I love the cheerful Christmas classics as much as anybody—your “Jingle Bells,” your “Twelve Days,” your fa-la-la-la-la. I have plenty of Bing, Burl, and Igor in my Holiday iTunes library. But holiday songs are like holiday food: After a while, all that sweet stuff can get to be cloying. That’s why I like to mix in a bit of the sober with the joyful, some reflective with the triumphant, a little grit with the fluff. Here are a few of my favorite mixers.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Judy Garland (iTunes | Amazon MP3)
Another classic that’s a colossal bummer. The lyrics were originally much worse: Judy Garland supposedly asked the songwriters to change their original “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last, / Next year we may all be living in the past…” to the marginally more cheerful “let your heart be light” lines we all know. Still, it’s no wonder little Margaret O’Brien went out and bashed the heads off those snowmen after she heard it.
Merry Christmas Baby, Charles Brown & Bonnie Raitt (iTunes | Amazon MP3)
Sure, it’s a blues, but listen to the lyrics: The singer is actually pretty happy. I like to include it as a palate cleanser in holiday playlists—a refreshing bit of soul in the midst of all the gemutlichkeit. The Charles Brown original is a classic, but I also like the duet he did later with Bonnie Raitt (on one of the excellent A Very Special Christmas compilations) —she’s in top, jazzy form.
In the Bleak Midwinter, Liz Story (iTunes | Amazon MP3)
By the title alone, you know this one won’t give you the warm and fuzzies. But it’s a beautiful hymn that gets to the heart of the winter holidays. It’s been covered by all kinds of singers (from Gregorian monks to James Taylor), but I like Liz Story’s piano version—spare but lovely.
Blue Christmas, Elvis Presley (iTunes | Amazon MP3)
OK, enough of the sad stuff. Sure, he’s singing about bumming out on Christmas because his baby’s gone and left him. But the King (with some gospel-infused backup) transmutes those holiday blues into pure rocking joy.