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Finding the right mix key to holiday music

Combination of new and traditional tunes can bring cheer to party
/ Source: The Associated Press

There are certain songs so magical, so enchanting, they have the power to put even the worst scrooge in a merry holiday mood.

But for every “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole or “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby, there are also those dreaded songs that have the reverse effect — turning Christmas cheer into holiday jeer as soon as the first note blares from the speaker system.

“Holiday depression is caused by those barking dogs,” insists Scott Frampton, contributing music editor for O, The Oprah Magazine, referring to the semi-humorous, mostly maddening rendition of “Jingle Bells” by the Singing Dogs.

What’s irritating to one ear, however, may be intoxicating to another. If you’ve been delegated to come up with the musical mix for an office party, family gathering or blowout with friends, devising a holiday soundtrack that will leave everyone happy may seem as elusive as a Santa Claus sighting. But music aficionados say it’s doable — with good planning and good taste.

“I think people start going wrong when they bring out ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’ and those kind of novelty hits, because they wear on people,” says Frampton, who has more than 200 holiday music CDs and creates special-mix CDs for family and friends each year.

“They don’t look around, because they just don’t know that there is a lot of really great stuff out there that would appeal to a lot of different people.”

Cornucopia of holiday cheer
Indeed, for a genre that’s popular only about two months a year, the variety of holiday music is staggering — from jazz to hip-hop, from comedic to religious. This year alone, artists putting out holiday CDs include R&B songstress Faith Evans, jazz siren Diana Krall, veteran rocker Brian Wilson and country singer Ricky Skaggs.

Herb Agner, vice president of catalog marketing for EMI, which puts out several Christmas albums each year, says there are obvious songs to dust off every holiday season: “White Christmas,” the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Charlie Brown Christmas,” or Elvis Presley’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” are among the enduring favorites.

“Obviously people want the classics,” says Agner. “It’s part of a sense of home and staying a part of something you grew up with.”

At the same time, many people want something fresh and updated; even old-timers get a little weary hearing “Jingle Bell Rock” the umpteenth time.

Frampton suggests mixing some updated renditions from current artists with tried-and-true gems — putting a Destiny’s Child remake of “Silent Night” in the same rotation as Dean Martin’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” for example. Or adding Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” after Eartha Kitt’s campy “Santa Baby.”

But picking the right modern-day interpretation of a holiday standard can be tricky, says Ron Zellner, senior vice president of XM Satellite radio, which is adding five different channels of holiday music for the season.

“It’s sort of a Catch-22 that many artists go through when they launch a holiday album because they obviously want to sing songs that are familiar, but they run the risk of people comparing them to these icons,” he says.

Agner’s company has tried to incorporate the best of both with funky, chill-out remixes of old favorites on the new CD “Merry Mixmas.”

“You’re getting those songs and those artists that you know and love, but basically, you’re getting them as a twist, seen through a new set of eyes, and we thought that was a great way of basically having it both ways,” he says.

It’s also important to time the tempo of the evening with the music.

“If it’s a dinner party, where people are going to stay and want to talk throughout the rest of the night, you can’t go too dancey,” says Dahlia Ambach-Caplin, a Verve Records executive and producer of its “Verve Remixed” series, which give jazz classics a modern spin. “People won’t be able to hear one another.”

Frampton agrees. Think about Christmas music as you would any other music when planning the evening, he advises.

“If you were going to have a dinner party ... during a salad course, would you have a bunch of rousing singalongs?”

It also might be good to add some non-holiday songs to the rotation.

“Everywhere you go during the holidays, you hear Christmas music ad nauseam,” says Ambach-Caplin. “Not everyone wants to listen to Christmas music all day all the time.”

And as on any other evening of entertaining, it’s important to know your audience and which songs will elicit a knowing smile — or a grimace. Cheech & Chong’s “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” might be a riot for your friends, but raise eyebrows at an office party.

Perhaps the worst offense is repetition: As enchanting as “The Christmas Song” is, even Nat King Cole can get stale after a gazillion listens.

“That’s the biggest challenge, for people to find something that they really like that’s fresh,” says Agner. “You don’t want to be only playing ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’ ... Although at the right time, that song might be the perfect thing to throw into the mix.”