Friday, December 5, 2008

It's... Christmas in December!

Once again, we find ourselves basking in the Internet's warm glowing warming glow, brought together by Christmas in December, 2008 -- the latest installment in a decade-and-then-some-long series of compilations of whatever arcane, groovy, and/or wonderful holiday music I can find. CiD officially declares a truce in the War on Christmas and encourages everyone to forget the cruddy economy, and banish whatever terrifying and incomprehensible personal demons may be taunting you. (CiD would much prefer it if you kept your personal problems to yourself, actually.) Please don't hesitate to share your joy in the comments.

I'm not sure how this happened, but this year, CiD does not include a version of "Sleigh Ride." This has just occurred three times before since 1996, and I can only apologize. To compensate, please enjoy 51 different versions of the song.

So, no "Sleigh Ride" -- but what will you find this year? Let's take a look!

1. "Brazilian Sleigh Bells," Percy Faith and His Orchestra
Somebody used this song in a commercial last year, but I forget who. (Update: Turns out it was the eBay "Ice Fishing" ad. Thanks, Adtunes!) If one is looking for a jaunty little number to kick off one's Christmas-song-listening season, one could do much worse than this. Please note that Brazil is a mostly tropical country, with snow limited to the mountainous regions -- so if they have sleigh bells there at all, it's beyond me what they use them for. I've never been there, though, so what do I know.

2. "Winter Wonderland," Darlene Love
Another stunning selection by the stunning Ms. Love from the overall stunning "A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector," quite simply one of the best albums (not just Christmas albums) ever made. I could go on, but I'd rather you spent the time getting your own copy and listening for yourself.

3. "Silent Night," The Dickies
What would CiD be without a song about the baby Jesus, performed in a completely inappropriate and irreverent fashion? This may just be the rockin'est song in the history of CiD -- it's a close race with "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)" by the Ramones, from 2001. The Dickies, legends of the '70s L.A. punk scene, also do a killer version of the "Banana Splits" theme song.

4. "Deck the Halls," The London Sound 70 Orchestra and Chorus
Is it possible that this song is from the same decade as the Dickies? Apparently. Which should tell you something about the '70s. This whole song is great, but 00:27 - 00:55 is pretty much the most awesome thing I've ever heard in my life.

5. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," The Cadillacs with the Jesse Powell Orchestra
Possibly my second-favorite R&B version of a Christmas standard (first place goes to the Drifters' "White Christmas"). The Cadillacs' biggest hit was "Speedoo," which was a reference to lead singer Earl Carroll's nickname, not the embarrassing swimsuit. (Warning: The previous link should not be clicked by anybody, at any time, anywhere.)

6. "Gonna Wrap My Heart in Ribbons," Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys
Part 3 of an ongoing musical conversation between Hank Thompson and Kitty Wells. Hank appeared on CiD '06, and Kitty replied in '07. So, consider this Hank's response to Kitty's response. Not that these songs really have anything to do with each other -- the true conversation started in 1952, when Kitty recorded "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" in response to Hank's "The Wild Side of Life." And now I guess I need to find another song by Kitty for '09. Hank died in 2007, but Kitty's still around -- as of this writing, the oldest member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

7. "Christmas Time Is Here," The Blue Hawaiians
Something about the surf guitar really emphasizes the somewhat melancholy, introspective character of this song, which of course is famous from the equally melancholy and introspective "A Charlie Brown Christmas," written by the remarkably melancholy and introspective Charles Schulz. Melancholy and introspection: that's what we look for in the Christmas season, right?

8. "Mele Kalikimaka," Arthur Lyman
The beginning is kind of spooky, isn't it? But fear not, for Arthur and the boys soon take us galloping into a jovial, vibe-laden romp over the Big Island. According to Wikipedia, "The song takes its title from the phrase of 'Mele Kalikimaka,' the Hawaiianized pronunciation of 'Merry Christmas.'" Apparently, the Hawaiian language does not have all the sounds found in English (substituting "L" for "R," for instance). This ends both the Hawaiian section and the linguistics section of CiD '08.

9. "Jingle Bells Cha Cha Cha," Pearl Bailey
There have been 23 different versions of "Jingle Bells" in the 13 Christmas compilations I've made. I have no statistics to back me up on this, but I'd bet that this is the most-recorded Christmas song in history. Even songs that aren't "Jingle Bells" will often include a fleeting musical reference to it. But here's the ironic thing: It was originally a Thanksgiving song! Anyway, Pearl pretty much tears this one up. I was going to make a sarcastic "Touched by an Angel" reference, until I remembered that Della Reese, not Pearl, starred in that. (I also get James Coburn and Lee Marvin confused.)

10. "I Won't Decorate Your Christmas Tree," Loretta Lynn
I should have probably put this right after "Gonna Wrap My Heart in Ribbons," them both being C&W songs dealing with tree decoration. Loretta, as you might expect, is a little less sentimental than... well, pretty much everybody. All the best Loretta Lynn songs are about her being pissed off at somebody (c.f. "Fist City," "Don't Come Home A'Drinkin' [With Lovin' on Your Mind]"). And yes, that's the Jordanaires singing backup.

11. "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," George Garabedian
George was apparently the pre-eminent Herb Alpert sound-alike of his day; this may have been a good star to hitch one's wagon to in the mid-'60s, but the market for Herb Alpert sound-alikes has dried up considerably since then. Kind of a shame, because this song is more Herb Alpert-y than anything from Herb Alpert's own Christmas record.

