Choosing the right melodies for holiday parties

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.”

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.”

It’s hard to put a new spin on holiday classics like “Jingle Bells” or “Silent Night.” Yet every year, several artists try, hoping their rendition may stand out from the crowd and become part of the Christmas musical canon.

A few notable albums from this year’s hopefuls:

  • Anita Baker, “Christmas Fantasy”, The husky-voiced R&B diva brings her sensual tone to classics ranging from “O Come All Ye Faithful” to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
  • Brian Wilson, “What I Really Want For Christmas”. One of the most melodic rockers takes on melodies including “Silent Night” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
  • Jane Monheit, “This Season”
    The jazz siren with the lush pipes covers traditional songs like “Have a Merry Little Christmas” and “This Christmas.”
  • Martha Stewart, “The Holiday Collection”
    Can she get any more overexposed? The recently freed felon, who seems to be making up for lost time with two TV talk shows and a host of new products, puts out this three-disc box set. Thankfully, she doesn’t sing. Instead, she selects the best holiday music for your soiree, from traditional pop to jazz to classical. And of course, there are recipes and tips to make your own decorations.
  • Diana Krall, “Christmas Songs”. Just the cover, which features Krall leaning back in a sexy pose, gives you an idea of the mood the album inspires. Seductive and sassy, Krall is joined here by the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.
  • The LeeVees, “Hanukkah Rocks”. Plenty of humor, with tracks like “Jewish Girls (at the Matzoh Ball)” and “At the Timeshare.”
  • Various Artists, “A John Waters Christmas”
    Anyone who picks up a Christmas album with an “explicit lyrics” tag on it probably isn’t worried about offending anyone. In fact, that may be the goal. If so, this Christmas CD from director John Waters will more than deliver, with songs like “Happy Birthday Jesus,” “Santa Claus Is a Black Man,” and “Little Mary Christmas.”
  • Yourself, “U Sing It Christmas”
    Hey, why should those “American Idol” kids have all the fun? This album lets you sing Christmas classics and have an instant karaoke party. Pop it into your computer, sing and e-mail it to the universe for a laugh or to become the next Nat King Cole.