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Best all-time Christmas songs: our staff favorites

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Peggy Lee sings 'The Christmas Waltz' on 'Let it Snow: Cuddly Christmas Classics from Capitol.' Peggy Lee sings 'The Christmas Waltz' on 'Let it Snow: Cuddly Christmas Classics from Capitol.'
The Yule Blog, Dec. 11
7 days until Christmas

In today’s edition of the Yule Blog, employees of The Current and The Gazette Newspapers share their favorite Christmas tunes.

Many of our staffers have a number of favorites and had a hard time narrowing down the choice to one. But all the songs here are winners, so when you have some time, grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, settle in, relax, and read the summaries and play the clips.

If we neglected to include your favorite, please share it with us in the comment section below.

And have yourself a merry little Christmas! 

Baby, It’s Cold Outside – various artists

“Baby It’s Cold Outside” is one of those Christmas staples that is seemingly performed by every artist who ever put out a Christmas album. But one of the best aspects of this wintry tune is its versatility.

The duet was written in 1941 by Frank Loesser and has been performed by artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to CeeLo Green. Most versions are romantic; others are wonderfully silly – like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald’s live recordings; and some, like the Tom Jones-Cerys Matthews version (and the strange music video that followed), are just plain creepy.

The “wolf and mouse” duet tells the story of a snowy night where the wolf tries to convince his date not to go home. Most versions have the male sing the wolf’s lyrics, but a few reverse the roles. On the album “A She & Him Christmas,” Zooey Deschanel sings the part of the wolf; her folky rendition is worth a listen. And who can forget the scene in “Elf” when Will Ferrell’s Buddy surprises Deschanel’s Jovie while she is singing the song in the shower.

Ultimately, the song makes me think of not only Christmas, but of cold winter nights spent indoors with someone you love.

I normally lean toward classic Christmas music with a jazzy sound, like Dean Martin's version of the song, but my favorite recording of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is Norah Jones and Willie Nelson’s, which appeared on her 2010 compilation album “Featuring Norah Jones.”

--Christie Rotondo

The Christmas Waltz – Peggy Lee

“The Christmas Waltz” by Peggy Lee was off of the album “Let it Snow: Cuddly Christmas Classics from Capitol,” that my family listened to while I was growing up. I have warm memories of my mom baking and singing along to this CD during the holidays.

The words of the song always embodied how much I loved Christmas, and a lot of that was thanks to the magic my mom brought to the season. Three years ago, my mom passed on, and her funeral ended up being on Christmas Eve. It changed the holidays greatly for me and my family.

Recently, a holiday miracle happened to my family that has helped bring back the Christmas spirit. The son my mom gave up for adoption in 1968 found us right before Thanksgiving. This is the first holiday season in so long that I have been able to listen to “The Christmas Waltz” and fondly remember those feelings and actually feel them again, as can my family.

--Mandee McCullough

Winter Wonderland

As with many folks, the Christmas season brings me sadness as well as joy. We associate family get-togethers with Christmas more than any other holiday, and as family members pass on, the holiday takes on a note of remembrance.

I grew up getting sad at Christmas without knowing why. Only when I was a grown man did a dear aunt tell me the reason. It was that my mother died on Christmas Eve, when I was a week short of my fourth birthday.

I have only a dim recollection of her all these years later – a recollection of a warm and comforting love that endures in my memory. One of the things I enjoy most about “Winter Wonderland” is that it is a very happy song, and it gently dispels the ever-accompanying sadness that, for me, comes with the holiday.

Here is a great version of “Winter Wonderland” sung by Johnny Mathis, complete with scenic photos.

--Joe Wilkins

2000 Miles – The Pretenders

“2000 Miles” was released by the English-American rock band The Pretenders in 1983. It was one of the first alternative Christmas songs I remember hearing, and it still gives me a rush every time I listen to it.

I love everything sung by the Ohio-born Chrissie Hynde, the group’s frontwoman and primary songwriter, but her haunting voice gives a melancholy vulnerability to this lonely, sad song filled with so much longing that it practically weeps. It is achingly beautiful and has some great guitar riffs.

“He's gone 2000 miles, It's very far. The snow is falling down, Gets colder day by day. I miss you. The children will sing, he'll be back at Christmastime.”

