Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 14

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Here’s another random Christmas playlist from my laptop music stash, featuring mostly songs your local all-Christmas radio station hasn’t burned out.

“The Man With All the Toys” and “Child of Winter”/Beach Boys. This year is the 50th anniversary of The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. “The Man With All the Toys” was one of the top holiday singles of 1964, although “Little St. Nick” gets more airplay today, and “Merry Christmas Baby” used to. A decade later, “Child of Winter” came out as a single. Despite having the subtitle “Christmas Song,” its December 23, 1974, release gave it no shot at Christmas airplay.

“Hallelujah It’s Christmas”/.38 Special. The .38 Special Christmas album, released in 2001, has an awful title and an awful cover, but the music inside is better than you’d expect. “Hallelujah It’s Christmas” is yer basic Southern boogie; their version of “O Holy Night” is reverent and lovely.

“Wonderful Christmastime” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae”/Paul McCartney and Wings. First heard 35 years ago this Christmas, “Wonderful Christmastime” gets a great deal of justified hate. Under anyone’s name it would sound phoned-in and flimsy, but what really upsets people is that Paul McCartney’s name is on something so phoned-in and flimsy. (In its defense, however, the synthesizer noise that starts it sure gets your attention on the radio.) The version that came up on my shuffle is from a 1979 Christmas-season show in Glasgow, Scotland, and it sounds like Paul’s already sick of playing it. The B-side of “Wonderful Christmastime,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reggae” is pretty much what you think it is, played by what sounds like a drunken violinist (but is probably a synthesizer, too).

“This Christmas”/Frank McComb. In 1994 and 1996, the Motown subsidiary MoJazz came out with a pair of Christmas albums featuring nobody you ever heard of, with the possible exception of bass guitarist (and ex-NBA player) Wayman Tisdale. “This Christmas” and the rest of the stuff sounds fine when it pops up on shuffle, but I’m rarely moved to put on a whole album at once.

“I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas”/Yogi Yorgesson. I told the story of Yogi, a Scandinavian character created in the late 40s by a radio comedian named Harry Stewart, several Christmases ago. “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas” was once a holiday staple popular enough to appear on Casey Kasem’s early 70s Christmas countdowns.

“I’ll Be Your Santa Baby”/Rufus Thomas and “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’/Mack Rice. From a Stax compilation called It’s Christmas Time Again, which also features Albert King, the Staple Singers, and Isaac Hayes among others. Several of the tracks are burners, including “I’ll Be Your Santa Baby” and “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’,” in which “putting something out for Santa” had better not refer to milk and cookies.

“Stop Giving Me Crap for Christmas”/Bobby Gaylor. Gaylor is a TV performer and writer. “Stop Giving Me Crap for Christmas” is a decent concept, but as actually carried off, it’s not especially funny.

With the exception of “Wonderful Christmastime” and some of the Beach Boys stuff, you won’t hear any of these songs on Magic 98’s “98 Hours of Christmas Magic,” which started last night and continues through midnight on Christmas night. What you will hear, however, is the best-curated holiday music show since the old WLS Holiday Festival of Music. I’ll be on today and tomorrow from 3 to 7PM (US Central), and on Christmas Eve, my favorite day of the year to be on the air, from 3 until 6. Listen here, or via the TuneIn Radio app.

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 13

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(Pictured: the family gathers around the piano to hear Mom bang out a few holiday tunes, rather like what we’re doing here.)

Once again I’ve put the laptop Christmas stash on shuffle to see what comes out. The wonder is that the first 10 that popped up are not especially schizophrenic. Certainly not as much as they could be.

“Jingle Bell Rock”/Bobby Rydell & Chubby Checker. A couple of Cameo-Parkway’s biggest stars get together for a not-bad version of the Bobby Helms tune. It charted on the Hot 100 in both 1961 (#21) and 1962 (#92).

“Jingo Jango”/Bert Kaempfert. One of those holiday instrumentals you know, even if you don’t recognize the title. It made Billboard‘s Christmas chart in both 1963 and 1965.

