As The Beach Boys once reminded us, "Christmas comes this time each year," and so does the annual Think Too Much Holiday Music Hall of Fame, which seeks to identify those recordings of holiday songs that are so definitive, it should be illegal for any other artist to record them ever again. (Live performances would be allowed, assuming that artists earmarked a portion of ticket sales to construction of the physical hall of fame. A bill mandating this was on the verge of passing Congress, but it got so contentious that the government was forced to shut down. Maybe next year.)
Maybe it's a measure of these times that this was a year in which holiday songs generated national controversy. Long-simmering concerns over the lyrics of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" exploded, with august publications such as The New York Times weighing in. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was briefly in the news for its depiction of bullying.
So it makes sense that our contentious times nationally would be reflected in some of your suggestions for inclusions in the hall. For example, a number of readers suggested that "Holly Jolly Christmas" by Burl Ives would be a worthy inductee, but I have another reader weighing in with a threat that he'll cancel his 40-year subscription if we pick that song. I'm not going to take that chance.
Another reader wants to add another category, Christmas carols, to the hall, and that's a worthy suggestion, although it will be harder to find definitive recordings of those (although Beyonce once added a few additional words for "Silent Night" and took a co-writing credit).
So the landscape for this year's hall of fame induction ceremony is fraught with potential pitfalls. But as we sorted through your nominations and our own favorite holiday tunes, a couple of songs floated to the top.
This year's first inductee, "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," has been a classic since its debut in 1966, perhaps because on some level, it captures our love-hate relationship with the holidays — who hasn't felt like a Grinch in a particularly hectic holiday moment?
Also, the song, with lyrics by Dr. Seuss and music by Albert Hague, is just a pure jolt of fun, and you have to admire the way that Dr. Seuss, when pressed for a rhyme, simply makes up a word ("wasty?" "naus?"). However, I am not sure what precisely would be wrong with having "garlic in your soul."
Nothing against the new version by Tyler the Creator, but the definitive version remains Thurl Ravenscroft's performance in the 1966 "Grinch" TV special. (Ravenscroft, a distinguished voice actor and singer, also provided the voice of Tony the Tiger in the Kellogg's commercials. His performance of "Grinch" is just g-r-r-r-eat!)
This year's second inductee also comes from a children's TV special from the 1960s. (Coincidence? Discuss among yourselves.)
Producer Lee Mendelsohn was searching for music for a planned TV documentary about the comic strip "Peanuts" when he happened to hear "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" by the Vince Guaraldi Trio playing in a cab. Mendelsohn contacted jazz writer Ralph Gleason, who put him in touch with the pianist. Mendelsohn suggested that Guaraldi write the music for the forthcoming "Peanuts" TV special; Guaraldi happily agreed and one of the results was "Christmas Time is Here." (Mendelsohn wrote the lyrics.)
The version featured on the 1965 TV show featured a choir from the St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California, but the version we're inducting today is the six-minute instrumental, with Guaraldi on piano, drummer Jerry Granelli and bassist Fred Marshall. You already know the words, and here's a case where the music says it all — the anticipation, the quiet joy and the occasional melancholy of the holidays. (If you insist on vocals, though, check out the Diana Krall cover.)
So there you have this year's inductees. Thanks to everyone who nominated a song; we'll try this again next year. In the meantime, if your Christmas feast includes a three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce, go easy on the sauce. (mm)
Readers nominated a variety of songs, including some that previously were enshrined in the hall, which is fine — it's another piece of evidence showing how much these songs mean to people. Tunes that got serious consideration this year include Stevie Wonder's "What Christmas Means to Me," The Carpenters' "Merry Christmas Darling," The Kingston Trio's "Guardo el Lobo," Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad," Frank Sinatra's "The Christmas Waltz," Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock," Wham's "Last Christmas," the Andy Williams version of "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," and, yes, the Gene Autry version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," although that version must compete with the Bruce Springsteen cover. The great thing about the hall is that songs that don't make the cut in one particular year always stay in the running for possible induction in the future.
This year, I pondered again whether the Diana Krall version of "Jingle Bells" off her excellent "Christmas Songs" album could be the definitive version of the song. Here's what I like about Krall's cover: Where typically her instinct when tackling a cover is to slow it down, she's in an upbeat, fun mood here, including the rarely heard fourth verse of the song, then scats and rips into a solo that reminds you of what an excellent pianist she is. (The accompaniment by the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra is a huge boost.) Krall even closes off the tune with a confession: "I'm just crazy about horses," a fun way to end a song that is, after all, about some dolts who manage to wreck their sleigh during a race. If you don't know Krall's version, do yourself a favor and track down the video.
Similarly, I'm still kicking around the question of whether Fantasia's cover of Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" could be definitive. (The track can be found on her excellent "Christmas After Midnight" album from last year.) I've always loved Hathaway's song, but his version is hindered by an arrangement that clunks when it should be soaring. Fantasia's version irons out those wrinkles and adds a tasty guitar solo for good measure. But maybe it's a little too slick.
I suspect John Legend's "A Legendary Christmas" will emerge as the year's best-selling holiday album, ending the Pentatonix reign of terror. As you would expect, Legend's album is tasteful, almost to a fault. To his credit, he's tracked down a rarely heard Marvin Gaye song, "Purple Snowflakes," and teams up with the pride of Portland, Esperanza Spaulding, on a solid cover of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." But his big-band version of "Christmas Time is Here" loses the melancholy in the song, which is to say that it's missing part of the point.
New Christmas songs I enjoyed this year include a new (and slower) take on "All I Want for Christmas is You" by Ingrid Michaelson and Leslie Odom Jr. and a pair of tracks by those renegades The Mavericks: "Christmas Time (is Coming 'Round Again)," and "Santa Wants to Take You for a Ride," possibly the filthiest holiday song since "Back Door Santa." Speaking of renegades, "Christmas Everywhere," the new album by the excellent Rodney Crowell is a collection of brand-new songs and starts with the sprightly (and funny) track "Let's Skip Christmas This Year."
But my favorite Christmas album this year, hands down, is the new effort by Oklahoma retro rocker JD McPherson, "Socks" — all-original tracks that sound as if they could have been hits 50 years ago. If you can resist tracks like "Hey Skinny Santa!" or "All the Gifts I Need," well, maybe you don't like rock 'n' roll — or maybe your heart is full of unwashed socks.