Last year at about this time, I came up with a list of what I called my “Definitive Holiday Songs.” These are songs that not only define the holidays, but also define the song as well.
Many times Christmas or other holiday songs get recorded ad nauseum until we barely care about the song anymore… but surely there are versions of the songs that are THE best, and should stand as the absolute definitive version ever made.
I devised last year’s list, based only on my own feelings about the songs, and many of you followed up with some suggestions for further definitive versions. I said at the time I would do another list, so… a year later, here it is, in no particular order:
1. All I Want For Christmas Is You – Mariah Carey. Say what you will (or want t0) about Ms. Carey; she can craft a damn catchy tune. And this one, from her “Merry Christmas” album, is the one that has stood the test of time the best. It’s upbeat, it’s fun, and it’s become a classic that has now been covered by countless other artists… a sure test of a song’s longevity. But nothing beats the original. Mariah was in her element here.
2. Blue Christmas – Elvis Presley. I’m not a huge Elvis fan, but nothing beats his version of this bluesy rock ‘n roll Christmas classic. Elvis’s vocals, with the backup vocals doing their “dooo doo dooo’s” are unmatched, and no matter how many times I hear this song done by someone else, nothing sounds as good as Elvis’s version. It’s holiday perfection.
3. The Christmas Waltz – Carpenters. The Carpenters get another classic nod here, in this oft-covered song, written by the legendary Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne (though some sources credit James Van Heusen, so I’m not 100% certain which is accurate). The song has been recorded by such luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme, but nothing beats Richard and Karen’s lilty version.
4. Christmas Wrapping – The Waitresses. They know what boys like, but they also knew how to rock out a great holiday classic. Some think the song is dated, but I think it’s funky and fun, with a rapped-and-sung verse structure (note the pun on “wrapping”) that tells the story about running into the same guy all year long before finally connecting with him for the holidays. The song was re-written and re-sung by a group called “Save Ferris” with a Jewish theme for Hanukkah, but nothing beats the original.
5. Cool Yule – Bette Midler. The Divine Miss M came out with a wonderful Christmas album a few years ago that is still a favorite this year, and she named it “Cool Yule,” which, coincidentally, is also the name of CGMC’s first Holiday album. The song “Cool Yule” was first popularized by Louis Armstrong, and his version is quite definitive, but Bette truly makes it her own. It’s fun and joyful without being too over-the-top.
6. Feliz Navidad – Jose Feliciano. There are plenty who are tired of this song, but I still love it. When I hear it, I know it’s Christmastime. It’s joyful and fun and carefree, which is what the holidays SHOULD be about. I’ve always been a fan of Jose Feliciano, so of course, his version is the absolute definitive to me.
7. The First Noël – Johnny Mathis. Another one that has been recorded over and over and OVER again, but Johnny Mathis gets the nod for the reverent reading, thanks in large part to a lush arrangement by Percy Faith and his orchestra and chorus. Usually most versions hit the high note on the last “Noël” before “Born is the King of Israel” on the very last chorus, but Johnny hits it every single time, holding it a bit longer the last time. For some reason, I like that.
8. Grown-Up Christmas List – Michael Bublé. This is a fairly newer song that juuuuust teeters on the edge of being schlocky, but it’s so lovely and well-intended that I can’t bring myself to hate it. The song was composed by David Foster and Linda Thompson-Jenner in 1990 and appeared, with vocals by Natalie Cole, on his Christmas album titled “River of Love.” In 1992, Amy Grant recorded the song for her album, “Home for Christmas,” and in so doing wrote an additional verse and altered some of the lyrics. Grant’s version is the one most people are familiar with, and it’s her version that Bublé sings. I like Amy Grant’s version well-enough, and many people consider hers the definitive version (especially since she provided the revised lyrics that made it a ‘hit,’ but I think Bublé’s version is sweeter and a little more sincere. Incidentally, Kelly Clarkson recently recorded a version of the song that actually broke into Billboard Adult Contemporary charts in 2003– the first version to ever chart.
9. Happy Xmas (War is Over) – Sarah McLachlan. I know I’ll get grief for this, but I actually prefer Sarah McLachlan’s version of this John Lennon classic better than the original by John and Yoko. Sue me. It’s my list, and I make the choices.
10. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Judy Garland. I don’t quite know how I could have forgotten this in my first list, but by all means, the absolute definitive version of this classic belongs to Judy and nobody else. Written in 1944 for the movie musical, “Meet Me In St. Louis” by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine (although Blaine’s contributions are debated, especially by Martin), the original version contains slightly different lyrics than the more commonly-known version performed regularly today. Interestingly, the song’s first version was deemed “too depressing” by Garland and Vincente Minelli, and it was revised to the version performed in the movie. Original lyrics follow:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork,
Next year we will all be living in New York.
No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.
But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow,
From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now
Where’s the razor blade, right? Good call to change the lyrics.
The current lyrics are below, with the movie version lyrics in (parenthesis):
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light
From now on, (Next year all) our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on, (Next year all) our troubles will be miles away.
Here we are (Once again) as in olden days, happy golden days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us. gather (Will be) near to us once more.
Through the years (Someday soon) we all will be together, If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough. (Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.)
