I love Christmas as much as the next Jewish guy, (in fact, most of the most famous Christmas songs were written by Jews, which was duly noted in a memorable essay by Michael Feinstein—himself a Jew, natch—that appeared in the New York Times Op-Ed Section in 2009). But what gets on my nerves is hearing each year’s crop of Christmas releases numbingly rehash the same 50 songs that comprise the bulk of the canon of holiday music, seldom adding anything new. Seriously, does anyone really want to hear Colbie Caillet and Gavin DeGraw sing a duet of Frank Loesser’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (which won the Academy Award for Best Song, 1949), when you could hear it sung by Sammy Davis Jr. and Carmen McRae? I actually really like Gavin DeGraw, he’s an old friend, but I still don’t want to hear him singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Colbie Caillet. In fact, I don’t even like saying “Colbie Caillet,” do you? And does the world really need a Rod Stewart version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas?” (One of five new versions this year, by the way, none of which improve on even the lovely Pretenders version from the 1980s, let alone the Judy Garland original.)
One of the things I enjoy doing at holiday time is finding original songs that get overlooked—the ones written by the intrepid singer/songwriters that buck the Clive Davis school of “just cover the old war horses” philosophy. Occasionally, like with Celine Dion and Andre Bocelli’s “The Prayer” (written by David Foster and Carole Bayer Sager), a new song breaks through. Sometimes it’s associated with a film, like Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas?” written by Will Jennings and James Horner, from the 2000 film How The Grinch Stole Christmas. But mostly new holiday songs are released and forgotten, destined to become musical ghosts of Christmases past.
That is, until now. Stargayzing is here to direct your eyes and ears to the forgotten songs of Christmas with a carefully curated list. As I get older and popular culture grows ever-more cynical and emotionally disconnected, I increasingly appreciate that seasonal music seems to be the last bastion of unfettered sentimentality, where recording artists—otherwise too cool for school—feel comfortable enough to express intense feelings without have to douse their utterances with irony. I despise the ubiquitous reliance on irony to mask authentic feelings because, like a narcotic, it has reduced our girl, Miss Popular Music, to a fraction of her former range: a once-vibrant girl-about-town, now an anesthetized junkie drooling in the corner at closing time. That’s what irony has done to the little lady!
So here my Christmas gift to you, dear friends, because you’ve been so good all year: a carefully curated list of 12 Holiday Songs You’ve (Probably) Never Heard!
Sara Bareilles is best known for big hits like “Love Song” (as in, “I’m not gonna write you a love song”), which was a number-one hit in 2007 and “Brave.” Her breakthrough album Little Voice was certified platinum, which is not so easy to do anymore. Her follow-up album Kaleidoscope Heart also debuted at number-one. She is also the composer/lyricist of the Broadway smash Waitress. She is a great singer, a great writer, a traditionalist who appeals to young people. She is, in other words, the real thing; really everything.
Bareilles is distinctive because she is a piano-based artist and although she is young (born in 1979), she is spiritually connected to Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon—a melodic traditionalist—and that means not only that you will like her too, but also that she will still have a career many Christmases from now.
Let me begin by saying I am a proud and unabashed Fanilow—have been since the first note of the first arpeggio of “Mandy” came on our car radio over WABC Top-40 all the way back in 1974. From a production perspective, “Mandy” truly sounded unlike any ballad up to that point and I was an immediately smitten man—I’d been sm’anilowed! I ran to Harmony Hut at the nearby Brunswick Square Mall and bought the sheet music (which our golden retriever Spanky proceeded to eat, but not finish—I still have it) so I could accompany myself on the spinet. Here’s the thing about Barry: his musical talents, which are prodigious—writer, arranger, producer, player, singer—and his tremendous charisma on stage make him relevant and deserving of recognition and respect. I mean, we’re talking about the man who invented the power ballad, okay? All those hair band ballads that you loved in the 1980s, all those Diane Warren ballads of the 1990s, all tip their hat to Barry at the exact moment they come out of the bridge and modulate up a half step. Try this if your grumpy: listen to “New York City Rhythm” or “Daybreak” and tell me you don’t feel an organic dopamine spike.
