Here’s all the music you need for a hopping holiday

By Crystal Ligori (OPB) and Donald Orr (OPB)
Dec. 24, 2023 2 p.m.

OPB’s Christmas music curator JT Griffith is back for a fourth year of holiday cheer!

For the past four years, JT Griffith has been OPB’s guide to the niche genre of holiday music. Griffith was a longtime Christmas music curator for OPB, KMHD and the Oregon Zoo’s Zoo Lights, and after 15 years as Nike’s in-house music supervisor, he is now the creative director and founder of LIMINAL Music.

Griffith spoke with “All Things Considered” host Crystal Ligori about being on the hunt for Christmas music all year long, new takes on old classics and a 40-year-old holiday tune that’s still Japan’s most popular Christmas song.

JT Griffith holds a 7-inch single by Mahalia Jackson called "Songs for Christmas Vol. 2" in the OPB studios. Griffith is the founder of LIMINAL Music and has been OPB’s guide to the niche genre of holiday music for the past four years.

JT Griffith holds a 7-inch single by Mahalia Jackson called "Songs for Christmas Vol. 2" in the OPB studios. Griffith is the founder of LIMINAL Music and has been OPB’s guide to the niche genre of holiday music for the past four years.

Crystal Ligori / OPB

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Crystal Ligori: So let’s just start out with a Christmas music adjacent thing first, namely a book and a movie that you wanted to talk about.

JT Griffith: I wanted to share this multimedia obsession I have with things of the season. First is a book that just came out a little while ago; I got it at Powell’s, so it’s locally sourced, at least a little bit, but written by a wonderful music and pop culture writer based out of Cleveland, Ohio, named Annie Zaleski. It’s a hardback book called “This is Christmas, Song by Song.” It’s a deep dive, a little trivia and a little narrative about the writing and recording of 100 really well-known Christmas songs, going up into just this last couple of years.

There’s some Mariah Carey here, as well as Bing Crosby and a number of others. There is an element of the song as written, and then focusing on one noteworthy version of the songs — sometimes the original, and sometimes a surprising cover. So it’s a really neat little book. I was looking through the index to see, “Oh, did you talk about this song?” And I was like, “Oh, there it is.”

Ligori: I was going to ask, is your favorite song in there?

Griffith: Well, of course, my favorite song I think would be “Winter Wonderland,” so writing a book without that would be odd. But there’s “The Fairy Tale of New York” by The Pogues, and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” But the highlighted version is by John Cougar Mellencamp. There is some room to debate the versions. There’s also a section on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which has had some revisionist scrutiny that I understand, and to some extent, might disagree with a little bit because of its context. But it’s an interesting kind of look at the culture around the music in that case. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was a little controversial in 1949 because it was a little sexy — about flirtatious interactions. So it’s controversial for the same reason, but from the opposite side of the coin maybe.

It’s a really interesting book about that music that we take for granted, or think has existed for forever — but came from an experience, or might have come from an “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” movie. Or something that you wonder what the history is. It’s a very easy, quick read with a page and a half on each song. And it certainly is something I was super excited to get and it’s available pretty broadly.

Ligori: And then what about the Christmas movie — it’s sort of a satire of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”?

Griffith: We included a song from this movie, “Spirited,” last year, and I am chagrined to say that I was aware of it and it was noteworthy, but I hadn’t seen it yet. But I had heard the music and I thought it was worth putting into the playlist. It’s a Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell movie and you’ve probably seen it. It’s on Apple TV or Apple Plus. It’s the retelling of the “Christmas Carol” Dickens story, but with a little satirical take on how that story has been told in the past, also with music from some really great songwriters and composers, namely the two composers who did “La La Land” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” but with some arrangement and orchestral work by Dave Metzger, who I learned is from Corvallis and lives in Oregon, and is someone that I’m super enthralled by that he’s from our state. He’s worked on 11 of the 58 Disney animated movies. So he’s kind of a local legend who I learned last night was from here.

