December 20, 2017, by Darren Clarke
Humanity can be tough to love at times. One of the exceptions though is Christmas. Here, when the world dips to its’ coldest and darkest we elevate our humanity to celebrate the noblest aspects of being human- love, generosity, kindness, music.
The music crafted over the years to accompany this Yuletide endeavour is brilliant in encompassing all that is best about the season. Christmas music rejoices in our sudden embrace of what is best about us and refines that raw cold and darkness into precious glimmering threads to weave in with tidings of comfort and joy, peace on Earth, goodwill to men.
Moreover, the finest Christmas music usually presents itself in the most sonically digestible form. Nobody here is going to try to fool you, they’re just trying to keep you warm. This is communication in its’ most straightforward and pleasing form. Christmas music and the lyrical accompaniment within is speaking in a language that everybody can understand and sing along with.
So, let’s get to it.
The below list of the 15 Best Christmas Albums of All-Time is of course the fantastically subjective opinion of this one skinny, Christmas loving, dude from Canada. The only real rule for the list is that the album had to be ostensibly the work of one artist, ergo, compilation Christmas albums weren’t considered.
#15, John Denver’s, Rocky Mountain Christmas
John Denver’s voice is a shot of Baileys’ Irish Creme, it is a freshly fallen blanket of snow, it is smooth, it is sweet, it is sincere. If you, like me, sometimes forget John Denver was cool as hell here’s a reminder that the man born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. also did a fantastic Christmas album with the Muppets, was good friends with Jacques Cousteau, filled in for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show multiple times, was politically active promoting environmental sustainability and free speech while denouncing nuclear weapons and being an outspoken opponent of the NRA, he was a skiing analyst in the 1984 Olympics, played a series of concerts in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, passed the rigorous NASA physical exam and was qualified for space flight, supported numerous charitable causes for the environmental movement, the homeless, the poor, the hungry, and the African AIDS crisis. The man wasn’t perfect but to his credit he shared all his shortcomings in his 1994 book Take Me Home.
End of day, John Denver was one uniquely crafted man for all seasons, a smooth singing badass who captures the serenity of a quiet Christmas walk in softly falling snow perfectly.
#14, Bing Crosby, White Christmas
Bing Crosby is The Man. He is. In Leonard Cohen parlance Bing was born with, “the gift of a Golden Voice.” A golden, crooning, voice, that makes him the best-selling recording artist of the 20th century, having sold over one billion records, tapes, compact discs and digital downloads around the world. Harry Crosby Jr. was anointed “Bing” Crosby as child by an older boy in the neighborhood who took to calling Harry, “Bingo from Bingville,” with the “o” fading over time to leave us with, “Bing.”
Bing is actually kind of before my time, his influence receeding as the 70’s progressed, the dynamism of his legacy most decidedly lodged in an aged demographic, the residue of his greatness more and more solely represented in just two of his creations, 1) The holiday movie staple, “White Christmas,” 2) His Christmas music, particularly, his duet of “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,” with David Bowie.
I can’t imagine what your average millenial thinks of Bingo from Bingville. But they should know that Bing was The Man. People should know that. Aside from the Golden voice he made numerous movies, won an Academy Award, has three stars on the Hollywood walk of fame, vigorously supported the troops during World War II, bred horses, owned a significant portion of the Pittsburgh Pirates and in 1948 was named, “The Most Admired Man Alive,” ahead of the Pope and Jackie Robinson. But we’re here today for the voice and we’ll end things with vocal critic Henry Pleasants talking about Bing’s baritone, “[While] the octave B flat to B flat in Bing’s voice at that time [1930s] is, to my ears, one of the loveliest I have heard in forty-five years of listening to baritones, both classical and popular, it dropped conspicuously in later years. From the mid-1950s, Bing was more comfortable in a bass range while maintaining a baritone quality, with the best octave being G to G, or even F to F. In a recording he made of ‘Dardanella’ with Louis Armstrong in 1960, he attacks lightly and easily on a low E flat. This is lower than most opera basses care to venture, and they tend to sound as if they were in the cellar when they get there.”
