The Right Way to Do a Christmas Song

I was listening to Alice In Chains’ Christmas album* the other day when I realized some traditional Christmas carols are best served by certain artists. Seen another way, it might be best to express that one particular artist put his or her stamp on the song and it maintains a synergistic relationship with them and their career. The best example I have is that of Bing Crosby and “White Christmas”. Vince Gill does a good cover, sure, with his stellar electric guitar picking—good enough not to sing it after the instrumental, honestly. But Bing is White Christmas, if I may.

I love Christmas music and look forward to mid-Autumn re-downloading what tunes I have in the cloud. I have about thirty handpicked Christmas songs with exceptional holiday staying power, and while I’m not one for the gimmicky, department-store background noise, the versions and covers of which I’m fond warm my heart during the Christmas season. Here’s a few from my own personal Christmas playlist.

Take, for instance, Enya’s Gaelic rendition of Silent Night (Oíche Chiúin). One may not understand anything she’s singing but the warmth in her voice and the drawn out tones make for an altogether refreshing take on a Christmas carol standard. Then again, if you need a standby “Silent Night”, you really can’t do better than The Temptations’ take. They go from high to low in a lush Motown version you’d want to fall asleep to (but in a good way). Sleep in heavenly peace indeed.

Enya continues with her otherworldly “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”. She opens the song with her signature mezzo and ends the first verse with two utterances of “Rejoice”—clear as ice. Then the high druidic background vocals enter to complement and also add depth to what may have become a long-forgotten and no-count carol that carries the weight and seriousness and message of the Christmas season. At least, this is my interpretation.

I fell in love with Vince Gill’s Let There Be Peace On Earth when I was a kid and digging the early nineties country scene. And while I still have a few affectionate holdovers from that era, my musical tastes have matured and refined and now my internal playlist features music—Christmas and non—from across the spectrum. This being said, his rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is still stellar. Move over with me, however, a little to the Northeast and take on James Taylor’s version. The soft brushes on the drums and spare piano chords highlight  Sweet Baby James’ yearning for a little peace during “the most wonderful time of the year”. It’s wistful, hopeful and realistic in equal measure.

Sawyer Brown’s Christmas album is one of the aforementioned holdovers from my time as a Country fan. Released in 1999, I purchased it in full for old time’s sake a number of years ago. Throughout the album, they talk (okay, Mark Miller sings) all around the story of Christmas from the perspective of the wise men (“The Wiseman’s Song”) to Mary (“Sweet Mary Cried”) to the children in awe at the wonder inherent to the season (“Where Christmas Goes”). The title track “Hallelujah He Is Born” and the musical reworking of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, however, are worth the price of admission. They also take on “Little Drummer Boy” with aplomb as well as the not-too-stuffy, if quite elegant “Angels We Have Heard On High” (pronouncing “Gloria in excelcis Deo” without a hint of Latin inaccessibility). I met keyboardist Greg Hubbard one day and personally thanked him for what the album meant to me. He asked for my address and I received a signed copy of the cd a number of weeks later. Great guys.

If I had to label my favorite Christmas song, it’d have to be “Away In a Manger”. I realized this year that I hadn’t ever purchased a copy and only the few bars that resounded in my head were the ones that I sang, or hummed, to myself as the Christmas season approached. In light of this, I hunted around about two weeks ago for the perfect version, one that would not displace the sweetness of what this simple song meant to me, and happened upon a version curated in the Celtic Woman holiday album. Something about the nameless singer’s Irish lilt lends a new and welcome flavor to what I consider to be the humblest of the Christmas carols.

There’s really so much you can do with this, so many places to go. In much the same way that Bing Crosby imbues White Christmas with what makes the song a classic and a standard, Nat King Cole’s seminal version of “The Christmas Song” is about all you need. The sense of urgency at about a minute-and-a-half is rendered with pitch-perfection—that hush of wonder at whether or not reindeer are able to go airborne of their own accord. I remember having received my Super Nintendo for my ninth birthday and playing Super Mario World with this particular “The Christmas Song” playing in the background against the soft glow of the Christmas tree. It is one of my favorite Christmas memories of all time. This being said, Celine Dion’s offering of the same song shines with a beauty that about equal’s Cole’s. As an aside, I’ve never seen a Christmas compilation (I don’t think) featuring “Feliz Navidad” done by anyone other than José Feliciano.

I have a soft spot for The Eagles’ “Please Come Home For Christmas”. Aaron Neville does it well as well but if one had to judge an album by its cover, they couldn’t do better than a bunch of guys sitting poolside with a cheapest sub-Charlie Brown-looking, plastic Christmas tree alongside. The midwinter LA sky looks beautiful and that palm tree in the foreground as well. The simple piano notes that open the track draw you in to a (potentially) lonely season in a poignant way and then bid you goodbye.

The Christmas after my Nintendo memory I received my brother (December 28th). As he was severely jaundiced upon parturition, he remained in the hospital for a week. Mind you, Christmas had come and gone (and, at least that year, was effectively eclipsed with Ian’s coming forth into this world) but my dad and I would go back and forth across town to visit both he and my mother. My dad had what must have been a Christmas mix tape featuring Gene Autry’s exceptional “Here Comes Santa Clause”. For me, no other version will do—not even Elvis’. This is one song I haven’t obtained yet because the memory stands out with such beauty and stillness and wonder that the actual object of the affection (in this case, a digital MP3 file) would only serve to blunt and/or sully something deeper. The line about “[giving] thanks to the Lord above because Santa Clause comes tonight” has always made me chuckle.

Karla Bonoff’s “The First Noel” is awesome and the award for best instrumental that may or may not have anything to do with Christmas beyond the title goes to Ryuchi Sakamoto’s “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”.

In closing, I know I said that “Away In a Manger” was my favorite. It’s my favorite due to its sweet innocence and simplicity and the Celtic Woman cover, as I mentioned, does nothing to supplant the memory I hold in my mind. But if there was one song on the list I’d keep, barring all others, it would be Peter, Paul & Mary’s medieval-tinged “A’Soalin”. If “Away In a Manger” renders the Christ child in all his helpless glory, “A’Soulin” identifies the plight of those whom he came to save and to serve. The hope is palpable (“the streets are very dirty/my shoes are very thin/I have a little pocket/to put a penny in”). The “reason for the season” comes around full circle with both songs. I’m sure other artists have covered the song but the holiness of the original is enough to not even desire to search out other interpretations.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you.

*Alice In Chains doesn’t actually have a Christmas album

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