The Christmas shuffle feature started at this blog 10 years ago, so I feel a certain responsibility to keep it going. When I shuffled up my Christmas library recently, here’s what I heard:
“The Little Drummer Boy”/.38 Special. I have mentioned the band’s unlikely 2001 album A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night in past editions of this feature. It’s a terrible title and has a terrible cover, but the music inside is far better than it has any right or reason to be.
“Frosty the Snowman”/America. In 2002, America released Holiday Harmony, produced by Andrew Gold, and boy is it not good.
“On This Christmas Day”/Moody Blues. If forced to pick the prettiest album in my collection, both Christmas and not (with all of the associations “pretty” conjures up, good and bad), the Moodys’ December might be it. Your mileage may vary depending on how much you dig the band to begin with, your appreciation of good old-fashioned major-chord pop craftsmanship, and your level of tolerance for unrelenting warmth and sentimentality.
“Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy”/Soulful Strings. In 1966, Chess Records hired jazz arranger Richard Evans to create albums by the Soulful Strings, a studio group that eventually made a half-dozen albums and included such noted Chicago players as Phil Upchurch, Charles Stepney (a producer on notable works by Rotary Connection and later, Earth Wind and Fire), and Donny Hathaway. Their Christmas album is definitely worth seeking out.
“Merry Christmas From the Family”/Robert Earl Keen. This hilarious tale of a Texas family Christmas is a hell of a lot more truthful about the way people really live than the ones in which we roast chestnuts or ride in a one-horse open sleigh.
“Ave Maria”/Stevie Wonder. “Ave Maria” and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus are often lumped in with the Christmas records, but I don’t think they belong. In my experience, the Hallelujah Chorus is so closely associated with Easter that it simply feels wrong at Christmastime; “Ave Maria” was not within the religious experience of a Methodist boy such as I. This “Ave Maria” is really good, though. Stevie sings in Latin behind a non-Motown-style backing track, but also takes a reverent and lovely solo on harmonica. (Stevie’s album Someday at Christmas, re-released under other names over the years, is 50 years old in 2017.)
“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”/Partridge Family. We’re still feeling the loss of David Cassidy around here, so this is well placed. At the end of 1971, a year in which they had dominated the record charts (and pop culture itself), the Partridge Family dropped a Christmas album. The cheese factor on A Partridge Family Christmas Card is extremely high—this version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” includes a whistling interlude—but it’s made with the same Hollywood craftsmanship we have praised repeatedly at this blog over the years. And on the subject of people we miss …
“Christmas All Over Again”/Tom Petty. This song is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2017, having first appeared on A Very Special Christmas 2 in 1992. According to the liner notes for Petty’s box set Playback, he wanted to replicate the Phil Spector Wall of Sound, so “Christmas All Over Again” features 18 musicians bashing away live in the studio, including two drummers, two bass players, and four acoustic guitars. Petty said, “It was a lot of fun, but when I finished with it, it was pretty much a mess. I called Jeff Lynne and he came and helped me redo the lead vocal and tidy it up just a little bit.”
“Gee Whiz It’s Christmas”/Beginning of the End. This is the song Carla Thomas did in 1963 (a takeoff on her own “Gee Whiz”), recorded by the Bahamian band known for the 1971 hit “Funky Nassau.” As best I can reconstruct the history, “Gee Whiz It’s Christmas” was the A-side of a 1970 single released only in the Bahamas. It was released again as the original B-side of the “Funky Nassau” single, although it doesn’t seem to have appeared on American singles, which contained “Funky Nassau Part 1” backed with “Funky Nassau Part 2.”
“Happy Holidays”/Ohio Players. This was released over both sides of a 1975 single and didn’t reappear in the CD era until 2000. It doesn’t need to run 8:22, having exhausted its main idea in the first couple of minutes, but once a year it’s OK.
“Once a year it’s OK.” Not a bad tagline for this blog, actually.