#13, The Fleshtones, Stocking Stuffer
The parties really rocking I got a fuzz box in my stocking!”
This is good old slicked back and souped up, Ramones style, chant it out Christmas fun, “S-A-N-T-A C-L-A-U-S.” Alternating between burning rubber in a hot rod, playfully noodling around in bumper cars and ringing the shiny bell on their brand new bicycle, “Stocking Stuffer” motors around Christmas with a healthy dose of jingle-janlgle and good old fashioned deliciously sloppy rock’n roll.
Standout Track- Canadian Christmas.
#12, John Fahey, The New Possibility
If Ken Burns did a documentary entitled, “Tumbleweeds and Toasts- Pre-Civil War Speeches Made to Mostly Empty Rooms,” John Fahey could be the only artist possibly considered for the soundtrack. Fahey’s vast library of dreamy steel-string guitar instrumental tracks is a quintessentially American study in what he referred to as, “cosmic sentimentalism.” The kind of enchanted folk spun by Fahey conjures forgotten places and people while illuminating the smaller and larger worlds we move through. Fahey can one moment evoke the tiniest detail, the next conjure epic strokes of God and nature. In one musical stanza Fahey can bring you grass growing on the prairie, wagons crossing above the grass and the starry night above it all. The fact that Fahey can tune into Christmas’s glowing ball of joy and melancholy, cold walks and hands warming above a fire, love and loneliness, is no surprise.
The New Possibility, would go on to be Fahey’s most popular commercial creation. A fact he appeared to struggle with. Fahey conceived of the idea of making a Christmas album after noticing a large stack of Bing Crosby Christmas albums at a record store and being advised that they flew off the shelves every Christmas. In 1979, Fahey commented on the album, “Well, the arrangements are pretty good, but on the other hand there are more mistakes on this album than on any of the other 17 albums I’ve recorded. And yet, here’s the paradox… this album has not only sold more than any of my others, I meet people all the time who are crazy about it. I mean really love it. What can I say. I’m confused.”
And he probably was confused. John Fahey’s story is less about a man pursuing commercial desires and more about a man who found his true love the first time he heard Blind Willie Johnson’s “Praise God I’m Satisfied.” That pure, honest, love would define his life. Fahey’s story is rich with the kind of poignantly tragic and divinely redemptive stuff people fall all over themselves to make movies about but mostly it is about staying faithful. Fahey’s UCLA thesis (where he participated in the Folklore Masters Program) on bluesman Charley Patton foreshadowed his musical career to follow. The thesis lovingly brought Patton’s uniquely tuned brand of blues from the past to the present, bringing with it a wholly particular time in American music recording. The blues recordings made between 1915 and 1934 by, “southern black songsters,” are characterized by Fahey as being beguiling unaffected by commercial imaginings. The passive recording sensibility of that time was defined more by capturing something than by refining it for commercial ends. This emphasis on passivity in the recording process allowed the essence of a unique culture and sound to be tapped into and saved for posterity. It would be this almost purely altruistic creative sensibility that would define Fahey’s adventurous musical pursuits throughout his life.
Through multiple marriages, poverty and a drinking problem, Fahey kept creating and championing past and current blues greats. The late life career renaisance Fahey underwent in the wake of support from the likes of Sonic Youth and Jim O’Rourke allowed him to establish the Revenant Records label that focused on releasing obscure recordings of the same early blues material he wrote his UCLA thesis about. In 2003, two years after Fahey’s death, a seven-disc retrospective of Charley Patton and his contemporaries produced by Revenant won three Grammy awards.
Don’t be confused though, Fahey’s Christmas album, despite its’ being conceived from an almost entirely commercial perspective, despite its’ self-professed mistakes, is a brilliant piece of art. Enjoy.
