10 Cool Christmas Songs With More Heat Than A Yule Log!
Tired of humdrum Christmas music? No need to humbug the whole genre. Here are 10 Christmas tunes from the obscure to the enduring that will warm up holiday celebrations:
• “Django Bells,” the Gypsy Hombres: This Nashville combo re-imagines the universe according to Django Reinhardt, so their 2002 holiday album puts a Gypsy jazz whammy on chestnuts like “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” But the angel atop the apex of this disc is the title track, which turns “Jingle Bells” into an elegant, swinging sonic sleigh ride.
• “Joy To The World,” John Fahey: Yes, the legendary open-tuned acoustic guitar master did record an album of Christmas music, originally released on the Fantasy label in 1968. The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album has been reissued and features, among other things, an elegant and stately version of this classic. Fahey’s ringing notes chime like tolling holiday bells to make for a lovely rendition.
• “Christmas Time Is Here,” Steve Vai: Jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, the composer of all the lovely melodies from the classic Charlie Brown cartoons made for television, outdid himself with his theme for A Charlie Brown Christmas. Predictably, Vai takes plenty of liberties with the signature melody, pushing the tune to arching near-metal crescendos, but ultimately respects Guaraldi’s composition by using the theme as a head to book end his improvisations. Find the download or dig up the 1997 compilation Merry Axemas — A Guitar Christmas.
• “Christmas Tears,” Freddie King: This 1961 single is an obscurity from the great bluesman and Gibson ES-345 and ES-355 legend’s catalog, but it’s as tersely played and angelically sung as the rest of King’s compelling work, which earned him his place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. Here’s the upshot: Freddie wants his baby back, and until she returns, he’ll be crying Christmas tears. That, at least, beats another popular blues Christmas theme — spending the holiday in jail.
• “The Little Drummer Boy,” Jimi Hendrix: This one-and-only Hendrix holiday single has been reissued a number of times, and his blend of feedback and melody never gets dull. In fact, his use of the whammy bar remains stunning. Hendrix employs the tremolo arm to produce the notes in the tune’s melody before veering off toward the “Third Stone From the Sun.”
• “White Christmas,” Joe Pass: One of the all-time great guitar Christmas albums is Pass’ Six-String Santa. The jazz king of the Gibson ES-175 was a brilliant, gentle player whose sophisticated and understated melodies had the power to wrap around the heart, and whose brilliance as a chord soloist is arguably unmatched. Then there’s his warm, definitive big box tone! Pass’ shimmering performance of “White Christmas” is second only to Bing Crosby’s definitive recording.
• “Amazing Grace,” Jeff Beck: Another entry from Merry Axemas, Beck’s version of this historic spiritual is a magnificent example of both his slide guitar and whammy bar work, with a rich, deep tone that brings out every bit of the song’s emotional foundation. It’s for those quiet holiday moments when reflecting on the previous year and one’s blessings.
• “Blue Christmas,” Joe Perry: One more trip to Merry Axemas. Heck, just put the album on your Christmas list! Gibson Les Paul Standard heavyweight Perry takes on the holiday classic with his sweet, grinding slide guitar, tilting his hat to old school blues for the first half, than kicking into a coda that’s pure rock ‘n’ roll. It’ll keep all y’all boogalooin’ around the tree.
• “Run Run Rudolph,” Chuck Berry: The great rock granddaddy’s tribute to the “mastermind” of Santa’s reindeer team remains a joy with its galloping flat-four rhythm and quintessential Berry chunky rhythm, pinched and bent solo and dexterous wordplay. Only a Grinch could dislike this number!
• “Merry Christmas Baby,” Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers: Along with his brother Oscar, Johnny Moore was a influence on a host of important blues and R&B artists like T-Bone Walker, Ray Charles and Lowell Fulson, thanks to his elegant, gently swinging string approach. He was also a superb melodist, as his solo in the original recording of this Christmas classic displays. The vocalist for this single was yet another influential blues and R&B singer, the pianist Charles Brown, who also had a profound influence on Ray Charles’ earliest recordings.