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Holiday edition

This month, A.V. Club writers Genevieve Koski and Steven Hyden take a break from exploring the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Billboard charts to sample some recent holiday songs. 

Michael Buble, “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas”

Steven: Every year during the holidays, GK and I like to take a break from the pop charts and survey recent Christmas releases. The most commercially successful of 2011’s offerings is Michael Buble’s Christmas, which recently hit No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart. Listening to “It’s Beginning To Look Like Christmas” it’s easy to see why: This is what Christmas is supposed to sound like. It’s old-fashioned, warm-sounding, a little corny, instantly familiar, and extremely comfortable. I don’t have much use for Buble’s poor-man’s Sinatra act 11 months out of the year, but his ring-a-ding-ding vocal affectations fit perfectly with the formula constraints of a song like “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.” Buble doesn’t take any chances, and that’s a good thing: This is music intended to set the mood of gift-sharing, nog-drinking, and family in-fighting as unobtrusively as possible.

Genevieve: There’s much to be said for keeping it simple and timeless when it comes to holiday music—see several other entries on this list for the pitfalls of not doing so—and Michael Buble’s style is certainly well-suited to that. That said, there’s something a little smarmy and pandering about Buble’s old-fashioned approach that grates on me in the same way Seth MacFarlane does when he does his whole crooner routine. It borders on irony, and while I can deal with pandering when it comes to holiday music (it’s pretty much built into the concept), irony has no place in Christmas. I don’t hate this song by any means, and it fills an important holiday-music role—it’s perfect, inoffensive family-gathering fare—but it fills me with about as much holiday spirit as sitting in the dentist’s office does.
Steven’s grade: B+
Genevieve’s grade: B-

She & Him, “Baby It’s Cold Outside”

Steven: Writing about Christmas music fills me with ambivalence, since I really like the holidays and really don’t like most Christmas music. But I feel no emotional conflict about She & Him’s chirpy version of the rape-y Christmas classic, “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” I can say, unequivocally, that it totally sucks. Why has the world not yet noticed that Zooey Deschanel couldn’t carry a tune even if you put it inside an American Apparel shopping bag? The insufferable “ain’t we cute?’ posturing that remains She & Him’s defining artistic characteristic is amped-up tenfold here, as is the musical ineptitude. It’s enough to make me want to wage a one-man war on Christmas.

Genevieve: I’ve tried to limit my exposure to Zooey Deschanel’s singing since experiencing a rage blackout during an accidental viewing of the opening credits of The New Girl, and this song confirms I was right in doing so. Unlike you, Steven, I don’t have a huge problem with the twee-ness on display here—if you can’t be twee at Christmas, then when?—but I most certainly have a problem with Deschanel’s performance. Her strange, rushed phrasing and audible winking negates the appeal of the bouncy arrangement and causes the song’s gender-role reversal trick, surely intended to counteract that rapey-ness you mention, to fall flat. Deschanel performs like someone who sings just because, ya know, it might be a fun thing to do, and the apathetic irony sours what would otherwise be a sweet take on one of our most disturbing holiday classics.
Steven’s grade: D
Genevieve’s grade: D+

Justin Bieber, “Mistletoe” 

Genevieve: It’s easy for artists to release a quick holiday cash-in in the form of an album of barely distinguishable covers of classic holiday standards, so the appropriately elfin Justin Bieber gets points for rustling up a couple of original tunes for his new Under The Mistletoe holiday album. But as “Mistletoe” proves, creating a modern holiday standard is no easy feat; I’d argue the only artist who’s achieved it in the last two decades is Mariah Carey with “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” The mellow, reggae-tinged “Mistletoe,” on the other hand, sounds like any of a dozen other recent easy-listening hits in the Bruno Mars-Jason Mraz vein with some sleigh bells slapped on top. The lyrics hit all the caroling basics—most beautiful time of the year, roasting chestnuts, wise men following a star—but any Christmas song that prominently features the word “shawty” in the chorus doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of lasting more than a few Christmas seasons at best. 

