Monday Mixtape: If I Must Accept the Sounds of the Season…

merry and bright, with music just right
merry and bright, with music just right

It’s that time of year again– the most wonderful time of the year, so they tell us– and while I don’t disagree with this assessment, I’m not sure I’d go that far.

Certainly I love the festive feeling in the air: the lights on every house, home, tree, and storefront, the smell of peppermint wafting from coffee shops, or even chestnuts roasting on an open fire. And there’s definitely something in that change in the seasons that seems to bring out the best in people. Because it’s so dark and dreary so early and often this time of year, and because it gets so cold outside that it makes it hard for anyone to stay warm of heart, mind, and soul through it all people seem to jump at the opportunity to do good for others, and keep that warmth going. By deigning to be with family and friends for extended periods of time, by volunteering their time and money to good causes, and, of course, by using any waking moment they have left to bake a cornacopious cavalcade of confections that can be found in every den, every office,  every village, and every hamlet throughout the land.

The issue for me lies in the ominous onslaught of holiday music that comes with all that, starting sometime after Halloween and lasting all the way through December 25 (and sometimes even through January 1). Forget the overly excitable department store chains with their preemptive and extravagant holiday displays, with this music alone, we have somehow gone from having 12 days to nigh on 3 months of Christmas.

No doubt it’s a cash cow of an opportunity. For better or worse, most people love it and eat up every bit of it. No musical genre is too obscure and no artist too staid to try their hand at it at some point in their career.

That said, even with all the corny, cheese-ball, cyclical and thus often cliched aspects to this ever-growing genre of holiday tunes, a bit of wonder can still be found. Call it overblown, but there’s a certain ingenuity and innovation in the way these songs are so oft reworked, regurgitated, renewed, and reproduced. If the music and its lyrics still hold true, then the meaning shines through no matter the sound (or the target audience).

Of the seemingly limitless sea of holiday music retreads and novelties, these five songs maintain a special je nais se quoi in their own way. The boisterous and the intimate, the playful and the reflective, and the new and the old alike.

1. Guster – Mamacita, Donde Esta Santa Claus?

Does it get any cheesier, goofier, or just plain sillier than this? Well yes, of course it does– enter Cee Lo Green— but this one also carries along with it a pleasant undercurrent of endearing, youthful wonder and hope.

The song, originally a novelty track by the young bilingual cantante Augie Rios in 1959, is here revitalized by Guster, every yiddishemama’s favorite pop rock band of smart, dashing Jewish boys. Their rendition remains true to the original’s fun fifties rockabilly vibe while at the same time imparting some particularly excellent additions (cue the mighty call-and-answer chorus of four singers shouting Ole. Classic.) .

Please bring this one to the forefront of any holiday function you’re hosting this year. Instant holiday cheer guarenteed.

2. RUN-DMC – Christmas in Hollis

First, a word from a familiar face of the Christmas Season:

From the mystical, magical minds of RUN-DMC comes this gem of a holiday jam. It’s the best of all worlds: the honest, truest expression of every good kid’s dream of spotting Santa in the park and the unexpected gift that it brings, the sights and sounds of a modest yet proud family feast during the holidays, and of course a healthy helping of simple, seasonally-appropriate hip-hop boasting. “Rhymes so loud and proud you hear it / It’s Christmastime and we got the spirit.”

Special shout-outs as well to the dutiful homages made to rhymes of seasons past (in no particular order: Joy to the World, Frost the Snowman, Jingle Bells, and the great soul sounds of Clarence Carter).

3. She & Him – The Christmas Song

One of the most covered and well-tread of any Christmas song ever, this one has the ability to get at the sentimentalist inside even the most hardened of Scrooges. It’s what we all really want from the holiday season, isn’t it? Landscapes and cityscapes draped in pearly white, families together around a wonderful holiday banquet and within reach of a soft, warm armchair and humming- no need for roaring- fire nearby. Peace, love, and, if not harmony, than tranquility please. And this song delivers on all those hope and wishes.

With everyone from Sinatra and Streisand to Houston, Braxton, Carey, and even the Biebs having done something with this song, I am convinced the original Nat King Cole recording will forever endure. But if you’re looking for a new take, something modern yet simple without being glitzy or grandiose, then allow to suggest this one from She & Him. Ms. Deschanel’s low, syrupy croon over Mr. Ward’s soft-reverb rhythm and blues riffs will get you to that happy, beautiful place all over again.

4. Avi Wisnia – Maoz Tsur (Rock of Ages)

With all the cutesy little bands of yiddishe boys or girls wanting nothing more than to come out with the next big (read: this year’s, nay, this week’s) Chanukah Hit with their goofy, fluffy parody of a well-known secular pop hit, Avi Wisnia’s take on the traditional Chanukah tune presents a welcome and beautiful respite from it all.

The song is one of the few “holiday standards,” as it were, of the Chanukah holiday, and one of even fewer to be composed in the major key, thus making it all the more accessible for reworkings like this one. And if you’re going to put fresh spin on an old holiday favorite, why not go for the jazzy sound of the season that’s similarly tried and true?

Wisnia’s rendition reminds that it doesn’t need to be new or flashy to hold our attention and that old can be new again.

5. Irma Thomas and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band – May Ev’ry Day Be Christmas

And finally, one to really bring it home for the holidays. Irma Thomas and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band do wonderfully to pay tribute to the late, great Mr. Louis Jordan in this cover of his 1951 holiday single. It moves, it swings, it practically smiles from ear to ear with all the love and good wishes that you could ever want from the holiday season. Honest and true, slightly cliched but without any corn-ball frivolity or cheese.

The words express a wish we can all relate too, regardless of faith or philosophy: “Let the end of everyday / Be filled with happiness.”

At nighttime comes a longing,
To be with the ones you love.
To sit around, fireside,
And dream of stars above.

So may God bless you and keep you,
Come what may…
And everyday will be a happy day…

Amen to that, friends. And all the best this holiday season.

*top image courtesy of Dotstang.

**One last thing! I’ve been rather busy of late working on a piece for friends over at Charm City Jukebox as part of their year-end series 2013 in 5 Songs. The article is now up for your audible enjoyment and reading pleasure. Please take a look and tell me what you think! Thanks guys!

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