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Holiday revelry, remixed — Music buffs opine on alternate versions of seasonal songs

December 5, 2012

» click to enlarge «
Mike Duffy shows off some of the cherished favorites in his holiday-music collection at his Grosse Pointe Woods home.

If you’re burned out on Bing and numb on Nat, there are plenty of ways to freshen up your holiday playlist by adding tracks that offer twists on classic tunes.

At Mike Duffy’s house, in Grosse Pointe Woods, the CD player is split between his wife’s choral Christmas music and the rock ‘n’ roll renditions he prefers.

They used to expand their collection of holiday CDs and records yearly, but “we have so many now, we don’t really need to add too many,” laughed the self-described “music nut.”

“We have to have, at least, I’d say, 40. We like to have choices,” Duffy said.

Among recent additions to the Duffys’ stash is “A Very She & Him Christmas,” a holiday album with “an alternative, rock ‘n’ roll sensibility,” put out last year by She and Him, a folk/indie rock duo that includes actress Zooey Deschanel.

Another newer acquisition is “Holidays Rule,” a compilation with “more of a college music sensibility,” featuring an eclectic mix of artists, including the Civil Wars, The Shins, Calexico, Fruit Bats, Paul McCartney and Rufus Wainwright, among others.

Duffy’s preferred modern classics include “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector,” sporting tracks like “Frosty the Snowman” by The Ronettes and “Winter Wonderland” by Darlene Love.

“This would appeal most to baby boomers, I would say, because they would remember all these groups from the early ’60s,” said Duffy. “It’s a really fun album. Phil was known for something that was known as ‘the wall of sound.’ It was kind of his version of R&B, done with an operatic-almost flourish.”

On the jazz side, Duffy recommends “Christmas Songs” by Canadian singer/pianist Diana Krall.

“It’s very accessible,” he said, extolling her rich, lower register voice. “It’s not overly mannered. It’s not like avant-garde jazz at all. This is cocktail jazz, for lack of a better term.”

Another of Duffy’s jazz favorites is “Jingle Bell Jazz,” featuring artists like Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

Duffy dubs “Christmas with the Rat Pack” suitable for everyone, from “hipsters in their 20s” to listeners in their 60s and older, and country music fans would likely get into “Pretty Paper,” the 1979 collection by Willie Nelson that Duffy declared is “one of the all-time great Christmas albums.”

For a mix of secular and religious tracks, Duffy suggests Bob Dylan’s “Christmas in the Heart,” though he warns that artistry, not crooning quality, is what makes Dylan exceptional.

“You’re talking about a guy that, when he made this, he was about 70 years old, and he’s got that scratchy voice,” he said. “I think it’s a great album, but I can tell you, your grandmother or my grandmother … would say, ‘What the heck is that?’”

As co-owner of Village Records and Tapes in the 1980s and 1990s, John Denomme has heard more obscure fare than the average music fan.

So it’s not surprising that the Grosse Pointe Woods resident places a lesser-known album at the top of his list: “A Collection of Favourite Christmas Carols” by Lewis Ross, which contains more than a dozen traditional songs, all of which are performed on acoustic guitar.

“His interpretations are brilliant, as is his musicianship,” said Denomme, who’s played upright bass and guitar in numerous bands throughout the past 40 years. “No heavy-handed production here; just simple, straightforward versions of well-known Christmas hymns that just warm the room with the sound of acoustic guitars.”

The inquiry about seasonal favorites sent local music publicist and “recovering musician” Matt Lee frantically digging through his Royal Oak home for what he deemed “the pièce de résistance of them all.”

“My favorite one (holiday album) of all time is a compilation on Rhino, called ‘Hipsters’ Holiday,’” he said as he rummaged through his collection. “It’s just the coolest one. My heart would be broken if it’s gone from here.”

Lee loves the “old school-ness” of the album, which includes songs like “Santa Done Got Hip” by The Marquees, “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt and “Cool Yule” by Louis Armstrong and the Commanders.

“Some of them are rather obscure tracks done by the coolest, coolest possible people,” said Lee. “They dig a little deeper on this one.”

Also high on Lee’s list are “Harlem Holiday” by New York Rhythm & Blues, which includes “pre-soul, pre-R&B, doo-wop stuff,” and “Motown Christmas Gift,” a compilation of seasonal songs with Motown flair by The Jackson 5, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and the like.

But when it comes down to it, Lee insisted, quality is more about the original song’s strength than the artist performing it.

“A great song is a great song,” he said. “A great artist interprets a great song and puts their own stamp on it.”

Staff sampler

Asked to identify their favorite non-traditional takes on holiday songs, C & G Newspapers’ employees chimed in, with everything from rock and orchestral pieces to electronic and rap.

“The Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s take on ‘The Nutcracker’ (‘Mad Russian’s Christmas’) is so different, with its rock ‘n’ roll riffs and beats, yet still plays homage to the Tchaikovsky original. … It’s a wonderful complement to it. And the Mannheim Steamroller ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ never fails to bring a smile to my face. It’s got a great beat.”
— Kristyne E. Demske, staff writer, St. Clair Shores Sentinel

“‘If on Winter’s Night … ’ by Sting. Lots of old English Christmas carols and winter-themed music. He sounds like a monk, but it’s really good. Songs like ‘Gabriel’s Message,’ ‘Soul Cake,’ ‘Lo How A Rose E’er Blooming,’ etc.”
— Robin Ruehlen, staff writer, Birmingham-Bloomfield Eagle

“‘Ludachristmas’ by none other than Ludacris, from the ‘Fred Claus’ soundtrack. It’s a play on ‘Here Comes Santa Claus,’ but with a hip-hop twist. I can’t help but giggle and bob my head every time it comes on. (And) anything from Trans-Siberian Orchestra. My recommendation would be their remix of ‘Carol of the Bells’ — it’s what they’re really known for.”
— Tiffany Esshaki, staff writer, Birmingham-Bloomfield Eagle

“Someone made an 8-bit Christmas album, meant to sound like the music in Nintendo 8-bit games from when we were kids (at I get a kick out of it.”
— David Wallace, editor

“I love Stevie Nicks’ version of ‘Silent Night.’ I think her voice sounds so
pretty and angelic on it. I also love to hear ‘Silver Bells’ by two different artists. I think Twisted Sister does a great job putting a rock ‘n’ roll spin on the song, while country singer Dwight Yoakam adds an upbeat vibe on his version.”
— Maria Allard, staff writer, Warren Weekly, Fraser-Clinton Chronicle


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