Even folks who don’t care for Manilow might be surprised by his 1990 Christmas album, Because It’s Christmas, wherein with apparent ease he took familiar standards and infused them with vitality—a testament to his musical instincts. The album also includes one of the greatest songs he’s ever written, “When The Meadow Was Bloomin’,” which was part of a cache of unpublished lyrics (or trunk songs) written by the legendary Johnny Mercer, one of the greatest lyricists of the 20th-century, and given to Manilow to set to music by Mercer’s widow. The resulting songs from Mercer’s posthumous collaboration with Manilow, “When The Meadow Was Bloomin'” and “When October Goes,” have an almost eerie quality, so fully do they resonate as musical artifacts from an earlier, better era of songwriting. Manilow’s music is nothing short of brilliant here—on par with the great melody writers of the pre-rock era—and the resulting recording, which he combines in a medley with “The First Noel,” sounds at once like a Tony Bennett recording from the early 1960s and yet timeless. I love the great songs Barry’s written over the years, but I’m quite taken with the fantasy of what he would had created had he been around during the golden age of Tin Pan Alley and have regularly collaborated with lyricists of Johnny Mercer’s peerless skill. As it is, we’ll have to content ourselves by taking a trip back in time with “When the Meadow Was Bloomin’.” It’s that good.
Kenny Loggins is certainly one of the most underrated singer/songwriters of the rock era. Though he enjoyed massive success in the 1980s with movie themes (“Danger Zone” from Top Gun, “I’m Alright” from Caddyshack, and “Footloose”), he is better remembered today as one half of Loggins and Messina, (“Your Mama Don’t Dance,” “Angry Eyes”) and for his late-1970s solo hits like “This Is It,” “Celebrate Me Home,” “What A Fool Believes” (written with Michael McDonald) and, of course, his it’s-so-amazing-I’m-still-wrapping-my-head-around-it duet with Stevie Nicks, “Whenever I Call You ‘Friend'” (co-written with Melissa Manchester—bet you didn’t know that.) How big was Loggins in the 1980s? So big that Quincy Jones gave him his own line to sing in “We Are The World” (“We are the one’s to make a brighter day, so let’s start giving,” in case you forgot—and he put more musicality into that one line than many of today’s singers put in to an entire album).
In the early-1990s Loggins wrote what I think is one of the great unappreciated Christmas songs, “On Christmas Morning,” with the great writer/producer/arranger David Foster (Celine Dion, Michael Buble and on and on.) Their collaboration was also recorded by Loggins’ close friend and sometimes writing partner Michael McDonald, but I found this memorable live version which, I think, really conveys what a wonderfully passionate, emotive singer Loggins is.
In 1982 Dolly Parton starred with Burt Reynolds in the film adaption of the hit Broadway show The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I suppose it seemed like a good idea at the time, but the film was a stinker. What definitely didn’t stink was Parton’s performance of the film’s standout ballad, “Hard Candy Christmas,” which was a top-ten country hit that year and received tons of country airplay throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
While Broadway purists probably prefer the Original Cast Album of the show, I’m a big Parton fan and I think her version of the song is quite moving. I had forgotten till today that I was introduced to the song by a very old friend, Susan Derwin, who played it for me on a cassette tape at Timber Lake Camp in the summer of 1979 where, among other things, Susan and I co-starred in a production of West Side Story (she played Anybody and I was Baby John—unless it was the other way around). When I was listening to the song on my iPod on the subway today preparing to write this piece, I suddenly flashed on Susan’s face—it was a very powerful association but I didn’t know why. I emailed her and asked her why I thought about her when I heard “Hard Candy Christmas” and if she had some special connection to the song. She told me that it was entirely possible that she told me about the song because she knew it at that time—drawn as she was to its concept of self-transformation.
It’s important to have old friends—they help us organize our memories and remind us how we became who we are.
Detroit native Stevens is well-known to hipsters far and wide and little known beyond that demographic; a typical situation given that the cultural mainstream has been exploded into 100 million megabytes. I have to admit, I find him polarizing myself, but interesting. Even if you’re a big fan of the quirky singer/songwriter, you’re likely to miss this song because his new holiday collection, Silver & Gold, has 58 songs on it! It is actually part two of his Songs for Christmas opus which was released in 2005 and had 42 songs on it! Welcome to the new business model where an artist can defy logic and release a 58-song album because it is inexpensive to record and, “dammit, I’ve got a lot of music in me and I don’t have to be dictated to by a record company!”
