By Sarah Leonard
So Christmas is coming fast, and everywhere we go we’re bombarded with generally low-quality, sappy renditions of songs we’ve been hearing over and over again since childhood. It’s the plague of the bad holiday music, and sometimes it seems unavoidable. Need to do shopping? Hopefully you can put up with the music long enough to fight through the crowds and find whatever it is you’ve made the mistake of going out to look for. It doesn’t matter if you love or hate the coming holiday, or even if you celebrate it or not – you’re probably going to be very tired of this music a long time before December 25th comes around (unless you’re holed up in, say, a college campus and have no idea where the nearest mall is, let alone what bad music they may be piping in through its speakers).
But what if you’re mistaken? What if holiday music isn’t the scourge upon the earth that it sometimes feels like? Well, you’ll never know unless you do some exploring.
Now, I’m going to go ahead and apologize to all people who don’t celebrate Christmas. I’m very sorry we Christmas-celebrators force our holiday down everyone’s throat, and I’m sorry I’m getting ready to describe a whole genre of music aimed at those of us who do celebrate on the 25th.
I’m often given very odd looks when I say how much I love Christmas music. I like to think this is because I’ve been lucky enough to be exposed to a whole other side of the Christmas music world. But maybe I’m just crazy. That’s for everyone to decide on their own.
My love affair with Christmas music probably started as a child. I used to attend the Nutcracker every year, and I’ve always loved the hymns sung at Christmas time in church. I’ve been surrounded with generally high-quality music my whole life, so I never had to listen to anything that really grated on me unless I was out in public where I couldn’t control whatever Musak was on the stereo. I think my true love affair with Christmas music as a genre, though, came about with my family’s purchase of a CD entitled “A Toolbox Christmas.” This album was created by a man who goes by the name Woody Phillips playing traditional Christmas songs using items one could find in a tool-shed – saws (regular and electric), wrenches, buckets. Though it sounds like it would be a mess, it is actually incredibly musical, and really fun.
In the years after we got our hands on “Toolbox Christmas” my family members got their hands on a few other interesting Christmas albums, such the “Klezmer Nutcracker” (the Nutcracker Suite interpreted by a Klezmer band) and the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Christmas album. Then a few Christmases ago my mom and I decided we needed some new music to put on while cooking and decorating the tree, and then the real obsession started. We picked up Ella Fitzgerald’s “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas” and what now ranks as one of my favorite Christmas albums of all time, “A Very Special Christmas.” Since then I’ve bought at least one Christmas album a year; there is always something new and interesting to be found.
The ultimate question, though, must be “why?” Why should I love Christmas music so much?
Well, I have an explanation. It may not totally capture why I’ve developed this obsession, but it comes close. The way I see it, Christmas songs are the ultimate cover songs. They take something everyone is familiar with and let bands show their own styles and approaches; it’s as though every artist chose to paint an everyday object such as a Campbell’s soup can, instead of leaving only Andy Warhol to do the job. Cezanne’s, Picasso’s, Michelangelo’s, and Warhol’s cans would all be different, but they would still be recognizable and familiar. And that, to me, is the joy of a good Christmas cover. David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s duet on “The Little Drummer Boy” is very different from the one sung by The Polyphonic Spree, and both differ from Sufjan Steven’s version, and from Bob Seger’s version, but they’re all the same song.
That’s why I love Christmas covers. I generally like original Christmas songs (such as The Pretenders’s “2000 Miles” or Rufus Wainwright’s “Spotlight on Christmas,” among many, many others) because I like the bands, and am always willing to hear a new song by them. Also, Christmas songs are often tinged with kitsch and humor, which is really fun during a time of year which is over the top and, often, very stressful. So even if I never listen to the band’s normal albums, I may really enjoy their Christmas songs (such as Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis, Queens”).
All that said, I hope that if you, like so many people, only heaped scorn on Christmas music, you will now choose to rethink your position, and maybe check out some of these albums which are always playing in my life come Christmas time:
“A Very Special Christmas”
This album, the first in a series, was first released in 1987 as a benefit for the Special Olympics. It features 80s superstars such as the U2, Madonna, Bon Jovi, Whitney Houston, Run DMC, the Eurhythmics, and The Pretenders
“VH1: Big 80s Christmas”
Another 80s Christmas album, this one includes the aforementioned Bing Crosby / David Bowie duet, as well as songs by The Ramones, Hall & Oates, Pat Benatar, Queen, and Kate Bush.
“Maybe This Christmas,” “Maybe This Christmas, Too,” “Maybe This Christmas Tree”
These albums feature a very odd mix of indie and adult rock stars of the last 5 years, along with a few even stranger choices (such as Avril Lavigne and the Christian rock band Jars of Clay). Therefore, they can be rather hit-or-miss, but they are generally very good. Highlights include Bright Eyes’ rendition of “Blue Christmas,” which I rank as the most depressing Christmas song in my collection. Some of the artists included are: The Polyphonic Spree, The Flaming Lips, Coldplay, Death Cab for Cutie, Pedro the Lion, The Ravonettes, Phantom Planet, Ben Fold, The Barenaked Ladies (twice), Guster, Rufus Wainwright, Rilo Kiley, and Damien Rice.
Single Artists or Groups:
“The McGarrigle Christmas Hour”
This album is a family-and-friends effort centered around the Canadian folk singer (and sisters) Kate and Anna McGarrigle. It features Kate’s son and daughter Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Anna’s children, and family friends such as Beth Orton, Teddy Thompson, and Emmylou Harris. It came out last winter, and it is full of beautiful folk songs and vocal harmonies. I left it at home this semester, and I’m very sad about it.
Seven Nations, “Christmas EP”
Seven Nations aren’t that well known, but they’re a Celtic rock band, and their style carries well into this 6-song album, which includes a lot of bagpipes and guitars and a very fun Celtic-punk rendition of a song they rename “Hark the Harold Angels Sing.”
Sufjan Stevens, “Songs For Christmas”
This November Stevens released a small box set of his five Christmas albums, which he has been recording almost every winter since 2001. While most of this material has been available before, there is one all-new album (“Peace”) for this winter, and it comes in a very pretty box with a comic, a poster, and stickers. It ranks as the second-most exciting thing that arrived in the mail for me this winter (it was beaten by a box full of cookies). There is a mix of traditional songs and originals, all in a very Sufjan style; fairly low-key, and often slightly silly. When he does traditional, he goes very traditional – there is no “White Christmas” or “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Instead there are true carols and hymns (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” appears three times), which means this set is a very nice mix of the very traditional and the very new (as in his originals, such as “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It)”).
Ella Fitzgerald, “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas”
Classy. This is probably the only Christmas album which has won general approval by my whole family when we gather, though a lot of people also enjoyed the Sufjan I brought along last year.
As well as the albums above, there are number of single, uncollected Christmas songs by various artists which I recommend seeking out:
The Flaming Lips “Christmas at the Zoo” (Clouds Taste Metallic)
The Walkmen, “Christmas Party”
Wham! “Last Christmas”
Jack White “Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over” (Cold Mountain soundtrack)
XTC “Always Winter, Never Christmas” (The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead)
XTC “Thanks for Christmas,” and “Countdown to Christmas Party Time” (Rag & Bone Buffet: Rare Cuts and Leftovers)
The Arcade Fire’s and the Polyphonic Spree’s Christmas cover albums / shows
I also love the song “Christmas is All Around” from the movie Love, Actually (available on the movie’s soundtrack), but it is so great because it is so terrible, so I can’t really recommend it in the same way I recommend the above albums and songs.
Enjoy, and happy holidays!