“A Winter Snowscape”/Jethro Tull. The Jethro Tull Christmas Album (which you can hear here) is the last record Ian Anderson made under the Tull name, in 2003. It contains new recordings of “A Christmas Song,” “Bouree,” and “Ring Out Solstice Bells,” all of which were first released in Tull’s heyday. Of all the established rockers to make latter-day Christmas records, Jethro Tull is one of the best suited to it. So much of the season’s music comes from England and English traditional forms; Tull worked that same side of the street for 35 years.

“Driving Home for Christmas”/Chris Rea. Recorded in 1986 but written years before, “Driving Home for Christmas” was more popular in Europe than in the United States; it’s been used in commercials over there and was revived for a charity single a few years ago. It’s got an easy pop feel, but if it had been recorded in the States, it would have been slathered in sleigh bells. Which frankly it could use.

“Christmas Time Again”/Extreme. Few bands are so quintessentially 90s as Extreme, from their once-trendy name to their generic brand of pop-rock, which got them two Top-10 singles and two Top-10 albums in 1991 and 1992. Against all odds, “Christmas Time Again,” which appeared on the 1992 compilation A Very Special Christmas 2, is crazy good. The lyrics are awkward and the production is overdone but damn, the whole mess just works.

“Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday”/William Bell. The original version of a song we dig a lot around here, first heard at Christmas 1967. The version we dig the most, of course, is by the late, lamented Chicago jump-blues band the Mighty Blue Kings. Play it loud.

“Silent Night”/Charlie Musselwhite. If the famously snowbound Austrian church that gave birth to “Silent Night” in 1818 had been on the Delta, the original version of the famous carol might have sounded like this.

“The Christmas Song”/John Edwards. A David Porter production from a compilation titled Funky Christmas, released in 1976 by Atlantic with the dual purpose of selling records at Christmas and pushing artists who were new to the Atlantic stable. Appearing along with Edwards (who would eventually join the Spinners) is a group called Luther, led by Luther Vandross, plus soul singer Margie Joseph, the Impressions, and jazz players Willis Jackson and Lou Donaldson. The album got a CD reissue last year, and I gotta go find it.

“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” (Asbury Park 2000)/Bruce Springsteen. A few years back, the bootleg site ROIO put up a collection called Santa Boss Is Coming To Town, which collects a bunch of live performances, holiday and otherwise, recorded around Christmastime mostly between 1996 and 2001, although one version of this song goes back to Winterland in 1978. If you’re sick of the original 1975 recording of this, some of the live ones are better.

“O Come All Ye Faithful”/Cochise. This is a band I’ve written about before—their 1971 single “Love’s Made a Fool Of You” barely scraped into the Hot 100 but was a Top-10 single on WLS. Their lead singer had been in Bluesology with Elton John, one member would later join Procol Harum and another would be in Foreigner, and the other guys became prominent session players. And for some reason, their album Swallow Tales (which includes “Love’s Made a Fool of You”) includes a barely recognizable version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” that runs 1:15.

We may do this again before Christmas. Or we may not. Life’s a gamble.

140 and 2:20

A wise person once said of Facebook and Twitter that Facebook makes him want to know less about people he knows and that Twitter makes him want to know more about people he doesn’t. And while it seems like Facebook is the ultimate way to share, Twitter interactions are often more rewarding than those on Facebook, even 140 characters at a time. So my single new year’s resolution is to spend less time on Facebook. There are lots of reasons for doing so: privacy concerns continue to metastasize, memes grow ever more pervasive, and I swear that if I am asked to share one more photo if I love my family, I may murder someone else’s family.

I have embraced Twitter even though it’s one of the reasons blog readership across the Internet has eroded in recent years, and I’m as guilty as anybody. Where once I might have written about a story that interests me in the hope that you would read it, I’m much more likely to simply tweet it now. That’s why this blog has a Twitter widget (“Real Stupid in Real Time”).

So don’t be put off by those who denigrate Twitter as useless or foolish. As long as you refuse to use it, you’re missing out a degree of engagement with the world that’s remarkably rewarding.

In a feeble attempt to stay on-topic for the remainder of this post, here are five worthwhile songs from my laptop music stash that run for 140 seconds, or 2:20.

