The holiday season and the music that comes with it is upon us once again. It is often seen as one of cheer, joy, and spending time with family and friends with lots of the music reflecting these themes. But the specific sounds of festive music can vary across a huge spectrum, with popular holiday music ranging from modern pop hits all the way to crooner style classics from the 40’s.
One such holiday album, albeit not the most well-known or mainstream but certainly one that draws your attention once it begins playing, is Christmas Caravan from swing revival band Squirrel Nut Zippers. The Zippers have made themselves stand out with their unique discography consisting of many different elements of jazz including swing, blues, and more. Their take on Christmas keeps the same elements from their usual work, but manages to hone it to the point where it doesn’t sound all over the place. This leads to the track list being very unique as a Christmas record, but remaining easily listenable for anyone looking for some holiday spirit.
The 1998 record begins with a rendition of the classic holiday tune “Winter Weather,” placed perfectly as the album opener. This track eases the listener into what is to come. As a whole, Christmas Caravan isn’t a conventional Christmas album, but on “Winter Weather,” the band puts their own spin on it while still maintaining the structure and tone of the original cut of this song. However, even with the relaxing tone of the song intact, the Zippers don’t shy from making the song their own through the instrumentation and the vocals. The track is composed specifically to make the instruments stand out even during the vocal performance with the piano and, more specifically, the horns being very clear throughout the song. On top of that, the vocal performance has a soft tone that gives the track a welcoming mood for the listener. This song is great in that it still creates that festive feeling, but keeps the main focus on the bouncy sort of tempo that develops the groovy, upbeat mood the Zippers are so good at creating.
A departure in some ways from the previous track’s more mellow, relaxing tone, “Hot Christmas” starts right off with some string bass and guitars and the much jazzier instrumentals. This track sounds almost nothing like “Winter Weather,” but the plucking of the bass along with various horns blaring make the track one that you and your family can easily get up and dance to. The beautiful thing about holiday music is that there are so many genres used, renditions, and covers, yet they can manage to evoke the same holiday spirit nonetheless. “Hot Christmas” shows this perfectly, and the result is an extremely groovy and entertaining track that contrasts the more mellow songs before it drastically but still brings that same holiday spirit.
Similar to “Hot Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride” focuses very heavily on brass instruments, which isn’t too surprising as that is what the Zippers often use to achieve the jazzy tunes they so often make. With “Sleigh Ride” being another classic holiday song, the absence of vocals on this track makes it interesting to listen to. Even with an entirely instrumental composition, it’s quite entertaining and you can still tell exactly what song it is nonetheless. The trumpets that layer this track make it another upbeat tune, and listening to it builds an image of walking through a town square with a huge Christmas tree in the middle. The upbeat tone of certain tracks like this one is great to listen to during the holiday season, and the creative liberties that are added mainly in the instrumentation but in the vocals as well make the tracks on this record have plenty of their own merit, even when compared to the original versions.
With all of the creative liberties and unique jazz focus that the Zippers add to the holidays on Christmas Caravan, the record acts as a reminder of the beautiful fluidity of music throughout genres and topics. On top of that, the record simply excels at exactly what a Christmas album is meant to do, which is to get you in the Christmas spirit. With the brass instruments layered with piano and guitars, along with the dynamic changes in tone across tracks, this album is one that is perfectly made for your family to dance by the Christmas tree with this on the record player.
Another fantastic example of a unique Christmas record is the 2016 collection Ella & Louis Christmas, a compilation of classic holiday songs along with a few original tracks done by famed vocalists and consistent collaborators Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.
Starting off the album is a rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from Ella Fitzgerald. What is immediately striking on this record are her astounding vocals, and there isn’t a single track where she falters whatsoever in that department. Her voice fits holiday music extremely well with her having a very rich and delicately full tone that makes every one of her tracks feel like you’re bundled up on a cold winter morning while listening.
Ella Fitzgerald follows up the slower, more relaxed tone from “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with a more and beautifully structured cover of “Frosty the Snowman.” Right off the bat, the track begins with a choir of voices all layered together to introduce the hook of the song. A trend throughout Ella Fitzgerald’s tracks is the ability to create the perfect mood for a Christmas song. Often holiday songs are listened to for a feeling of festive spirit and a welcoming tone. With Ella’s tracks, that is present through the entirety of every song, and you won’t be able to get enough of it. The combination of upbeat vocals from Ella with the thumping instrumentals in the background make it impossible not to snap your fingers along to the beat and crack a smile to this classic holiday tune.
However, even with Ella Fitzgerald’s fantastic tracks on the record, Louis Armstrong brings some of the most unique vocal delivery around to all of his songs. One of his more humorous and fun tracks, “‘Zat You, Santa Claus?,” showcases just how great Louis Armstrong is at making a song great with just his voice. The instrumentation on the song is filled with trumpets and thumps to keep that jazz style going that he and Ella are so well known for, but for much of the song the instrumental is kept quiet in the background in order to focus on mainly the vocals. Armstrong has a voice that is both strong and demands attention, but the super gravelly rasp that he sings with is something that can’t be replicated. It combines perfectly with the tongue in cheek lyrics like, “Oh there, Santa, you gave me a scare / Now stop teasing cause I know you’re there,” to create that festive cheer that Christmas songs aim for. Armstrong doesn’t have a traditional kind of voice for Christmas music, yet his ability to make his presence felt even through a recording makes every song he touches one that you’ll want to put on repeat at any Christmas party you go to.
Armstrong’s rendition of “Winter Wonderland” is a beautiful display of the adaptability that he possesses to go from a more fast-paced, jazzy tune, to a mellowed out and streamlined kind of song. This track is layered with smooth saxophone and violins, with even some soft piano accompaniment towards the end. All of these instruments are kept at a quiet volume in the background of the vocals to put more emphasis on Armstrong’s gruff yet soothing voice, very much reminiscent of another one of his other more popular songs, “What a Wonderful World.” Instead of using his one of a kind inflection to add infectious personality to the track like on “‘Zat You, Santa Claus?,” he stays at a low pitch and focuses on developing a tone of welcoming love. It makes you feel like you’re “walking through a winter wonderland” right beside him, and it perfectly reflects the holiday themes that the album is focusing on.
On Ella & Louis Christmas, the album is focused on creating a sound that makes you feel like you are in a Christmas wonderland with all of your stress melted away. Both Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s voices have a soothing sound that creates a wonderfully comforting atmosphere for the listener. Additionally the use of instrumentation focuses on using jazz elements but targeting a tranquil listening experience, with the record being the perfect one to listen to with friends and family by the fire on a cold winter night relaxing together.
Those Christmas themes of love and festivity that both Ella & Louis Christmas and Christmas Caravan seek to develop are very common throughout holiday music, and that isn’t what makes these records stand out amongst the hundreds of others the most. Rather, it is the ability for these artists to make the classics into their own in ways that no one else has done before. Ella & Louis Christmas is the kind of record to put on after coming in from sledding and needing something to relax and warm up too. Christmas Caravan on the other hand is the album to put on when the family is pumped up on holiday spirit and Christmas cookies and are ready to cut a rug. Whichever mood you and your family are in once the holidays come around, with two records, there’s always a perfect option to satisfy all of your musical Christmas desires.
Liam Fitzpatrick is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl