If you enjoy Christmas (or Christmas-themed) music as much as I do, you know how easy it is to amass a large collection. New compilations come out every year. As a result it’s not uncommon to have several versions of some of the classics.
Here are the versions of some time-honored classics that I like best.
In no particular order:
“O’ Tannenbaum” – Vince Gerauldi Trio
What would the holidays be without the A Charlie Brown Christmas album?
There are plenty of classics covered here, but it’s Gerauldi’s jazzy take on the classic German ode to evergreens that leads off the disc and establishes the mood.
“Carol of the Bells” - David Benoit
I can still vividly recall the first time I heard this jazzy version: December 1988, and I was standing in line at the Wall To Wall Sound record store in the Neshaminy Mall, when it came on over the PA system. Such a big sound - and they made a Christmas carol swing! “Wow – Dad would love this,” I thought. “Hell, I love this.” I got out of line and asked a clerk who it was. He showed me The GRP Christmas Collection, Vol. I. I bought it immediately.
It was my introduction to the jazz label, and their amazing Christmas Collections. Volumes II and III would follow and also become valued parts of my holiday music collection. But Volume I, and specifically this song, will always stand out. Dad and I still love it.
“Silent Night” – John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting
“O Holy Night” – Weezer
“Last Christmas” – Sarge
“Little Drummer Boy (Peace on Earth)” – Bing Crosby and David Bowie
I love the fact that this version, with the “Peace on Earth” counterpoint, has become a standard in its own right.
“Happy Xmas (War is Over)” – John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band
Because sometimes, you gotta go with the original.
I have at least a half-dozen versions of this song. All have their charms, but none are an improvement on the source.
(YES this does count as a Christmas Carol. It’s 2010 for chrissakes.)
“Silver Bells” – The Ventures
When my friend Jack started putting out his famous Conshohocken Christmas collections in 1999 (on the short-lived Persico Productions label), he included many selections from The Ventures' Christmas album. And rightly so – surf rock proving to be quite the breath of salty sea air among pious orchestral and other traditional carol arrangements.
This one isn’t as rollicking as the others, but is nonetheless a lovely take on a holiday favorite.
“White Christmas” – Lee Ritenour
“The First Noel/Mary Mary” – Sarah McLachlan
My fave from the disc is really her version of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” but this is ostensibly a list for classics, and this is the standout of McLachlan’s re-workings. I especially love her deep, bluesy intonations on the “Mary Mary” portions – it’s a side of Sarah’s voice rarely heard on her singles.
“Sleigh Ride” – The Ronettes
“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” – The California Guitar Trio
If I were awarding 2nd place on any of the above songs, many would be taken by The California Guitar Trio. 3 acoustic guitars make for a quintessential Christmas sound, at least for me.
“Deck The Halls” –
For some reason, this cheese-tastic Moog-driven version has always resonated with me since the first time I’d heard it – oddly enough, as the background music for a radio station’s Christmas contest promo from the mid-1980s. It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve heard it again. I finally learned the artist and downloaded it last year.
Perhaps because it reminds me of the Early 80s when despite the Cold War, there was still that capital F Future* out there – where Santa in his hover-sled would deliver toys to your geodesic-dome house, and all Christmas music would be performed on synthesizers.
(*tip o’ the hat to William Gibson for that phrase)