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1. Fortunate Ones - Hold on to Christmas Day
It might be impossible to write a new holiday song this year that doesn’t acknowledge the events of 2020, and Fortunate Ones’ Catharine Allan and Andrew O’Brien take advantage of their St. John’s vantage point to offer up a message of hope and peace to fans across Canada and listeners worldwide on Hold on to Christmas Day.
An uplifting melody that the duo hopes will be a ray of light to listeners this season, the tune was born during August sessions with Newfoundland folk-pop hero Alan Doyle for his new EP Songs From Home, which also includes contributions from the Once, the Ennis Sisters and Rachel Cousins.
“We’ve been calling it an ode to the good parts of 2020 and a good riddance to all the awful parts,” says Allan, who previously offered a helping of Christmas cheer with O’Brien on the 2016 album All Will Be Well.
Hold on to Christmas Day is currently a stand-alone single that can be found on YouTube, streaming platforms like Spotify and the band’s own website, but it fits in well with other seasonal originals by Fortunate Ones like This Empty Street and What We Got. Maybe it won’t resonate in quite the same way in years to come, when Atlantic Canadians can freely travel and be with loved ones like before, but the pair feels the song’s overall message of sharing and keeping others in your heart will always ring true.
“Obviously it’s a different Christmas for everyone this year. But I think it’s important to realize that the true essence of Christmas isn’t necessarily about where you are,” says O’Brien. “For me, it’s about being grateful for the gifts we are given, and as a people, generally we persevere.”
2. Kenny & Dolly - Christmas Without You
During our conversation, when asked about favourite holiday albums, both members of Fortunate Ones placed Kenny Rogers’ and Dolly Parton’s 1984 classic Once Upon a Christmas at the top of their nostalgic memory pile, a fact they pretty much already confirmed when they did a cover of the Kenny & Dolly duet Christmas Without You four years ago on All Will Be Well.
The song seems doubly poignant this year with the passing of the Gambler himself back in March — and Parton’s moving comments about losing a true friend and collaborator — so it seems this Christmas couldn’t go by without a spin or two of a record that’s already so near and dear to so many at this time of year.
3. Ryan’s Fancy / The Ennis Sisters - A Children's Winter
Christmas is a bright light in the middle of a long, and often challenging Newfoundland and Labrador winter, but this Dermot O’Reilly song from the pioneering 1971 Ryan’s Fancy album Dark Island sees the season through the eyes of a child, where a fresh blanket of snow offers vast possibilities for fun and mischief.
As luck would have it, O’Reilly’s performance of A Children’s Winter was preserved on the group’s CBC-TV show in the 1970s, and a fan has uploaded it to YouTube, but I’m going to offer a truly beautiful rendition by another well-known Newfoundland group, the Ennis Sisters, who included it on their 2012 album It’s Christmas.
4. Last Christmas - Carly Rae Jepsen
Another song favoured by Fortunate Ones, and covered by them on All Will Be Well, is the unstoppable Last Christmas by Wham, with an impassioned George Michael vocal that remains timeless. Unless you’re one of those playing the online “Whamageddon” challenge to see who can get the furthest in December without hearing the song, of course.
I’m more of a LIttle Drummer Boy Challenge guy myself, although mine ended early when I heard a Hawaiian lounge version by the Waikikis before the month even started, and I have no problem with Michael’s and Andrew Ridgely’s bewailing the loss of an ill-placed heart. But even so, it’s fun to scroll through the dozens of cover versions of this ’80s hit, and I settled on this sprightly version by Canada’s own pop queen Carly Rae Jepsen.
5. The Once - The Light in Your Window
Like the Ennis Sisters, NL trio the Once also appears on Doyle’s Songs From Home project, and they also have a terrific holiday gift of their own from 2016, titled This Is a Christmas Album by the Once.
Singer Geraldine Hollett and multi-instrumentalists Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale present an incandescent mix of traditional carols, Christmas novelties and wistful originals, including The Light in Your Window. A romantic waltz about coming home for the holidays after being so far away, the song will carry some extra pangs for many who hear it, but it’s a balm enough to hear the notes of hope in Hollett’s warm, healing voice.
6. Gwen Stefani - Under the Christmas Lights
Speaking of lights, my brain went to this danceable retro number from Gwen Stefani’s delightful You Make It Feel Like Christmas album from 2017.
With a Motown beat and a slightly Mod feel, Under the Christmas Lights has a classic groove that would be infinitely more welcome on the airwaves than any number of overplayed holiday hits, but then that’s what playlists like this are for, to find an intriguing alternative to the tried and true.
7. “Bill Compton” - 25th of the 12th
Like a lot of fans of vintage Christmas music who were glued to Netflix’s outstanding limited series The Queen’s Gambit, my ears lit up at the appearance in episode three of a previously unknown holiday song called The 25th of the 12th, a fun, lounge-y, vocal number performed by a chorus not immediately recognizable.
Even as a longtime collector of old holiday vinyl and CDs, the song was a complete mystery. A quick search on Google told me the song was by someone named Bill Compton, and its publisher had posted the song on YouTube and Spotify back in April — perhaps in anticipation of its upcoming use in the show, which has a deftly chosen soundtrack as one of its many delights.
Digging a little deeper, it turns out the song was written by the team of William Crompton (not "Compton") and Les Johnston, and recorded in 1958 by U.K. vocal group the Mike Sammes Singers who, weirdly enough, also sang the strange backing vocals on the Beatles’ psychedelic trip I Am the Walrus a decade later. Another Fab Four connection: the earliest Beatles recording session in Hamburg, backing pop singer Tony Sheridan, included a cover of the Crompton composition Why.
I can’t fully guarantee that this is the Mike Sammes Singers version, but given that no other recording of it appears on record collecting sites like Discogs and 45cat, I’d say it’s a safe bet.
8. Fortunate Ones - Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!
Let’s bring this playlist back full circle, with a return to Fortunate Ones, and a song that’s simply pure, unadulterated joy from their All Will Be Well EP.
For a group that excels at distilling the essence of human relationships and chronicling our unceasing quest for hope and fulfillment, it’s also nice to hear Allan and O’Brien cut loose with a song that has an unabashedly goofy title and a wide-eyed encapsulation of what it means to be a kid again when the snow falls and the Christmas decorations come out of the crawlspace.