Now Hear This: Christmas Episode

Tracklist:

  1. RS INTRO
  2. THE BEATLES: “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)”
  3. JAMES BROWN: “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”
  4. NICK LOWE: “Christmas at the Airport”
  5. ERIC CLAPTON: “Christmas Tears”
  6. BOB DYLAN: “Must Be Santa”
  7. THE THREE WISE MEN: “Thanks for Christmas”
  8. BIG STAR: “Jesus Christ” (album version)
  9. CHRIS SQUIRE AND ALAN WHITE: “Run with the Fox”
  10. JETHRO TULL: “Ring Out, Solstice Bells”
  11. NRBQ: “Jolly Old St. Nicholas”
  12. ELTON JOHN: “Ho! Ho! Ho! (Who’d Be a Turkey at Christmas?)”
  13. JONI MITCHELL: “Face Lift”
  14. THE BAND: “Christmas Must Be Tonight”
  15. THE PRETENDERS: “2000 Miles”
  16. NICK LOWE & LOS STRAITJACKETS: “Children Go Where I Send Thee” (live)
  17. THE PRETENDERS: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
  18. THE BEACH BOYS: “Morning Christmas”
  19. THE BEACH BOYS: “Christmas Eve”
  20. PAUL WINTER: “Tomorrow Is My Dancing Day”
  21. STAN KENTON ORCHESTRA: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”
  22. MIKE MURPHY: “Two-Step Medley”
  23. PAT METHENY & LYLE MAYS: “Ozark”
  24. THE GYPSY HOMBRES: “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”
  25. CHERISH THE LADIES: “On Christmas Night”
  26. WARREN SCHATZ: “Let It Snow”
  27. STU HAMM: “Sleigh Ride”
  28. VINCE GUARALDI TRIO: “Skating”
  29. LAURA NYRO: “Let It Be Me/The Christmas Song”
  30. LEONARD BERNSTEIN: “Appalachian Spring: VII Doppio Movimento (Gift to Be Simple)”
  31. AMY GRANT: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”

Note: The “Play this track” cues below may be off by several seconds on mobile devices.

Song Notes:

RS INTRO

THE BEATLES: “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” Play this track
This is the complete take, an edited version of which appeared on the 1967 edition of The Beatles’ Fan Club’s annual Christmas Flexi Disc sent to Fan Club members, gratis, every year. The track’s off-the-wall Christmas-themed lyrics and classic 1967-vintage Beatles sound are in full flower here. Then there’s John Lennon’s inspired “Krimble” finale, which makes this one golden. This complete take of “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” appeared as the b-side to the “Real Love” single from February 1986.

JAMES BROWN: “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” Play this track
Straight to the point and super funky. Happy holidays from James Brown, The Godfather of Christmas, to you, circa 1968.

NICK LOWE: “Christmas at the Airport” Play this track
This is a new twist on Christmas. Catchy, relatable, and full of Nick Lowe’s sly observations. A new Christmas classic?

ERIC CLAPTON: “Christmas Tears” Play this track
Some folks get the blues at Christmas but you’re getting the blues here and now. Clapton means it on this one. Just listen.

BOB DYLAN: “Must Be Santa” Play this track
Ever see the video for this, Bob Dylan’s crazy Christmas polka? Go to YouTube right now. I’ll wait here.

THE THREE WISE MEN: “Thanks for Christmas” Play this track
XTC in disguise, circa 1984. A big Christmas production of a cool original Christmas song by a great, unsung band — Christmas bliss.

BIG STAR: “Jesus Christ” (album version) Play this track
What a song. What a performance. Alex Chilton breaks out his Christmas finest.

CHRIS SQUIRE AND ALAN WHITE: “Run with the Fox” Play this track
Yes’ gifted rhythm section appeared out of nowhere to offer up this unexpected and bouncy Christmas single back in 1981. A forgotten beauty I spin every holiday season.

JETHRO TULL: “Ring Out, Solstice Bells” Play this track
I remember buying the similarly titled British E.P. in 1976 and fell in love with this, the original version. Jethro Tull re-recorded it for their official Christmas album in 2003 and that take is actually quite faithful to the original. But this recording is a must-play Christmas song at my house during the holidays and it always evokes the season for me. Isn’t it amazing the way sounds can trigger vivid memories and moods?

