A Holiday Celebration with the New York Choral Society” that aired on PBS. It is one of those songs where each lyric is added to the previous one similar to “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Listen for Mary when she growls “itty bitty baby.”
“Brazilian Sleigh Bells” by Ferrante & Teicher, the popular piano duo of the 1960’s. Strictly instrumental, this high-flying, full-throttle arrangement is sure to boil your hot cocoa.
“Silver Bells” by Tony Bennett and the Count Basie Orchestra. The easy phrasing of Bennett matches the famous Basie sound. You can almost imagine yourself walking outside looking at decorated storefronts—that is, if you can find any. Notice how Bennett sings “silver bells” to the beat of the instruments, then when he repeats the phrase, sings it ahead of the instruments. Only a master crooner can do that.
“Good King Wenceslas” by Mel Tormé. This swinging arrangement will move you to dance not sit while listening. With the dulcet sounds of Mel, and a bit of scatting thrown in, you can’t go wrong.
“Christmas Blues” by the Ramsey Lewis Trio. A steady beat that makes a perfect soundtrack for trimming the tree, the song proves one doesn’t need more than three masterful musicians to produce a multi-textured sound.
Even songs that I don’t care for, when arranged with a certain tempo and orchestration, can be like hearing the songs for the very first time.
“Mele Kalikimaka” by Seth MacFarlane. The original Crosby tune never was one of my favorites, but this rendition has a swinging tempo. Arranger Joel McNeely does a masterful job creating a sound that is both retro yet fresh.
“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” by John Driskell Hopkins and the Joe Gransden and His Big Band is a revelation. The salsa beat arrangement is contagious. Each Christmas I find one song that I just have to play every day and this is the one for me.
No matter what you listen to, I hope you do hear the Christmas spirit that is within you and those around you.