“Oh Susanna”/James Taylor and Johnny Cash.  Someday somebody’s going to write a book about the way TV variety shows brought rock acts into American living rooms at the turn of the 1970s, and how those shows helped to legitimize rock as an adult art form. Ed Sullivan did what he did, but he never displayed a feel for the artistry of the performers; to him, it was all about the eyeballs they would attract. But others on TV at about the same time, from the Smothers Brothers to Tom Jones to Johnny Cash to Glen Campbell, treated rock as art and rockers as people with important things to say. “Oh Susanna” is from Taylor’s February 1971 appearance on The Johnny Cash Show.

“One Two Three and I Fell”/Tommy James and the Shondells. This was the B-side of “Mony Mony,” and it’s another of those gloriously hard-charging bubblegum records that are so much better than they have any right to be.

“Theme From a Summer Place”/Percy Faith & His Orchestra. The 1960s were a golden age for many things, including easy-listening music. For all the cultural ferment reflected in (and driven by) rock ‘n’ roll, stars like Percy Faith, Ray Conniff, and the legion of singers who came to prominence in the 1940s and 50s continued to move product, and to get airplay right alongside the Beatles, the Supremes, and the like. “Theme From a Summer Place” was #1 for nine weeks in 1960, including the week I was born. This performance must have been on TV sometime around then.

“I Play and Sing”/Dawn. Between October 1970 and November 1971, Dawn charted five singles. “Candida” and “Knock Three Times” were huge. The third one, “I Play and Sing,” made #25 in Billboard and was Top 10 at WLS almost before people realized it wasn’t nearly as good as the first two.

“Don’t Sign the Paper Baby (I Want You Back)”/Jimmy Delphs. There’s a whole lot more to Detroit than Motown and Bob Seger. Producer Ollie McLaughlin is responsible for a number of famous 60s hits that came via Detroit: the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk,” “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis, and records by the Ad Libs, Betty Lavette, and Deon Jackson. I cannot say for sure that Delphs is backed by the Funk Brothers on “Don’t Sign the Paper Baby” (which got up to #96 in 1968), but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit.

“Don’t Sign the Paper Baby (I Want You Back)/Jimmy Delphs (out of print)

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Volume 12

The fabulous TV Guide Vault Twitter feed came up with a gem the other night—the original General Electric ads that ran during the inaugural broadcast of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer at Christmas 1964. Santa’s elves from the show praise hair dryers, coffee makers, toaster ovens, and electric skillets in song, making each two-minute ad look a little like a music video. It has long been a tenet of mine that unless she specifically asks for it, you should never buy a woman a gift that has to be plugged in, but that was not a rule in the world of 1964. It’s easy to imagine families gathered around the glowing tube watching Rudolph, Mom oohing and aahing over some new electrified miracle, and Dad making mental notes.

The ads made me flash on Christmas shopping as a boy, and how important it was to find the right gifts for Mom and Dad. There would be a trip to town on a Friday night (and it was always a Friday night; although stores in my town may have been open on other nights during the holiday season, Friday was the big night), and we would split up—one of us would go with Mom and the other with Dad to pick out gifts, to Bauman’s Ace Hardware, Bahr’s Variety Store, and other places around the square. Before we had money of our own, or even gift ideas of our own, we were steered toward handkerchiefs for Dad or kitchen towels for Mom, and when we were all back together, we’d be bursting with the secret of what we’d chosen.

When we got a little older and had our own allowance money, we shopped on our own. I can remember the difficulty of deciding what to get, hoping it would be something they’d like, and frequently agonizing over the decision. One year I was particularly pleased with what I got my mother (although I don’t remember exactly what it was), only to be disappointed when my brother topped me, buying her a set of ceramic coffee cups that came with a metal tree to hang them on. The last time I looked, a couple of those cups were still in the cupboard in Mom’s kitchen, after at least 40 years in service.

Today, Christmas shopping for Mom and Dad still seems very important and is occasionally difficult. I always try to find something worthy of them, and everything they have made and continue to make possible for us, even as I understand that’s a tall bar to clear. Sometimes I find that kind of gift, and sometimes I end up giving gift cards to wherever the hell. What this year will bring is yet to be determined.

Back on this blog’s ostensible topic, here are five more random selections from my Christmas library, annotated Twitter-style:

“Carol of the Bells”/The Last Bison. A Virginia group in the mold of Mumford and Sons, their update of this is on the free Paste Magazine 2013 Holiday Sampler, which is terrific.

