Sunrise, the morning after Halloween. Jack o’ Lanterns on front porches across the country awake to a distinct sound rolling over the hills:
….I just want you for my own, more than you could ever know… make my wish come true… baby, all I want want for Christmas is yououououououeeeou.
It’s Mariah. It has begun.
Pumpkins meet their fate soon after that moment of reckoning, and as such they probably get just the right amount of Christmas music.But we humans are six weeks into the holiday season now. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m battling against Christmas music fatigue. I suspect many others are too.(Someday, when the holiday season starts in late September and trick-or-treating has merged with caroling, the pumpkins will feel it just like we do.)
It’s always a pleasant jolt to hear Bing Crosby’s Jingle Bells, or Brenda Lee’s Rocking Around the Christmas Tree, for the first time each holiday season. (Hearing Lennon’s droll “So, this is Christmas” still gives me goosebumps once a year.)Sure, there’s a warm glow on your second or third trip through those classics. All of a sudden, though, you’re hearing Gene Autry’s take on Rudolph for the fifth time, and how much Maria Carey wants you for Christmas for the twelfth. It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, you’re already feeling a little worn out.
Six weeks later? Fatigue.
Though I don’t enjoy hearing the same two dozen holiday songs over and over,I really, really likeChristmas music. I like three variations of Christmas music, in fact: 1) less-heard versions of familiar songs, 2) obscure Christmas originals that don’t get a lot of play, and 3) songs that fade pleasantly into an ambient holiday background.
A few years ago, I decided to beat Christmas music fatigue and seek out the stuff I liked. I used Spotify to compile a long (and growing) playlist of wonderful Christmas-inspired music. I found great sources of holiday musical obscura, like Andy Cirzan’s annual compilation of lesser-heard seasonal music. And, I started to develop some new favorites – songs that can effortlessly step in once the familiar tracks have reached their saturation point.
If you’re reaching that point yourself, maybe I can help. Below are thirteen Christmas songs that can sub in for the tunes you might be just a tiny bit tired of. Instead of playing the standards through one more time, consider adding a few of these to your holiday playlist.
The “rockin’ Christmas“ genre is a bit overplayed – it’s generally some Autry, the two interchangeable "rock” songs mentioned above, and maybe Springsteen’s take on Santa Claus is Coming to Town. You’ve heard most of them into the double digits by now. Bob B. Soxx and company’sHere Comes Santa Claus is better than all of them. It’s not pastiche rockin’-good-time™ music; it feels like what it is – a real 60s-era jukebox track with a healthy does of Phil Spector polish.
If you want to feel nostalgic – which is what Perry Como and Bing Crosby specialize in – give Booker T & The MGs a shot. They convey all the emotion of heading home for Christmas (whatever that might mean to you) without any words at all. That Hammond organ is magical.
There are plenty of soul and Motown inspired Christmas songs. Mariah Carey’s unavoidable smash, now into its 20th year of yuletide domination, draws on these roots. But before you hear Mariah one more time, why not go back to some reference material? Looking for a beautiful, powerful voice pleading for romance at Christmas? Kim Weston’s underplayed track expresses much of the same sentiment (with a bitter edge that Carey could never muster). This song comesfrom a world that’s more real than ideal. No, you probably wouldn’t set a movie montage to it, but maybe that’s the point.
There are plenty of novelty Christmas songs that tell cute stories and give you characters to root for. Most of them are silly, good for a listen a year at most. Robert Earl Keen captures all the fun of the Christmas novelty song with real poignance and melancholy. This is the perfect modern holiday song – a snapshot of merriment and dysfunction. It’s my all-time favorite Christmas song.
This one obviously gets a fair amount of play – moreso in the States every year, it seems. (In the UK, it’s broadly popular and considered possibly the best Christmas song of all time.) I can’t hear it enough. Whereas Lennon went big, writing to literally everyone in the world, Shane McGowan took the same amount of songwriting pedigree and focused on two tiny, lonely souls. It’s a little rough around the edges,heartbreaking and cinematic.I could have been someone / well so could anyone.…wow, Merry Christmas.
Hanging Up My Stockings – Debbie Davis ♫
consider playing when you need a break from:
I have no idea what the provenance of the song is (it involves Squirrel Nut Zippers and a very scratchy recording), but it’s understated and Debbie Davis’s version captures some of the contented bounce that McCartney-style romps are famous for, but with just a little more heart.
