Ruminations on Christmas Songs
Big blog daddy James Lileks recently called for opinions on Christmas songs for an upcoming Minneapolis Star Tribune article - his day gig. So I sent him my 2¢. As he may use it (or not) I won't bore you with the whole actual email here; no, I'll bore you will all new thoughts about Christmas songs.
Well, just in case the curiosity is killing you (and bless you if it is - I'm touched), and in case he doesn't include my worthy thoughts in his piece, I said the best ever is the Pretender's "2000 Miles" which hits the perfect note (ha ha) of yearning for a Christmas song, and the worst ever is "The Little Drummer Boy" which has annoyed me since childhood, right down to its kill-me-now "rump pah pum pum" refrain. It took me a while to figure out the whole Santa Claus thang, but I clued in immediately that no mother of a newborn would allow some brat into the nursery with a drum say: "Bang away Fauntleroy!" Especially with a song that sucked as much as that one does. Dear Lord.
Assuming that after the yearly assault mounted by the twin hazards of radio and muzak, you still want to listen to Christmas music on purpose (or simply want to control WHAT you hear to avoid "The Little Drummer Boy"), I have some guidance to offer.
Right off the bat, let's cut to the chase and point out the must-haves for those of you in the cheap seats. The two "Time-Life Treasur[ies] Of Christmas": Original flavor and "Memories," have the sum-total of all the best standards available. If you buy both, you'll get some repeats, but by different singers. The other standard is, of course, Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas. If you have ever been in the proximity of a TV during the holidays, I DARE you to not get an endorphin rush when you put this one on. (Music geek moment: The link is to one of the new hybrid SACDs (Super Audio CD (a moniker which is analogous to "New and Improved Edible Chocolate" in its recursive redundancy)), which sound amazing.)
In my opinion, there is no better vocalist for Christmas songs than John Denver. I know he got overplayed back in the day, but, really, give the guy another chance during the holidays. (Unless you've built up bitter resentment because he created a persona of a simple, poor, dope-smoking country boy but had the gall to pen a song about his estate Starwood, in Aspen, where he hoarded gasoline during the gas shortages of the 70s; you're excused, Earl.) His soulful tenor just lends itself naturally to the soaring melodies of most Christmas songs. But, avoid the Christmas album he did with the Muppets, which of course has Frank Oz and Jim Henson croaking all over John's vocals. Avoid any duet that John Denver did, for that matter. His voice is oil to anyone else's water.
The other classic Christmas crooner is Nat King Cole. Can't praise him enough, so I won't try.
One of my personal favorites is A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector. Thumbnail, slamdance music history lesson: Phil Spector invented the production style which created an immediately recognizable "Wall of Sound," as it was called, by cramming several drummers, pianos, guitarists, horn sections, and singers into a tiny recording studio and letting them thrash away in unison. Bruce Springsteen loved that sound so much, he tried to recreate it when he recorded Born to Run and failed, but famously found his own sound in the process. Anyway, for this album, Spector got together all of the groups he'd formed (Svengali-like) and recorded this as a kind of a vanity project, which most people either love or hate upon first listen. I fall into the prior category, my wife the latter. I strongly recommend a litmus test listening of the samples via the link before you put your money down.
I just dinna know why, lads and lasses, but my favorite Christmas song remains "Do You Hear What I Hear?" I don't know if it's the call and refrain of the lyrics, the melody, or the fact that anyone who attempts this has to have a good enough voice to pull it off (read: neither Mick Jagger nor Bob Dylan would attempt to cover it, though Neil Young might, just to be perverse). I also dig "What Child Is This?" probably because "Greensleeves" is the melody, and that tune is imprinted on the DNA of anyone of European descent.
For it's sheer wink, wink, nudge, nudge, goofiness, I love Buck Owen's "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy." It's almost a retread of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," but way funnier and not nearly as cloying. Plus, gotta love that trademark "Bakersfield Sound," nearly as distinctive as Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound."
I can't help but smile when I hear The Singing Dogs do "Jingle Bells." (Found on Dr. Demento Presents: Greatest Christmas Novelty CD if you've been searching.)
"Blue Christmas" as performed by Elvis Presley is a snort. When he starts out, he sounds like he's trying to keep down a fried banana peanut butter sandwich.
The lyrics to "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch" have been memorized by several generations, for good reason. The invectives hurled are some of the best ever conjured. Oh, and Boris Karloff, who is the narrator and voice of the Grinch is often credited with singing this one, but it's really Thurl Ravenscroft, who also voiced Tony the Tiger of Frosted Flakes fame.
"Ding Dong Merrily on High." Song aside, the jokes over the title just write themselves.
"Feliz Navidad" by Jose Feliciano, while mostly innocuous, tends to stick in your head like "The Pink Panther Theme" and the Sesame Street Muppet's "Mah Na Mah Na" song. (Bah bee badeepee!)
But for sheer annoyance factor, I doubt any Christmas song surpasses "The Twelve Days of Christmas." It's even got drummers in it! (TWELVE drummers drumming!) And I didn't detect a theme here until now, but all Christmas songs that mention drumming SUCK! Anyway, who in the hell had the bright idea to model a Christmas song on the conceit of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall"? Wasn't the original bad enough? Noooo! Someone had to spread its suckitude all over the holiday spirit as well! At the very least Bob & Doug McKenzie saved things somewhat by recombining both songs into a more palatable version, replete with interjections of "hoser" and other merriment, bless their little Canuck hearts. Ho ho ho.