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1. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Mambo – Billy May and His Orchestra
From CiD 1996
A 1953 recording, featuring vocals by Alvin Stoller, who is usually a percussionist. Imagine Alvin, sweating it out behind his drum set, knowing in his heart that he’s got more chops than a hundred Gene Krupas or Buddy Riches if only that so-and-so May would let him shine, and then finally the bandleader looks over and says, “Stoller, you’ve got kind of a funny voice. Why don’t you come up here and do some vocals for this Rudolph thing?” If Alvin sounds a little tanked here, who can blame him? I can’t. At the end, Alvin’s cry of “What the heck is a mambo?” is a quote from Vaughn Monroe’s 1954 cut, “They Were Doin’ the Mambo.”
2. Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto – James Brown
From CiD 1997
Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready for star time? Soul Brother Number One (also d/b/a Mr. Excitement, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, the Minister of the New New Super Heavy Funk) left the stage on Christmas Day 2006 — and, sadly, this time he did not throw off the cape and come back for an encore, no matter how much we chanted and cheered. Unlike some other artists, who use Christmas songs as an excuse to phone it in, J.B. and his band (most likely the Famous Flames) deliver a tight, emotional performance. Maybe it's not quite "Cold Sweat" — but then, what is?
3. A Party for Santa Claus – Lord Nelson
From CiD 1998
A perennial Christmas in December favorite. Something about the Caribbean rhythms joined in service with the seasonal content really gets my ganglia poppin'. I was surprised to discover that Big Bad Voodoo Daddy did a version of this song, which turned out about like you'd expect, but those so inclined may find it diverting. Lord Nelson the calypso singer should, of course, not be confused with British Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson.
4. Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town – Joseph Spence
From CiD 1999
Rejoice or despair, but either way, Joseph Spence — who I have come to regard as nothing less than the patron saint of CiD — returns for the fifth time. How can I (or anybody, for that matter) resist him? His growling, muttered vocals may be off-putting — a friend of mine persists in describing him as “that drunk, crazy Jamaican guy,” even though Spence is in fact Bahamian — but you have to admit that’s some pretty guitar playing. This is from a 1972 concert in Cambridge, Mass; he spontaneously included this song, inspired by having seen snow for the first time that week. He played most of his music in the same key, D major. When asked why, he explained, “I used to know all them keys! I knew 'em all: A, and B, and D, and F, and H...I used to know all them keys! I got tired of 'em!”
5. Blue Christmas – Ernest Tubb and His Texas Troubadours
From CiD 2000
Elvis did the most famous version, but Ernest got there eight years earlier. He was, in fact, the first singer to have a hit with the song (it spent a week on Billboard’s jukebox chart), but not the first to sing it — that was Doye O’Dell, who neither you nor I have ever heard of. I played it for the first time just now as I was researching this, and it’s pretty good. I first heard “Blue Christmas” in “The Year Without a Santa Claus” (the Rankin/Bass special with Heat Miser and Cold Miser), and as a kid I just assumed it was written for that, but no. I’m older now.
6. Joy to the World – Oriental Echo Ensemble
From CiD 2001
At first I thought that Chung King Christmas, the record on which this song appears, had something to do with the Asian canned-food company, but then I realized that the company was called “Chun King” (no “g”). So, now I don’t know what the deal is with this, or what exactly a Chung King Christmas is supposed to be. The soloists for the Oriental Echo Ensemble play the er-hu (a Chinese violin), the di (a flute), and the yang-qin (a hammered dulcimer). For those of you who live in Western North Carolina, and may have already heard enough dulcimer to last you three lifetimes, I’m sorry. Concentrate on the er-hu and the di, if you can.
7. Santa’s on His Way – Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys
From CiD 2002
I first heard this during the Simpsons episode "Miracle on Evergreen Terrace," in 1997, very early in my holiday music career. It's one of my favorite Christmas music finds, and I'm a little surprised I haven't included it in more mixes. I don't know what year it's from (if anybody does, please tell me), but I'm guessing somewhere in the mid-'40s.