#11, She & Him, A Very She & Him Christmas
Among the many entirely unoriginal things I participate in as a human being there are few I enjoy as much as being hopelessly enthralled in anything and everything Zooey Deschanel. Particularly her voice. Even when unenthusiastically saying something like, “...that’s Liquid Drain Cleaner on aisle three. Have a good day and thank you for shopping at Retail Rodeo.” (The Good Girl) Zooey Deschanel’s voice completely and quite wonderfully dismantles me. On She & Hims’ A Very She & Him Christmas you have Christmas and Zooey Deschanel which is like ice cream and a winning lottery ticket, like a surprise day off and finding a fiver in the front pocket of the jacket you haven’t worn in months, it’s dreaming it is Monday and waking up to find it is actually Sunday (and its’ raining so you can’t do any of the yard work you were supposed to do). It’s amazing on top of amazing on top of “My God that is beautiful.” Beginning with Christmas Waltz Deschanel’s voice is warm and lovely and classic. It is a cup of hot chocolate at the late night skate at the outdoor rink, it is an affectionate Christmas hug from a loved one you haven’t seen in too long, it is the glass of whiskey you pour the moment after everyone has gone home.
#10, Los Straitjackets- Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets
What says Christmas more than a group of guys in identical black suits, gold Aztec medallions, and personalized Mexican wrestling masks keeping the spirit of The Ventures/Dick Dale-type surf guitar instrumentals alive. If you’re making a Christmas playlist Los Straitjackets are here to give you a break from the underlying tyranny of words. Sometimes we all need a break from words.
#9, Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestar- A Very Ping Pong Christmas
Funky Treats From Santa’s Bag–
“Five out Five Stars. I thought nothing could take over the top spot on my most played Christmas album over Twisted Sister’s, “A Very Twisted Christmas,” boy was I wrong.”
Bob Zumunda, Amazon.com Review.
Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra is to instrumental music what early 007 was to espionage- sure there’s danger and adventure but throughout it all the shirt stays tucked in and the hair stays in place. This is smooth stuff. This is marshmallows in your chocolate milk smooth, this is a moderate sized box of crayons fun, this is sitars and flutes and every damn instrument under the sun.
#8, The Blue Hawaiians, Christmas on Big Island
Where Don Ho’s Christmas album fails in an orgy of all-frosting, no cake, schmaltz, The Blue Hawaiians take a, “The Ventures Come to Polynesia,” approach and tap into the surprisingly easy connection between the kitche of Hawaiian music, jangly guitar and Christmas. If the question is, “Can you dig it?” The answer is, “Yes you can!”
#7, Brenda Lee, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
How old school is Brenda Lee? She had her name changed from Brenda Mae Tarpley to Brenda Lee by a DJ named Peanuts Fairclough. She got her first big break on the country music television show, Ozark Jubilee. Yes, the Ozark Jubilee. Between her lost in time roots and diminutive stature, the 4’9” Brenda Lee doesn’t seem to make for an imposing figure until you hear her sing. Brenda Lee’s voice puts the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in precocious, it’s live, it’s wild, it’s young yet more worldly than you’d expect, it’s daring, it’s caring, it is more fun than a barrel of monkeys bumper hitching down mainstreet, and more than anything it is gorgeous. And that warble. What a warble. That warble could float a boat more effortlessly than water.
Brenda Lee’s version of Silver Bells showcases her at the height of her powers. It is stunning, it is nuanced, it is enchanting. It is the seminal moment of her Christmas album. You can almost imagine the band conjuring a cartoon winter wonderland, replete with cartoon wildlife frolicking as Brenda Lee goes about her way, voice in full bloom, the falling snow suddenly suspended in mid-air, each one twinkling in an entirely unique way. This is brilliant stuff. A true testament to a greatness that is truly timeless.
