Elvis Presley leers atop my list of the five best popular Christmas recordings. ‘Blue Christmas’, written in 1948 by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson, is ostensibly a rejoinder to ‘White Christmas’, with its lines ‘You’ll be doing all right, with your Christmas of white / But I’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas’ – even though the Irving Berlin-penned song, first performed by Bing Crosby on Christmas Day, 1941, and becoming a hit by the following winter, is itself melancholic. When Elvis released his first Christmas album in October 1958, his version of ‘White Christmas’ was met with hostility by Berlin, outraged at what he deemed a parody of his and Crosby’s original. Instead, ‘Blue Christmas’ would become Elvis’ standard Christmas tune. For the sake of this list, I’ve picked a version of ‘Blue Christmas’ performed by Elvis during the black leather sit-down segments of his ’68 Comeback Special.
Looking towards Christmastimes’ old masters, I prefer the catalogue of Nat King Cole to that of Crosby, who is sometimes a little too ornate, especially when performing traditional carols. ‘White Christmas’ and ‘The Christmas Song’ remain classics, whose ubiquity is matched at this time of year only by the Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’. Once considered an alternative Christmas ballad for its tale of forlorn, drunken, gambling and drug addicted lovers, ‘Fairytale of New York’ retains its power whenever it is actually listened to – the song successfully captures one aspect of New York City; and the skip of Shane MacGowan’s voice in the final verse, as he recollects the dreams the two lovers have shared, is profoundly moving – but it is so grossly overexposed that it is easily heard instead as background music, and just misses out on my list.
One Christmas song which tradition has not diminished is Darlene Love’s ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’. Love has performed the song on David Letterman’s show each Christmas since 1986: age never withering her, nor custom staling until, with Letterman due to retire in the new year, she completed her final rendition on the show last Friday night.
The song as Darlene Love recorded it is a masterpiece, but one which needs none of my recognition. Instead, I offer another song from A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector which I think equals Love’s recording. The album is replete with exceptional, invigorated renditions of Christmas music, including Darlene Love’s take on ‘White Christmas’, and three songs apiece from The Ronettes and The Crystals. But ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’, by Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans – written in 1917, but popularised as a Christmas song by Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in their 1945 film of the same name – edges the others to stand as my favourite.
From its opening bell chimes to its playfully pert music video, Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ frolics and soars to a place on my list. Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Early Christmas Morning’ draws from the origins of the carol in exuberant medieval circle dances, and speeds up the process: though the children’s choir can be a little cloying, Lauper’s whirling vocal performance uniquely captures the headiness of the Christmas holiday and its central act of present opening. Finally, the Comedian Harmonists afford the definitive rendering of the Germanic carol ‘Silent Night’
Elvis Presley – ‘Blue Christmas’
Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans – ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’
Mariah Carey – ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’
Cyndi Lauper – ‘Early Christmas Morning’
Comedian Harmonists – ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht’
A Christmas Gift for You is the pinnacle of Christmas albums, narrowly beating out, among others, Elvis’ Christmas Album, The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, and Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas. In foregoing the history of religious and secular Christmas albums, there is a danger in performing nothing more than a conceptual sidestep: towards something no more inventive, variegated or coherent, but based simply on a tenuous relationship to the holiday, or around a looser theme of winter. Vespertine – the first on my list of alternative Christmas records – is an overtly wintry album. Describing it, Björk has said:
A word that helped me a lot making this record was “hibernation.” Being internal is a form of hibernation, and i related it to winter, the sound of crystals in wintertime. That’s what i wanted this album to sound like.
In fact, Vespertine contains only one song – ‘Frosti’ – with a wintry title, and as that is an instrumental, only ‘Aurora’ contains lines explicitly evoking what may be considered winter phenomena. If its wintry feel lies less in explicit evocations of the season, and more in its use of instruments, its intricate musical patterns, and its sense of circumspect inner life, still – though Vespertine is one of my favourite albums, and one I listen to year round – it feels one with Christmas in a way that similar albums do not. múm’s Yesterday Was Dramatic – Today is OK shares a domestic atmospheric and a utilisation of gentle, experimentally-minded electronica and glitch beats; and yet while I listen to it often, I associate it with winter only, and not at all with Christmas.
In the same sort of vein, John Cale’s Paris 1919 is certainly not a Christmas album, although it contains several songs which refer to both the festivity and the season: ‘Child’s Christmas in Wales’, ‘Andalucia’, and ‘Antarctica Starts Here’. But Cale’s album fits Christmas, while Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs, for instance, despite featuring ‘Winters Love’ as a centrepiece, is more readily placed at other times of the year.
For their sounds and tempers, Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, the Velvet Underground’s third album, and Holy Other’s With U are each equally appropriate to a programme of listening situated in the very depths of winter, without being especially compatible with Christmas.
The risk of selecting albums that simply refer to Christmas, rather than developing any richer understanding for the holiday, may succumb to less literal traps and connections. Any proper appreciation for James Stewart comprehends him as a man for all seasons and all temperaments; but he stands as the most Christmassy of major actors owing to It’s a Wonderful Life. Is there a chain of connection, therefore, which makes me think of the music of Glenn Miller at Christmas only because Stewart starred in the Anthony Mann-directed, 1954 biopic The Glenn Miller Story? Does my selection of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way surreptitiously reference ‘Silent Night’?
A range of jazz proves well suited to the introspective mindset which characterises Christmas more than any other holiday, and more too than its correlate, New Year. Distinct from Miller’s big band compositions and Davis’ classically structured, electronic-inspired work, there lies Albert Ayler’s avant-garde, free jazz. The final album on my Christmas list comprises Ayler’s intensely spiritual performances – some of which are built upon simple, repeated motifs – captured on two nights in Greenwich Village in 1965 and 1966.
Björk – Vespertine
John Cale – Paris 1919
Glenn Miller – The Essential Glenn Miller
Miles Davis – In a Silent Way
Albert Ayler – Live In Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Sessions