By the way Sufjan, Toni Tennille just called and she’d like her font back. I wonder if he stole the Captain & Tennille’s font on purpose, or if it was unconscious, like when George Harrison told a court that it was a coincidence his “My Sweet Lord” was exactly the same song as “He’s So Fine.”
Though neither Barbra Streisand nor the song’s composer, the venerated Stephen Sondheim, need an endorsement from me, I think few people outside of Streisand’s fervent fan base or die-hard Sondheimites would be aware of this recording. For one thing, “I Remember” was part of Streisand’s second Christmas CD, Christmas Memories, which was released in 2001 (the liner notes make a point of indicating the singer finished recording on September 7, 2001) and like most holiday releases that year, was lost in the shadow of our collective PTSD. The album—which is quite lovely and appropriately somber—intuitively seemed to capture the feeling of melancholy that hung over most of the world that Christmas. Truth be told, feelings of loss and foreboding are a very real and regular part of the holiday experience for so many people. Though its a time of year many would like to forget, the exquisite “I Remember” is well worth remembering.
The song was originally part of a score to Evening Primrose, a 1966 musical produced for TV that told the story of a poet who seeks escape in a department store after hours. “I Remember” is one of Sondheim’s most satisfying and deeply felt songs; emotionally immediate and full of the inventive wordplay that informs everything he writes:
And ice, like vinyl, on the streets
Cold as silver,
White as sheets,
Rain like strings and
For Christmas Memories, Sondheim wrote a new verse for “I Remember”—not originally a holiday song—with Christmas lyrics, and Streisand responds to the re-imagined piece by delivering one of her finest-ever performances. In “I Remember” she finds a lyric so full of rich imagery and so infused with emotion that her resulting performance is almost cinematic in its wistful expression of loss and longing; her languid phrasing shaping Sondheims’s words with a skill that is really quite astonishing. For me, “I Remember” is, perhaps, the mature Streisand’s finest acting moment and, sadly, probably the last time I felt a vocal performance to wholly satisfy and thrilling in that unique Streisand way.
I recommend listening to the song with closed eyes and an open heart. The beautiful arrangement, by the way, is by industry veteran and long-time Streisand collaborator Bill Ross.
Luther Vandross was the Mel Torme of R&B. His was an exquisite voice of silken velvet, with incredibly rich tone and elegant, conversational phrasing that communicated tremendous warmth and emotion. His style was smooth and laid back—always a paragon of vocal restraint and poise—he simply never oversang. His excellence is thrown into even sharper relief by the artistic void left by his tragic passing in 2005. He was only 54. When I hear one of his classic recordings today, I am frequently moved to tears because of his almost unbearable sensitivity and the tragic circumstances of his untimely early death. I feel grateful that he left such an impressive body of work that hopefully, young people will continue to discover and enjoy for perpetuity.
Vandross’ Christmas album was originally released in 1995 and subsequently repackaged two more times by Sony. The song I knew best was “Every Year, Every Christmas,” which got significant airplay at the time and has been subsequently covered by Luther’s close friend Patti LaBelle (as a teenager Luther started a Patti Labelle fan club). I heard “Please Come Home For Christmas” as if for the first time a few weeks back and its impact was immediate and visceral, capturing as it does the very essence of what made Luther Vandross the preeminent R&B crooner of his era, and one of the all-time great vocal stylists. Listen for the teardrop in the joy as he caresses each phrase.
Ah…Cyndi Lauper…where shall I begin? I have been completely smitten since the first iconic chord of the introduction to Girls Just Want To Have Fun wafted through the ether in late September 1983. Lauper’s impact at that moment in pop culture—greatly abetted by the incendiary power of early MTV and a truly auspicious debut album, She’s So Unusual—was more like an explosion than a debut: literally within weeks Lauper went from being a virtual unknown outside of the New York club scene to huge international pop star. “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” captured the zeitgeist of the moment and Cyndi star streaked across the sky in rainbow colors with a string of huge hits and personality as large and powerful as her extraordinary (and now legendary) set of pipes. Not only was Lauper an exceptionally gifted singer and exciting stage presence, but she was and remains that rarest of things: a complete original.
