HIGH FREQUENCIES: Sounds Like Christmas

Do you hear what I hear?

Photo credit: Tony Paris Archives

At some point, marketing teams realized that Christmas time is big business, not only for general retail sales, but for music sales — and the best way to exploit the fact during the holiday season is for recording artists to release Christmas albums. Forget that since the advent of the phonograph record there have been Christmas records; the last two decades have seen the market flooded with them.

While such recordings may be a way to cash in — I mean, Neil Diamond and Barbra “Four Christmas Albums For Chrissake” Streisand — I’ve always enjoyed listening to Christmas music this time of the year, maybe even more than Christmas itself. Okay, maybe not being hammered over the head everywhere I go with Christmas songs, but having the option and a reason for playing the music in December sure beats the hell out of playing Christmas songs in May. Or July. Twenty years ago was the last Christmas and holiday music recap I published, but, just like you dragging decorations out of the basement  and down from the attic, I couldn’t resist bringing the list out another time.

And there’s so much more from which to choose! Forget the old standards from when I was a kid, the voices of Bing Crosby and Mario Lanza filling the house, the former singing the holiday carols and the latter delivering the more traditional hymns, leading up to Christmas day. It always struck me a little funny: All year long contemporary rock and pop would be played on the family stereo — a (now) vintage in-wall RCA BK2 with a pair of three-foot by one-and-a-half foot three-way speakers with crossovers — but between Thanksgiving and Christmas, this other music, by these other singers, would come out of the closet for a few weeks, then the records would be put away until the next year.

It was pretty standard seasonal sounds, alright, until the mid-‘60s. Then A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector was released. And things changed. Darlene Love, The Ronettes, and The Crystals hit us with that Wall Of Sound. In mono! The next year, The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album followed, then the Supremes released Merry Christmas The Beatles started releasing their fan club Christmas singles, and before you know it, it’s 2009 and Bob fucking Dylan is releasing Christmas In The Heart! Not only is it good, it’s incredible, embodying all that’s right about Christmas music: hymns, carols and popular songs that are spirited, upbeat, fun and sincere. Almost a decade after its release, many still scoff at it, some don’t even know it exists, but Dylan really captures the spirit and warmth of the holidays in this unexpected gem that few others can match.

That’s not to diminish others who have tossed their wreath in the snow. Walk into any good record store or search online and you’ll find holiday music available in every genre — rock, pop, soul, rap, new age, jazz, classical, punk, post-industrial, Goth — more artists than ever are releasing Christmas music, and they’re doing so in interesting ways. While many take the old, familiar carols that many of us grew up on and reinterpret them in their own style, others have written their own Christmas songs, taking the time to pen original compositions that either retell the traditional tales or comment on society during a time that, for many, is one of reflection, as some look back, others forward, with everyone looking for a better day. Aimee Mann does a great job with One More Drifter in the Snow. Annie Lennox is rockin’ around the right Christmas tree on A Christmas Cornucopia. Others who hit the mark with their seasonal offerings are Tracey Thorn with Tinsel And Lights; Sarah McLachlan, Wintersong; Kim Wilde, Wilde Winter Songbook; M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel with A She & Him Christmas; Pink Martini brings it with Joy To The World; Sufjan Stevens, whose five-CD box set, Songs For Christmas Sing-A-Long (In Stereo Hi-Fi) should not be missed, and the Jesus of Cool himself, Nick Lowe, knocks it outta the park with Quality Street — A Seasonal Selection For All The Family. These are just some of the newer releases.

This year, Eric Clapton, who recently released Merry Xmas, gives Christmas songs their props with this formidable reinterpretation of the classics — and an original or two, with his latter day blues riffs spicing up the holidays just fine. JD McPherson, whose “Socks” is also welcome Christmas fare, plays it just right with his roots Americana approach. The same holds true for Bloodshot Records’ release from last year, The 13 Days of Xmas, the various artists compilation with tracks from Murder By Death, Barrence Whitfield & the Savages, one-time Atlantan Kelly Hogan and the man who refuses to quit when he quits, Dexter Romweber. And John Legend sings the standards straight on his new album, A Legendary Christmas.