Ligori: Let’s pivot now and get into the music. I know that each year you put together an amazing holiday playlist for us, but it’s not something that you’re throwing together last minute or even a month before. You’re on the hunt for Christmas music year-round, which is evident to me by an entire stack of gorgeous vinyl that we have in the studio. This took a long time to collect, I’m sure.

Griffith: In some respects it’s a lifetime, and some I acquired just most recently. I go to some of my favorite record stores, and whether it’s Music Millennium or Speck’s Records, I am often greeted by the manager or the owner of the store in some way, like, “Hey, I found this Christmas record for you.” So, I’ve been known for some of the things I collect, and if they find it they’ll let me know, or if they don’t have it, they think that’s all I’m in for.

But it is kind of nice to just have that relationship of when they’ll put them on the floor for sale, I’d like to be there. I don’t want to miss an opportunity to find some cool stuff. So while it matters more in this season, it’s good to kind of be on the hunt for things.

I kind of have a creative target every year to think “I wanna use this in some project or share it with somebody because it’s noteworthy”. Sometimes that’s a brand new song that I’ve discovered, and sometimes it’s a deep cut or something local that has been out of print and somehow just discovered it, or something I learned about it myself and thought it should be heard by more people and shared at this time of the year.

FILE - A snapshot of Music Millennium in Portland, Ore., from OPB's "Oregon Experience" in April 2022. JT Griffith says he often visits Millennium Records and other vinyl records stores in the city to look for holiday music.

FILE - A snapshot of Music Millennium in Portland, Ore., from OPB's "Oregon Experience" in April 2022. JT Griffith says he often visits Millennium Records and other vinyl records stores in the city to look for holiday music.

Dan Evans / OPB

Ligori: What sort of deep cuts do you have in your stack?

Griffith: So about a week or two ago, I was looking at a record store, and I found a 7-inch single by Mahalia Jackson called “Songs for Christmas Vol. 2”. And what’s really cool about this record is that Mahalia Jackson is a legendary gospel singer and known for largely religious gospel music. Certainly most of her Christmas music is of the religious variety, but this single included “White Christmas.”

She does a version that we’ve included in the playlist of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” which is a song that has been covered by a lot of people, including Pink Martini. It was born out of this urge for peace around the Cuban missile crisis. I thought that was an interesting choice because when she sang it, it was more of a contemporary song. But then when I bought this little 7-inch single, I read at the bottom something that shook me to my core. It said, “Mahalia Jackson orchestra and chorus conducted by Johnny Williams.” And yes, that is the composer from “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.” And he did the orchestrations for this amazing Mahalia Jackson song, and I thought, “That is worth $2.”

Also in my searching around record stores, there has been a huge increase in the vinyl consumer market and people are caring about vinyl as a format. It’s one that’s tactile, you can hold it, and it is bigger than the digital art on iTunes or something. A couple of records I found in the store were really noteworthy because they were reissues of famous albums from the past, including “Christmas Shopping” by Buck Owens. But what’s especially cool about this is that it’s mastered from the analog source by probably the most famous analog engineer in America named Kevin Gray. Kevin Gray has a tube recording system and masters as analog music through that equipment, giving it the really rich, full sound. So this is probably the best pressing of this since it was originally released, and maybe even better than that. I have a lot of records he’s pressed and they’re very noteworthy.

I also bought some great Christmas re-releases by The Beach Boys, and then this Brenda Lee record, called “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” This year in 2023 it hit the billboard charts, I think the top 100 chart for songs, number one for the first time since it was released. She recorded this as a 13-year-old girl, and then some many decades later became a number one hit. I think that’s just a remarkable testament to sort of how this music is both old and nostalgic — it has been around forever, and is dynamic and alive. Sometimes people discover songs and they matter more than they used to.

Ligori: We talked about nostalgic songs, let’s move to something new because I know that there are some local artists on your list as well.

Griffith: Yeah for sure. Every year there are new Christmas releases, new holiday releases all the time. I always want to give a little bit of a nod to some of the music that’s come from Oregon that I think is really noteworthy. In this past year or in the past couple of weeks, Eugene’s own Mat Kearney, who is a singer songwriter from Eugene but lives in Nashville, released his first two Christmas songs that he’s ever recorded, including a version of “White Christmas.” He’s a great local songwriter and has a song that the Oregon Ducks use as their “Coming Home” song for football games.

