Why Doubt Your Senses? A Medley of New Music to Please the Holiday Spirits

A few weeks ago, I used this space to bemoan the fact that quote-unquote holiday music had begun to haunt the halls of my mind like some musical Marley’s ghost. “Bah! Be gone,” I said, “it’s too early.” It wasn’t even Thanksgiving, and yet the strains of carols old and new were already jingling and clinking their tinny notes, bearing down on me like some funereal locomotive, unexpectedly and unwelcome, no doubt triggered by the appearance of some annoying TV advertisement, an undigested bit of cheese, or some suchlike other humbug.

I tried ignoring them at first, hoping they’d eventually settle down and merge with the general murmur that normally fills the chambers between my ears. But I couldn’t, and they didn’t. They grew louder and merrier, in fact, and over the course of the ensuing days began appearing before me in the shapes of beings I dreaded most. I tried getting angry: “Out upon Christmas!” I shouted. “What right have you to be merry? What’s Christmas but a time for paying bills without money, a time for finding yourself a year older and not a hair richer?” Nothing worked. On they came, continuing to vex me, subtly at times — in the quiet of an elevator, for instance — and at other times brazenly, loudly, as if every bell was ringing in my house at once, on its own accord.

So I decided I’d better pay attention to what I was hearing and, believe it or not, these restless specters spoke to me in a way I hadn’t anticipated. “Why do you doubt your senses?” they queried. “There are many things from which you have derived good but by which you have never profited. Blogging, for one thing, and Christmas, too, among the rest.” To which I had no response. I howled, but I knew they were right.

Thus, I soon found myself seeking out Christmas songs and other seasonal music in great haste (see, miracles really do happen). After all, I realized, I will only be able to enjoy — and, let’s be honest, to tolerate — this sudden, joyful melomania for a few short weeks; like eggnog, one can only stomach all that syrupy sweetness for so long.

I also discovered that, when it comes to holiday music, I have fairly wide tolerance. There are a few artists and genres that don’t make me cheerful (for instance, I keep hoping Mannheim Steamroller will run out of hot air), but I like pretty much everything else, from Bing to Brian Setzer, The Muppets to Motown, New Age to Nat King Cole. And, as with other musical adventures I go on, I try to seek out the holiday novelties rather than just settle for the old chestnuts crackling on the Victrola, so to speak.

Following is a playlist of seasonal songs plucked from this year’s furze of new releases. They run the gamut from new compositions to reinterpretations of old standbys. There are appearances by some usual suspects, along with a few surprises and a couple of misfits to please even the stubbornest Scrooge. I am certain some of these songs will become instant classics for you; some may need a little time to simmer, cider-like, for your full enjoyment; and a few you may decide to re-gift right away. And that’s OK — ’tis the season!

Be sure to click on each of the links below to sample the songs (open each as a new tab or window), and then follow the threads to find out where you can download them. Or you can listen to the playlist in its entirety at the Scribbleskiff page on the 8tracks Web site. Just click HERE, open as a new tab or window, and let the music play as you read along. Enjoy!

“The Snow It Melts the Soonest,” Sting, If On a Winter’s Night. Former Police-man Sting lately has transformed himself from pop star to troubadour, rediscovering and revitalizing music from the ancient and not-so-distant past. He has recorded songs penned by an eclectic mix of writers and composers, including William Blake, John Dowland, and Robert Johnson, with a variety of musicians, from hip-hoppers to lutanists. So it’s not surprising his first holiday CD should favor obscure over more obvious compositions (ie, no “Jingle Bells” here). What makes his choices so effective, especially on this spare, wintry Newcastle folksong, is that he has found music that suits his softened, slightly tattered voice (raddled from reaching too many “Roxannas” to the highest?), not the other way round. It’s a haunting, lovely prelude to the season, and I’ll wager a crown you’ll agree.

