Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Music

by Scott

[Also check out The AV Club on Christmas stuff that doesn't suck.]

I’m a big fan of the garishness of Christmas; the light displays that make the Vegas strip look positively puritan in comparison, the cringe worthy holiday specials, and, most of all, the music. I’m not talking about the traditional songs of the ‘Silent Night’ variety, my preference is for the purely secular tunes that are so good that Jewish artist like Neil Diamond and Kenny G have been known to ‘lose their religion’ just to record a few of them. And, most of all, the weirder, stranger, and cornier these songs are, the more I like them.

To put this in context, my all time favorite Christmas album (that I have had on cassette since I was 15) is the first ‘A Very Special Christmas’ album. The first in a series of albums recorded to benefit the quite noble cause of The Special Olympics whose ‘all star’ casts could result in some pretty hysterical results… and, occasionally, oddly moving (Bob Seger’s rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” or The Pretenders take on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”)… and, sometimes, even completely appropriate (John Mellencamp’s fiddle driven take on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is absolutely perfect). So, here are some of my favorite ‘non-traditional’… and sometimes just flat out odd… holiday tunes. I look forward to hearing some of yours.

First of all, my all time favorite Christmas song is probably “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).” I was first introduced to this song through the U2 cover on the afformentioned ‘A Very Special’ Christmas album but, of course, have grown to love the Darlene Love original. What I love about the song is, Christmas or not, it’s such a great pop tune. Originally included on the Phil Spector produced ‘A Christmas Gift For You’ album (which, to my knowledge, is the only Christmas album to make Rolling Stones top 500 albums of all time) this has been a go to secular Christmas tune for years and has been recorded by so many artist over the years that, in fact, it’s sort of become a standard in it’s own right. Also, that Phil Spector production, with it’s chimes and echo, is absolutely perfect for creating that holiday vibe.

My favorite Christmas song as a kid was this version of “The 12 Days of Christmas” that was on a Disney Christmas album (that, yes, was owned on Vinyl). The song itself, is ridiculous enough. The various gifts, especially taken out of the historical context, are completely absurd (I’m also pretty sure that ‘ten lords ‘a leaping’ was excessive back then as well). I kind of suspect that this was actually written by a school teacher as a means of instructing her students memory and how to count backwards. However, what was great about the Disney version was that all of the various characters were given a specific line and Goofy, of course, was given the climactic line about “5 Golden Rings!” but, whenever his turn came around, he would always triumphantly belt “5 Onion Rings!”

I’m pretty sure I wore the record out listening to that one song… also drove my parents nuts.

And now, for the stranger stuff…

“Mistress For Christmas”- Ac/Dc- This is not a Christmas song… it’s just an Ac/Dc song that happens to mention the word ‘Christmas’. Totally inappropriate … which makes it the most appropriate choice for an Ac/Dc Christmas song. My favorite part is Brian Johnson’s jive/blues speak at the intro of “Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Jingle all de day.”

“Christmas In Hollis”- Run DMC- I was going to say that this was probably the first Christmas rap songs… but I’m pretty sure that, oddly enough, The Waitresses (of “I Know What Boys Like” fame) hold that honor with “Christmas Wrapping.” It might not be the first but, in my mind, it’s still the best. Also, it is the only ‘original’ Christmas song on the original ‘A Very Special Christmas’ album (all the others are traditional or covers). The line “It’s Christmas time in Hollis, Queens/ Mom’s cooking chicken and collared greens!” makes me smile every time.

“Having a Reggae Christmas”- Bryan Adams- this came out some time in the 80s and had a music video featuring Pee-Wee Herman… because when I think Christmas… I think Paul Reubens and, of course, mellow island rhythms.

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”- Band Aid- Ok, yes, this song did bring the plight of famine to eyes of the western world and would, eventually, give us Live Aid and, even today, has morphed into the ‘One’ campaign and other organizations dedicated to debt relief but, c’mon, how cheesy is this song? It’s so very 80’s. My friends and I gather around every year to sing the ‘Bono Line’ while doing our best Bono impressions, (sing it with me) “Tonight thank God it’s them Instead of You!”

“Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight)”- The Ramones- actually, this one isn’t that bizarre; once you get past the novelty of a ‘Punk Rock Christmas Song’, Is it really all that different from something like “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” or “Blue Christmas”?

“Step Into Christmas”- Elton John- The phrase ‘Step Into Christmas’ has always really bothered me… for some reason it just makes me think of poo.

“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band- Ok, this one is totally traditional at this point, but my favorite part of this version, which was recorded live, is Bruce asking Clarence Clemons “you been a good boy this year, practicing real hard so Santa will bring you a new Saxophone?” Absolutely, adorable.

And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the David Bowie/Bing Crosby duet on “Little Drummer Boy.”

Now, will somebody please explain Mannheim Steamroller to me?


hcduvall said...

I only know Mannheim Steamroller by reputation (that's not true, I'm sure I've heard them) I can't explain. I will pipe in with two songs I wait 11 months a year to hear:

Christmas Wrapping by the Waitresses: just a fun, poppy little song. And I do like story songs. And Fairytale of New York by the Pogues, which is just awesome.

Marc Caputo said...

Worst modern Christmas song? McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" UGH.

