Christmas music is something many of us cherish. It contains so many elements that make it a delightful aspect of every Christmas season. Of course, a lot of the wonder of the season comes from nostalgia and reminiscence and from calmly reflecting on not only the year coming to an end but on the many Christmases you have enjoyed stretching back to your youth. I’ve often thought that this quiet introspection is facilitated by a soundtrack of gentle music and many artists have tapped in to the idea that Christmas lends itself easily to soft lights and mellow sounds and many have recorded albums in this vein. As a matter of fact, I have quite often found that more artists than you would think virtually restrict themselves to recording placid Christmas music and carols as opposed to bouncy odes to Frosty and Rudolph; see the albums of Frankie Avalon, Doris Day and Jerry Vale and my article on the Christmas music of Frank Sinatra.
I definitely set aside time every season to sit by my faux fire or by the soft glow of the Christmas tree and enjoy some quiet music and maybe sit searching “vintage Christmas” on Pinterest. Christmas music lends itself easily to a jazz treatment and there are many excellent songs to suggest in this case. I submit King Curtis and his take on Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song”. Out of Fort Worth, Curtis Montgomery went to school with Ornette Coleman but he turned to rock when he began to play professionally. His version of “The Christmas Song” is smooth and will put you right in the pocket. Dave Ghazarian is a rocker from Toronto who for years was a member of the great band Superchick. I met Ghazarian once; cool dude. Now, David Ian (pronounced EYE-an) is a velvety pianist who likes to put chill spins on Christmas classics. But, you see, Ghazarian and Ian? Same guy. Ian applies a light touch to the keys for “The Christmas Waltz”.
“Christmas makes you feel emotional. It may bring…thoughts devotional.”
Earl Grant was a keyboardist of the jazz/easy listening variety who released several mostly instrumental albums on Decca. He also could sing, though, and his only hit record was his vocal performance of “The End” (1958). Earl takes you to church with his lovely, organ-infused take on “Silver Bells” that also features his fine voice. Everybody knows Vince Guaraldi’s timeless music for the timeless TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas but there is a tune hidden on this soundtrack album that is a gem. “My Little Drum” is a mist that flows through your subconscious; this is music you feel more than hear. Here the children are pa-rum-pa-pum-pumming, the drummer is brushing his snare and Vince flutters on the keys. The popular song from that record, “Christmas Time is Here”, can be heard in a gravity-defying bossa version from a light-fingered lady name of Lori Mechem who adds sighing strings to make this a pillow to dream on.
There are many songs suitable for communing with your Christmas tree to be found among the crooner family. It perhaps goes without saying that Nat Cole‘s “The Christmas Song” may be the ultimate expression of warmth, calm, gentleness and mellow peace to be found among Christmas music – and perhaps in all of music. Bing owns “White Christmas”, sure, but check out my man Howard Andrew Williams and his recording of this classic which was the opener on his first Christmas album from 1963. It actually opens the original The 12 Nights of Christmas CD I made back in the day. Really, it provides the same things you get from Nat’s “Christmas Song”. It’s a nice stage-setter for an evening by the fireside.
Speaking of which, pure-singing Jo Stafford recorded an album with her husband, Paul Weston, in 1956 called Ski Trails. Interestingly, it was a straight-up “winter” album – as opposed to “Christmas” – that was even released on January 1st and featured songs about snow and skiing. Her sublime “By the Fireside” has through the years shown up on Christmas compilations so we’ll allow it here. “In an armchair by the fireside, just big enough for two…” And I need say no more. Along similar lines is “Snow Dreams”, an obscure tune – the B side of a Capitol 45 from ’55 – by an obscure singer named Connie Russell. Here is the old theme of the storm raging outside but the fire raging inside. This après-ski ditty is rendered in dulcet tones suggesting solace for the somnambulist seeking slow, searching sounds to suggest succor in the shield of your soulmate. It’s as swell as it sounds. Deep cut, this one. But you wanna talk about music for being cozy and warm inside while it snows outside, Herb Alpert‘s Christmas record with the Tijuana Brass from 1966 is perfect for such settings. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” is usually heard in a buoyant treatment but Herb’s arrangement is as fragile as a snowflake falling on a warm window. As it melts into your consciousness, your eyes close and your head sways side-to-side of its own volition. A gentler trombone you’ve never heard. Herb has always had the lightest of touches and this is the finest of gifts. Divine.
“Christmas should be softly spoken.”
Dean Martin‘s “The Christmas Blues” has Dino lamenting his loneliness in his inimitable style. This song can be heard in the film L.A. Confidential (1997) and on that movie’s soundtrack album. “Santa may have brought you some stars for your shoes but Santa only brought me the blues. Those lightly-packaged, tinsel-covered Christmas blues”. Talk about a mellow album; there’s no beach party-type revelry on Frankie Avalon‘s sumptuous 1962 Frankie Avalon’s Christmas Album. While this initially disappointed me, I’ve grown to love the album which is loaded with class. I always picture the family gathered in the dimly-lit living room during Christmastime and listening to the hi-fi. The kids sit through the parent’s music and then suggest their beloved Frankie. The folks roll their eyes, not wanting teenybopper sounds to ruin their buzz, but then are pleasantly surprised at Frank’s fine voice delivering songs in elegant settings. One of the originals on the record, “A Merry Christmas” is a delight.