“Snow Angel,” Tori Amos. Midwinter Graces. I have to admit that Tori Amos recordings can be an acquired taste for me, sometimes requiring a more labored acquisition than others. Mostly she wears her fantastical, Kate Bush-inspired mantle with grace and panache. But some of her more overtly confessional songs can be, well, too distracting. Here, though, she won me over right away. The seasonally themed lyrics are touching and catchy, and the breezy, backing strings lend her characteristically lolling, moody piano playing both a sense of gravitas and uplift that seem appropriate and necessary.

“Christmas Time Is Here,” A Fine Frenzy, Oh, Blue Christmas (EP). Sometimes it takes a reinterpretation to better appreciate something you’ve known a long time (and possibly taken for granted). The most memorable scenes in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” one of my favorite holiday TV specials, revolve around Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy instrumentals — the dance party (“Linus & Lucy”) being the most popular. And yet I had nearly forgotten how much I liked this song, which mostly serves as background music for a montage of scenes (including the ice-skating party), until I heard this cover by indie darling A Fine Frenzy (aka, Alison Sudol). Not only does her crystalline, sylphish take on it make me want to watch the show again, this new version also might be the Charlie Brownest.

“Candy Cane Christmas,” Darius Rucker, Candy Cane Christmas (Single). Look who’s all grown up. Rucker, the frontman for Hootie & The Blowfish, a college-rock band hugely popular in the mid-1990s (though fairly uninspiring since then), has traded in his tour T-shirts for a button-down and some quality time with the family. And he’s added a string section and a touch of down-home country twang, to boot. What keeps this “sweet,” waltzy original from sliding into schmaltzy, however, is Rucker’s voice: the man can sing. In fact, his smooth, soulful Nat King Cole-like voice should place this tune alongside the best of the Christmas crooners in your collection.

“A Christmas Compromise,” The Bird and The Bee. Safety Harbor Kids Holiday Collection. I know I’m not alone in stating that the best holiday “classics” were created in the mid to late 1960s. I mean, don’t you need a little Rankin/Bass, right this very minute? If so, then listen to “A Christmas Compromise,” by The Bird and The Bee, an indieĀ  band from LA whose infectious melodies have a campy, throwback sound — somewhere between the bossa nova and the B-52’s — that’s perfect for the job. Their new song, found on a compilation CD created to raise money for the Safety Harbor Kids organization, is at once goofy and cool, fun and earnest, and seasonably essential. Just like Frosty himself.

“Cool Yule,” Hot Club of San Francisco, Cool Yule. If you like mistletoe-tapping jazz music with a gypsy swagger, the way Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli used to cut it, then you’ve found your bliss. Originally written by Steve Allen and recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1953, this updated version trades Satchmo’s brassy licks for a guitar- and violin-based rhythm that really swings. So hot it’s cool.

“Must Be Santa,” Bob Dylan, Christmas in the Heart. I first heard this song years ago, on a Raffi Christmas cassette tape that my then-young kids played endlessly in the car stereo. And since that time, I have always (fondly) equated it with the other mild-mannered children’s holiday music: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Up on the House-Top,” etc. Until now, that is. As only he could do, Dylan has created a grown-up’s version by speeding up the tempo, adding several carousing back-up singers, some Tex-Mex spices, and a few surprises (like the inexplicable roll-call of presidents). In other words, it’s a jolly roadhouse romp sure to make any silent night shake, rattle, and roll.

“The Chanukah Song,” Neil Diamond, A Cherry Cherry Christmas. Neil Diamond is perhaps my mom’s favorite musician, and he has always been a guilty pleasure for her dutiful son, too. So it seems fitting to pick something from Diamond’s new Christmas album (which, cobbled together with some songs from his previous releases, is more like a best of). Although I think the title track and “Christmas Dream,” the two new ones, are nice, this kitschy cover of Adam Sandler’s shtick (think “The Dreidel Song” meets “America,” with Guns ‘N’ Roses as back-up band) is too naughty to pass up. Go tell your friend Veronica.