“Santa & the Satellite”/Buchanan and Goodman. Given the success of “The Flying Saucer” in the summer of 1956, a Christmas break-in record was inevitable. The surprise is that it didn’t happen until Christmas 1957.

“Joy to the World”/REO Speedwagon. REO’s Not So Silent Night, which is on the whole better than it has any right to be, still has its share of cringe-worthy moments. “He rules the world with truth and grace / And makes the nations groove” is either awesomely bad or just awesome, and I can’t decide.

“Baby It’s Cold Outside”/Ray Charles and Betty Carter. I said recently that every version of this song sucks. This one sucks less, because Ray Charles.

“Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday”/Mighty Blue Kings. The late, lamented Chicago jump blues band’s single greatest performance. Posting it or linking to it is a holiday tradition at this blog since always.

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Volume 11

Nielsen is out with its annual report on the popularity of Christmas music on the radio. The station in your town that’s rotating the same 200 warhorses for another year is doing it by popular demand in its purest form. Many stations see audience numbers go through the roof every December. Your mileage may vary, though. I know a few people who detest Christmas music. As for me, I enjoy it, and at least once each December (and it’s been only once the last several years), I put my holiday library on shuffle and write about the first 10 songs that pop up. And here we go. 

“Christmas in Jail”/The Youngsters. In 1956, the National Safety Council actually commended the Empire label for releasing this, an obscure Los Angeles vocal group’s B-side about the consequences of drinking and driving. I added “Christmas in Jail” to my library last year thanks to Any Major Dude With Half a Heart, which has posted many fine Christmas mixes over the years. The links are live right now, so go get ’em.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem”/Aaron Neville. It’s been 20 years now since the release of Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas, which has been in the hot rotation at our house every year since. Neville’s “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is not one of the standout tracks on the album, but it’s pleasant.

“Silent Night”/Charlie Musselwhite. On which the great bluesman does it on the harp, and it’s one of the best versions here is.

“The Christmas Song”/Bobby Timmons. From the pianist’s 1964 album Holiday Soul, Timmons plays it straight for a while, then flies off into improvisation around the familiar chord changes, which is a great way to keep warhorses sounding fresh. Tip of the porkpie hat to bassist Butch Warren, proving how hard a guy can swing playing one note at a time.

“The Big Night”/The Tractors. A rockin’ good record from 2002 that ought to be more popular than it is. You want trivia, you got it: According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), the Tractors liked to record in one take with one microphone.

“Christmas Time is Here”/Chicago. The production on Chicago XXV: The Christmas Album sounds 10 or 15 years out of date for a record released in 1998—what’s with all those drum machines?—and the lead vocalists, Bill Champlin, Jason Scheff, and/or Keith Howland, are simply trying too hard to be merry and bright. The album is better when it pops up a track at a time in shuffle mode—or if you go straight to “Christmas Time is Here,” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is largely spared the album’s worst tendencies.

“Greensleeves”/James Taylor. This is a from a bootleg of various live recordings Taylor made between 1969 and 1971, including appearances on The Mike Douglas Show, The Johnny Cash Show, and his own 1970 BBC special. Just as it is when you see him today, Taylor’s audience banter is quite charming on the BBC cuts; he refers to “Greensleeves” as a “little thing I wrote myself.” This is one boot you really ought to have. It’s fabulous. So go here while you still can.

“Ring Out Solstice Bells”/Jethro Tull. Ian Anderson’s music has always been steeped in the folk music of Olde England, and The Jethro Tull Christmas Album is, too. “Ring Out Solstice Bells” first appeared in 1977 on Songs From the Wood, but Tull had considered the season long before that, on “A Christmas Song” in 1968. Both were re-recorded for the album in 2003. Back in the 70s, “Ring Out Solstice Bells” was released with an animated video, which is here.

“I Want You With Me Christmas”/Roomful of Blues. The 1997 album Roomful of Christmas is a pretty raucous party record in general, but “I Want You With Me Christmas” is a slow-dance number originally recorded by soul crooner Jesse Belvin.