8. Sleigh Ride – The Ventures
From CiD 2003
The Ventures’ Christmas album dropped in 1965, five years after their first big national hit, “Walk, Don’t Run” – which the first few bars of this song pay homage to. Most of their Christmas songs start off musically quoting other hit songs of the day, and we’ve been through quite a few of them here in the last two decades: “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” (which quotes the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine”), “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” (“Wooly Bully”), “Jingle Bell Rock” (Johnny Rivers’ “Memphis”), among others. Their oeuvre has earned a place in any self-respecting holiday collection, and remains one of my personal top 5 faves.
9. Donde Esta Santa Claus? – Augie Rios
From CiD 2004
I couldn’t find much information about Augie on the internet the first time he graced CiD (which was actually its launch year, 1996 – but I’m clinging fast to the “one song per year” conceit here, and I wanted to get this in, so luckily I repeated it in 2004).For that matter, there wasn’t much of an internet in 1996. But it turns out that, although this was Augie’s one big hit in 1958 (when he was 12), he had quite a career as a child star on Broadway and released a few other records. He was born in 1946; he would be 70 today (and only 50 when I started out with this), if he’s still kicking around somewhere. “Ol’ Fatso,” the flipside to “Donde,” is also pretty snappy.
10. Yulesville USA – Billy Lee Riley and the Rockin’ Stockin’s
From CiD 2005
Billy Lee Riley was a Sun Records recording artist in the post-Elvis days, responsible for “Flying Saucer Rock and Roll” and “Red Hot.” The Stockings take us through what you might call an overture of holiday favorites, including bits of “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Up on the Housetop.” I don’t know who the rest of the Rockin’ Stockin’s are; Billy Lee was apparently a “multi-instrumentalist,” so they might have all been him, although I don’t know if Sun Records could have handled all that overdubbing If so, good for him. (Note: Please do not confuse this song with “Yulesville,” by Ed “Kookie” Burns. I imagine both Billy Lee and “Kookie” are tired of the confusion.)
11. I Saw Three Ships – Don Dixon
From CiD 2006
In the ‘80s, Don Dixon was sort of the American Nick Lowe (bassist, singer/songwriter, producer of genre-defining albums from R.E.M., the Smithereens and Guadalcanal Diary, among many others). His solo work is well worth seeking out. In my enthusiasm over such outstanding songs as “Praying Mantis” and “Most of the Girls Like to Dance But Only Some of the Boys Do,” I remember reading that he lived in a place called Carrboro, N.C. Man, if Don Dixon lives there, I thought, Carrboro must be like this endlessly cool and happenin’ place. I later lived there for about 10 years.. It’s okay -- not quite what I had pictured, but then, what is? (Don Dixon himself lives in Ohio these days.)
12. Swingin’ for Xmas – Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt
From CiD 2007
“Traditional Jazz Christmas,” the album from which I fetched this, lists saxophonist Gene "Jug" Ammons as the sole artist, but my own research led me to believe that he was joined here by fellow saxophonist (and hard bop legend) Sonny Stitt. I was so convinced that I gave Jug and Sonny equal billing on the CD cover, but now I'm not so sure. They did record several duets, but this may not have been one of them. Still, that does sound like two saxes, right? Whoever's responsible, I love this song. I used it before, in 1998 and again in 2000. Jug, et. al., cover a lot of ground in just over two minutes, including "Joy to the World," "Jingle Bells," "Silent Night" and "White Christmas." As the late Kurt Vonnegut's Uncle Alex used to say, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."
13. Billy’s Christmas Wish – Red Sovine
From CiD 2008
If Time Magazine can pick Hitler as Man of the Year in 1938, I guess I can pick this as Song of the Year for 2008. One expects melodrama from Red Sovine, who did a lot of songs along these lines, mostly about noble truck drivers befriending crippled children. But this one pegs the ol' pathos meter. It makes "The Christmas Shoes" sound like "Single Ladies." If you've ever wanted to hear a Christmas song with the lyric "Santa quickly felt for the little boy's pulse," well, here you go. Merry Christmas, everybody!
