Recently, my mother-in-law asked me if I had heard Mary Chapin Carpenter’s new CD, Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas, which features a mix of traditional and new songs. I hadn’t, and my initial reaction to the idea of it was anything but joyful. Normally, when it comes to carols, noels, hymns and other such so-called holiday music, I am of several minds: on the one hand, there are enough great versions of yuletide “classics” out there (Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” comes to mind) that I think, why would anyone bother? Many have tried to invoke (or resuscitate) the spirit of Christmas by singing the old songs and penning new ones, but very few have succeeded. On the other hand, we’ve all heard B-B-Bing s-s-sing enough times already that occasionally even the cast from the PBS show “Arthur” can offer a little welcome good cheer.
On the other other hand, I am always interested in new music, especially from talented songcrafters like Ms. Carpenter. So, once I had thought about it, I became intrigued. And, though I harbor the same skepticism about the birth of new Christmas songs as I do about messing with the dearly departed, someone occasionally comes along and surprises me, like Sufjan Stevens, whose 2006 release, Songs for Christmas, contained three-dozen-plus seasonally themed songs that I found interesting and inventive.
So I listened to some of the tracks on Come Darkness, liked what I heard, and decided to see what other holiday music had been released this year. I followed my ear, picking either new versions of classic songs performed by artists I like or are familiar with, or original songs written by folks I know and trust; and I am discussing songs only here, not the full recordings. Also, for convenience’s sake, I limited my search to iTunes, so this is by no means a definitive or even wide-ranging selection. I’m sure there are many baubles out there that I have overlooked. But even within these restrictions (or, more likely, because of them) I made some nice discoveries. Here, then, is my gift to you: a merry mixtape of holiday songs, in order pretty much as I encountered them:
1. “On a Quiet Christmas Morn,” Mary Chapin Carpenter, Come Darkness, Come Light. I am a long-time fan of this DC-based singer/songwriter, though admittedly not as loyal as many, having taken a pass on some of her more recent releases. Nonetheless, this thoughtful, spare, well-crafted song is first-rate Mary Chapin material, on par with any of her best recordings, like “Never Had It So Good,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “The Hard Way,” or “10,000 Miles.”
2. “Christmas,” Rogue Wave, This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 1. Using a simple mix of acoustic guitars and shakers, these indie rockers (one of my favorite bands of the past few years, by the way) offer an original, intelligent holiday tune with an affecting rumpa-pum-pum feeling. This collection also includes Jack Johnson doing his likable, jazzy James Taylor best on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
3. “Why Can’t It Be Christmastime All Year?” Rosie Thomas, A Very Rosie Christmas! Over the years, I have enjoyed listening to Rosie Thomas’ outpouring of quiet, personal, introspective folk songs. So this track, with its bouncy Supremes-like groove and sunny demeanor, came as a pleasant surprise that would make any Scrooge consider a positive answer to the titular question.
4. “Linus and Lucy,” Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Jingle All the Way. Utilizing his famous progressive bluegrass (aka, “new-grass”) alchemy, banjo virtuoso Fleck has created something new and fresh — the transformation of Vince Guaraldi’s classic jazz tune into a popular song standard. It’s a fun, grin-making ditty (it’s hard to play sad music on a banjo, as Steve Martin says) that’s sure to have the whole gang dancing around your home.
5. “Silent Night,” Sixpence None The Richer, The Dawn of Grace. Best known for their folk-rock hit, “Kiss Me” (and the cover of The La’s “There She Goes”), this duo of former schoolteachers turned Nashville musicians (aren’t all schoolteachers in Nashville talented musicians?) show they can heat up an old chestnut with just the right touch, giving it a bright, countrified glow.
6. “Sleigh Ride,” Relient K, Let It Snow Baby… Let It Reindeer. It wasn’t until after I’d listened to (and liked) this cut that I discovered the band are best-selling Christian emo-rockers. Which is a good thing, because my gag-reflex may have prevented me from buying it (not a nice thing to say, I know, so please don’t tell Santa) and missing out on this catchy and inventive take on an old yuletide favorite.
7. “Feliz Navidad,” Los Lonely Boys, Christmas Spirit. Imagine the spirit of Stevie Ray Vaughan, dressed as the Ghost of Christmas Past, plugged in and playing alongside Jose Feliciano, and you’ll have an idea of how the Garza brothers reinterpreted this legendary Latino season’s greeting. If this Texas-boogie version doesn’t make you rock around the Christmas tree, then you must have coal at the bottom of your heart.
8. “Come On Santa,” The Raveonettes, Wishing You a Rave Christmas. I am willing to bet that, to gain inspiration for making an EP of original Christmas songs, this Danish couple first kissed under the mistletoe — then ate it, berries, leaves, and stems, and went California-dreaming upon a winter’s night. This cut is a deliciously dark, echoy, trippy-hippy antidote for anyone who’s overdosed on “White Christmas.”
9. “Winter Song,” Sara Bareilles & Ingrid Michaelson, The Hotel Cafe Presents a Winter Song. This is one of the prettiest seasonally-themed songs I’ve heard in quite awhile, sung by two women with the prettiest voices making pop music today. Sure, it’s a bit treacly, gooey and warm, but isn’t that what you seek on a cold winter’s day? This compilation also contains standards and originals sung by other pheromone phenoms, such Brandi Carlisle, Fiona Apple, KT Tunstall, Meiko, Katy Perry, Holly Conlan, and Colbie Caillat.
10. “Jingle Bells,” Harry Connick, Jr., What a Night! — A Christmas Album. For those who like their holiday music buoyed by a bouncing, big-band beat, like Basie used to bake, then Harry Connick has a bagful of treats for you, made to order. Including this stock tune, updated with a swinging tempo and a brass section brash enough to turn any stocking-stuffing Father Christmas into a sock-hopping Xmas Daddy-o.
11. “The Wexford Carol,” Yo-Yo Ma, Alison Krauss & Natalie MacMaster, Songs of Joy & Peace.This is one of my favorites of the traditional carols, and each year I look forward to playing The Chieftains’ version of it on my stereo. But, after hearing Ma’s interpretation, with its simpler instrumentation and Alison (“A is for angelic”) Krauss on vocals, I may have crowned a new king.
12. “O Holy Night!” Faith Hill, Joy to the World. Normally I think that Faith Hill, who has one of the greatest voices of all times, is also one of the greatest over-singers recording today. However, here, she manages enough restraint to make her version of this carol (another one of my favorites) sound divine — and possibly prevent this record from winding up in the cut-rate bin next winter.
In the end, what makes Bing and his buddies so appealing is how well their songs stand the test of time: A half-century or so later, do we still want to hear them on the stereo during advent (with and without a glass of eggnog)? In most cases, the answer is a resounding, ho-ho-ho! Of course, it’s way too early for any one of my choices to be considered a classic, but all are certainly contenders. It will be fun to see how well they age.