Seasonal Roots: Christmas Music without Pain

Reviews by Douglas Heselgrave

Christmas is of course the time of year when we can dip into and wallow in our favourite guilty pleasures – you know, those ones that good taste and prudent medical advice usually caution us against indulging in. From that full fat egg nog with enough lipids to finally cause my ticker to give up the farm, to my mom’s baking with all of those weird little carcinogenic dyed fruits tucked inside, the Christmas season is a veritable minefield of weirdness that we pay for later. In the same way that I allow all these little indulgences in and let out my belt a few notches to accommodate them, the sounds I allow into my ears during the holiday season would shock most of my uptight uber tasteful friends. So, with that in mind, here’s a set of holiday classics and soon to be classics that might not stretch you too far outside of your comfort zone.

Writing this is a kind of deliverance. I used to always say that my holiday tastes ran to nothing more commercial than Mahalia Jackson (who has lots of great Christmas albums you really should hear) but sticking to those particular guns is kind of like drinking single malt in the morning; it can be too much too soon and you might need to work up to her.

If you read Nodepression regularly, chances are you’ve heard John Prine’s wonderful Christmas record which has the best version of ‘I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus’ I’ve ever heard on it, and you’re probably still baffled by Bob Dylan’s deeply weird Christmas in the Heart CD that came out last year, so I won’t mention either of them here. Fans of those artists will probably find lots to enjoy in Bruce Cockburn’s 1993 holiday album – simply entitled Christmas. In typical form, Cockburn offers up an eclectic set of songs that runs from familiar favourites such as ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ and ‘It came upon a Midnight Clear’ to more obscure tracks like the ancient Canadian traditional ‘Huron Carol’ As ever, Cockburn’s guitar work and arrangements are peerless throughout. Not meant to be listened to in the background, ‘Christmas’ proves that holiday albums don’t need to entertain at the expense of musical interest and integrity.

Going a little further afield and out towards the fringes of roots music, now that I have kids myself, I find myself listening to old favourites from my own childhood. Of these, Stevie Wonder’s Someday at Christmas still sounds as good as it did when I was ten. On it, a very young Stevie sings his heart out and plays some of the funkiest grooves ever recorded for a Christmas album. The title track, Silver Bells, Ave Maria and Bedtime for Toys are getting heavy rotation at our house this year. Fans of Stevie Wonder might also enjoy other great Motown Christmas albums such as The Ultimate Motown Christmas which is a great sampler featuring the classic sixties sounds of The Temptations, The Supremes and Smokey Robinson.

My kids’ all time favourites are ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ and ‘The Best of Christmas’ both by Burl Ives. And, while it’s true that Burl may have sold Woody Guthrie out during the McArthy era, listening to Ives’ warm voice and heartfelt versions of songs like ‘Silver and Gold’ and ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ is almost enough for me to forgive him.

And, if nothing I’ve mentioned so far grabs you, here’s a few new ones worth hearing -

Ox – Silent Night and Other Cowboy Songs

Ox is of course Mark Browning and a few musical friends who – in various incarnations - have been dominating the College charts in Canada over the last few years. ‘Silent Night and other Cowboy Songs’ is perhaps the least ambitious Christmas album I’ve ever heard, but that is part of its considerable charm. Sounding like it was recorded around the hearth at 4 am after drunkenness has given way to sentimentality, Browning and company mix it up in three chord style by offering sloppily heartfelt versions of ‘Arthur McBride’ and ‘Christmas at the Jailhouse’ alongside rootsy versions of ‘Silent Night’, ‘It came upon a Midnight Clear’ and many others. This record sounds just like you’d sing ‘em yourself. Pleasant, enjoyable and delightfully free of fuss and distraction, you’ll probably like this one more than you should.

Dan Hicks – Crazy for Christmas

Like Bruce Cockburn, Dan Hicks doesn’t curb his eccentric musical heart on this one, and if you’re a discerning music fan, this one might just be the one that you can enjoy with our family. Full of swinging versions of old classics, after nearly forty years in the biz, Hicks is just as eclectic as ever. Like most of the albums I’ve mentioned, ‘Crazy for Christmas’ features a mixture of traditionals like ‘Run Run Rudolph’ (I know it’s not as old as ‘away in a manger’ but it’s more than 50 years old, so at least it’s traditional for the post rock generation c’mon) as well as a handful of originals that should become classics. This record is lots of fun, not too obscure for the kids and every track sounds great. My faves are ‘I’ve got Christmas by the Tail’ and ‘Under the Mistletoe’

So, of course this list is by no means exhaustive, and might not be of any use at all. I’m waiting for the next great Christmas album. Any suggestions?

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Tags: bobdylan, brucecockburn, burlives, danhicks, dougheselgrave, johnprine, ox, steviewonder

Comment by RP N10 on December 14, 2010 at 3:32pm

I'm not a big fan of Xmas records but Gretchen Peters'  Northern Lights record is a good one. It's not free though which thus one is:

The follow up to last year's HoHoHo Canada and appropriately for "Deux" it's a double.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.