Last night while driving around I turned the radio to the D.C. station that plays Christmas music from Thanksgiving through December 25. Yearning to hear a classic like Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” I was greeted instead by the sound of Stevie Nicks scraping her gravelly vibrato across the pristine surface of “Silent Night.” So much for heavenly peace.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Fleetwood Mac just fine, and I sympathize with the plight of a station that’s 16 days into a four-week sentence of playing nothing but holiday favorites. But for me, certain Christmas classics will only ever belong to one artist, and I can’t help but get a little testy when anyone else tries to claim them. My ears (and heart) came up with the following list:
- Winter Wonderland, by Johnny Mathis. Even though I don’t particularly like this song, I somehow love it, sort of like an odd relative. But I don’t want to hear it from anyone other than Johnny. It’s not just because my mother loves Johnny Mathis and I listened to him prenatally (though she does, and I feel certain I did); it’s because he makes it sound like he’s putting his whole heart and soul into this thing, along with about five cups of cheese. No one but Johnny added a snazzy interlude after the first verse, where two hearts are thrilling in spite of the chill in the weather. Then, after the sleigh bells have rung a second time and he’s still wondering whether you’re listening, you get to the part where he and his love are building a snowman and the other kiddies knock it down. He takes the word “down,” scoops it so deeply he might as well be digging the guts out of a pumpkin, and drags it out for at least a measure before starting a Very Big Finish. I’ve never seen him perform this song, but in my mind’s eye, on that last “when it snows,” his jazz hands are waving and he’s giving the Rockettes a run for their money.
- The Christmas Song. I have three words for you: Nat King Cole. That’s it. Anyone else who takes this on risks sounding like a cheap knockoff, the song equivalent of buying a Rolex from a street vendor. Johnny Mathis gave it a decent go and reached at least Timex levels, but even he’s no Nat.
- Frosty the Snowman by Jimmy Durante. It matters not that Jimmy couldn’t sing his way out of a Tupperware container. He claimed this song when Rankin-Bass came out with a cartoon special that featured Jimmy as the narrator, a lovable snowman that uttered “Happy Birthday” every time he came back to life as if he were a computer rebooting, and a little girl named Karen who had good intentions but nevertheless sent Frosty to a melty doom. (At least I’m not the only Karen who botches the execution of her good intentions.)
- Feliz Navidad. No one except for Jose Feliciano should be allowed to sing this song, and this means you, Celine Dion. The only excuse she could possibly have for covering this song is that she got sick of speaking French. I get it. But that’s still no defense to the musical crime she committed. As punishment, she should be forced to sing a duet with William Shatner. “Endless Love,” perhaps.
- Oh Holy Night by Josh Groban. I hate to knock Celine twice in a row, but this song was made for Josh Groban’s voice. It’s not as if Celine doesn’t already have a song that was made for her voice, even if it happens to be about romance aboard a doomed ocean liner.
- Sleigh Ride, composed by Leroy Anderson and performed by symphonic giants like the Boston Pops and the Lake Braddock Secondary School Symphonic Band. My sister Suzi could play the heck out of a clarinet and sat first chair in Lake Braddock’s band for most, if not all, of her high school career. It was during one of the LB band’s holiday concerts that I first heard this arrangement of “Sleigh Ride.” I loved everything about it: the quiet, rhythmic jingling of bells that could only mean Clydesdales trotting through a snowy countryside, a melody whose pace and notes showed just where the hills were, the occasional cracking of a whip to keep the horses on course, and a big band-style finish that put a bob in my head and a smile on my face. I also remember the look of pure satisfaction on the face of the kid who got to use his trumpet to make horse sounds at the end. Only recently did I learn that Anderson wrote the piece in 1948 (as an instrumental) and during a heat wave. As cheap alternatives to air conditioning go, “Sleigh Ride” is pretty hard to beat.
- Hark The Herald Angels Sing, by the Peanuts. I know all sorts of crooners have recorded lovely, polished renditions of this Christmas standard. But the only one I care to hear is sung by a bunch of kids who, like children’s choruses everywhere, haven’t yet mastered the art of staggered breathing. They sing in unison, they gasp for air in unison. It’s perfect imperfection.
What’s on your list?