- The Gravel Pit, Sucking on a Holiday Treat. An avowed tribute to the bubblegum pop of The Archies (who didn’t release their own Christmas album until just a few years ago), this mid-‘90s pop confection arrived as The Gravel Pit was reaching a new plateau of popularity, not just selling out New Haven shows but making serious inroads into the revered Boston club scene. The band eventually did move to Boston, making this a momento of their final stretch of time as Connecticut residents. But it also hearkens back to The Gravel Pit’s earliest days, as a high school band in Durham. That’s when Jed Parish started creating holiday-song cassette tapes for friends and family. “Sucking on a Holiday Treat” was the culmination of those years of carol-composing, and anchored the first publically available cassette of Gravel Pit Christmas songs. It also appeared on the Pit's odds-and-ends CD NoOne Here Gets in for Free.
- Miracle Legion, Little Drummer Boy/Blue Christmas. Recorded at Presence Studios in Westport in 1985 and distributed internationally by Rough Trade Records, this holiday single fell within Miracle Legion’s first flush of fame with The Backyard EP (on Connecticut’s own Incas label) and the band’s first full-length album Surprise Surprise Surprise in 1987. This was when Miracle Legion was a raging four-piece New Haven band, though this one-two punch of Christmas classics is a relatively subdued effort and presages the eventual intimate duo approach of the late ‘80s.
- Timmy Maia, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” One of the state’s smoothest jazz vocalists, Timmy Maia turns a few Christmas standards on their head in his 8-song album With a Christmas Heart. The title song is a Luther Vandross song, well within Maia’s comfort zone. Then he veers deliriously into stuff by Vince Guaraldi (“Christmas Time is Here”), Mel Torme (“The Christmas Song”), Donny Hathaway (“This Christmas”) and even Rodgers & Hammerstein (“My Favorite Things,” from The Sound of Music). His take on Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine’s old-school showtune “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a multi-styled upbeat frolic that welcomes all the little boys & girls from its outset.
- The Mill Valley Taters, “Christmastized.” The Mill Valley Taters played rock guitar instrumentals with robotic synchronicity and deadpan expression against the metronomic tick of an unforgiving drum machine. This seasonal medley opens with” O Tannenbaum” and meanders through “Blue Christmas,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and other plaintive tunes before erupting into sheer electrified verve with “Joy to the World,” then fading back experimentally into Auld Lang Syne. Self-released by the band, but also found on the charity comp Caroling in Left Field: An Alternative Christmas Compilation released on Homebase Records.
- The Zambonis, “Christmas Hockey News.” Part of an extraordinary 35-track Tarquin Records All Star Holiday Extravaganza released in 1997. A novelty tune of sports and music in-jokes, it’s representative of everything that’s great about The Zambonis: an upbeat attitude, silly rhymes, eclectic instrumentation, garage-rock fervor, and hockey.
- Butterflies of Love, “Let It Snow.” Beautifully distorted Christmas sentiments from a Connecticut band which truly deserved all those devoted British fans it gained over the years. The duo behaves in the manner of great quirky Brit indie acts, challenging and prodding yet maintaining a sweet vulnerability. From the same source as #5 above, The Tarquin Records All Star Holiday Extravaganza.
- The Carpenters, “Christmas Portrait.” An eight-minute choral medley produced with what was the Carpenter’s trademark angelic overproduction, replete with saccharine strings, from the New Haven-raised Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait album. To the untrained ear, this could be Lawrence Welk or the Longine Symphony, but there are nuances which make it an assured 1970s MOR document.
- Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas. Mentioned here because in 2008 this venerated 1977 Muppet-based Christmas TV special was produced as a full-length stage musical. It premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam and returned the following season for a second engagement. Composer Paul Williams greatly expanded the score, with four new songs—“Waterville”, “Trust”, “Our World,” “At the Music Store” plus one tune, “Born in a Trunk,” which had been cut from the original TV special.
- The Reducers, “Nothing for Christmas.” Pop-punk bitterness, with a touch of seasonal redemption and self-analysis. The “ho ho ho” is the middle always gets me, and leads into a brilliant Christmas-jangled guitar break.
10. “Must Be Santa,” Gone Native. A rockabilly rebel swing take on the Hal Moore/Bill Fredericks call-and-response number first made famous by Mitch Miller in the 1960s. Live, Gone Native (which later morphed into Big Bad Johns and The Swaggerts) combined the tune with Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus & Lucy” from A Charlie Brown Christmas.
11. “Fum, Fum, Fum,” Michael Bolton & Placido Domingo & Ying Huang. The erstwhile New Haven metalhead and ‘80s white-soul crooner dons a tux and sings alongside international opera stars on the album Merry Christmas from Vienna. The pairing is no more bizarre than on this high-end, overwrought rendition of a cheery Catalan Christmas carol which dates back 500 years or more.
12. In the spirit of Christmas grace and charity, I’m leaving this slot blank, since there are many other fine contenders. WPLR’s Local Bands show alone has spotlit dozens of great local-band Christmas tunes, and even broadcast live concerts in which a slew of locals have covered seasonal standards. For this year’s Local Bands Show Christmas special, hosted by Rick Allison and James Velvet, check the archives at http://www.thelocalbandsshow.com/LBS.html