NRBQ: “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” Play this track
Innocent, beautiful, and evocative. Dig pianist Terry Adams’ Schroeder-sized child’s piano at the song’s tag.

ELTON JOHN: “Ho! Ho! Ho! (Who’d Be a Turkey at Christmas?) Play this track
The b-side To Elton John’s 1973 hit, “Step Into Christmas” treats listeners to a … um … unique Christmas experience. Lotsa presumably mind-altering fun at Christmas chez Elton.

JONI MITCHELL: “Face Lift” Play this track
This is a great song. By turns haunting, honest, wistful, and difficult, this late-era Joni Mitchell performance pulls no punches. A compelling take on visiting family for the holidays, it brims over with beauty, grace, and reality. Her singing here is a performance unto itself.

THE BAND: “Christmas Must Be Tonight” Play this track
The Band’s 1976 beatific Christmas single is a keeper. This one’s hard to describe but it really conjures the Christmas spirit in me every year. There’s a great rock version outtake to be found elsewhere, but I chose to stick with the tried and true this time. Maybe we’ll play the other version on next year’s Christmas episode.

THE PRETENDERS: “2000 Miles” Play this track
One of the best Christmas songs out there. Chrissie Hynde’s vocals are at turns awe-stricken, wistful, and sublime. Christmas gold.

NICK LOWE & LOS STRAITJACKETS: “Children Go Where I Send Thee” (live) Play this track
If you say so, Nick. A traditional holiday tune done up anew. This is quite something.

THE PRETENDERS: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” Play this track
Turns out Chrissie Hynde is perfectly suited for this Christmas chestnut. Stunning.

THE BEACH BOYS: “Morning Christmas” Play this track
Late Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson’s evocative song and performances — he plays and sings everything on this recording (which is curiously credited to The Beach Boys). Dennis’ soulful vibe makes this simultaneously enchanting and haunting, just like the song itself. By the way it’s the droning of Dennis’ bass harmonica that’s rattling the frost off your windows. This moody track ultimately shifts into a beautiful Christmas piano melody. Darkly intense and inviting. A+

THE BEACH BOYS: “Christmas Eve” Play this track
Studio banter precedes Brian Wilson’s production of this swingin’ instruments-only backing track. His command of the studio is in full flower here. This is a previously unreleased outtake from the sessions for The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album.

—Rock Stamberg

PAUL WINTER: “Tomorrow Is My Dancing Day” Play this track
Paul Winter (and the Paul Winter Consort), presented songs that blended elements of folk, classical, and jazz into tapestries easily understandable to the layman and the music junkie alike. His music fell into the same category as Jethro Tull when they did “Bouree” or “Fat Man.” A folkie mix that included whatever else was in the kitchen at the time. My favorite mixed cassette was a Christmas tape I made for my sister, the Mighty De (Dianne). This tune started off that tape and announced the joy of the season.

STAN KENTON ORCHESTRA: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” Play this track
Brass bands doing Christmas carols are tops in my book. I heard this on the radio and went on a search to buy the LP. I was rewarded as I knew I would be. I love the counterpoint and harmonies.

MIKE MURPHY: “Two-Step Medley” Play this track
This is my folk country take on the holiday season. It’s my fiddle and Jew’s harp and mandolin selection. “Deck the Hall” has the vibrancy it should and “Buffalo Gals” takes me back to It’s a Wonderful Life, my favorite holiday movie.

PAT METHENY & LYLE MAYS: “Ozark” Play this track
Do you have a winter song? This is mine. I imagine myself on a sleigh ride heading for the next town. It’s cold, it’s daylight. I’m laughing as we go along, and it’s exhilarating. I’m exhausted and happy when we arrive.

THE GYPSY HOMBRES: “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” Play this track
Fun song and I’m always happy to hear the versions by Bruce Springsteen or The Crystals (A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector). But this puppy done in the hot club style of Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt just swings like a mother. I find it puts a little pep in my step.

