Christmas music doesn't have to jingle with the same old silver-bell ho-ho-hum. Nothing against Nat King Cole - and by the way, if you're seeking a tried, true, and altogether classy holiday option, his The Christmas Song collection has just been reissued for the umpteenth time.
What follows is a CD-length holiday playlist that often diverges from the well-worn path. From SpongeBob Square- Pants to Sting, however, they're all in tune with the season, even if the singing sea creature cheerily advises us, "Don't Be a Jerk (It's Christmas)," while the Police man spends most of his If on a Winter's Night. . . album indulging his crusty, cranky side.
All 26 tracks on this year's list were released - or in a few cases, reissued - in 2009. Not all the big-name holiday discs are represented. The Andrea Bocelli, Tori Amos, and David Archuleta albums do not appear - but most do, from Neil Diamond to Bob Dylan to Sugarland.
My apologies to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) for not including the Mormon lawmaker's festive "Eight Days of Hanukkah," downloadable for free on the Tablet Magazine Web site. If it had made the cut, I would have had to play it repeatedly, and "Eight Days" is a gift that ceases giving after the first listen.
There's a streaming version of this playlist up at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/inthemix.
1. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," by The Jackson 5. The 12-year-old Michael, in the big-Afro'd, innocent days of 1970. Included on both Jackson 5: Ultimate Christmas Collection and the excellent double disc The Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection.
2. "We Three Kings," by Los Straitjackets. Twangy, surf-rock rave-up from this Mexican-wrestling-mask-wearing Nashville outfit's winning Yuletide Beat (Yep Roc).
3. "Must Be Santa," by Bob Dylan. On the whole, the Bard's charity fund-raiser Christmas in the Heart is a deeply confusing mind-blower. Can he possibly be serious, craggily crooning "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"? Don't put it past him. There's no confusion about this kicky polka, however. It's a gas.
4. "Don't Be a Jerk (It's Christmas)," by SpongeBob SquarePants. Do unto others message - "Don't put people down, or leave the toilet seat up" - from animated yellow rectangle, suitable for all ages.
5. "It Doesn't Often Snow at Christmas," by Pet Shop Boys. Especially not in Merry Old England. "Bing Crosby, are you listening to me?" Neil Tennant asks in this 1997 fan-club offering finally loosed on the world at large. The Boys' Christmas EP (101 Distribution) is mislabeled, as this is the only holiday cut, but it's a disco-ready winner.
6. "Last Christmas," by Cocktail Slippers. Garage-rock take on 1984 Wham! hit by Norwegian femme rockers, on Little Steven's Wicked Cool label.
7. "I Wish It Was Christmas Today," by Julian Casablancas. Strokes leader spices his solo album Phrazes for the Young (RCA) with cover of a tune first sung by Horatio Sanz on Saturday Night Live.
8. "Christmas Songs," by Foxes! Sweet and melancholy minimalism from this Brighton, England, quartet expresses empathy with those "not in love with the Christmas songs that you're just too sad to sing."
9. "The Blizzard," by Camera Obscura. Scottish indie-pop band led by Tracyanne Campbell gets toes froze on a cover of countrypolitan crooner Jim Reeves' 1964 hit.
10. "Deck the Halls," by R.E.M. A brief instrumental ultra-rarity previously released on a promo-only 1998 disc sees the light of day on Warner Bros. iTunes-only release, Gift Wrapped: 20 Songs That Keep on Giving.
11. "If We Make It Though December," by Holly Cole. Canadian jazz singer's nuanced take on Merle Haggard's fingers-crossed prayer, from Cole's smartly suave Baby, It's Cold Outside (Alert).
12. "Jingle Bells," by Carla Bley. Fabulous Christmas carol rethinking by 73-year-old jazz organist and pianist, with the aid of Steve Swallow and the Partyka Brass Quintet, from the highly recommended Carla's Christmas Carols (ECM).
13. "O Holy Night," by Musiq Soulchild. Clever and deeply felt multi-vocal-tracked reggae spin on Christmas hymn, from this Philadelphia soul singer's digital-only EP, Christmas Musiq (Atlantic).
14. "Cherry Tree Carol," by Sting. Hauntingly beautiful trad tale of Joseph and Mary, with Sting accompanying himself on guitar, from somber solstice session If on a Winter's Night ... (Deutsche Grammophon).
15. "The Chanukah Song," by Neil Diamond. "Some people think that Ebenezer Scrooge is / Well he's not, but guess who is? All Three Stooges." On the one non-Xmas cut on Cherry Cherry Christmas (Columbia), Neil Diamond rocks out with an Adam Sandler cover.
16. "It's Christmas Once Again," by Ronnie Spector. Former Ronette reminisces about going to see Santa at Macy's as a girl, with a Frankie Lymon cover.
17. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," by Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana. Miley/Hannah does Brenda Lee, in the plucky teen-rock tradition, from the totally tween-targeted Special Olympics fund-raiser A Very Special Christmas 7 (SO III), with Ashley Tisdale, Carrie Underwood, and Sean Kingston.
18. "Nuttin' for Christmas," by Sugarland. Nashville duo countrify this '50s novelty hit, from the pleasantly unpredictable holiday album Gold and Green (UMG Nashville).
19. "Maui Christmas," by Jerry Douglas. Hawaiian-flavored instrumental by this Dobro master, from his tasty Jerry Christmas (Koch), which sounds like Christmas dinner music to me.
20. "Winter Wonderland," by Randy Travis. Sterling country vocalist wraps his baritone around a snowy steel-guitar swingin' stroll.
21. "Santa Claus Is Back in Town," by Dwight Yoakam. Travis' fellow former neo-traditionalist pulls his cowboy hat down over his eyes and does his best Elvis.
22. "Believe in Me," by fun. Crafty, buoyant pop from lower-cased New York indie band led by former Format singer Nate Reuss.
23. "Boogaloo Santa Claus," by J.D. McDonald. James Brown sound-alike makes it funky on vintage '60s soul cut found on the compilation In the Christmas Groove on Strut Records.
24. "Silent Night," by Bifrost Arts. Spooky, shoe-gazey slow dance "Silent Night," featuring blue-eyed soul woman Diane Birch, on the Bifrost Arts collective's Salvation Is Created, on the Danielson Famile's Clarksboro, N.J.-based Great Comfort label.
25. "My Dear Acquaintance," by Regina Spektor. iTunes live session toast to a happy 2010 by piano-playing quirkstress. Also on Gift Wrapped (see number 10, above).
26. "Auld Lang Syne," by Eban Schletter. Film and TV composer raises a New Year's champagne flute with one hand, plays the theremin with the other, from Eban Schletter's Cosmic Christmas (Oglio).