A list to mix your own holiday sound

Starbucks' "Jolly Old Soul" compilation includes the late, great Philadelphia-born singer Solomon Burke, plus the Drifters, Donny Hathaway, the Cadillacs, and R&B pioneers the Orioles, others.
Starbucks' "Jolly Old Soul" compilation includes the late, great Philadelphia-born singer Solomon Burke, plus the Drifters, Donny Hathaway, the Cadillacs, and R&B pioneers the Orioles, others.
Posted: December 19, 2010

Crazy for Christmas is the title of the new album by insouciant swingers Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks, which is my favorite single-artist holiday collection of 2010, just ahead of Shelby Lynne's winningly morose Merry Christmas.

But "crazy for Christmas" is also an apt way to describe the pop world's attitude toward holiday music-making these days. Winter-warming collections by Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli have been mega-sellers in recent years, and there are plenty of mainstream options out there this season.

Susan Boyle's The Gift currently tops the Billboard 200 album chart - and other choices range from the cast of Glee (No. 3) to 10-year-old classical crossover phenom Jackie Evancho's EP O Holy Night (No. 5) to Mariah Carey, whose second all-holiday set, Merry Christmas II You, is No. 18. (Italian tenor Bocelli's My Christmas came out in 2009, but it's currently holding down the No. 11 spot.)

The big sellers aren't the only ones positioning themselves under the mistletoe, though. It has been the season to spread cheer going back to the Beatles' Christmas messages in the 1960s, and the alacrity of the Internet allows acts to give away - or sell, on iTunes - instant stocking-stuffers.

Retail outlets attempting to fill the void created by the collapse of chain music stores are heavily into the point-of-purchase Christmas-compilation business, too. The playlist below includes songs culled from collections issued by Starbucks, Target, Cracker Barrel, and even the U.S. Postal Service.

What all this adds up to is A Christmas Cornucopia, to borrow the title of Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox's serious-minded set. It used to require a good deal of scouring to put together a respectably fresh, off-the-beaten-path, annual Christmas mix. Now, the challenge is what to leave off in hopes of keeping the mirth-making soundtrack to a reasonable duration.

So on the list that follows, Coldplay's "Christmas Lights" didn't make the cut, and neither did Frightened Rabbit's "It's Christmas So We'll Stop" or Jessica Simpson and Willie Nelson's ill-advised "Merry Christmas Baby."

The songs that did make it had to be new or rereleased this year. So you'll find Rihanna and Frank Sinatra under this particular tree. And, no, Virginia, there will be no "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" this year.

1. "Oh! Santa," Mariah Carey. "They say it's unrealistic / But I believe in you, St. Nick." With creamy vocals and bouncy beats, pop-R&B diva hopes Santa will bring the man of her dreams down the chimney.

2. "We Need a Little Christmas," Glee Cast. Fox TV high school Glee Club sales juggernaut goes where Angela Lansbury and the Muppets have gone before, in a perky plea from 1966 Broadway musical Mame.

3. "Jingle Bell Rock," Mandy Barnett. The Patsy Cline-influenced country singer conjures up a sophisticated Nashville sound with the aid of old-school studio pros on topflight Winter Wonderland album. Available at Cracker Barrel and crackerbarrel.com.

4. "Baby, It's Cold Outside," Ray Charles & Betty Carter. Genius of Soul and jazz-scat queen do Frank Loesser's frosty tune, on Let It Snow: A Holiday Music Collection. Sold only at the Post Office or usps.com.

5. "Grateful for Christmas," Hayes Carll. Ace Texas songster's chronicle of family gatherings is droll ("I wish I had a drink, or maybe a dozen / Lord, what I wouldn't give for one good lookin' cousin") and touching. On iTunes and Amazon.com.

6. "Reindeer Game," Ben Arnold. Philadelphia songwriter's drunken yuletide, jaunty beneath the bummed-out lyric. Free on WXPN's local music blog, "The Key."

7. "Got Something For You," Best Coast and Wavves. Isn't it adorable? Bethany Cosentino of sunny indie pop band Best Coast buys boyfriend Nathan Williams of Wavves a present, and they sing a jingle-belly tune together. One of 14 free Christmas Gig downloads on Target.com.

8. "A Child Is Born," Rihanna. Barbadian beauty praises newborn king with a spirited reggae bounce, from Now That's What I Call Christmas 4, which includes worthy contributions from Lady Gaga and Darius Rucker, among others.

