Q: We need some spice for the holiday soundtrack. Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin just don’t seem to cut it this go-round.
A: Agreed. Arriving at the end of 2021’s gauntlet, the whole blithe, frilly, canned-joy onslaught doesn’t seem like it’ll travel. As an antidote to all holiday chaff—from the crackling loudspeakers in the mall’s windswept parking lot to the grisly soundscape wafting from your TV when you get the stuff home—please consider these suggestions so that at least you’ll have some nourishment to gnaw on, or, alternatively, something to play in the car as you attempt to master that Herculean checklist of meaningless errands in the rain. The working musical theory is to head for the deep water in the great Southern river of sound. For a couple of hundred years, the South has supplied the country with artists who know how to temper the hurt with humor and perhaps even a measure of redemption. Refracted through the prism of this tough year, it seems like we’ll be needing some of that.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”
T Bone Burnett
The Texas-reared Burnett’s stinging guitar and keening vocals on his 1990 cover of the traditional carol speak eloquently to the South’s connection to English folk, and to an age-old story of hope.
“Santa Claus Is Back in Town”
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, authors of “Jailhouse Rock” and “Hound Dog,” wrote this hit in the studio in just eight minutes. When the King shouts, “Santa Claus is comin’ down your chimney tonight,” you know it.
Willie often masks his jazz picking with his long-in-the-saddle baritone and his storytelling. Produced by icon Booker T. Jones, this instrumental exalts the narrative power of Willie’s hands.
When everybody’s happy, Roy’s a-hurtin’. Thus, when everybody’s having Christmas, by definition, Roy is having some other, more difficult, otherworldly kind of time on this Willie Nelson–penned tune.
“Merry Christmas Baby”
Unlike the strings spreading sugar over Bing’s Christmas records, the strings on James Brown Sings Christmas Songs (1966) ramp up the funk. Here, the Godfather of Soul muses on his sweetheart.
“I Won’t Decorate Your Christmas Tree”
When the Coal Miner’s Daughter tackles Christmas, she goes straight for the jugular, a breakup ballad. Ring up Meryl Streep, this track’s a movie in itself.
Salvation eludes most everyone, but as the Alabama-born Odetta Holmes’s clarion, mountainous contralto proves in this 1960 gem, when Odetta sings, you can attain it.
Blind Boys of Alabama & Taj Mahal
On 2014’s raucous Talkin’ Christmas!, lead singer Jimmy Carter gets right up in your face in the title track’s early measures with the admonishment, “You don’t know what Christmas is about!” True.
“Hard Candy Christmas”
Written for the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, “Hard Candy Christmas” refers to not having enough money for presents other than penny candy. Parton deftly prances through, hoping for better.
“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”
Jazz great Batiste can take any piece of music and make it belong to New Orleans, and that extends to Johann Sebastian Bach’s 1723 cantata.