Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Music Roundup

Every year, for a solid month, Christmas music is everywhere. It's in retail stores, lobbies, groceries, and airports. Radio stations change formats to play it full-time. And we would probably be bombarded with it earlier if it weren't for the timing of Thanksgiving to set limits on the holiday season.

What's interesting is that rarely are the songs you hear in public or on commercial radio traditional Christmas carols like "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"- they're usually popular songs dating back no further than Burl Ives or Irving Berlin.

And with years of listening to this music you get a good sense of what songs you like and dislike. Here's a selection of the good, the bad, and the unbearable.

Underrated Christmas Carol- The Holly and the Ivy
This is a great, sometimes lively song with beautiful harmonies, and it doesn't get enough recognition. Holly and ivy are hardy winter plants, and the tradition was to keep some inside during the season with the hope of surviving like the plants. The red and green of holly and ivy are also the traditional colors of Christmas. The song also has nice pastoral imagery such as "the rising of the sun' and the "running of the deer"- perhaps vestiges of its pagan origins. When it is performed, a problem is that too many renditions are done by English choir boys who sing in annoyingly high registers. This carol sounds best when performed by deep, resonant voices.

Vince Guaraldi Trio- My Little Drum
The entire A Charlie Brown Christmas album is great, including original compositions like "Skating" and "Christmas Is Coming". But I'm most impressed with Vince Guaraldi's interpretation of "The Little Drummer Boy". For a song that's prone to plodding renditions, Guaraldi makes it stately yet cool with a jazzy piano phrasing for the verses. In place of lyrical parts, the children's chorus keeps a steady rhythm with their repititions of 'rum pa rum pum' behind the piano, and are a better illustration of a drummer keeping time than the orignal song. Things get even better when the children segue into the airy, dulcet "ooooohs". As mentioned earlier, children's choirs are tricky to do, but here, their gentle harmonies are a hymn sent up to the heavens.

My Little Drum - Vince Guaraldi Trio

Mariah Carey- All I Want For Christmas Is You

Everybody loves this song, even the people that say they don't. When they do admit it, it's usually prefaced by saying, "I'm not into Mariah Carey...but I love this song". (They're also lying because they love Mariah's other songs). A song in the 60's girl group style, it's accented nicely with familiar holiday sounds like a tinkling music box intro, bright chimes, and shaking bells that keep a sleigh-ride pace. It's the most upbeat Christmas song around. Each year pop singers record hundreds of new Christmas songs with hopes of at least scoring a minor hit. What's remarkable about this tune is that it was not just a hit, but an instant classic- taking a place with the likes of "White Christmas" and "Jingle Bell Rock" in the canon of popular Christmas songs.

YouTube- All I Want For Christmas Is You video

Bing Crosby with The Andrews Sisters- Mele Kalikimaka
The Hawaiian language doesn't have some of the sounds of the English language, such as the letter 'R'. So 'Mele Kalikimaka' is the Hawaiianized pronounciation of 'Merry Christmas'. I love how old-timey and hokey this tune sounds. About the only thing that sounds Hawaiian is the pedal steel intro, and then Bing Crosby starts crooning with a bravura that seems a little much for what's supposed to be a breezy tune. Then the Andrews Sisters join in next, recalling '50's telephone operators. You can almost imagine the voices of Crosby and the Andrews Sisters crackling out of an old tabletop radio.

Boney M- Mary's Boy Child/ Oh My Lord

In his book Touching the Void, British climber Joe Simpson tells of his experience during a life-threatening descent in the Andes. Injured, struggling to survive, and getting delusional, the song 'Brown Girl in the Ring' by Boney M is stuck in his head. Simpson recounts:
"I remember thinking, bloody hell, I'm going to die to Boney M".

I can totally understand how he feels. The worst part about another of Boney M's songs, the medley 'Mary's Boy Child/Oh My Lord', isn't that it's annoying, but that it gets stuck in your head and refuses to get out. Boney M were a manufactured 70's German pop group comprised of members from the West Indies. They were formed by German producer Frank Farian, the same person who would put together Milli Vanilli years later.

Here, the group puts a campy calypso spin on 'Mary's Boy Child', originally recorded by Harry Belafonte. The over-pronounced delivery of the lyrics is just maddening. Add to it a lame spoken-word breakdown and you've got one of the cheesiest Christmas songs around. To be fair, the original tune 'Oh My Lord' is more enjoyable, especially when compared to the first half of the medley.

Perhaps most baffling though is that Boney M has two of the UK's All-Time Bestselling Singles, with 'Mary's Boy Child/Oh My Lord' at Number 10. The song was the Number One UK Christmas Single for 1978, which is kind of a big deal over there, as you may remember from the movie Love Actually.

Something else about this song that bothers me is the lyric, "And man will live forevermore, because of Christmas Day". Maybe it's my penitent Catholic upbringing, but I thought it was because of Easter, not Christmas, that mankind was saved. Jesus died for your sins, people! I'm no theologian, and some might argue that without Christmas there would be no Easter, but as Bob Marley would say-"It's just a part of it, you've got to fulfill the book".