9. "Alegria," Maria de Barros. You may not know the title, but you know the tune. It's a Portuguese version of "Deck the Halls," by the fetching Cape Verdean vocalist, on Putumayo's World Christmas Party.

10. "Candlelight," Maccabeats. The Yeshiva University a cappella group takes Taio Cruz's hit "Dynamite" and turns it into viral Hanukkah gold. "Singing a-yo / Spin the dreidel!" On iTunes.

11. "Fruitcake," the Superions. B-52s singer Fred Schneider's side project serves up an electro recipe for the gift that never gets eaten, off its Destination . . . Christmas! album.

12. "Silent Night," Annie Lennox. Much of Lennox's A Christmas Cornucopia is delivered with an intensity that seems to aim at scaring the children up to bed, but this one offers graceful solemnity.

13. "Good King Wenceslas," Sean Smith. Just one of 14 fingerpicking treasures from California virtuoso guitarist Smith's Christmas, on the Tompkins Square label. In the tradition of the late John Fahey.

14. "It's Christmas," Coconut Records. The band, named after the record store chain, is the project of HBO's Bored to Death star Jason Schwartzman. The song charmingly nods to Phil Spector's classic '60s productions. It's another Target.com Christmas Gig tune.

15. "It's Christmas Once Again," Ronnie Spector. Speaking of Spector, Phil's ex Ronnie has a five-song Best Christmas Ever EP out, and this heartfelt candy cane is a highlight.

16. "Presents for Christmas," Solomon Burke. Late, great Philadelphia-born singer takes his place by the tree with serious company on Starbucks' Jolly Old Soul compilation, including the Drifters, Donny Hathaway, and the Cadillacs.

17. "Christmas Time is Here," Mayer Hawthorne. "All the best Christmas songs were written by Jews, and Hanukkah songs suck," says the retro soulman born Andrew Cohen, who does a typically classy job with the moody Lee Mendelson lyric sung over Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown instrumental. Free on Stonesthrow.com.

18. "I've Got Christmas by the Tail," Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks. Country-folk gypsy-jazz swinger banishes the blues in favor of greens and reds on Crazy for Christmas on the Surfdog label.

19. "All I Want for Christmas Is You," The Puppini Sisters. Andrew Sisters-inspired, close-harmonizing trio revamps a Mariah Carey composition, with glee, on Christmas With the Puppini Sisters.

20. "Party Hard," Little Isidore. Swaggering revelry from bass-voiced, eggnog-swilling roue. Not sure who this guy is, but it's another Target.com Christmas Gig winner.

21. "Here Comes Skunky Claus," Flaming Snowballs. Fast-paced, horn-happy ode to the white-striped Kris Kringle stand-in, from Philadelphian (and Daily News employee) Vance Lehmkuhl & Company's satiric Christmas band Bah & the Humbugs' Bigger Than Santa: A 25th Anniversary Humbug Tribute. Available at fjordstone.com/bah

22. "Merry Something to You," Devo. Ecumenical good wishes from Mark Mothersbaugh's plastic-hatted crew, on Gift Wrapped II: Snowed In, a grab-bag set from Warner Bros. that includes Neil Young, Tegan and Sara, and Oasis.

23. "Silver Bells," Shelby Lynne. Country torch vocalist does fabulously unsentimental justice to cherished chestnut, beats out the Bing and Ella version on the new Crosby Christmas Sessions.

24. "Mistletoe & Holly," Frank Sinatra. Gordon Jenkins-arranged 1957 Sinatra, from A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra, issued on vinyl for the first time in 40 years and available only at independent record stores. Get it there.

25. "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," Johnny Mercer & the Pied Pipers. Hard-swinging version by the great lyricist and singer, with many an unknown (to me) choice couplet about what might happen if the man with the bag blows his fuse. On the Boris Karloff-featuring The Year Without a Santa Claus.

26. "White Christmas, Part 2," Pink Martini. Portland, Ore., big band goes global on holiday-themed Joy to the World. This gorgeous take on Irving Berlin features Japanese actress Saori Yuki.

27. "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" the Orioles. Back to Starbucks' Jolly Old Soul for the closer. Sonny Til's pioneering R&B vocal group achingly poses the question, hoping for a redemptive midnight kiss.

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com.

Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/inthemix.

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