Those of you who get your grande skinny lattes at Starbucks likely know that the coffee chain is selling Elton John's Christmas Party, a CD of Christmas music compiled by Elton John himself. It includes tracks by the Band, Kate Bush, and Jimmy Buffett, all fine artists. But with due respect to Sir Elton, rock-and-roll attempts at Christmas music rarely hit the spot. If it's any good, there's a subversive quality to rock that is at odds with the celebration of the season that Christmas music represents. If nothing else, being ironic about Christmas is too easy.
Still, John is right in his mixed-bag approach to Christmas music. Many hostile to Christmas music had parents with one or two albums that they played to death (in my house, Sing Along with Mitch by Mitch Miller and an Anne Murray Christmas album). Compilations keep things moving, and they make it easier to hear what makes Christmas music fun.
Finding the right compilation is hard, but now that Apple's iStore is the seventh-largest music retailer in the country, the practical solution is to make your own compilation, downloading the songs you need. So, for the iPod people and those who want to be, here are some suggestions for a soundtrack to accompany the trimming of your iTree:
1. "White Christmas" -- Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters
2. "Deck the Halls with Boogie Woogie" -- Katie Webster
3. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" -- Ella Fitzgerald
The best Christmas music is fun. Not dogs barking "Jingle Bells" novelty fun, but the fun that captures the joy of living. You can hear that in Clyde McPhatter's lead vocal on "White Christmas" as he leaps from his normal voice to his falsetto and back again. That same sort of fun can be heard in Katie Webster's extremely syncopated boogie-woogie piano and Ella Fitzgerald's maternal, winking vocal.
4. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"/"Jingle Bell
Bossa Nova" -- Eddie Dunstedter
5. "The Man With All the Toys" -- The Beach Boys
6. "What Christmas Means to Me" -- Stevie Wonder
In the best recordings, the fun is encoded in every aspect of the track, and that's certainly the case with the Beach Boys and Stevie Wonder tracks. Both are exuberant beyond good sense, but that too mirrors the spirit of the season. In Wonder's case, the entry of multiple percussion tracks, horns, and female singers are staggered throughout the track so it surges again and again, and the song itself has enough hooks to trim a tree.
7. "Silent Night" -- Charlie Musselwhite
8. "Far Away Christmas Blues"
-- Little Esther Phillips with Johnny Otis
While there are a lot of Christmas blues out there, they're often unsatisfactory because only the lyrics mention Christmas. Musselwhite's harmonica version of "Silent Night" is as warm and stately as any choir's version, and "Far Away Christmas Blues" employs vibes to mimic Christmas bells. Ask anyone who has made Christmas music, and they'll tell you the importance of bells.
9. "Winter Wonderland" -- Diana Krall
10. "The Christmas Waltz" -- Nancy Wilson
11. "The Merriest" -- June Christy
Male vocalists approach seasonal music and become cads (Dean Martin) or somber (Frank Sinatra). Female vocalists sing Christmas songs and capture the season. British Columbia native Diana Krall embraces home and her roots when she sings "We'll frolic and play/The Canadian way" in her take on "Winter Wonderland," and some of the most charming seasonal songs come from the likes of Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, and Ella Fitzgerald. Nancy Wilson's "The Christmas Waltz" is one of the most beautiful songs and visions expressed in Christmas music -- "It's the time of year/When the world falls in love" -- and she sounds like she's part of that world.
12. "Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees"
-- Elvis Presley
13. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"
-- Lou Rawls/Away Team
14. "Christmas Time Is Here"
-- Vince Guaraldi Trio
Christmas fuels more than its share of dark emotions. It provides an occasion to reflect wistfully on what has been lost over time. The Away Team's remix of Lou Rawls' "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" sounds like a radio transmission from the past received at 3 a.m. Christmas morning. It's as haunting and moody as "Christmas Time Is Here," a minor-key gem that is as melancholy as it is beautiful.
15. "Maybe This Christmas" -- Ron Sexsmith
16. "Christmas Time Is Coming" -- Stormy Weather
17. "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" -- James Brown
18. "Marshmallow World" -- Darlene Love
The Christmas canon is so well-known that the test it poses for an artist is how to put your stamp on the song. James Brown does it by being himself. Always in charge, he tells Santa to let the people know that James Brown sent him. The Darlene Love track comes from Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You, and it features Spector compulsively filling the sonic spectrum, making the song as much about himself as Christmas.
The ability of Christmas songs to evoke Christmases past is one of their greatest virtues, and all of these tracks do this. The good times they conjure may never have existed, but as any parent knows, there's a lot of pretending connected to Christmas. Each family works out its own holiday traditions, and personal touches that make those traditions charming or quaint are the touches that make for great Christmas music.