#6, Burl Ives, Have a Holly Jolly Christmas
“If I live to be 100, I’ll never forget that big snow storm a couple of years ago. The weather closed in and, well you might not believe it, but the world almost missed Christmas. Oh, excuse me, call me Sam. What’s the matter? Haven’t you ever seen a talking snowman before?”
Sam the Snowman.
Whatever Burl Ives may to be to people to many of us he is mostly Sam the Snowman from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the umbrella toting, goatee sporting, banjo cajoling, Silver and Gold emoting, narrator for the inspiring tale of a reindeer that overcame prejudice. It’s perfect that Brenda Lee and Burl Ives sit side by side on this list as they are the eternal prom King and Queen of Christmas. Similar to Lee, Ives magic sits most precisely in his voice, a voice that is at once a big warm hug, a cup of hot chocolate and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Also like Lee, while not wholly defined by the era he rose to popularity in, Ives music and story are clearly rooted in another time. For instance, Ives entertainment career most decisively began with his radio show, “The Wayfaring Stranger,” in which, as described by Wikipedia, he was, “an itinerant singer and banjoist.” Time has not been kind to folks wishing to start an entertainment career with a banjo. Ives also managed to get himself (and his banjo I imagine) thrown in jail in Utah during his early musical travels for singing, “Foggy Dew,” a song that was viewed at the time as a “bawdy” song,
“When I was a bachelor, I liv’d all alone
I worked at the weaver’s trade
And the only, only thing that I ever did wrong
Was to woo a fair young maid.
I wooed her in the wintertime
And in the summer, too
And the only, only thing that I did that was wrong
Was to keep her from the foggy, foggy dew.”
Who would have foreseen then that the imprisoned man and his banjo would go on to be Sam the Snowman, would go on to he the voice that provided generations of kids with a hushed, fearful, introduction to, “The cave of the Abominable Snowmonster,” that got all folksy and serious to observe a reindeer coming of age, “And during all that time a strange and wonderful thing was happening- Rudolph was growing up. And growing up made Rudolph realize you can’t run away from your problems,” and finally sent us to bed with his big warm, friendly, voice celebrating a reindeer that would never be forgotten. Burl Ives, “he’ll go down in history.”
#5, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, It’s A Holiday Soul Party
Sharon Jones’ first single was delivered to the world after she turned age 40, her first album at age 46. Man are we lucky. We almost missed out. However late the world might have figured out the need to get Sharon Jones out of the job of corrections officer and into pouring out her spectacular mix of infectious soul to as many sets of ears, to as many souls, as possible, it nonetheless did. And it was a good thing. Divinity also saw fit to coordinate Sharon Jones making music with one of the most genuinely gifted backing bands on the planet, The Dap Kings. You can’t listen to listen to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and not feel transported to a different time but there is no tracing in Sharon Jones voice. Sharon Jones channels soul and gospel and good old rock’n roll but make no mistake she owns them. Sharon Jones was never any place other than the present, just listen.
This Christmas album checks in at a super tight 33 minutes but there’s not a moment of anything other than Gold. It’s a Holiday Soul Party is cheeky, funky, gorgeous, Holiday cheer that gets all of your good self on board. There is no doubt though that Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings have a strong affinity with the Jonesed-up, pure warmth and heartbreak, musical emancipation, of Motown in the 50’s and 60’s and as such they really deserve a throwback, fast talking, 60’s DJ extolling their abundant virtues in overly enunciated Baritones, “Here’s some Stone Cold Gold Soul to own your Bones and get them moooooovin and groooooovin. Some oh boy easy Joy to shine up your chest and pop the buttons on your vest. Hey everybody, let’s get messed up! Let’s get dressed up! Let’s rejoice! Let’s do this Christmas thing with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.”
#4, Stompin’ Tom Connors, Merry Christmas Everybody
“The turkey’s on the table now and when your feelin’ able you can take another helpin’ if ya will
But soon as ya eat it I’m afraid ya gotta beat it cause ya gotta give the chair to brother Bill
And Hey Uncle Marty it’s an all night party, and don’t ya pour the drinks too strong
Get together now friends and neighbours, Sing a happy holiday song.”