There are plenty of old standards worth seeking out — and I’m still not talking Dean Martin, Nat “King” Cole or Frank Sinatra. Arthur Lyman’s With A Christmas Vibe is a bachelor pad staple; Jerry Jeff Walker’s Christmas Gonzo Style rides high; Martin Atkins and the Chicago Industrial League pound a white noise Christmas with The Industrial Christmas Carol; Morgan Fisher presents the perfect hybrid of styles with Claws; and you can’t do wrong with James Brown when he proclaims, Santa’s Got A Brand New Bag.

Want to go the more traditional route, without the syrupy-sweet hangover? Get back with Ethan James, The Ancient Music; Marta Sebestyen, Apocrypha; Les Voix Bulgares, Chants de Noel; and for those not wanting to go too far back in time, there’s the beautiful contemporary take on the past, Manzanera and MacKay present Christmas by The Players to make your spirits bright.

Locally, Michelle Malone and the Hot Toddies have a new holiday EP, Toddie Time out this week, sure to compliment her 1992 offering, A Swingin’ Christmas in the Attic. Indigo Girls give a beautiful holiday offering with Holly Happy Days. You can hear The Black Lips perform “Christmas in Baghdad” on a split single b/w “Plump Righteous” from King Khan and BBQ Show. Not too (too) long ago, The Woggles released a fine Christmas single, the original “Santa’s Coming (Ho, Ho, Ho)” b/w “Back Door Santa.” If you look in the right places, and you’re lucky, you can find “Red Lights (Merry Christmas)” by Dreams So Real. The same holds true for those willing to search for If your luck holds up, and your willing to dig, you’ll also strike gold with the “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) 45 by Face of Concern.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of local Christmas recordings, nor is it but a sampling of those by national and international artists. But, it’s a start. A good start.

The 45 List

Many of the best Yuletide rock songs have been released only as singles. It’s rare that an artist will include a Christmas song on an album, but it has been done. The Pretenders’ “2000 Years” is on Learning To Crawl and the Payola$’ “Christmas Is Coming” is on Hammer On A Drum, just as the Bongos released “Tree Wise Men” on Drums Along The Hudson and “Weird” Al Yankovic included “Christmas At Ground Zero” on Polka Party!. But that’s the exception rather than the rule.

When the songs do appear on 45s, they are usually “B”-sides, unless its a special seasonal release, in which case usually both sides have a holiday theme. A number of seven and twelve-inch singles have been released, many of which are still available. Some are worth shopping for. You decide. Here are a few of them:


Various Artists:


SOUL and R&B:



  • Boys of the Lough: Midwinter Night’s Dream (Blix Street)
  • Brave Combo: “It’s Christmas, Man!” (Rounder)
  • Joan Baez: Noel (Vanguard)
  • John Wesley Harding: God Made Me Do It (Sire/Reprise)
  • Johnny Winter: Please Come Home for Christmas (Pointblank/Charisma)
  • Jorma Kaukonen: Christmas (Relix)
  • Marta Sebestyen: Apochrya (Hannibal)
  • John Fahey: The New Possibility and Christmas, Vol. 2 (Takoma)
  • Leon Redbone: Christmas Island (August)
  • Various Artists: Death Might Be Your Santa Claus (Columbia)
  • Various Artists: Even Santa Gets The Blues (Pointblank)




  • John Boswell: Festival Of The Heart (Hearts Of Space)
  • Kitaro: Peace on Earth (Domo)
  • Susan Mazer & Dallas Smith: Carol For The Planet (Intersound)
  • David Lanz/Michael Jones: Solstice (Narada)
  • Eric Tingstad/Nancy Rumble: The Gift (Sona Gaia)
  • George Winston: December (Windham Hill)
  • The Joy Circuit: Crystal Clear Christmas (A&M)
  • Shane Keister: The Sounds Of Christmas (RCA)





  • Ferrante & Teicher: Snowbound/We Wish You A Merry Christmas (United Artists/EMI)
  • Lawrence Welk, His Orchestra and Chorus: 22 Merry Christmas Favorites (Ranwwood)
  • Mantovani And His Orchestra: Christmas Favourites and The Great Songs Of Christmas (London and Bainbridge).


  • A Christmas Tree (Columbia)
  • Brian Slawson: A Yule Log (CBS)
  • The Hampton String Quartet: What If MOZART Wrote “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas?” (RCA Red Seal)
  • Mannhein Steamroller: Christmas and A Fresh Aire Christmas by Chip Davis (American Gramophone)
  • Sarah Brightman: A Winter Symphony (Angel)


A shortened version of this column appears in the December, 2018, print edition of Creative Loafing.

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