Though the song mentions snow and Christmas, it was not intended to be a Christmas song. It was written for James Honeyman-Scott, the group’s original guitar player and a founding member, whose death the previous year was attributed to heart failure caused by cocaine intolerance, according to the band’s online bio. He was 25.

The song has been covered by Coldplay, Natalie Imbruglia and others, but nobody sings it like Chrissie: “2000 miles is very far through the snow. I'll think of you, wherever you go.”

Here’s a live performance.

--Joan Kostiuk

Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love

This is my new all-time favorite Christmas song. It was originally recorded in 1963 by Darlene Love and was included in 1963 Christmas album "A Christmas Gift for You" from the Phil Spector group of Philadelphia musicians (among them, The Ronettes, Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans, and The Crystals). When the album was originally released it was not a commercial success, but several of the tracks are now iconic Christmas songs that have brought smiles to our faces for 50 years.

Many artists have covered “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” over the years; it has also been featured in two movies, “Gremlins” and “Goodfellas.”

But perhaps it is best known for being the song performed on the final new episode before Christmas on “The Late Show with David Letterman.” Legend has it that band leader Paul Shaffer heard Love perform it live in New York and introduced her to Letterman. That was in 1986. She has performed the song every year since – quite a record of longevity.

If you do an Internet search of her performances you can find most of them. They are fascinating to watch. The song remains the same, but Shaffer adds new elements every year to keep them fresh. Don't miss the different saxophone solos either.

The song is simple enough. A couple was together last year and they are not together this year. Not much can be done to save Christmas if they can't enjoy the holiday together. What turns the song into a classic is Love's emotion coming through during the entire song.

But the reason the song works for me at Christmas is my wife and I enjoyed a live Christmas performance by Love in New York City last year. What an unexpected treat! The lady can still sing. So if you like to go to the Big Apple at Christmas plan a trip to the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill to see her live. You won't regret it.

Here is her 1993 Letterman performance.

--Rick Travers

We Wish You a Merry Christmas – Ray Conniff and the Ray Conniff Singers

Call it corny, call it square, call it white-bread elevator music served up by Lawrence Welk with a side of champagne and Geritol. Yes, it’s all that and something more: a timeless Christmas classic.

Conniff began his career in the late ’30s performing with various big bands including Harry James and Artie Shaw. His biggest commercial success was the pop Top Ten "Somewhere, My Love" from the film “Dr. Zhivago” in 1966. But for most baby boomers he is probably best known for his wonderful Christmas albums, with their gorgeous harmonies and full, Phil Spector-like orchestration.

To me, this album just sounds like Christmas, from the reverent “First Noel” to the more modern “Little Drummer Boy” to the joyous “Ring Christmas Bells.” The album has a mix of religious and secular that is almost jarring at times; one medley begins with the somber “Oh Holy Night,” flows into the dramatic march of “We Three Kings” and then launches into the full-out, rollicking Christmas party of “Deck the Halls,” with youthful voices singing and trimming the tree, and a bohemian hipster-type looking for a little love: “Hey, girls, I’m under the mistletoe!”

This album is a nostalgic trip for me, and it always brings back great memories of growing up in a big suburban family in the 1960s. I always liked the album cover, too, especially the girl with the “Santa’s Little Helper” miniskirt. In my youthful exuberance, I often wondered: Why can’t we get some Christmas carolers knocking on our door who can sing – and look like that? With this album, all those youthful dreams and memories are still alive.

--Bill LeConey

And now for something completely different:

Silver Bells

I remember the first time I heard “Silver Bells.” I learned all the words to the song in music class when I was in elementary school. I remember loving the melody and the way the words were arranged: “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style. In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas. Children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile, and on every street corner you hear …”

This song just puts me in a good mood, and it’s one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time. I don’t have a favorite version, but as long as it stays true to the original composition, it’s good by me.

--Claire Lowe

That’s What Christmas Means to Me – Stevie Wonder

I love this song so much that I save it until the perfect moment to enjoy it. Once all of my shopping is finished and after all the groceries have been unloaded from the car and we are finally at home, ready to begin our family’s Christmas Eve and Christmas Day two-day celebration, I hit play on this song. It’s my kickoff of sorts.