CHERISH THE LADIES: “On Christmas Night” Play this track
My best bud at Cherry Lane Music (where I worked for many years) was Mike Connelly and he left us too soon. He, like me, was a music geek. We could go toe to toe on classic rock trivia. But he left me in the dust when it came to Christmas (and Irish) music. I was the lucky one because we always exchanged cassettes and later CDs for the holidays. His treasure trove of Christmas goodies was deep, and this Irish Christmas tune was one of his favorites. My friend’s passing makes this a bittersweet time of year for me. Mike, this one is for you. I know you’re listening.

WARREN SCHATZ: “Let It Snow” Play this track
I worked at Touchwood Records with Warren Schatz in the late ’90s. He had been a V.P. of A&R at RCA Records, but more importantly he was an accomplished arranger and producer with a unique claim to fame. He came up with the idea to make a record called “What If Mozart Had Written ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas?’” The premise was to take Christmas carols and arrange them as if they had been written by the great classical composers. What a great idea! And wonderfully executed, I might add.

STU HAMM: “Sleigh Ride” Play this track
Stu is one of the great “how do they do that” electric bassists. He’s recorded and played with guitar legends Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Frank Gambale, as well as recording several albums of his own. He has a wonderful sense of humor and it’s displayed in abundance on this giddy version of “Sleigh Ride.” You know when something just feels right? This feels right. If you ever need to put a smile on your face, even outside of the holiday season, just listen to this. Enjoy. I know you will.

VINCE GUARALDI TRIO: “Skating” Play this track
This is the least played and least well-known classic from the legendary A Charlie Brown Christmas cartoon. It has all the whimsy and light-hearted spirit I love from the show, but I just don’t get to hear it as often as “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Time is Here.” That changes today.

LAURA NYRO: “Let It Be Me/The Christmas Song” Play this track
Every year I will dance with my wife by the Christmas tree while this song plays. I am drawn to the sound of Laura Nyro’s voice and equally drawn to the sound of Richard Tee’s Fender Rhodes piano playing. Those sounds do me nothing but good.

LEONARD BERNSTEIN: “Appalachian Spring: VII Doppio Movimento (Gift to Be Simple)” Play this track
This song takes me to my dad’s spirit and always brings a smile to my face and and a tear to my eye. It’s music that exalts and celebrates the goodness of life, which is what I associate with the holiday season. I love to hear this one played loud.

AMY GRANT: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” Play this track
One of Bach’s most applauded melodies, this instrumental version moves into an infectious Irish twist that I imagine was played during the joyous section of A Christmas Carol. It’s the part in a Christmas past where Ebenezer Scrooge is at his happiest and all his friends and co-workers are dancing and toasting to the magnificence of the season.


I’m a big fan of Christmas music. It fills me with wonderful memories, and even today brings me to a place of calm and of joy. The Christmas season was a big deal in my house when I was growing up. One of my fondest memories is using a sponge to apply Johnson’s wax through a stencil on our picture window in the living room. We had our own snowflakes to ponder, regardless of the weather. I have tree decorations from when I was a child and have already begun passing them on to my daughters and their families. I loved that radio stations changed formats at this time of year and traditional carols and newer Christmas songs found me through our AM — and,  later, FM — radios. Christmas is the only holiday with its own body of music. I wish there were others. Valentine’s Day has love songs, but it’s not the same.

When it comes to Christmas music, I am pretty traditional. I love the 16 or so classic carols written long ago such as “Silent Night” “Joy To The World” “The First Noel,” “Deck The Halls” and their kin. I also like the pre-rock Christmas classics like “Silver Bells,” “Sleigh Ride” and “Let It Snow.” Is it possible for any Christmas devotee not to smile when he or she hears the music from A Charlie Brown Christmas?

Some Christmas recordings often bring me silent tears. Unrestrained emotion, which I have found in the music of John Coltrane or via Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Inner Mounting Flame album, bring me a certain kind of peacefulness. But you must give in and let it wash over you. It’s an eye-of-the-hurricane experience that I seek out several times a year. Oddly enough, these Christmas tunes can serve much the same purpose.

I decided that for my portion of this NHT I would share some of my favorite instrumental Christmas songs or tunes that evoke the season for me. I love to hear these songs when I am alone or in the evening, with others, looking out at the stillness the cold weather brings. If there’s snow, so much the better. I also enjoy listening to these songs in the car because I can play them loud.

I’d like to raise a toast to all our NHT listeners. May the upcoming days be merry and bright.

—John Stix