Then I discovered a record that means a lot to me; it’s a little bit more on the melancholy side but in a really good and accessible way by an artist named Alela Diane. She recorded a record with a band called The Hackles, and it was recorded out in Astoria. It’s just a beautiful record that has echoes of Oregon, indie rock, and is slightly more of a purple hue if you were to look at the colors of what it is. But that kind of fits the season, and it’s a good kind of late night record. It’s emotional without being too moody, and is one of my favorite records of the season.

The find of the year for me is the soundtrack to a TV show that I have never seen but on YouTube. But it’s the “Claymation Christmas Celebration,” the soulful soundtrack album from the Emmy Award winning TV series produced by Will Vinton here in Portland. It’s a cool soundtrack of ‘80s sounding funk, soul music. There’s a track that is a scene from the show, that instead of “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” it’s “Here We Come a-Waffling,” and these characters talk about the misheard lyrics. But Will Vinton is actually one of the chorus members in the recording. We can hear the late Claymation legend on his own record that was on Atlantic Records in the ‘80s. That’s noteworthy, and I had never seen it before, but is from Portland.


Ligori: That’s quite the find!

Griffith: I have one more local Christmas thing I want to talk about and it’s from 1981. I found this in a record store just recently, a 7-inch single by Billy Rancher and The Unreal Gods, who was an electronic pop artist in the early ‘80s. This was the only single that Billy Rancher released — there was a full length album, but the only single. It’s called “Happy Santa Claus.”

The main line is, “I’m a Happy Santa Claus when I dream of you, because when I think of you, I feel like jelly inside.” It’s sort of this nervous, kind of romantic thing about wanting to share the joy of the season. In a way, I am a happy Santa Claus when we talk about this kind of thing. The song reminds me of Martin Rev and the post punk band Suicide, and a little bit of an echo of the Johnny Marr guitar from “How Soon is Now?” by The Smiths.

It has that kind of real synth-y, sort of cheesy vibe, but with a really just authentic, well-meaning heart of the season. I think it might be the leading contender if I had to pick a Christmas theme song for myself.

Ligori: I love that! Let’s stay in this throwback moment because I also heard that there is a 40-year-old Christmas song that is on the playlist, and it was actually a smash hit in Japan.

Griffith: Almost literally the day after we talked last year, I discovered the song and it made me realize that I might have had a more narrow aperture for our Christmas music conversation than I was aware of. Maybe some implicit bias of American Christmas music? And so in the last year, I’ve been obsessed with Japanese city pop music and some of the wonderful music from Japan in the’80s. I think the most significant indie singer-songwriter from Japan in the ‘80s is a man named Tatsuro Yamashita. He has a lot of hit songs — this is the “Greatest Hits!” album that I brought in today and this song is on the record — it’s called “Christmas Eve,” and it’s a song about missing a loved one. An “I wish you were here” kind of song and yearning for that. But if that person doesn’t show up, if he doesn’t hear sleigh bells, he will have those memories. That’s a very universal Christmas theme.

I learned that the song had been the biggest-selling single in Japan for the entirety of the decade of the ‘80s. So it was something that I hadn’t discovered but lots of people had. And it had charted 36 consecutive years. So it’s really safe to say that this is the Japanese version of the Mariah Carey smash hit ”All I Want for Christmas Is You.” And I dedicated myself 364 days ago that I wouldn’t let that blind spot kind of seep into our chat again, and I wanted to share this amazing song because it’s heavily influenced by Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, and it was also covered by the a cappella group Pentatonix on one of their Christmas records. So, it’s been around and I’m absolutely a late comer to it, but it’s a stunning, beautiful song that is cheesy and wistful and beautiful.

Ligori: We could talk probably for hours, but let’s wrap up our conversation talking about a Christmas song linked to the 2023 person of the year: Taylor Swift.

