Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

‘Tis the Season to Pick on Some Christmas Music

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.)

    "Happy birthday!"

    “Happy birthday!”

  • 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?

Comments

  1. Great list, Karen! And Merry Christmas to you!. 🙂

    I love your thoughts on these particular songs. I would say, though, that as much as I love Nat King Cole’s rendition of The Christmas Song, I lean a wee bit more toward Mel Torme’s, if only because he wrote it, and he IS the Velvet Fog. 🙂

    My favorites include almost any version of Carol of the Bells, but particularly George Winston’s piano, tinkling like icicles and tiny crystal bells in the night. I have to hear Elvis sing I’ll Be Home For Christmas (and/or Blue Christmas) at least a few times. Sleigh Ride by the Boston Pops is (as you say) a necessity. Perry Como’s rendition of almost anything seasonal…his voice makes my heart melt, especially when he’s crooning holiday songs, and Ave Maria. For schmaltz, give me Jimmy Buffet singing Christmas Island. And for the absolute heart of everything Christmas, I want lots and lots of Andy Williams. Most especially, his version of Kay Thompson’s Jingle Bells, and Happy Holidays/It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

    I have lots more, because, like your radio station, I start playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving, and don’t stop until New Year’s Eve. (Hey, if you are putting out a collection of 300+ Santas, you MUST have a soundtrack to match.)

    Hope you have a wonderful holiday, and sorry I haven’t had a chance to visit often. I’m desperately trying to make my deadline. But I could NOT resist a post about Christmas music. Thanks for making me think about Jimmy Durante, too…and Merry Christmas, Mrs. Kalabash, wherever you are. 😉

    • Hi, Marcia! It’s always wonderful to see you here, and Merry Christmas to you, too! You make an excellent point about Mel Torme. He wins my heart, if not my ears. You and I share a love for that Winston version of Carol of the Bells. Last year I found the sheet music for it and several other of my favorites of his, like Joy, and I’ve had the most fun playing them. Of course, I sound nothing like George, so my rendition sounds more like Carol of the Tin Cans than bells, but still…Listening to Perry Como at Christmas is like wrapping yourself in a musical fuzzy blanket. It just feels so warm, cozy and wonderful. One of these days you must send a pic of you and the 300+ Santas!! Meanwhile, I hope you’re making great progress on your deadline. Go, Marcia, Go!!!!

  2. I love this post, Karen! We have very similar taste, however I believe that even Jose Feliciano should not sing Feliz Navidad. I HATE that song with a passion. The other music I’ve learned to love at the holiday season is Handel’s Messiah. Something about its soaring sounds just feels holy, even if a large portion of it is actually about Easter.

    • OH, Tamara! I was just thinking the same thing about Feliz Navidad. I’m not crazy about it, either, and the worst thing is it’s one of those songs that finds a room in your brain, moves in, and starts rearranging the furniture for a long stay! 🙂

    • Tamara, I totally get where you’re coming from on Feliz Navidad. My abiding affection for it stems largely from the fact that, when I was a kid, my family would team up with my friend and her family, who lived down the street, and the whole crew would go Christmas caroling in our neighborhood. Though we did not exactly have a set list, we did have something of a routine. We would choose one number from a rotation of standards–think Joy to the World, Deck the Halls, O Come All Ye Faithful–and then we’d finish with one of our two big closers: We Wish You A Merry Christmas and…Feliz Navidad. Do not ask me why 11 of the Caucasian-est Caucasians you’d ever want to meet chose that moment to put down the Big Book of Gringo Songs and go Hispanic, but we did. I’m thinking you should be glad I haven’t brought that tradition to our ‘hood. 🙂

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