Each year when Christmas creeps up and artists from the pop and rock realms start sinking their teeth into non-traditional holiday tunes, we hear a whole other hierarchy of seasonal songs that have become standards themselves. You can usually count on some gritty guy with a guitar rasping out “Run Rudolph Run,” for instance, while everybody from boy bands to metal mongers chooses sides in the perennial Fab Four Christmas war, covering either Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” or John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” And when modern Christmas crooners want to get singer/songwriter sensitive they inevitably turn to Joni Mitchell’s timeless piano ballad “River” from her milestone 1971 album, Blue. Granted, it’s not quite a full-on Christmas song per se, but it does include the “Jingle Bells” riff and begin with the line “It’s comin’ on Christmas,” so that’s close enough. The latest to journey down Joni’s “River” is Cee Lo, on his new Christmas album, Cee Lo’s Magic Moment. But don’t start there. As Christmas gets closer, here are the only “River” re-workings you need in your Holiday rotation.
1. Beth Orton
After the British songbird wowed the world with her Andrew Weatherall-produced blend of folk and trip-hop (Flip-hop?) on 1996’s Trailer Park, she started showing her troubadour roots more clearly — eventually on her Central Reservation album, but before that on this BBC session, where she let her Joni flag fly.
Joni learned a lot from jazz musicians and wasn’t shy about showing it, but relatively few jazz players have returned the favor. That’s one of the reasons Herbie Hancock’s 2007 Joni tribute, River: The Joni Letters, was such a breath of fresh air, and its almost impressionistic take on the title track is a high point.
3. Guy Garvey
When it comes to choosing a holiday song, what’s a chap with a Ricky Gervais face and Peter Gabriel pipes to do? If you’re Elbow frontman Guy Garvey at Rufus Wainwright’s 2009 A Not So Silent Night show at Royal Albert Hall, you say, “I’m gonna sing a song…which is thoroughly depressing,” then pull on your mukluks and start tromping in a tender-but-tough fashion towards the tune in question.
4. Rosie Thomas
You might’ve seen Thomas as “Sheila” in Sufjan Stevens‘ recent Christmas album teaser trailer for his new box set Silver & Gold, but in 2008, the Portland-based singer-songwriter released a gem of a Christmas album called A Very Rosie Christmas. And while she took a stab at penning her own Holiday numbers, it’s “River” that’s one of the album’s standouts.
5. Aimee Mann
In her own estimable songbook, Aimee Mann neither suffers fools gladly nor lets herself off easy, so while the self-effacement of Joni’s wintry plaint may not lend itself to following with a “fa-la-la-la-la,” it fits right into Mann’s emotionally unsparing agenda. Best when accompanied with eggnog.