“Father Christmas,” Cary Brothers, Father Christmas (EP). The story goes like this: A department store Santa Claus gets mugged by a group of poor kids who take his money (leaving the toys for the “little rich boys”) and ask for more practical things, like a job for daddy and a machine gun. Just another heartwarming holiday classic, right? Well, yes, in the hands of The Kinks, who could write great songs about anything, including the unlikely likable combination of violent crime, retribution, and redemption. And although this is a fairly o-come-all-ye-faithful cover, Cary Brothers, a folk-rocker from Nashville, takes a looser, laid-back approach that softens the original’s edge while staying on message.

“Winter,” Christmas, Christmas 7″. Although they label themselves “a psych-dance-punk band from Olympia, Washington,” a description that calls to mind an entirely different kind of sugar plum, I couldn’t resist the name of the band or their song. And so what if, after several spins, I’m not entirely sure what this has to do with the incoming holiday or season. There’s enough raw energy, surf influences, reverb-laden guitars, and pounding drums to make anyone feel like riding the crest of Christmas.

“This Christmas,” The Elves of Heaven. This Christmas (Single). At first I thought this song sounded a little like “Christmas Wrapping,” by The Waitresses, though perhaps produced by (the pre-incarcerated) Phil Spector. Now I think it could be some kind of new Band-Aid song (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In either case, don’t wait until next Christmas to grab this free, breezy, retro ’80s-sounding original, which marks the first release by South Street Records, the new label from New York’s South Street Seaport music venue.

“Winterlove,” Parachute, Winterlove EP. Earlier this year, I played the stuffing out of (and consequently scribbled about) this band’s song “Under Control,” from their debut album, which came my way on a recommendation from my 11-year-old nephew. As newcomers, this Charlottesville-based quintet follow a familiar, piano-based power-ballad path cleared by the likes of The Fray and Gavin DeGraw. And though they don’t stray too far off course for their seasonal release, they slow the pace a bit and add some space, creating a sense of comfort and longing that is anything but ho-ho-humdrum.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Colbie Caillat, A Very Special Christmas 7. Fans of singer-songwriter Colbie Caillat, like my teenage daughter, call her “Coco” (the title of her debut LP, BTW). And that seems appropriate for someone whose version of this song feels as warming and comfortable as mug of hot chocolate. It’s a fairly standard treatment of an old standard, but Caillat wraps it up with the right touch of coziness, soulful sophistication, and sunny charm to help put your troubles out of sight, for a little while, at least.

“Deck the Halls,” R.E.M., Gift Wrapped: 20 Songs That Keep on Giving! Talk about the passion: I once was a card-carrying member of the R.E.M. fan club, mainly because they sent out holiday gifts — usually a key-chain or pin, along with a “holiday single” on 45 rpm — to all their members. I have several vinyl versions from the late 1980s, but somehow not this one, which is commercially available for the first time on a new CD compilation from Warner Bros. When I downloaded it from iTunes (for $1.29!) recently, I considered it a very belated present to myself.

“Auld Lang Syne,” The Mumlers, Auld Lang Syne (Single). I don’t know how it was for you, but 2009 was certainly a momentous, gut-churning year here at Scribbleskiff. It was Dickensian (“the best of times … the worst of times”) in so many ways. So, then, what better way to bid farewell to something so bittersweet than with a bluesy, rousing, slightly inebriated rendition of the greatest send-off song of all time? Go download this single by a young Tom Waitsian sextet from Silicon Valley, pour yourself a cup o’ kindness, and sing along, for auld lang syne.

So, there you have it, 15 new songs of the season. Whether you enjoy following the antics of Old St. Nick or simply reveling in the quiet sounds of winter, we at Scribbleskiff hope this music will provide you with some new reasons to gather near your faithful friends (like you, dear reader) once more. Happy holidays!

As always, tell us what you think. Is there another new holiday song that you’d like others to know more about? What’s your favorite seasonal classic? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

And be sure to visit (and join) the Scribbleskiff page on Facebook (find it here), where you can partake in wall-to-wall conversations, find additional information and suggestions from readers, and more.

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