Perhaps the finest solo album in the storied career of Brian Wilson is his Christmas record, 2005’s What I Really Want for Christmas. Brian co-wrote the song “Christmasey” with Jimmy Webb, a tender tune that celebrates various elements of the season. I go back a long way with “Christmas Time”, a gorgeous tune from Canada’s Own Bryan Adams. Released as a single in 1985 (DO NOT listen to the B side!), this tune is hard to find on physical media but it is ubiquitous in Canada at Christmas. A plea for peace, this tune, with its anthemic chorus, is an inspiring joy to hear. There is a sincerity, a thing heartfelt and immensely relatable in the simple phrase “there’s somethin’ about Christmas time”. Yes, Bryan, there is.
The late Hawaiian slack-key guitar master, Dennis Kamakahi, recorded a song called “Christmas Memories” (not the Frank song) that appeared on a compilation of Hawaiian Christmas music from 1996. Hawaiian music is as relaxing as music comes and when wedded to the sentiment of Christmas the results are divine. Thing about Dennis’ song is that the lyrics, as the title suggests, speak of memories of the season, of the sights, sounds and smells that mean Christmas to a person. In this case, the person is a native Hawaiian and his memories are perhaps uniquely tropical. Nice to be reminded that Christmas is celebrated all over the world and it’s not always about snow, sleigh rides and cold winter nights; “Sittin’ on the front porch, the strum of soft guitars. The smell of kerosene lanterns, neighbours all around. Singin’ now the song of Christmas noel, I remember, I remember well…”
To wrap an evening or a playlist or both, we can allow ourselves to feel some discomfort before righting the ship and wrapping a most relaxing night. Nancy Sinatra contributed “It’s Such a Lonely Time of Year” to 1968’s The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas and the song is far and away the highlight of the record. Trouble is, it is absolutely heartbreaking. If anything, Nancy’s sad tale will enable you to better appreciate your couch mate. Elvis Presley recorded a few Christmas tunes of such staggering majesty and beauty that no one would ever dare attempt to cover them. One tale of longing is heard in his “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day”. Recorded in 1971, when Presley was at the height – the height – of his powers, this tune begins with strumming acoustic guitar and probing piano and tells of a fool bewitched by the trappings of life and the pursuit of so-called happiness. Realizing the folly of this chase, the singer laments the unwanted solitude he has molded with his own hand and longs to return home; to all the things that “home” means. This is truly one of Presley’s best performances. To hear this man sing “oh, too many tears have fell. My soul filled with yearning” is to experience one of the finest moments of his storied career. “If I had any sense at all, I’d just be on my way. I’d catch that train tomorrow and I’d be home on Christmas day”.
It’s getting late, now. The fire is burning low, making it much darker in the room. Warmth still pervades and there is reason for optimism. Now, perhaps, you are looking forward still, past Christmas to New Year’s Eve. Have you forged a relationship that can blossom further under the auspices of the eventful closing of one year and start of another? Bobby Darin’s odd but oddly satisfying 1960 Christmas record featured “Christmas Auld Lang Syne”, a song of some finality but also one of hopeful optimism and a grateful look back. Bobby speaks a greeting at the end of this track which gives way to the gentle piano stylings of Harry Connick, Jr. Harry’s best-selling album remains his first Christmas record, 1993’s When My Heart Finds Christmas, an album that ends with a gloriously romantic version of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”. Nothing’s in the bag yet. The big night, December 31st, with all of its pomp and parties; surely you’ve got plans. And perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Are we “there” yet? I suppose, though, that I should at least ask. “Wonder who’s arms will hold you good and tight when it’s exactly twelve o’clock that night…maybe I’m crazy to suppose I’d ever be the one you chose…ah, but in case I stand one little chance, here comes the jackpot question in advance. What are you doing New Year’s Eve?”
By this point, you shouldn’t need any more help. But I can suggest a few excellent full albums of mellow Christmas music.
- An Oscar Peterson Christmas – Oscar Peterson (1995)
- Christmas Present – Andy Williams (1974)
- Sound of Christmas – Al Caiola and Riz Ortolani (1967)
- Kī Hō’alu Christmas – various artists (1996)
- Frankie Avalon’s Christmas Album – Frankie Avalon (1962)
- Vintage Christmas – David Ian (2011)
- Christmas Favorites – the Hollyridge Strings (1965)
- Merry Christmas – Jackie Gleason (1956)
So, here’s your playlist for 12 nights of Christmas. I hope you can find even more nights than that to sit quietly in a cozy room by the tree and/or the fire. Whether you are alone or with the one you love, this music in the right setting should provide hours of peaceful reverie and grateful reflection. All the best to you.
White Christmas — Andy Williams
The Christmas Song — King Curtis
Snow Dreams — Connie Russell
Fireside Kī Hō’alu — George Kuo
Christmas Memories — Dennis Kamakahi
Christmasey — Brian Wilson
The Christmas Blues — Dean Martin
Christmas Time — Bryan Adams
Silver Bells — Earl Grant
I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day — Elvis Presley
A Merry Christmas — Frankie Avalon
The Christmas Waltz — David Ian
My Little Drum — Vince Guaraldi
I’ll Be Home for Christmas — Jackie Gleason
Christmas Time is Here — Lori Mechem
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! — Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
The Christmas Song — Nat ‘King’ Cole
Christmas Bells — Perry Como
It’s Such a Lonely Time of Year — Nancy Sinatra
Snowfall — Billy May
By The Fireside — Jo Stafford
I’ll Be Home for Christmas — Elvis Presley
Christmas Auld Lang Syne — Bobby Darin
What are You Doing New Year’s Eve? — Harry Connick, Jr.