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1. Jenn Grant - Downtown Christmas Eve
The widespread re-emergence of a grinch called COVID-19 has stolen the gift of this weekend’s planned Halifax Christmas shows from fans of Jenn Grant, but as with the Whos down in Whoville, her songs cannot be silenced.
Instead of taking the stage of the Halifax Convention Centre, the P.E.I.-raised performer will present a virtual Christmas Spectacular on Sunday, Dec. 6, at 8:30 p.m., showcasing the songs from her brand new album Forever on Christmas Eve for her fans from coast-to-coast. Proceeds from each ticket will go towards venues and events across Canada that have featured the singer through her career at a time when giving support to the people and places we love couldn’t be more crucial.
That spirit is fully in evidence on Forever on Christmas Eve, with classic songs that celebrate family fellowship and thinking of loved ones, especially at a time when it’s not always possible to share those feelings in person.
Produced by Grant’s partner Dan Ledwell to have the warm glow of those crackly old family vinyl LPs that get taken out of the cupboard every December, the retro feel is fully embraced on the standout original song Downtown Christmas Eve with its neo-doo wop groove and lyrics about swooning in the arms of a loved one and getting lost in the glow of the holiday lights.
Tickets to Grant’s Sunday streaming concert, or a series of intimate private Christmas Carol Zoom shows that fans can enjoy in their cozy home bubbles, can be found on her merch page. Those who purchased tickets to the now-canceled Halifax Convention Centre shows will be automatically refunded by Ticket Atlantic.
2. Rita MacNeil - Now the Bells Ring
When it comes to crackly vinyl Christmas LPs, few are more cherished in these parts than Rita MacNeil’s Now the Bells Ring. Jenn Grant says she considered including the title song on her own Christmas album, but upon reflection she realized that some songs are simply perfect as they are.
Released in 1988, the Big Pond icon’s first holiday album is a quintessential East Coast classic, with a full, dramatic production suited to MacNeil’s powerful, heartfelt vocals. Part of the reason those original LPs are so cherished is because Now the Bells Ring has been out-of-print for decades, and aside from its title track, the music is unavailable from streaming services like Spotify or as a download from platforms like iTunes.
Your best bet is to keep an eye on the Christmas section of your favourite used record store, or seek out the 1996 CD collection Joyful Sounds - A Seasonal Collection. If you grew up with this one, and want to revisit the memories it brings, it’s probably worth that virtual shopping trip to Discogs or eBay to track it down.
3. Luanne Hunt - Christmas Without You
One last connection to Grant’s Forever on Christmas Eve stems from her description of the sound she and Ledwell were after was “the Christmas album Patsy Cline never made,” which can be felt in its warm glow and occasional hints of pedal steel guitar. And while it’s true that Cline’s stunning voice never graced a holiday recording — apart from some TV appearances singing Let It Snow with Ferlin Husky and Winter Wonderland with Red Foley — she did commission one of her favourite songwriting teams Lawton Jiles & Buster Beam to write a song for consideration as a Christmas single.
Ultimately, Cline didn’t release a single of Jiles’ and Beam’s Christmas Without You, but in 20011, California singer Luanne Hunt learned the story of the song and put out her own version with a classic Nashville sound. The track earned her some success on independent country charts, but I’d say the underappreciated song is still worthy of further interpretation by established country artists.
4. OneRepublic - Christmas Without You
Sometimes when going through lists of holiday songs, you let the word association game lead you where it will, which brought me to this tune by Colorado rockers OneRepublic which bears no resemblance at all to Patsy Cline. Released as a single in 2011 and on the 25th anniversary edition of the A Very Special Christmas compilation series, the song should have become an annual radio staple with its straightforward approach and honest performance. Maybe that’ll change this year as singer Ryan Tedder’s plaintive lament about being away from a loved one is felt so keenly by those kept apart by travel restrictions.
5. Meaghan Smith - Cold This Christmas
Returning to the theme of East Coast chanteuses singing seasonal songs with a retro vibe, you don’t have to look any further than Halifax’s Meaghan Smith, who gifted us with the delightful Cold This Christmas a year ago, but more recently included the song on a newer EP of the same name that’s currently available on Spotify with five original songs like the romantic Christmas Kiss and a grin-inducing Introvert at a Christmas Party, who gives egg nog a thumbs down, spiked or otherwise.
6. Rose Cousins & Don Brownrigg - Little Road to Bethlehem
There’s no fixed link connecting East Coast islands P.E.I. and Newfoundland, but who needs one when you’ve got music bringing together the voices of the former’s Rose Cousins and the latter’s Don Brownrigg? Of course, both are based in Halifax now, but I like to think there’s a special interprovincial cross-pollination that makes their voices sound so sweet together, especially on this folk tune inspired by the first Christmas and its pastoral imagery of sheep in the fields and a babe in the manger.
7. Chelsea Amber & Dana Marie - God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Hearing Cousins’ & Brownrigg’s very personal take on a tune that’s normally a dramatic choral piece sent me looking for another unique interpretation of an ancient Yuletide carol, which brought me to this contemporary folk-gospel version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by former Haligonian Chelsea Amber and Ontario Christian artist Dana Marie. With the combo of their stellar voices, the song has a groove that is heavy on comfort and joy, and won’t let you get much rest.
8. John Legend - Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (w. Esperanza Spalding)
Grant’s album ends with an emotive Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, so it seemed appropriate to also end this playlist with the song first made famous by Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis. But which of the countless renditions would be appropriate?
Depending on the performance, the song can either seem gloomy or cheery — consider its original success in the midst of the Second World War when the line “if the fates allow” took on a very somber meaning — so let’s go with the latter in this jazzy, festive take by John Legend and Esperanza Spalding, putting the emphasis on the merry and light-hearted aspects of the lyrics, especially when combined with its bright and playful music video.