If you were a young person at the time of Lauper’s spectacular arrival, you would surely have been aware of the Madonna/Cyndi Thing, a Clash of the Titans-style media-fueled debate that pitted Lauper against Madonna in a sort of celebrity death match. “Who was more talented?” “Whose career would last?” It was like a new wave version of the 1960s Stones vs. the Beatles war, but for the under-40 homosexual set. You see, these two “dueling divas” reached critical mass literally within weeks of each other—Lauper with the aforementioned “Girls” and Madonna with “Holiday.” The debate was, of course, quite silly, they were both forces to be reckoned with, but this squaring-off-behind-your-diva-of-choice malarkey was hotly discussed with devastating seriousness up and down 8th street for years. Seriously!
For me, I loved them both, but differently. I appreciated Madonna’s music and appreciated her visually and as a pop culture force of nature, but my passion and respect for Cyndi’s raw talent was more visceral. At the end of the day, I will always pick the performer who can sit at the foot of the stage and break your heart with nothing but her voice and a song, an altogether rarer and more precious gift, in my estimation. Though by the 90’s Madonna was probably the biggest pop star on the planet and might have seemed to momentarily eclipse Cyndi, they have both have endured and the subject is still open for debate and probably a hot topic in certain circles. (“I’ll give you a subject, Madonna vs. Cyndi. Discuss!“)
“Nowadays, Madonna in concert is like watching a dancing mid-life crisis”
If you asked me who I’d rather be at this juncture, 29 Septembers since they first fought it out for Top-10 predominance, the answer would still be Cyndi Lauper and here’s why: Madonna, who long ago lost touch with the street she depended on for musical inspiration and conceptual ideas, is playing a game of diminishing returns. How long can she sustain the brutal physical endurance test of her triathlon-level stage shows? At this point I watch Madonna and am completely distracted by a palpable feeling of anxiety: “Christ, she’s gonna fall!” “Oh my God he’s gonna drop her!” “Did she just lip-synch the chorus?” Nowadays, Madonna in concert is like watching a dancing mid-life crisis. Madonna’s whole act has been subsumed by the “how long can she cheat time and keep this up?” question, which is more of a science experiment than a musical experience.
On the other hand, Cyndi Lauper, the rock ‘n roll, neon Piaf, will continue standing in the spotlight with her dulcimer and tugging at our hearts for perpetuity. In the end, they’ll wheel her out like Ella Fitzgerald or Peggy Lee in their dotage and when she sings “True Colors” or “Time After Time,” we will still shed a tear at the exact moment the singer wants us to, for as long as she is breathing, Cyndi Lauper will retain her magical power to touch our hearts with a sorcerer’s skill when she opens her mouth and we hear that sound. And isn’t that an altogether more impressive trick than standing your her head in bondage gear? Perhaps for pop culture enthusiasts like myself, the “silly” Madonna/Cyndi Thing rages on!
Here is Cyndi’s studio version of “Home on Christmas Day,” which was written with frequent collaborators Rob Hyman (of the Hooters) and William Wittman.
When my friend Patrick Pocklington invited me to see his artist Jason Mraz at Jones Beach in September, I was excited because I just fell in love with Jason the first time I saw him live many years ago. Of course, Jason was wonderful—he always is—but the surprise of the evening turned out to be his opening act Christina Perri.
Perri broke through when her song “Jar of Hearts” was featured on an episode of So You Think You Can Dance in 2010 and subsequently charted. Seeing as I never watch TV and don’t listen to commercial radio, I had never heard the song. At Jones Beach I was impressed with her poise and ineffable loveliness onstage and a completely appealing short set of songs from her debut album Lovestrong.
Naturally I was also drawn to the irresistibly cheery/cheesy title of her just-released Christmas EP: A Very Merry Perri Christmas, and its standout track “Something About December” which blew me away—easily the best new original holiday song of the year. Here is the studio version plus the official video, which will convey a more complete sense of why I am smitten! Enjoy!