“I see your smiling face like I’ve never seen before. Even though I love you madly, it seems I love you more. And the little cards you give me will touch my heart for sure. All these things and more darling, that’s what Christmas means to me my love.”

From the first series of toe-tapping notes to the iconic harmonica solo, it is pure joy to my ears – it is Stevie Wonder, of course – and I find I can’t keep still when I hear it.

I pour a nice glass of wine, grab the hand of a loved one and boogie in the kitchen with them, finally relaxed and ready to enjoy all of my planning and prepping.

With so much still to do still this year, I am already looking forward to my annual reward!

--Laura Stetser

Merry Christmas Darling – The Carpenters

There are some voices that just sound right for Christmas songs. Andy Williams is one. Perry Como and Bing Crosby also come to mind. All three used to do Christmas specials on TV. Karen Carpenter has that type of voice.

The music for “Merry Christmas Darling” was written by her brother, Richard, and Frank Pooler, a choirmaster from California, wrote the lyrics 20 years before it became a song. It is a ballad about a young woman who misses the special man in her life. It opens with “Greeting cards have all been sent, the Christmas rush is through. But I still have one wish to make, a special one for you. Merry Christmas, darling, we're apart, that's true. But I can dream and in my dreams I'm Christmasing with you.”

The written words are nice, but when sung by Karen Carpenter they come alive. The song was the No. 1 Christmas hit of 1970 and also topped the chart in 1972 and 1973. It is still included prominently on Christmas playlists through SiriusXM, Pandora and other sources. If you aren’t familiar with the song, seek it out. Many have sung it (even on Glee), but none like Karen Carpenter.         

--Tom Williams

Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah

My favorite Christmas song is often the one I just hummed or sang along with on the radio. I like so many Christmas songs, but this year I have to give the nod to a longtime favorite, the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's “Messiah.”

I have loved that piece since I sang it for the first time in my high school choir a long time ago. This year I joined the Stockton Oratorio, and the reason I joined was to have the chance to sing it again. Our Dec. 8 concert at Trump Taj Mahal was canceled due to bad weather, but it will be rescheduled.

The song is powerful and religious without going overboard. Sung by a good chorus, it can give you goosebumps. Give a listen to the Stockton Oratoio rehearsal of Nov. 25 in the Alton Auditorium on the Stockton campus.

--Suzanne Marino

White Christmas – Bing Crosby

My favorite Christmas song is "White Christmas," the Bing Crosby version, which at more than 50 million copies sold is the best-selling single of all time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

It's a simple song, showcasing Crosby’s oh-so-smooth baritone crooning for snow-covered Christmases of yore. Not only do I enjoy his unique voice and style, as a South Jersey native I can connect with his longing for that magical something that is rare around these parts most years: snow on Christmas.

Irving Berlin’s classic may seem like it was custom-made for Crosby's one-of-a-kind voice, but that hasn’t stopped others from climbing aboard the “White Christmas” sleigh.

Wikipedia calls it the most recorded song ever with more than 500 known versions. When those other renditions are counted, total sales are estimated at more than 100 million.

Scores of others may try, but for me no one will ever outdo Bing’s rendition, which we get to enjoy each holiday season on the radio, on our favorite music device and on television immortalized in the holiday films "Holiday Inn” and “White Christmas."

--James FitzPatrick

Click http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qa6Eyfx0mE

Fairytale of New York

Life shouldn’t be like a chocolate martini. Sometimes you need the bitter along with the sweet, to give you a chance to slow down and savor the process.

So it is with “Fairytale of New York,” The Pouges’ 1987 Christmas offering featuring Kirsty MacColl in a duet with a somewhat shattered looking Shane MacGowan. Musically, MacColl offers the sweetness in this tale of an Irish couple who immigrates to New York. It starts out with the narrator reminiscing on Christmas Eve in the drunk tank. He looks back at a time soaked in hope and young love, Sinatra swinging and cars as big as bars, but moves to anger and resentment when all those dreams don’t come true. English radio at one point censored the song, but soon relented.

It all comes back around for the chorus, when “the boys of the NYPD choir were singing ‘Galway Bay,’ and the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day,” and at the end the narrator admits he can’t make it on his own and “I built my dreams around you.”

So what if they didn’t all come true?