“Baby Its Cold Outside”/Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery. Sweet mama I am sick of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Every version of it sucks. It’s always sung today with faux-retro ironic detachment, and it’s more creepy than cute. This is probably the least offensive version there is (what with its being an instrumental and all), from Smith’s 1964 album Christmas Cookin’. As much as I love Smith, who’s the second-most-played artist in my laptop library, Christmas Cookin’ doesn’t rank too high on my list. Half the tracks are combo recordings (like “Baby It’s Cold Outside”), which are great, but on the other half, Smith plays with a full orchestra, which has never sounded right to me behind his mighty Hammond B3.

Since I am somewhat starved for time and inspiration this month, we will probably do this again before the 25th. Maybe. It could happen.

Second Hand News

Since 2006, I’ve been using LastFM to keep track of the music I listen to on the laptop, and it’s catalogued nearly 112,000 songs in that time. It provides a variety of analytics that permit a listener to probe beneath the surface of his general taste, and to narcissistically inflict his taste on others.

No, wait, that’s music blogging.

Of my ten most-listened-to artists, six are rock acts and four are jazz players. Here are the five songs I hear the most by those six rockers. These statistics will be skewed by the number of times a song appears in the library, and my library doesn’t always differentiate between live and studio versions of the same song. But it’s close enough. (We’ll omit the jazz players: Jimmy Smith, Grant Green, Jimmy McGriff, and Kenny Burrell.)

Van Morrison:
1. “Into the Mystic”
2. (tie) “Madame George” and “When the Leaves Come Falling Down”
4. “The Way Young Lovers Do”
5. “Wild Night”

Comment: Some albums you can’t fully appreciate until you’ve learned a few things about life, and so I have reached the age where I am now capable of having my mind blown by Astral Weeks. That said, “When the Leaves Come Falling Down,” from Back on Top, remains my favorite Morrison song by a nose over “Into the Mystic.”

Elton John:
1. “Your Song”
2. “Skyline Pigeon”
3. (tie) “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” and “Curtains”
5. “Take Me to the Pilot”

Comment: This list is weird, and definitely a function of the number of versions available in the library. But two cuts from Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is not weird at all.

Fleetwood Mac:
1. “Say You Love Me”
2. “Monday Morning”
3. (tie) “Silver Springs” and “Sentimental Lady”
5. (tie) “Second Hand News” and “Over My Head”

Comment: Playin’ the hits. You got a problem with that?

Rolling Stones:
1. “Tumbling Dice”
2. (tie) “Memory Motel” and “Brown Sugar”
4. (tie) “Happy,” “Fool to Cry,” “Angie,” “Street Fighting Man,” and “Gimme Shelter”

Comment: While I bought “Brown Sugar” on a 45 back in the day and have loved it since, it wasn’t until relatively recent years that I fully grasped the greatness of “Tumbling Dice.” It’s what every adult who worried about the corrupting influence of rock ‘n’ roll was concerned about: the Stones pack every attractive vice you can imagine into three-and-a-half minutes. Sin never sounded like so much fun.

Steely Dan:
1. “Deacon Blues”
2. “Do It Again”
3. “Bodhissatva”
4. “Dirty Work”
5. “Josie”

Comment: Steely Dan is the only band on this list for which I own every recorded note, plus a ton of bootlegs and live shows. The latter are tagged so haphazardly that this list is an estimate at best, and it strikes me weird besides. “Bodhissatva” is a song I liked more when I was younger, and “Josie” has always been the track on Aja I like the least. Songs I like better than my shuffle function does include “Black Cow,” “My Old School,” and “Black Friday,” all farther down the list.

1. “Across the Universe”
2. “Get Back”
3. (tie) “Dig a Pony” and “Two of Us”
5. (tie) “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and “If I Fell”

Comment: With both Let It Be and Let It Be Naked in the library (and three different versions of “Across the Universe”), there’s lots of duplication, although if this were a list of favorites instead of a list of shuffle’s favorites, “Two of Us” would make the list anyhow. If forced to pick a favorite Beatles song, “If I Fell” would be in the semifinals, although I’m afraid “Got to Get You Into My Life” would probably win strictly because it was such a big part of my favorite summer.

We now return you to whatever you like to listen to, already in progress.