(Pictured: Fiona Apple, 2005.)
In 2007, I began the tradition of putting my Christmas library on shuffle and writing about whatever pops up. This year, however, I am not listening to as much Christmas music as I have in the past. But I want to keep the tradition going, so here:
“Frosty the Snowman”/Fiona Apple. From a 2003 Sony Music compilation Christmas Calling, which features a number of Sony artists. Along with Apple, the album also includes Fuel, Tenacious D, Keb’ Mo’, Macy Gray, and others. Apple’s version of “Frosty the Snowman” is fine, I guess, although it’s not a song I need to hear all that much.
“Let It Snow”/John Legend. Legend is one of 16 people to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, he’s recorded several Top-10 albums, he’s on The Voice, and he’s married to a supermodel. But apart from the #1 hit “All of Me,” he has but three other Hot 100 hits, one that peaked at #23 and two at #24. “Let It Snow” is the opening track on his 2006 EP Sounds of the Season.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”/Judy Garland. This is the OG, from the 1944 movie Meet Me in St. Louis. Although the movie was set in 1903 and is about a family moving away from their home, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was topical in 1944, after three years of the Second World War: “next year all our troubles will be out of sight,” and “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” Singing it in the movie, Judy was acting the part of someone smiling through tears, but considering all we know about her life now, it’s likely she didn’t have to dig very far to access that emotion, even at age 22.
“The Christmas Song”/Bob Dylan
“Kitty Cats Christmas”/Leon Redbone
In 2009 at Pitchfork, Amanda Petrusich called Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart album “insane” and “surreal,” but also “a nice assortment of hymns and popular carols.” All of those things are true, but Leon Redbone got there first in 1989 with Christmas Island. “Kitty Cats Christmas” was added to the album for the 2003 reissue.
“Sleigh Ride”/Los Straitjackets. From a 2015 concert bootleg of a show with Nick Lowe, this is a cover of the Ventures’ version of “Sleigh Ride,” which incorporates the main guitar riff from “Walk Don’t Run.”
“Mr. Grinch”/Mojo Nixon and the Toadliquors. It is the official position of this website that “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” should never be covered by anybody, ever. It is so strongly identified with How the Grinch Stole Christmas—and with one particular scene in the show—that it does not translate outside of the show, no matter how hard an artist might try. Mojo Nixon isn’t trying, though. His album Horny Holidays exists mostly to blow raspberries at Christmas music, although it’s not entirely without its charms. “Mr. Grinch” is not one of them, however. There’s a music video for it, which is even more excruciating than the song alone.
“Mambo Santa Mambo”/Enchanters. The mambo craze of the 1950s produced some terrible records, although “Mambo Santa Mambo,” from 1957, is pretty good. (Also good: “We Want to See Santa Do the Mambo” by Big John Greer, from 1955.) This group of Enchanters was from Detroit and is not the same group of Enchanters fronted by Garnet Mimms, who famously hit with “Cry Baby” in 1963.
“Merry Christmas Baby”/Carole King and Friends. In 2011, King released A Holiday Carole, produced by her daughter, Louise Goffin. In December of that year, she played a show in the UK that was recorded for broadcast on the BBC. It included UK stars Richard Hawley, the Puppini Sisters, and the Mummers, as well as American singer Gregory Porter. “Merry Christmas Baby” was the show closer featuring the entire company. You can get the whole show here, if it’s something you think you need.
“Joy to the World”/Edison Concert Band. From a cylinder recorded in 1906 and released by the Edison National Phonograph Company, from a time when the name “Edison” would have been a mark of quality far more important than the names of individual musicians. I have a few Christmas cylinder recordings in my collection (digitally, not the cylinders themselves), and I always find them quite moving to listen to. That’s because “Joy to the World,” as familiar to us as it was to listeners 115 years ago, represents one of the many threads running through our holiday celebrations that go back not just generations, but decades and now, centuries.