Some of my favorites:

'Father Christmas' - The Kinks

'I Believe in Father Christmas' - Greg Lake/ELP - get the slightly longer version, credited to Greg Lake. Besides being a fuller production, it offers good proof that Emerson isn't the one to lay the pompous charge on.

'Happy Xmas (War is Over)' - John Lennon - depressingly, the track seems more appropriate now than when it was first released. Still, a great production (Spector? I'll have to check) and a great performance from John, Yoko (I said it) and the choir.

'2000 Miles' - damned lovely, even though it was born of horrible tragedy. And though I hate to admit it, Rolling Stone got it right when they compared it to "snowdrift Byrds" (I'll also look the exact quote up later)

The entirety of the Roches "We Three Kings". Alternately playful and devout, but always in the right places, the 3 sisters take on secular and sacred standards and truly make them their own. I'll admit that many artists do Christmas songs as a contractual oblgation or as a cash-grab (which doesn't affect the renditions in some cases), but this may be the only full album (after the almighty Spector one) that holds together well.

Also, hcduvall - those two are also two of my favorites. They are also drawn together by being performed by women who were taken from music and more importantly, their loved ones too soon.

Also, for all who read this - try to get Rhino's "Just Can't get Enough: New Wave Xmas" - it has a lot of obscuro stuff from the 80s/90s and not a lot of overlap with other modern rock holiday collections.

Madd_Hadder said...

When we were younger, my brother and I would rap "Christmas in Hollis" for our family every year. I can still do it from memory. That song always puts me in the Christmas spirit!

Madd_Hadder said...
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Jason said...

Most of my favorites are covered in others' comments, but a few others that I like ...

"Stop the Cavalry" by Jona Lewie -- about Christmas from the point of view of a soldier during wartime. Very pretty melody, and oddly affecting, with this effete British voice poppily singing about a "nuclear fallout zone."

"Here It Is, Merry Christmas" -- by Slade (I might have the title wrong, but that is how the chorus goes). Pure joy, and contains the image of a grandma rock 'n' rolling with her family, which I've always liked.

"Christmastime" -- duet between Michael Penn and Aimee Mann. The typical depressing, mid-tempo balladry you'd expect from either of them, yet it manages to cheer me every time I hear it, nonetheless.

"Christmas Is Quiet" -- by the Roots, I think? It's on the same compilation as the Penn/Mann duet, and is equally sombre and depressing. But in an awesome way. :)

"Happy Christmas" -- Shonen Knife. Japanese women singing rock 'n' roll is kind of hard to resist in any case. The holiday theme is gravy.

"Santa Clause is Smokin' Reefer" -- Squirrel Nut Zippers. The title kind of says it all ...

"Stuff" -- Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band. Besides being the namesake for one of my favorite Claremont creations, Maddy Prior is also a great singer, and this is a fun little novelty song that features a spoken word intro/epilogue by Monty Python's Terry Jones. (Also great are the traditional tracks recorded on Maddy and the Carnival Band's album "Carols and Capers.")

scott91777 said...

Not exactly on topic, but somewhat related and worth posting but the church located next to my apt. has a sign that is an endless source of clihes and pad puns, and, of course, as is common this time of year, this week the sign says, on one side, "Without Christ there is no Christmas" Now, recently, the church has taken translating whatever is on one side of the side into spanish for the other side so, currently, the other side of the sign reads "Sin Christo hay no Navidad" Now, while the basic meaning of the statement remains it lacks the 'clever' wordplay that it has in English (without Christ, no CHRISTmas) which just makes it seem preachy :)

scott91777 said...

Oh, and, while it's not a song per se, the video for Hall and Oats version of "Jingle Bell Rock"... It's so cheesy that you have to wonder if it was intentionally made that way, I also love that GE Smith dressed as grandma gets the guitar for a Christmas present just in time for the solo.

Even better than watching the video by itself is watching when Beavis and Butthead did a 'commentary' on it. Hysterical.

And, as pop-up video taught us all, this is one of two videos to feature Tommy Matola in the role of Santa Claus :)

Anonymous said...

excellent entry!

I love "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" too

I think the only rock X-Mas effort that comes close to the Spector album is "Merry Christmas From Etiquette Records" (second item), which features awesome tracks by The Sonics and The Wailers (not Bob M's bunch)--if you like the Darlene Love song, then I'll bet you'll like "She's Coming Home"--it's got a similar feel to it...

Dave Fiore

nicholas reed said...

I actually made a christmas mix this year, and uploaded a zip file of the tracks. It's mostly newer stuff, and two tracks of The Venture Brothers guys doing classics. Download, if'n you wish:

But yeah, goddamn, I love the Pogues "Fairytale of New York". The Bing Crosby/Bowie "little Drummer Boy" is fantastic. And John Denver & The Muppets is something I grew up listening to.

Dougie said...

I especially like "Step Into Chistmas" for the line "Hop on to the turntable"; it also reminds me of Elton's appearance on the Morecambe and Wise Show. I can't bear "Merry Christmas (War is Over)" for Ono's screeching and Lennon's self-righteousness. At the moment, I'm enjoying the fey English pop of St. Etienne's "I Was Born on Christmas Day".
Christmas Day, you might like to know, only became a public holiday in Scotland in 1958.

finsof72 said...

I remember watching the 'Christmas in Hollis' music video on an episode of Beavis and Butthead. I'm pretty sure I'm the only person in class who knew what it was as soon as the melody came on.

sexy said...
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