Cascabel, Cascabel – Beatriz Márquez♫
consider playing when you need a break from:
Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad
Latin Christmas music is wonderful – and there’s so much out there. When I was growing up, I didn’t get this; it seemed like Feliz Navidad was the only latin-influenced Christmas song ever made, and even then, it was helpfully mostly in english. In today’s digital music era, it couldn’t be easier to explore the world beyond Feliz Navidad, the Tijuana of Christmas music. Cascabel, Cascabel is a Cuban-latin take on Jingle Bells that gets absolutely pinned to my brain each Christmas – and that’s a good thing. Give it a shot.
When it comes to duets, yes, Baby It’s Cold Outside is a fine work (though with lyrics that include “the answer is no”, “what’s in this drink?”, etc., it might sound just a bit strange to modern ears). As nice a duet as it is, it can be topped: you just can’t beat Billie Holiday’s voice working in concert with a gravelly jazz trumpet. She can take a song about watching icicles form and make it magic.
This one is an alternate take on the “we’re having delirious fun!” song, usually occupied by Sleigh Ride during Christmas (and by Walking on Sunshine during the rest of the year). There is so much to love about this track – Nat’s voice, the “hey and a hee and a ho-ho” intro, and the “ooohhhh…,” lead in. Bonus points for a fantastic rhythm guitar line. And if you’ve heard all of the kid-oriented Christmas songs a few too many times, this track might be a welcome respite. Send Frosty and Rudolph to the bench for a few plays, and let a manic Christmas tree take over. Hard not to smile after this one.
Yes, it’s a classic song, with an admittedly classic delivery from the King – but everybody needs a change in perspective sometimes. Every fourth our fifth play, slip Tammy’s version in there. Attributes include: the perfect country voice, a great slide guitar and some subtle changes in orchestration that make it about 25% bluer than Elvis’s. (After all, how sad can you be when chorus girls are singing “woo-hoo-ee-oo!” behind you?).
Like Elvis’s Blue Christmas, I wouldn’t forgo Vince Guaraldi’s Linus and Lucy for anything – it’s a holiday staple. But if you’ve heard it a few times more than is healthy – let’s just say your two-year old was given a Christmas ornament that plays only the opening piano riff, and she really, really loves it – you may be seeking an alternative. The Trio’s take on Greensleeves always gets me, especially the flourish they add after the famous refrain that just takes off into another world.
A simple rule: when you mix a little sadness into a song with holiday sentiment, you get something very potent. As many people know (or rediscover each year) there are two versions of this song. The first is a sad, steadfast look to the future, grounded in an imperfect present. As written for Meet Me in St. Louis, it was originally the song ofa mother doing her best to convey optimism to her child during a bleak holiday. A few years later, Frank Sinatra decided it was too depressing to put on his holiday record, and had it punched up into something broadly “nice.” The edits stuck, and the happier lyrics are the ones you’ll hear 90% of the time this song is played today. I strongly prefer the original “muddle through” version (which is coming back into favor) instead of the more prominent “hang a shining star” variation. And though it’s been covered by many wonderful male singers, the song is at its best when sung by a female voice, to find its innately maternal quality. For me, it boils down to the original (by Judy Garland) or Betty Bennet’s take. I like the latter – it captures the song’s earliest sentiment in perfect repose.
Bing Crosby will always be a first-ballot Christmas hall of famer. But just in case you’ve spent decades passively absorbing all things Crosby during the holidays, it’s wise to take a break every now and then. White Christmas, before you’ve heard it –infinity– times, is really about reflection. It’s about the end of the evening, when everything is quiet and perfect and still. Maybe everybody is sleeping, and you’re up with slippers on and a scotch in hand, feeling content and nostalgic, watching the fire. Then, magically, a few flakes start to fall outside. I’ll take the Ramsey Lewis Trio’s subdued interpretation of Santa Claus is Coming to Town every time to compliment that scene. I don’t think Bing would mind.
If you’d like to hear these songs as a playlist, you can do so here. And of course, all these songs and many more great ones are on my Xmas Blend Spotify Playlist. Here’s to a holiday spent savoring music, familiar and new alike.