Down on Christmas, Stompin’ Tom Connors
Full decades of Canadiana are ingrained in the DNA of Stompin’ Toms’ music. Smoke filled bars, making snow forts, National Film Board shorts that we would get shown via a crackling projector illuminating every floating particle of dust along the way to the blank white screen at the front of the class in Grade Six, getting punched in the face in on a cold ass winter day road hockey game, snowmobiles and hot chocolate from a thermos, late night tobogganing,
Stompin’ Tom himself is a classic Canadian throw back. He is genuine, he is witty and fun loving, he is generous but if you cross him you’re done. Done as in forever done. There is no turning back.
After running away from his adoptive family at age thirteen Stompin’ Tom hitchhiked, rode in box cars, worked in mines and welcomed vagrancy arrests in the winter so that he could sleep in a warm place for the night. Stompin’ Tom saw the most unforgiving aspects of Canada but as his songs illustrate, he loved his country.
And we were lucky to have him.
While the likes of Leonard Cohen and Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot immediately come to mind when we think about great Canadian songwriters we should never forget that Stompin’ Tom is easily their equal. Stompin’ Tom just told it straight, told it with a wink and he celebrated the real people and places he met along the way. Neil Young sang of Pocahontas and General Cortez, Gordon Lightfoot about the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald while Stompin’ Tom sang about Sudbury Saturday night, your hockey mom, Margo having the cargo, your snowmobile, miners and Prince Edward Island potatoes. Stompin’ Tom sang for and about the real people he met along his way.
#3, James Brown, James Brown’s Funky Christmas
“James Brown loves you, you lucky so-and-so… Maceo!”
The list of things more fun than the music of James Brown is short and suspect. Christmas with James Brown is violins and horns and Wurlitzer pianos jumping and soaring and sewing the Christmas landscape with silver, gold and funk for days. This is the Godfather of Soul being the Godfather of Soul. There is lament, there is sadness but mostly there is rejoicing as the gospel singer in James Brown knows better than to ever get fully bogged down in anything that won’t move his fellow man. And that’s a Christmas story in itself.
James Brown was born in a wood shack in South Carolina and grew up in extreme poverty but when he sang, when he danced, when he played, he rejoiced, he, along with Fred and Maceo, took it to the bridge. James Brown could have simply wallowed in his circumstances but instead chose to elevate himself and everybody in the room. James Brown not only wanted to get us to celebrate life he wanted us to unite and you can bear witness to that on this Christmas compilation wherein James Brown sings to and for absolutely everybody leading Rolling Stone Magazine to comment, “Like Santa himself, Mr. Dynamite has something in his bottomless gift bag for every girl and boy the world over: On the blazing title track from 1970’s Hey America It’s Christmas, he implores, “White or black, blue or green/ Even a man I’ve never seen/Let’s get together!”
“Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” is the perfect example of a song that could be undermined by its’ political overtones and less than conventional Christmas theme but instead becomes a rollicking good time, replete with some fantastically groovy horn work and James Brown simply imploring good old Santa Clause to not forget the ghetto.
James Brown is the gift that keeps giving that keeps imploring us to dance, to celebrate, to feel good and at his most convincing it is less about saying it and more about playing it, less poetry and more, “Ughhhh!!!”
Aren’t we all lucky so and so’s?
#2, Sufjan Stevens Presents, Songs for Christmas
Early in his career Sufjan Stevens suggested he was working on a, “50 State Project,” that his albums Michigan and Illinois were only the beginning of a larger effort to create an album embracing unique aspects of every state in America (minus two I guess) intertwined with his usual poignant perspective on family and friends, faith and despair, love and loss and all the gorgeous ambiguity that ties it all together. Stevens admitted some time later that this suggestion was actually just a promotional gimmick but I have little doubt that no matter how whimsically, he did consider the idea and that he would have loved to have the time to pull it off. The man has a thing for recognizing the epic in the seeminglly average and everyday moments that make up or lives, the man has a knack for taking a small, fun, idea like making Christmas songs with friends every Christmas and turning it into an opus.
