When people ask me how many baseball caps I have, I tell them 25.
It seems like a big number to them, and they’d be horrified if they knew the real number. Heck, I’d be horrified if I knew the real number, which is why I wear them instead of count them.
Now that you know that, I can tell you I have 25 Christmas CDs.
I know, I know. But I just love holiday music.
I start getting the itch around early October when the new releases hit the shelves. And I used to happily spend hours reconfiguring new mix tapes — and later mix CDs — to be set for when the Christmas season.
Now that I am into the iPod era, I’ve been busy creating new and exciting playlists that aren’t confined by the amount of space on a disc. This spares me the difficult choice of which version of Greg Lake’s "I Believe in Father Christmas" I should include — there’s room for all of them! Some people consider this iPod abuse.
Since the winter meetings are over and Billy Wagner and Carlos Delgado can hang their stocking above the fireplace at Shea, I can unleash the holiday spirit that’s been building.
And I’m big into sharing, at least sharing my views of the very best out there.
So if I was going to make an ultimate mix tape-CD-playlist, here are some all-time faves I’d include, as well as some albums that stand as awesome collections.
Here are some of the ground rules. I like stuff from the rock ‘n’ roll era, and I lean toward upbeat versions of traditional songs. I was in a doctor’s waiting room last week and some country guy was singing "Daddy, please don’t get drunk for Christmas because I don’t want to see Momma cry" over the speaker and almost begged to be sedated so I couldn’t hear it anymore. So nonsense like that does not make the mix.
Here’s what does. Some of these you’ll know, some you’ve probably never heard of. These are my favorite Christmas songs:
A very merry Christmas
And a happy new year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any tears.
"Happy Christmas (War is Over)," John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Such a beautiful song, with the Harlem Children’s Choir in the background. Almost as good is the flip side of my 45, which is Yoko Ono’s "Listen, the Snow is Falling." My wife hates it, but it just sounds like Christmas in New York to me.
"A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector," Various artists
It's been called the best Christmas album of the rock era, and it's certainly the most influential. And, truth be told, it was a failure the year it was released. Spector had the misfortune of offering this collection the year John F. Kennedy was killed, and a mourning nation apparently wanted no part of people messing with holiday standards. But given the gift of time, we know that Spector unleashes his "wall of sound" brilliantly. It's a reflection of its time, yet still sounds fresh. The songs are all great, but the highpoints are Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and "Sleigh Ride" by the Ronettes.
How a little baby boy
Could bring the people
So much joy
Son of a carpenter
Mary carried the light
This must be Christmas
Must be tonight
"Christmas Must Be Tonight," Robbie Robertson
I was in a West Palm Beach Starbucks last month and heard a previously unknown (at least to me) version of this song playing on the speakers and stopped dead in my tracks and asked the clerk who it was. Turns out that it’s on Starbucks’ "Elton John’s Christmas Party" CD, and is probably the original version of the song from the 1970s. So now I have three versions, all very different and all very good. My favorite is from the from the "Scrooged" soundtrack, of all places, a very 1980s treatment.
Through the years we all may be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star apon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," Pretenders
There are a zillion versions of this song, but I like the Pretenders softly swaying version the best. It’s from the first Very Special Christmas CD frm 1987, which is by far the best of the five in the series, boasting an amazing amont of A-listers, from Eurythmics to Bruce Springsteen to Madonna to John Mellencamp to Run-DMC. Most of the songs hold up pretty well, though I’m sure Bon Jovi cringes when it hears "Back Door Santa" today. And it should. The Pretenders’ other holiday offering, "2000 Miles" is a classic, too. Of course, also included on this CD is...
"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" U2
A lot of bands have taken a turn with this Darlene Love classic, but Bono and the boys do a fantastic job. It’s also kind of a surprise that a band with openly Christian members who include religious references in many of their songs would pick a very secular Christmas song to record.
"Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand," Relient K
If the Ramones went to church and grew up in suburban Ohio, they'd be Relient K. The Christian pop-punkers issued this 10-song EP in 2003 and it is filled songs that are both reverent and fun. Not a lot of bands take a stab at Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," and even fewer get the thing done is a minute and eight seconds.
So on with the boots, back out in the snow
To the only all-night grocery,
When what to my wondering eyes should appear
In the line is that guy I've been chasing all year!
"I'm spending this one alone," he said.
"Need a break; this year's been crazy."
I said, "Me too, but why are you?
You mean you forgot cranberries too?"
Then suddenly we laughed and laughed
Caught on to what was happening
That Christmas magic's brought this tale
To a very happy ending!
"Christmas Wrapping," The Waitresses
I’ve loved this since it debuted on Ze records holiday disc, and you can find it all over the place today. Who’d have believed that the short-lived new wave band would be forever known for a Christmas song. The band played at Nassau Community College when I went there. But the lead singer heard on the song, Patty Donahue, had apparently abruptly quit and was replaced by Holly Vincent from Holly and the Italians. Holly was so new that she actually carried on stage index cards with the lyrics, which didn’t exactly thrill the crowd. I think things went downhill from there.
So call on your angels
Your beaten and broken
It's time that we mend them
So they don't fade with the season
Let our mercy be the gifts we lay
From Brooklyn to Broadway
And celebrate each and every day
This New York City Christmas
"A New York Christmas" Rob Thomas
I’m a sucker for all things New York, and this blending of the homeland with a Christmas song is just phenemonal. It was first available only as a download to benefit Sidewalk Angels Foundation, Thomas’ charity that helps the homeless. But now you can find it as a CD single and some compilations, including one from Target this year. I hum this one all year long.
So now, it’s Christmas in my heart
God sent heaven down to Earth
And called him Jesus
"Christmas in My Heart," By The Tree
This offering from the contemporary Christian band came out last year on the Absolute Favorite Christmas package and fast became one of my top songs. The chorus sounds a little like Sheryl Crow’s "Soak up the Sun," but don’t let that stop you.
"Christmas day is in our grasp
As long as we have hands to clasp."
"Welcome Christmas," Love Spirals Downwards
This is the song from the "Grinch Who Stole Christmas" in a most unexpected place. "Excelsis, a Dark Noel" is a downer goth CD, pretty much music to contemplate a holiday suicide by. Hey, sometimes you take a chance ona disc and it doesn't pan out. Execpt, that is, for this lilting, angelic cut. It probably got the band thrown out of the goth club, but the Whos down in Whoville, the tall and the small, would be proud.
So we're having a reggae Christmas
-- down in Jamaica!
We’re having a good time, too
Hey mon, we're having a reggae Christmas
A merry Christmas and a reggae new year to you
"Reggae Christmas" Bryan Adams
I picked up Bryan’s "Christmastime" 45 while in college and thought the song was pretty good. Then I flipped over to the B-side, and "Reggae Christmas" rocks! It’s bouncy, it’s fun and the steel drums are cool.
"A Lump of Coal," various artists
I was walking through an Ann Arbor music store and stumbled upon this cassette and took a chance on this 1991 release. I had heard of just one of the performers -- Henry Rollins -- but thought I'd give it a try. I was blown away, and it remains one my faves. It's mostly alt. rockers taking turns with traditional songs. Compilations are amixed bag, but seven of the 11 cuts still make get added to playlists. The best is Carnival Art's "Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella," and they wrap up the song by weaving in the fa-hey-dor-rae stuff from the Grinch. Brilliant! The Crash Test Dummies chip in with "The First Noel."
"Santa Claus is Coming to Town," Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen recorded this at C.W. Post University on Long Island. Look it up! For years it was unreleased and it was a treat when I could catch it on WBAB. It was eventually offered on an otherwise dreadful children's album, then finally issued on a CD single with "My Hometown." And take note, Bruce is using Phil Spector's arrangement of "Santa Claus."
So now you know what I'll be listening to all month. I'd love to hear what some of your favorites are!