Griffith: So this is a story that I think is almost hard to believe is true, but Taylor Swift has dominated the cultural musical landscape in our country and kind of in the world all year, and is at the absolute apex of what popularity and cultural impact can be in. She’s just absolutely the nation’s obsession right now and currently has the number one song on the Billboard charts which was birthed by The Eras Tour. That is the “Taylor’s Version” of the album “1989″. But the number two album on the Billboard charts in terms of vinyl sales has a connection to Taylor, but also to The Pogues and the recently departed Shane MacGowan. It’s a cover of The Pogues’ Christmas classic “Fairytale of New York” called “Fairytale Of Philadelphia,” and is from the second volume of a charity Christmas album put together by some local Philadelphia musicians and the Philadelphia Eagles. But instead of Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl, it’s Jason Kelce and Travis Kelce singing about their brotherhood and some of their emotional conflicts.

It’s kind of unbelievable to think that Taylor Swift would have a number one album followed by an album that the anchor song is sung by her new boyfriend. I can only imagine how many more copies were sold because there is an audience of music fans who now care about a local charity Christmas record! And it must have done a lot of good to the causes that the record supported, so it’s a feel good story on a personal level. Who would have predicted that?

Ligori: It’s a Christmas miracle!

JT Griffith holds "A Philly Special Christmas Special," a charity album which has an unusual connection to musicians Taylor Swift and the late Shane MacGowan.

JT Griffith holds "A Philly Special Christmas Special," a charity album which has an unusual connection to musicians Taylor Swift and the late Shane MacGowan.

Crystal Ligori / OPB

Final notes from JT Griffith

This holiday season seems different than the first few pandemic trips ‘round the sun. Twenty twenty-three seems like the first year of “I guess this is just what’s gonna be normal now.” If that’s true, I hope Christmas music can be a bit of a silver lining within the persistent challenging times of our lives. Perhaps it’s one little way we can adapt our annual traditions and rituals to provide comfort and joy.

Here are 25 songs that caught my fancy this December. A mix of local Oregon treats and cool tunes from around the world. Newly recorded and recently rediscovered gems. So, in that spirit, I offer up this collection to you while you are getting your life lit up like a Christmas tree.

Cover art from this year’s holiday mix comes from a holiday greeting card designed by Old School Stationers from Portland, Oregon.

Other great tracks from my searching and collecting over this past year include:

• Deeply poignant songs like “Cindy Lou Who” by Sabrina Carpenter and a version of the Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson “Christmas Time Is Here” by Lauren Daigle, which is becoming a more common Christmas cover.

• A strong cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” by Linda Ronstadt from her 2010 holiday entry reissued this year on silver vinyl.

• A funny and quirky “Santa’s Disco” by Fred Schneider of the B-52s. A groovy “We Wish You A Funky Christmas” by Adam Shulman. A wonderful second collection of jazzy, guitar instrumentals from Joel Paterson.

• Sundazed Music reissued two Christmas albums from country music legend Buck Owens, remastered in analog glory by Kevin Gray. If “Christmas Shopping” doesn’t resonate with you then it’s time to buy those email gift cards for your family!

• The song “Ripple” comes from the recent retelling of the Charles Dickens novella “Christmas Carol” Spirited featuring orchestrations from Oregon’s own Dave Metzger. This cut song is actually one of the best from the musical.

• An alternate version of “My Favorite Things” from an anniversary, expanded edition of The Sound of Music soundtrack.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” a gorgeous Ryuichi Sakamoto cover from Lara Somogyi.

• A surprisingly bluesy take on “Merry Christmas, Baby” by Johnny Mathis from his latest holiday album, his first new holiday recordings in a decade.

• My Morning Jacket released their holiday EP on vinyl for the first time with a couple new tracks recorded in Portland. “Wonderful (Snowy Version)” is a standout.

• The Lumineers recorded a stunning cover of the Willie Nelson classic “Pretty Paper” at the legend’s 90th birthday tribute concert this April. This Hollywood Bowl performance was a standout amongst an all-star lineup.