MacGowan, born in England on Christmas day in 1957, wrote the song, which is one of the band’s best known. He was later kicked out of the band, but eventually rejoined. MacColl had a thriving career as a singer and songwriter. She was killed while diving in Mexico, saving her son’s life when a powerboat entered a restricted area.

--Bill Barlow

Alice’s Restaurant – Arlo Guthrie

About halfway through the 20-minute-long “Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie finishes his Thanksgiving tale about taking out the garbage to find the dump closed and being arrested for illegal dumping with the words, “But that’s not what I came to talk to you about …”

He then goes into the second half of the story-song, concerning his experiences with the Vietnam-era draft.

When I chose the song for this piece, I knew it might be a stretch to sell it as a Christmas song. That was until I got an email from Rising Son Records touting holiday gifts including the album containing Guthrie’s “The Pause of Mr. Claus,” giving me an alternate plan.

And while I still call this piece “Alice’s Restaurant,” remember that even in 1965 Alice’s Restaurant wasn’t the name of the restaurant – it was just the name of the song.

“The Pause of Mr. Claus,” like “Alice’s Restaurant,” was recorded live and is two separate stories.

It begins with Guthrie dedicating the song to “our boys in the FBI,” and how hard the agency’s job is, following people – like him.

“I'm out on the highway and I'm drivin’ down the road and I run out of gasoline,” Guthrie says. “I pull over to the side of the road. They gotta pull over too; make believe that they ran out.”

But “The Pause of Mr. Claus” is actually a simple tune about Santa: “Let's get Santa Claus, because Santa Claus has a red suit, he’s a communist. And a beard, and long hair, must be a pacifist. What's in the pipe that he's smoking …” Here’s a clip of “The Pause”; see Guthrie do “Alice’s Restaurant” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_7C0QGkiVo

--Steve Prisament

And now for something completely different:

Kustard Kristmas – The Kustard Kings

This album – a fun, funky sleigh ride of instrumental pop confection – has become a personal favorite of mine in the last 10 years. The Kustard Kings are the house band for the retro-pop Loser's Lounge events in New York City, and they feature former area resident Joe McGinty on keyboards. On this CD, they mix some spunky originals like "Snow Globe Symphonette" and "U Sleigh Me" with totally unique covers of the Beach Boys and the Beatles and favorites from classic Christmas specials like the Grinch, Charlie Brown and Rudolph. Guaranteed to even make Scrooge tap his feet.

--Bill LeConey

The Yule Blog is a day-to-day countdown to Christmas featuring a new story each day. Click the links below to read other stories in the series.

Nov. 29: Best shopping apps put you where the buys are.

Nov. 30: Small Business Saturday gives independent shops their turn to shine.

Dec. 1: Before there was 'Elf,' there was 'The Santaland Diaries.'

Dec. 2: Historic Smithville has plenty of old-fashioned Christmas spirit to go around

Dec. 3: Earth-friendly gifts help preserve the world's green assets.

Dec. 4: Great gift ideas for the cook

Dec. 5: Let Cape May kindle your Christmas spirit

Dec. 6: The worst and the weirdest Christmas films

Dec. 7: How to take the perfect holiday portrait

Dec. 8: Will South Jersey have a White Christmas in 2013?

Dec. 9: Don't risk a home fire this winter

Dec. 10: In the kitchen with grandma: How to make 6-layer Neapolitan cookies

Dec. 11: 12 (relatively) new songs for Christmas

Dec. 12: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 1

Dec. 13: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 2

Dec. 14: How to make Razzleberry Dressing

Dec. 15: Last-minute make-it gift: Peppermint Patty Martini

Dec. 16: Dennisville Christmas House Tour connects past and present

Dec. 17: Snow day survival guide

Dec. 18: Best all-time Christmas songs

Dec. 19: 5 handy gifts for the home baker

Dec. 20: Cookie swaps sweeten the holidays if you can avoid the jams

Dec. 21: When will Santa get here? Track his flight Christmas Eve with NORAD

DEc. 22: Presents for pets - and pet lovers

Dec. 23: Best children's books get to the heart of Christmas

Dec. 24: Feast of the 7 Fishes is a Christmas Eve tradition for many Italians

Dec. 25: People all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus

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