14. White Christmas – Darlene Love
From CiD 2009
Believe you me, I have my reservations about giving Phil Spector much more attention these days. I haven't thoroughly researched the archives, but I'm pretty sure this was the first CiD song produced by a convicted murderer (I had included Phil in previous years when he was just an alleged murderer, and two later compilations featured songs by Claudine Longet, who was only guilty of manslaughter). But I submit that sometimes horrible people can do beautiful things, and if we fail to remember that, there will be a whole lot of thrown-out babies wallowing around in our thrown-out bathwater. And anyway, I'm choosing to think of this record from now on as "A Christmas Gift to You From Hal Blaine."
15. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen – Jimmy Smith
From CiD 2010
One of the great minor-key Christmas songs, providing a little astringent to the usual overwhelming sweetness of the season. Jimmy Smith, whose "Jingle Bells" you may recall adorning CiD'08, absolutely nails this one with his masterful Hammond organ playing backed by a lethally swingin' jazz band. Both songs are from Christmas Cookin', Smith's only Christmas album.
16. Jingle Bells – Soulful Strings
From CiD 2011
My radar first picked up on The Soulful Strings back in 1997, when their version of "Sleigh Ride" (as featured on the "Traditional Jazz Christmas" compilation) quickly became one of my favorite versions of that song (see also: The Ronettes, El Vez, Squirrel Nut Zippers). A collection of studio musicians for the Chess/Cadet blues and R&B labels in Chicago, The Soulful Strings recorded six albums in the 1960s, all of which are now out of print. So we must rely on intrepid thrift-shoppers like this guy, whose narrative of unearthing this album I enjoyed reading because it so closely mirrors my own delight on finding this album on his site. Nothing like a funky backbeat to give new life to a song everybody only thinks they're sick to death of.
17. Auld Lang Syne – The Black on White Affair
From CiD 2012
One of the joys of having done this for 20 years is my continued discovery of the odd nooks and crannies of musical culture. For instance, not only did I not know before stumbling upon this song that The Black on White Affair were heroes in the Seattle funk and soul scene of the '70s, I didn't even know there was a Seattle funk and soul scene of the '70s. After repeated listenings of this decidedly tasty slice of wax, I still can't tell if the singer is calling out "kiddies and squares" or "kiddies and squirrels." Either way is OK with me; squirrels have had a free ride for too long in funk music.
18. Santa Claus – The Sonics
From CiD 2013
A nice, hot, steamy, juicy, meaty slab of garage rock from the same Pacific Northwest scene that spawned the Kingsmen and “Louie Louie” (for further research, consult Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World’s Most Famous Rock Song by Dave Marsh). The narrator here is haranguing Santa for not bringing him what he wanted. I would have loved to live in Seattle or Tacoma in the mid ‘60s, where you could hear bands who sound like this all the time. Can you imagine? Please don’t blame the song for the fact that parts of it sound like “Hang On Sloopy” (incidentally, the state rock song of Ohio).
20. Silent Night – Fisher
From CiD 2015
When I included Fisher’s “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” on CiD 2004, I said this: “It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I hear something so skull-meltingly beautiful I have to stop everything I’m doing and listen. And listen, and listen, again and again, trying to get my head around the whole of it.” Eleven years later and I still stand by that. This new discovery only reinforces my position..
21. Hark, the Herald Angels Sing – The Peanuts Gang
From every CiD since 1996
You start getting excited as soon as the animated, multicolored "SPECIAL" graphic spins across the screen. Before you know it, it's started again. You can see the lights of the tree reflected in the screen during the ice-skating scene, and you try copying the dances the kids are doing during "Linus and Lucy." You're hungry for Dolly Madison cakes, and you don't know why. When you're older, it'll occur to you how existential and depressing this show is, but now it doesn't matter. You start to feel sad when they all gather around the tree and manage to transform it in a cloud of animated wiggling limbs, because you know it's almost over. Somehow, they actually make the tree grow about three feet. Next thing you know, they're all singing, their heads pointed to the sky, and the credits appear. Time for bed. Goodnight, everyone.