opbmusic DJ JT Griffith curates Christmas music each year for opbmusic, KMHD and the Oregon Zoo’s Zoolights. This year, he shares an exclusive Spotify playlist with something for everyone.
Friends often ask me to recommend the best Christmas records. There definitely are some every year that I consider essential like this year’s Kacey Musgraves and last year’s Sharon Jones releases. But my favorite way to consume Christmas music is by sharing personal mixes. Here is a mix of 25 Christmas songs I’ve made for you, dear listener. Picked by hand, this mix includes a sprinkling of singer-songwriters, soul, r&b, country, reggae, calypso, gospel and some good retro cheese. Of course we have some great selections from Portland too (Pink Martini, the Shins, Black Prairie and Sallie Ford). I’ve also included some rare treats like a holiday song written by the Disney legends the Sherman Brothers and my favorite cover of “Last Christmas.” wrapped in handmade artisanal Portland wrapping paper with a bird on it (a partridge of course!). Sprinkle equal parts nostalgia and modern artists expressing the yearning (and sometimes the anxiety) of the season. I hope this mix includes some discoveries for you. Annotations are included below if you want to learn more about each track.
JT Griffith, December 2016
Ron Sexsmith - Maybe This Christmas
My favorite Christmas songs have a message of forgiveness, hope and redemption. This Sexsmith masterpiece unites a minor key chill with beginning warmth of optimism.
There has been a lot of attention on Paul McCartney’s 1979 Christmas classic. This version from the Shins is perhaps the best cover.
Johnny Cash - Christmas Time is a Comin’
Cash recorded this Ben Logan song in 1972. Other well-known versions have been recorded by Emmylou Harris and Sammy Kershaw.
Kasey Musgraves - Present Without a Bow
This is a great duet with Leon Bridges in that subset of Christmas songs about longing for a love connection (see also “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” “All I Want for Christmas is You” etc.)
Jillian Edwards - All My Christmases
This Texas singer-songwriter wrote a great little song about finding love in the coldest and darkest season of the year and a Christmas wedding.
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings - Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects
Sharon’s release last year was hand’s down my Christmas album of the year. Not just a great holiday record, “It’s a Holiday Soul Party” is a great Sharon Jones album.
Solomon Burke - Presents for Christmas
One of my favorite Solomon songs who channels his friend Sam Cooke with this underrated classic from 1968. It’s fun, soulful and a little swinging.
The Cadillacs - Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
If there is a Door Wop Christmas song that isn’t fun I haven’t heard it. This is one of the very best.
William Bell - Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday
This Stax legend started as a backup singer to Rufus Thomas and is most famous for writing the Cream / Albert Bell song “Born Under a Bad Sign” this is soulful yearning at its finest Ala “It’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. Could easily exist as a love song outside of Christmas.
Rev TL Barrett - Jingle Bells (y’all)
I’m often asked what the best Christmas Records are and, while I prefer handmade mixes, Christmas Compilations are high on my list, too. I found this great Gospel Choir song on “Santa’s Funk and Soul Christmas Party Vol 2” from Tramp Records out of Germany. This starts off dark but gets joyous quickly. It raises the roof and testifies to the power and spirit of the season. There are three volumes of Santa’s parties and I recommend buying them all.
The Beach Boys - The Man With All The Toys
As a native Californian I have a love / hate relationship with the Beach Boys because their music was ubiquitous and the beacon that called out to people all around the country during the winter months leading them out West. I find this track a lot of fun in spite of the Mike Love lead vocal. It’s pure Four Freshmen harmonies and Brian Wilson’s high falsetto and the backing “bop” vocals make this a fun 60s rock classic.
Lawrence Welk - It’s Christmas in LA
This is notable not just for being Lawrence Welk’s last commercial recording but also for being written by the Disney powerhouse songwriters the Sherman Brothers (Mary Poppins, Jungle Book, etc.). Declared the “official” Christmas song of LA in 1981 but it must have been 95 degrees and no one noticed.
Steven Colbert - Cold Cold Christmas
This is a novelty song in that it’s funny but Colbert’s channeling of Ricky Nelson and Buddy Holly is incredible. I’m not typically a fan of the alternative holiday songs that are anti-Christmas but in that genre this is my favorite.
Joe Dowell - A Kiss for Christmas
This is the metaphorical b-side to Colbert’s song. The song has an interesting sgue into “O Tannenbaum” that could only have happened in the early 60s when World War II was beginning to recede from memory.
Andy Williams - Happy Christmas (War is Over)
In my house the Christmas season starts with Andy Williams and his well known recordings of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “It’s Beginning to Look at Lot Like Christmas.” Andy’s 1990 album “I Still Believe in Santa Claus” includes this surprising cover of the John Lennon / Yoko Ono anti-war anthem. When I hear this song I think about how some values (like hoping for peace) are universally American.
Matt Pond PA - Holiday Road
I love this cover of the Lindsey Buckingham song from the film Vacation. What it lacks in the fun road trip vibe it makes up with a twinge of moodiness. A nice surprise for a Christmas mix.
Jimmy Eat World - Last Christmas
My vote for the best cover of the Wham classic.
Hal Bradley Orchestra f/ Pattie Marie Jay - Space Age Santa Claus
A fun novelty song from the 1961 when landing on the moon was a dream for humans and for Santa Claus.
The Moog Machine - Jingle Bells
Moog Christmas music? It’s what mix tapes were made for. It’s also a Rorschach test. If you loved Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical parade in the 70s and 80s then you’ll find 1996’s Christmas Goes Electric at least a guilty pleasure. Otherwise it might drive you insane. Either way, spike the egg nog!
Byron Lee and the Dragonaires - Winter Wonderland
A reggae Christmas instrumental. Quite the sub genre of it’s own. Chris Blackwell’s Trojan Records released a great reggae holiday box set that includes this song.
Ray Conniff - Winter Wonderland
This song speaks to the power of the nostalgia at the center of my interest in Christmas music—the mainstream, vanilla Christmas music of the 1960s and 1970s.
Pink Martini - Do You Hear What I Hear
Written in 1962 this song was inspired by a yearning for peace in the face of the Cuban Missile Crisis. One of the rare popular Christmas songs that carries contemporary social and political meaning. Pink Martini’s 2010 record Joy to the World is essential.
Black Prairie and Sallie Ford - (Everybody’s Waiting for) the Man with the Bag
Another great local Christmas cover. This time of the 1950 song popularized by Kay Starr.
Santo and Johnny - Twistin Bells
If you’ve never heard the Ventures Christmas music you’ve probably never made a Christmas mix. This is a great discovery from 1962 in that same sub-genre. Not quite Dick Dale but it swings, I mean, twists it’s way through Jingle Bells.
Lord Kitchener - Christmas Greetings
A sweet, swinging song from this Calypso legend. This is truly quite the find!
Andrew Bird - Auld Lang Syne
Auld Lang Syne is most commonly a New Year’s Eve song but the seasons are only a week a part. The album Holiday’s Rule has a Portland connection too, as local Music Supervision firm Walker (formerly Search Party West) produced the compilation.