A Vivascene Feature by Cindy Li
For part one of our holiday music list, click here.
7. Joni Mitchell – “River”
Some of you might remember this little list I did back in the summer in which I made the outrageous claim that Joni Mitchell’s Blue, despite its melancholia, is much more of a summer LP than a winter one. While I still believe that the record’s tranquil acoustic style, lighter-than-air vocals, and recurring motifs of the beach, road trips, and hippie parties all point to Blue as a subdued but unmistakably summery album; I can’t deny that “River” is a Christmas song, and an exceptionally heartfelt one at that (even if the song itself takes place in tropical, snow-less California). For proof of this, one needs to look no further than the backbone of the melody: a familiar set of piano chords lifted from the traditional Christmas carol, “Jingle Bells”. Over these chords, Mitchell reflects upon her recent heartbreak, her desire to escape her oppressively warm surroundings, and the loneliness she feels being away from home so close to the holidays. These themes, although depressing, are familiar for many during the Christmas season. And the gradual adoption of “River” as a modern Christmas standard demonstrates that good Christmas music is oftentimes much more complex than just some ditty about drinking eggnog and smooching under the mistletoe.
8. The Ronettes – “Sleigh Ride”
Sure, out of all the songs on this list, “Sleigh Ride” is by far the most covered and overplayed during the holiday season. You might even say that it’s exactly the kind of music you’d like to escape from during the annual onslaught of sugary holiday jingles. But that would be misguided. After all, anyone can competently sing a song written by someone else. There are very few musicians, however, that can take a beloved standard (composed by Leroy Anderson in 1948), adapt it to their own individual style, and somehow convince legions of fans-of-the-original that this is the definitive version. Phil Spector and The Ronettes did exactly that with their cover of “Sleigh Ride”, taken from the perennial Christmas classic, A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records. The album featured a simple but effective formula: have Spector’s girl groups sing a series of traditional holiday songs, then give each rendition Spector’s signature “Wall of Sound” treatment. While this method produced an album full of charming and jubilant holiday interpretations, it is The Ronette’s whimsical take on “Sleigh Ride”, with its horse clops and “ring-a-ling-a-ling ding-dong-ding”‘s, that is the most original and iconic of the bunch.
9. Chocolate Snow – “Let Me Be Your Christmas Toy”
So you’ve never heard of this 1970s mixed race—hence the unfortunate name—soul-funk group from Wichita, Kansas? I don’t blame you. I would have had no idea myself if it hadn’t been for Numero Records’ remarkable compilation series, Eccentric Soul. The premise is simple, albeit extremely painstaking: dig some serious crates for unknown records released by small, regional labels that never came close to reaching a wider audience, despite flourishing within their local community at one point or another. Based on those facts, you’ll forgive me for not knowing much about Chocolate Snow, other than their interracial status being the direct cause for their unpopularity. All that really needs to be said is this: “Let Me Be Your Christmas Toy”, although bordering on kitschy, might be one of the most endearing and memorable Christmas slow jams within the past thirty-odd years. Everything from the opening “Ho ho ho”, to the first wah-wah-wah of the horn melody, to the cheeky but nevertheless charming backing harmonies make it impossible to understand why this band fell through the cracks of music history. And it’s not just CC Neal’s smooth-as-chocolate vocals (pun intended) or the song’s blend of holiday romance and self-reflective cheese that make “Christmas Toy” so darn good. It’s that despite its somewhat maudlin subject matter, there is an infectious sense of joy and good humour on this 7”, and who wouldn’t want to be subjected to that during the holidays?
10. Louis Armstrong – “Christmas Night in Harlem”
One of the interesting facts about Louis Armstrong is that throughout much of his career, Armstrong tried to remain as politically neutral in the public eye as he could in order to preserve his acceptance and fame within the white community. He maintained his neutrality throughout the turbulent Civil Rights Era, alienating numerous black fans along the way. Whether or not you agree with his decision to disregard issues of rights and equality for the sake of getting a bigger table in the whites-only section, “Christmas Night in Harlem” is proof that although Armstrong’s loyalties and political views weren’t being expressed explicitly to the public, he had other ways of communicating them. “Christmas Night in Harlem”, much like James Brown’s “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto”, is all about celebrating the delights of a uniquely black experience during the holidays. Armstrong’s trademark gravelly voice ruminates for a few bars about “blacks and tans feelin’ good/in that old coloured neighbourhood”, before the sunniest trumpet waltzes in and takes over. It all manages to make that particular time period in black history seem somehow rosy, which is no easy feat.
11. The Kinks – “Father Christmas”
If this isn’t the first Christmas music list you’ve ever skimmed through, then you probably know that The Kinks’ “Father Christmas” is one of the most popular Christmas songs among music nerds and holiday misanthropes. It appeals to those who can’t stomach even one verse from “Jingle Bells’, precisely because “Father Christmas” couldn’t be more different from the typically sugary and forget-your-troubles jingles that populate the airwaves during the Christmas season. While most yuletide carols prefer to ignore the bleaker but nevertheless irrefutable aspects of life, The Kinks instead chooses to highlight them, presenting them in the most in-your-face rock & roll Christmas jam. Lead singer Ray Davies tells the story of a mall Santa who gets beaten up and mugged by a gang of teenage boys. Over a backing of holiday xylophones and pounding drums, the boys scream at the mall Santa to give them money and jobs for their dads, and to leave the toys for the “little rich boys”. Not only is “Father Christmas” fearlessly honest about a topic that most people would prefer not to think about during the holidays, it does so without being preachy. In the end, what you get is an instantly memorable punk Christmas ditty that also packs the most fun-to-sing-along-to chorus on this list.
12. Otis Redding – “Merry Christmas Baby”
It’s hard to imagine Christmas without Otis Redding’s memorable rendition of this 1947 R&B holiday standard. Written by Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore (of the doo wop group The Drifters), ‘Merry Christmas Baby” has been covered by everyone from B. B. King to Chuck Berry to Bruce Springsteen to Elvis Presley. It’s even been covered by 90s teeny boppers Hanson and pop princesses Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguilera. The original version by Johnny Moore, featuring Charles Brown on vocals often gets cited as the definitive version. While Brown’s voice is deliciously smooth and their treatment packs quite a big dose of soul, the mellowness of the tempo and Charles’s subdued croon pale in comparison to Otis’s exuberant, open-throat bellows. The song itself is pretty simple; it’s primarily made up of verses on the joys of spending Christmas with someone you love. But Redding is no karaoke singer and he injects it with all of his vocal peculiarities and stylistic quirks. As a result, I can’t hear “I’ve got music on my radio” without subconsciously exaggerating the last YO in “radio”. Nor can most people sing along to “Santa came down the chimney/Half past three/Left all them good ol’ presents/For my baby and for me” without joining in for a chorus of “ha ha ha”’s at the end of the verse. Redding made “Merry Christmas Baby” so inextricably Otis that all other versions sound somehow off. And if that doesn’t make this one of the finest vocal performances in holiday music, I don’t know what will.