Mannheim Steamroller- Deck The Halls

Who actually enjoys this stuff? Apparently a lot of people do, since Mannheim Steamroller has sold over 36 million albums. I think it's the people that like to wear tacky holiday sweaters unironically. Mannheim Steamroller is the project of musician Chip Davis, who gives New Age arrangements to beloved Christmas carols, infused with false energy and devoid of feeling. On 'Deck The Halls', the synthesizers don't sound retro, but dated. Fortunately, I was never exposed to Mannheim Steamroller until college. I like to think that my parents were too classy to wear tacky sweaters or be into this.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra- Christmas Canon

I think of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra as a kind of successor to Mannheim Steamroller, as they're another group bent on ruining the classics. Also like Mannheim, they have an inexplicably large fanbase. If Christmas makes you think of faux-metal orchestras playing self-indulgent arrangements of carols and classical music- all set to seizure-inducing lasers and pyrotechnics- then this group is for you.

The thing about Trans-Siberian Orchestra is that hard-rocking songs like "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24", dramatic as they try to be, fail to elicit any emotion, positive or negative. Hell, even Boney M could do that. As far as music goes, that's its greatest fault.

However, a Trans-Siberian song that bothers me is "Christmas Canon", where the group shows off its sensitive side with an interpretation of Pachelbel's 'Canon In D Major'. Here's another instance of a children's choir, this time used in the worst way. The problems are right from the beginning, as a metallic piano intro leads to the children repeating "Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas" ad nauseum. The music from 'Canon In D' starts up, and the choir intones over the harmony part, bookended by another unbearble run of phrase repetition with "on this night, on this night, on this very Christmas night". The Vince Guaraldi children's choir sounds innocent and sweet. Here, the kids are just irritating.
File Under: Worst Christmas Song Ever

Christmas Canon - Trans-Siberian Orchestra

P.S. Trans-Siberian Orchestra torments us with another version of this song called "Christmas Canon Rock". Imagine the kids grown up with a full-on hair metal accompaniment.

The Waitresses- Christmas Wrapping

Everything about this song is awesome, starting with the pun in the title. The Waitresses, best known for their new wave hit, "I Know What Boys Like", released this song in 1981, just as rap music was getting greater exposure and the same year that Blondie released their rap single "Rapture". Compared to Debbie Harry, singer Patty Donahue sounds like even more of a white girl, and her unabashedly square delivery is what makes the song endearing. Her flow is almost nonstop, only taking breaks for the romping and irresistibly catchy saxophone and bass interludes.

On "Christmas Wrapping" she recounts a year of missed connections with the cute guy she met at the ski shop. She loves Christmas, but is overwhelmed and wants to sit this one out- something everyone can relate to. But with a last-minute errand and a realization of "You forgot the cranberries too?"- for a moment all is right with the world.

The Stranger's Advent Music Calendar: The Waitresses

The Story of "Christmas Wrapping"

Christmas Wrapping - The Waitresses

Paul McCartney- Wonderful Christmas Time

People are pretty divided over this song, which is understandable. Those that hate it can't stand the synthesizers and the repetitive, broken chorus of "sim-ply, ha-ving a wonderful Christmas time". But count me as a fan. I love the way the synthesizers seem to zip across the sky and the how they reverberate on the downbeat (apparently it's the same type of synthesizer that Radiohead uses on 'Everything In Its Right Place'). It sounds retro, as well as nostalgic for children of the 80's. I also love how the synthesizers tumble out of step with the beat later on. Lyrically, the song is pretty mindless- and it seems like the verses are just there to fill in space between the choruses- but it's mindlessly fun.

The Stranger- Track Review

Wham!- Last Christmas

Christmas- the time of thoughtfulness and good deeds, and George Michael is moping about the time he got brushed off. It's part of what makes this song great- wanting to be self-absorbed when the season calls for being selfless and cheerful. The people that enjoy wearing holiday sweaters ironically are most likely to love this song.

Musically, "Last Christmas" has a groovy keyboard rhythm to back Michael's hushed, woe-is-me delivery. There's a lot of memorable lyrics, like
"Tell me baby, do you recognize me? Well, it's been a year, it doesn't surprise me" and "My god I thought you were someone to rely on. Me? I guess I was a shoulder to cry on". There's also a nice sub-melody starting with the line "A face on a lover with a fire in his heart...". Self-pity never felt so good.

There's a lot of music I haven't mentioned. What are the Christmas songs you love or hate?

NPR Feature- Holiday Songs You Love and Loathe


adam said...

Nice write-up, Roy. I'm glad that as a culture, we are unabashed in our love for "All I Want for Christmas is You."

I saw Trans-Siberian Orchestra for free about a month ago, and it was very impressive production-wise, but it was very clear that this was a repressed hair metal band at the core.

Ariana D said...

Can we add "Santa Baby" to the unbearables category? Or is it too early, given Ms. Kitt's Christmas day passing?