12. "Noel," Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

True story: I was driving home from the Thanksgiving holiday, looking for something on the radio, when this song emerged through the crackling and static. I was hooked from the first second I heard, and I tried to hang on until the end, when I hoped the DJ would tell me who was singing it -- but I was obviously driving in the wrong direction, out of the radio station's range, and the song soon dissolved back into the white noise from which it came. I don't know why I didn't recognize immediately that it was Smokey, for it could have only been he, as the Internet confirmed shortly after I made it back to my home computer, about four hours later (traffic was horrible). So: Thank you, Smokey; thank you, Internet; and thank you, random radio station along I-85.

13. "Here Comes the Fattest Man in Town," The Bob Chester Orchestra
In case you missed it, the titular reference is to Santa Claus. At least I hope it is, and not to some other, unnamed, obese chimney-sliding reindeer enthusiast.

14. "Snowfall," Eddie South

One of the perks of making these compilations (besides the immense fortune and international fame they have brought me) is stumbling upon performers I might never have found otherwise. Here's Eddie South, expanding for me the category of "Jazz Violinists," which I had previously thought consisted exclusively of Stephane Grappelli. Eddie was known as "the Black Gypsy" and "the Dark Angel of the Fiddle," and, according to his biography, "was a brilliant technician who, were it not for the universal racism of the time, would probably have been a top classical violinist."

15. "Blue Snowflakes," Ernest Tubb and His Texas Troubadours

I just like Ernest's Christmas songs more and more as the years go by. He had a big hit with "Blue Christmas" (CiD '00) and did well with "White Christmas" (CiD '04). This one appeared on the flip side of "Merry Texas Christmas You All," which you may remember from CiD '05. One Web page I saw said that the Andrews Sisters are backing him up here, but I don't think that's right. I don't know who they are, though. Somebody's sisters, probably.

16. "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," Thurl Ravenscroft
The voice of Tony the Tiger, and the original singer of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." Please note that the song title properly has a comma after "Merry," since the singer is addressing the gentlemen with a wish that God "rest them merry," which is apparently something people said back then. He is not wishing that God make a group of already-merry gentlemen restful. It bugs me when people get this wrong -- but then, a lot of things bug me.

17. "Here Comes Santa Claus," The Ramsey Lewis Trio
An instrumental version, which does not confront the listener with the bewildering theology of the song's lyrics. "Better hang your stockings and say your prayers/ 'Cause Santa Claus comes tonight." To whom, exactly, are we to pray, and for what?

18. "Jingle Bells," Jimmy Smith
See what I mean about "Jingle Bells"? Here it is again!

19. "Winter Weather," Jo Stafford with the Starlighters and the Paul Weston Orchestra
Ms. Stafford died at age 90 last July. I had heard of her, but had never listened to her much before. I'm sorry it took me this long. Paul Weston, Jo's husband of 44 years (until his death in 1996), was also musical director for Capitol Records.

20. "Billy's Christmas Wish," Red Sovine

Dear Lord. I mean, you expect melodrama from Red Sovine, who did a lot of songs along these lines, mostly about noble truck drivers befriending crippled children. But this one pegs the ol' pathos meter. It makes "The Christmas Shoes" sound like "Up With People." If you've ever wanted to hear a Christmas song with the lyric "Santa quickly felt for the little boy's pulse," well, here you go. Merry Christmas, everybody!

21. "Russian Sleigh Song," The Three Suns
I deliberately put this here in the hopes that the zany inventiveness of The Three Suns would help dispel the cloud of despair that is "Billy's Christmas Wish" -- I leave it to you to tell me if it succeeded. The "Russian Sleigh" is the Troika, a sleigh drawn by three horses. This is in fact a cover of the "Troika" movement from Sergei Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije Suite." Again, Wikipedia helps me out: It is "frequently used in films and documentaries for Christmas scenes and scenes involving snow. This motif from the suite was also used in the song 'I Believe In Father Christmas' by the English pop group Emerson, Lake and Palmer." We can't blame Prokofiev for ELP, though. The Three Suns were, as I mentioned last year, Mamie Eisenhower's favorite group.

22. "Christmas Spirit??," The Wailers
If you've listened to the CD, you know that these are not Bob Marley's Wailers. These are the Wailers who were the pioneering garage rock band in the Pacific Northwest. The album this comes from also includes previous CiD selections by the Sonics -- "Don't Believe in Christmas" (CiD '98) and "Santa Claus" (CiD '04). I haven't heard the original album, though; all these songs come from Rhino's "Bummed Out Christmas" CD. I'll bet the original album rocks pretty hard, though.

23. "Blue Christmas," Billy Eckstine
I've done my best throughout the years to dispense with the myth that Elvis Presley sang the original "Blue Christmas." Ernest Tubb beat Elvis to it by about ten years; this version is from 1949 or 1950. I believe Billy Eckstine has the second-deepest voice on this compilation. Overall, though, he's a better singer than Thurl Ravenscroft.

24. "White Christmas," The Del Rubio Triplets
Three gals, three guitars, one birthday. You'd think that more of the Del Rubio Triplets' oeuvre would have made it in to CiD, but the truth us that there's a lot on the gals' (I have trouble thinking of them as anything but "gals") Christmas album that is just not very good at all. I like this one, though -- especially in the middle, when it swings into kind of a Latin thing, with somebody doing a not-very-convincing job of trying to make a cardboard box sound like conga drums. And they were great on the Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special. Thanks, gals!

25. "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," The Peanuts Gang

And to all, a good night.

So, that's it for this year! Feel free to drop a comment in the box and let me know how you liked it. Meantime, if you see any small children about to die in Santa's arms, for God's sake do something about it.

Monday, December 1, 2008

More coming soon...