At over two hours long Songs for Christmas might have got lost along the way in the hands of a lesser man. But like primary coloured lights strung ’round the tree Stevens ambition is realized in sewing together enchanting track after enchanting track. This is not just two hours of music. This is two hours of music to warm up and illuminate the coldest, darkest, December night.
While Stevens’ sound hums along with Chrismtas joy it also taps into the seasons’ melancholy. Stevens mixes the rum and the coke so that juxtaposed to the Christmas buzz and merry making is something smooth and sad: Darkened store fronts, cold empty streets with streetlights changing for nobody, discarded Christmas trees on the boulevard post-Christmas, pristine white snow melting into brown slush, definitive reminders of what you have and what you don’t have, who is present and who isn’t.
Stevens also doesn’t flinch a bit when it comes to the religious overtones of the season. Far from staying cooly detached Stevens jumps right in, grabs hold of the spiritual staff and starts churning butter,
“So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.”
Despite clearly embracing the religious implications of Christmas Stevens seems to be immune to being overly bogged down by them. Bells, banjos and horns, shine up loose waltzes and jigs, carrying the listener along through a Yuletide kalidescope of scenes rooted in the warmest parts of Christmas. From toy xylophone instrumental vignettes like, “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” to the distant beauty of the piano in, “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” to the infectious, irreverent, march of, “Come on! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!” the weather outside might be frightful but the music is so delightful.
“Tie up your boots!
Jump off the ladder!
Pack up your clothes
Nothing’s the matter
Mistletoes hangs up in the bedroom,
Your sister’s bangs,
She cut them herself
Santa is here
Sleigh bells are ringing
They are singing,
K-mart is closed,
So is the bakery,
Everyone’s at home watching tv,
Santa Claus is coming,
Here the banjo strumming
Here the banjo strumming.”
#1, Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas
Some of the greatest moments of my childhood were predicated upon a lack of things to do. A lack of compelling choices. No internet, no cable, no cellphone. For instance, on winter nights where the clouds above unleashed a torrent of snowflakes to quietly and then even more quietly coat the world in snow I would take to the streets. I would walk all over the city of Thorold alone lost in wonder as nature did what it does in the most stunning way.
Vince Guaraldi found the beauty in his limited choices with A Charlie Brown Christmas. Guaraldi made a lot of good music prior to his death at the relatively young at age 47 but nothing as great as his Christmas album. Being narrowed down to the mix of Charles Schulz sublime Peanuts creation and Christmas brought out the best in Vince Guaraldi.
Consider the back to back versions of, “Christmas Time is Here.” The longer instrumental followed by the shorter Peanuts kid carolling version. The snare drum and high hat amble lazily along while the piano absolutely breaks your heart with the delicious sound of the best kind of loneliness. It is sweet and sentimental and true. They are breaking the news as gently and irreverently as possible- All men are Islands trying their best not to be. The piano wavers from quiet, introspective, reminisces, to playful, charismatic, flourishes and when the vocals kick in the big fat snowflakes seem to suddenly be suspended in mid-air by the same magic that made them incredibly complex and unique in the first place.
This is magic stuff. This is once in a lifetime stuff. I could talk for hours about this album but I believe that the Vince Guaraldi Trio delivers to each of us to a very special, very sweet, spot, unique to each listener. Lay back and enjoy.
One last thing that is important- Do you remember making macaroni Christmas trees? I believe it was in Grade Three that we made them. They were awesome. We’d take a cardboard cylinder tapered at one end to give it roughly the shape of a Christmas tree and then we would glue hard macaroni to it. There’d be shells and twists and elbow macaroni all densely glued to the Christmas tree shape then we would spray paint them gold. I loved those trees.