Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 24

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(Pictured: Stevie Wonder plays live at Christmas 2013.)

Here’s a Christmas shuffle playlist, probably the only one at this website this year. Enjoy.

“The New Hallelujah”/Ralph Carmichael and Clark Gassman. Carmichael was a musical giant: arranger/conductor on Nat King Cole’s ubiquitous 1962 Christmas album and nine more albums until Nat’s death in 1965, and for other major stars; composer of TV and movie themes; prolific writer of gospel songs. In 1970 he made a Moog synthesizer Christian-music album with fellow composer/arranger/musician Clark Gassman, which contains this version of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” I file it with the Christmas music because a lot of people consider it to be Christmas music, although I associate it more strongly with Easter, for reasons you will read about below.

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”/Rick Wakeman. This version is from a 2016 BBC Radio appearance with Wakeman solo at the piano, but I have recommended his glorious Christmas Variations album to you many times before. For 180-proof Christmas atmosphere, you can’t do better.

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”/Crystals. From A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector, which remains essential, although it feels less so to me this year. Maybe I’m getting to where I don’t need to hear the whole thing as an album anymore. It’s happened before.

“Sleigh Ride”/Soulful Strings. I didn’t hear the album The Magic of Christmas in its entirety until sometime in the early 00s, and I was surprised by how much of it I already knew. It was clearly in the air every Christmas before that, on the radio and elsewhere, and I’d picked up most of it by osmosis. If you’re of a certain age, I’m guessing you did too.

“White Snows of Winter”/REO Speedwagon. When REO released Not So Silent Night in 2009, their last studio album to date, I was not impressed. Today it doesn’t bother me as much. Was it necessary? Nah. Am I mad about it? Nah.

“The Twelve Gifts of Christmas”/Allan Sherman. Released as a single in 1963, “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas” does a great job capturing the weird taste of gift-givers, and the polite bewilderment of those who might receive a pair of teakwood shower clogs, or a statue of a lady with a clock where her stomach ought to be. Here’s a live performance from The Jimmy Dean Show at Christmas 1963.

“Ave Maria”/Stevie Wonder. When I was a kid, our church held Easter Sunday services in the junior high auditorium, a magnificent performance space, always an elaborate blowout with a big choir, an organist, pianist, and sometimes several other musicians. It was the only time a Methodist boy was likely to hear “Ave Maria.” For that reason, I associate it with Easter, same as I do “The Hallelujah Chorus.” Many artists have put it on Christmas albums, but the only two I care to hear are Barbra Streisand’s and this one, which is the only one that features the harmonica.

“Holiday”/Taken by Trees. From the Paste magazine 2018 holiday sampler. I have a couple of these indie-rock Christmas compilations in my collection, and they’re wildly erratic. In general, the original songs are fine. But the covers of Christmas classics are too often performed with condescension, as if the bands were saying, “You know we’re too hip for this stuff, right?”

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”/Duke Pearson. The 1960s were the golden age of Christmas music. In such a thirsty marketplace, a record label or an artist could do quite well by indifferently slapping together a few holiday songs, putting a picture of Santa on the cover, and shipping it out. But Merry Ole Soul is not that; I think I’ve said before that it’s one of the few Christmas albums you can put on in July and enjoy even then. I’ve said a lot about Merry Ole Soul, actually. I have been writing these Christmas shuffle pieces since 2007, and I am pretty sure I’ve mentioned it in almost every one of ’em.

“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”/Ray Charles. It’s mildly surprising to me that it took Ray Charles until 1985 to make a full Christmas album. He was at the height of his cultural reach then, no longer a hitmaker but an icon and almost a Jungian archetype, somebody everybody recognizes even if they don’t know the reason why. I find that no individual cut from The Spirit of Christmas sticks in my head after it’s done, but it’s an album I bring out every year, like the other Christmas decorations.

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