And (S0) have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
11. I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm – Billie Holiday. Not exactly a Christmas or even a Holiday song, more of a “Seasonal” song… but certainly one that gets a lot of play during the holidays. Lady Day’s version of this Irving Berlin classic still remains the most definitive, because I’ve found that most versions that followed seemed to try to copy her style in interpreting it.
12. “I Believe In Father Christmas – Greg Lake/Emerson Lake and Palmer. This song has an interesting story behind it. It was originally recorded in 1974 by Greg Lake as a solo effort, and was never really intended to be an actual Christmas song in the traditional sense. It was written in protest of the commercialization of Christmas, and also in protest of the Vietnam war. However, the theme of the song, especially the line, “I wish you a hopeful Christmas; I wish you a brave new year,” turned the song into a phenomenon. The song has also been interpreted as anti-religious, which Lake denied, saying “I find it appalling when people say it’s politically incorrect to talk about Christmas, you’ve got to talk about ‘The Holiday Season.’ Christmas was a time of family warmth and love. There was a feeling of forgiveness, acceptance. And I do believe in Father Christmas.” The song was also recorded by Lake’s group, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, three times – in 1975, 1977 and 1993; but the most definitive version belongs to the original Greg Lake version.
13. Mary’s Little Boy Child – Harry Simeone Chorale. Sometimes credited as “Mary’s Boy Child,” this song is probably most often attributed to Harry Belafonte, and I, again, will probably get some flak for choosing this version over Harry’s, but as lovely as Harry’s version is, the Simeone Chorale does it in a great Calypso beat that fits the song beautifully, and transforms it into an upbeat and joyful tune. Mahalia Jackson also does a wonderful version of the tune.
14. Please Come Home For Christmas – Charles Brown. This blues/rock ‘n roll Christmas classic was written and originally recorded by Charles Brown, and he still owns the definitive version. Subsequent recordings by The Eagles and Jon Bon Jovi, among others, have typically remained faithful to Brown’s original version, so it only makes sense that the definitive belongs to Brown.
15. River – Joni Mitchell. Only in recent years has this wonderful tune become more associated with Christmas, mainly because the setting revolves around Christmastime, and evokes images of winter, snow, ice and skating. Additionally, the song begins with an interpolation of “Jingle Bells,” which continues throughout the song. In recent years, “River” has been covered more and more frequently. I absolutely LOVE this song, and any excuse to promote Joni Mitchell’s brilliance is reason enough for me to include her in this list.
16. Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town – Bing Crosby with the Andrews Sisters. There are SO many versions of this song that it’s really hard to choose one really definitive version. But the one that I couldn’t stop thinking of was this one, which was featured in “A Christmas Story” and played on Christmas morning when Ralphie and Randy discovered their presents. Almost as good as their “Jingle Bells” version, which I think might have qualified for another “definitive” spot, if I hadn’t already given it to the Ray Conniff singers.
17. and 18. Still, Still, Still and Veni, Veni Emmanuel – Mannheim Steamroller featuring the Cambridge Singers. These two carols were featured on the Steamroller’s second Christmas effort, “A Fresh Aire Christmas,” easily their best Christmas album. ”Veni, Veni” is gorgeous, with the choir performing the chanted version at the beginning and the band coming in with a beautiful rendition to follow, closing again with the chant. But “Still, Still, Still” is my favorite track on the album by far. This song, an Austrian lullaby which dates back to 1819, is haunting, beautiful and relaxing… evoking such scenes as falling snow, a peaceful land, and of course the birth of Jesus. The song never fails to connect to me emotionally, and I have not heard a prettier version. The arrangement is by Norman Luboff, a very commonly performed arrangement, and the Steamroller kept everything very traditional on this track, which I appreciate. By far, this is one of my most favorite carols.
19. What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? – Diana Krall. I have to hand this one to Diana Krall because I absolutely love her Christmas album and love her interpretations of holiday classics… and it’s just too hard to choose just one of her tracks that I like more than the other. This one is probably best because it fits her style so well– that jazzy, lounge-y style that I love so much.
20. What Child Is This? – Sarah McLachlan. Again, this song has been covered so many times it’s hard to choose just one to call “definitive,” but right now this is the one that’d defining the song for me. McLachlan takes the song in a somewhat different direction, almost singing a harmony line throughout… but it works. It’s gentle and soft, as you’d expect from McLachlan, but gorgeous all the same. It almost fits the song’s original intent, as the English carol “Greensleeves.” It has an almost old-world feel about it. And yet, if you sing the melody along with it… it still works. Brilliant.
And one more for good measure…
“Time To Sleep” – Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus. (Available on CGMC’s Website) This original composition by CGMC Artistic Director Patrick Sinozich was featured in our Holiday concert in 2006 titled “Fa La La Blah Blah Blah.” It features two soloists and the chorus in a gorgeous lullaby that closed out the show. Simply put, one of the most beautiful melodies I’ve heard in a long time. It was featured on our live Holiday CD, ‘Favorite Things.” Check it out and hear for yourself.
And there you have it… 20 more “Definitive” songs for you to explore. I’m interested to hear your input for other songs you think deserve the “Definitive” title. Maybe they’ll show up on the 2010 list!