I am completely remiss that a full year as gone by since Stargayzing’s inception and nary a mention of the Divine Miss M—the legendary Bette Midler—only one of the greatest performers ever. I can offer no particular reason for my sin of omission, except to say she was on my short list of people I wanted to write a major piece about and I had been waiting till I could craft something worthy of her importance.
As an act of contrition I am offering her recording of “Merry Christmas” from her superb 2006 holiday recording Cool Yule. The primary reason this album is so good is that it reunited Bette with her first music director and accompanist, Mr. Manilow. Leave it to Bette and Barry Manilow to unearth one of the hidden gems in the MGM vaults. “Merry Christmas” was written specifically for Judy Garland’s penultimate MGM film, 1949’s In The Good Old Summertime. (Serious pink wedge trivia alert: In The Good Old Summertime was a musical remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s brilliant 1940 film The Shop Around The Corner, which starred Jimmy Stewart, which was based on a play called Parfumerie written by Micklos Laszlo. The same story was remade by Nora Ephron in 1998 as You’ve Got Mail. Parfumerie was also the basis of the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick musical She Loves Me. Got that?)
If the world were fair and just, “Merry Christmas” (so memorably performed in the film by Judy Garland), would have joined the singer’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” introduced a few years before in Meet Me in St. Louis, as a holiday standard. The song’s music was written by Fred Spielman (who may or may not be related to my dentist of 25 years, Howard Spielman), with lyrics by Janice Torre. The pair also wrote Paper Roses, which is not nearly as a good a song as “Merry Christmas,” which didn’t stop it from being a Top-10 hit twice, first for infamous homophobe Anita Bryant in 1960, and then again for an adolescent Marie Osmond in 1973.
Bette’s Cool Yule, which was nominated for a Grammy,is a first-tier holiday album and well-worth adding to your collection. Here is the studio version of the song plus a lovely live version from the Martha Stewart show.
Readers of Stargayzing know how much I adored Donna Summer, so it will come as no surprise that I’m including her on my musical Christmas list. I was also thrilled to see that the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame is finally showing Donna some love, though it’s still hard to wrap my head around the reality that she isn’t with us to accept the honor.
I feel Donna’s spirit strongly at holiday time owing to her sublime Christmas Spirit holiday collection. Released in 1994, the album is a joyful combination of new and old, secular and non-secular, it contains three original songs—all quite wonderful. Of course, her singing is a revelation on this album. I almost went with the more soulful mid-tempo ballad “Christmas Spirit,” but decided instead to share the uptempo and uplifting “Christmas is Here,” because most of my choices have been ballads and I thought a touch of old-fashioned whimsy Donna Summer-style might be in order given the grim events of the last week. “Christmas is Here” is a glorious, celebratory treat: how can anyone resist a song that changes tempo as much as this one does?
The song was co-written by Donna, husband Bruce Sudano, and the album’s producer, frequent collaborator Michael Omartian (“She Works Hard For The Money”). Donna was not only one of the great all-time singers, but also a first-class songwriter—she co-wrote almost all her classic hits—and the delightful “Christmas is Here” is as good an example as any of her writing prowess.
Released in Christmas 2011, I like to think of “Christmas Melody,” recorded by American Idol alum Syesha Mercado, as a lovely parting gift to my ex-boss Denise Rich, who wrote the song with Jodi Marr and the legendary Neil Sedaka in the mid-aughts. I feel very personally connected to the song because I had wanted Denise to write a song in the spirit of The Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas, Darling” because I felt it would be very marketable. When I heard Neil’s melody I immediately knew this song had the potential to be great and capture the essence of the sincere, poignant tone of the earlier song.
Together the ladies wrote a truly phenomenal lyric. I ended up leaving the company before I had a proper chance to get the song recorded, which always made me wistful and feeling like I’d abandoned a child, but the song stayed with me.
Flash forward five or six years. My friend Craig Muench called me up and asked me if I had a Christmas song I could recommend to his client, American Idol finalist Syesha Mercado. Of course I did! I arranged the recording session at my erstwhile bosses’ recording studio in the sky high above Central Park and Syesha nailed it in just a few hours. I was very happy with the finished record, and very happy that I could feel that I had finally made good on my commitment to the writers and the song itself.
Here is Syesha Mercado’s recording of “Christmas Melody.” Do you think we captured the sincerity of the old Carpenter’s ballad?