Steven: What’s worse: The screams of reindeer as they are tied up and dragged behind Santa’s sleigh across 100 miles of broken glass and sandpaper, or an acoustic guitar lightly strumming out puke-inducing “bro-gae”? Let’s call it a draw. We’ve defended Biebs in past This Was Pop columns, because he really can be an appealing singer when he’s working in an Usher/Timberlake pop-R&B vein. But “Mistletoe” is just too much. Take away the seasonal references and the bell sounds, and you have a lazy rip-off of Bruno Mars’ already aptly named “The Lazy Song.” Sadly, “Mistletoe” reminds us that cynical repackaging of old, tired products for quick profit is also part of Christmas. 
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Steven’s grade: D

OneRepublic, “Christmas Without You”

Genevieve: Well, at least this original Christmas song manages to avoid using the word “shawty,” though it’s a pretty thinly veiled retread of go-to bluesy holiday songs like “Please Come Home For Christmas” and “Blue Christmas.” It’s hard to imbue this sort of “we’re apart on Christmas” song with a lot of holiday spirit, and the uninspired piano arrangement of “Christmas Without You” certainly doesn’t manage to do so. Then again, sleigh bells don’t exactly go with lyrics like “Only one thing could kill me: Christmas without you.” I suppose there’s something to be said for not always going the “happy happy happy!” route with holiday tunes, but if I found myself alone on Christmas, Santa knows that Ryan Tedder’s maudlin warbling would be the last thing I’d look to for solace.

Steven: I’m not crazy about “Christmas Without You,” either. But I do appreciate that it is a romantic holiday song, because the world needs romantic holiday songs. We should know that more than most people, GK; we’re both Virgos, which means we might not be here discussing the merits of a ho-hum OneRepublic song without things like this ho-hum OneRepublic song. It’s not exactly Luther Vandross, but “Christmas Without You” is a marginally successful spin on the old “I wanna get laid” genre of holiday numbers. It might not be great, but at least it’s helping to propagate the species this season. 
Genevieve’s grade: D
Steven’s grade: C

Lady Gaga, “White Christmas”

Genevieve: Lady Gaga splits the difference between covering a standard and coming up with a holiday original with her version of “White Christmas,” grafting, with typical Gaga audaciousness, an extra verse onto the end of the Irving Berlin classic. It sounds like a disaster, considering that the outré Gaga and the tradition-minded holiday go together about as well as Grandma and leather panties, but she manages to mostly avoid trainwreckitude here. Yes, there’s the annoying spoken interlude—a remnant from her A Very Gaga Thanksgiving special, where this song debuted—but Gaga keeps things mostly mellow and holiday-appropriate with her jazzy vocal pastiche and her cute, wildly inoffensive added verse about a snowman. It’s not a song for the ages by any means, but Lady Gaga managing to pull off a Christmas song with class and relative subtlety may be one of the most shocking things she’s done in a long time.

Steven: I agree that this isn’t a trainwreck—which is too bad, because a trainwreck would’ve been preferable to the jokey bore that Gaga has offered up here. The one thing Gaga normally can’t be accused of is lack of a commitment, and yet this “White Christmas” seems both perfunctory and half-assed, as if she couldn’t decide whether to play the song straight or for laughs. Gaga has proven that she’s a powerhouse singer, but her lounge lizard rendition of this song is charmless and affected, and the arrangement is too similar to every other version of “White Christmas” to register as anything other than stale. I normally appreciate Gaga’s outrageousness, but the only thing shocking about “White Christmas” is how staid it is.
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: C-

Scott Weiland, “Winter Wonderland”

Steven: I can’t pretend to have a clue about what goes on in Scott Weiland’s head, but if I had to guess what his intention was with “Winter Wonderland” (and his Christmas album The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year), I’d say it’s supposed to be an homage to the bizarre-but-surprisingly-heartwarming duet that David Bowie and Bing Crosby did on “Little Drummer Boy” back in the ’70s. Only Weiland is trying to play Bowie and Crosby. Weiland is actually a pretty good singer, but he’s not really a crooner, and even if you had no idea that this guy normally prefers leather pants to Christmas sweaters, I think the awkwardness of “Winter Wonderland” is pretty apparent. It’s not boring (or She & Him), but it’s pretty unnecessary and sort of wrong. 

Genevieve: While a part of me admires this song’s abject weirdness, the Weiland-as-Crosby shtick is, as you say, super-awkward, as if Weiland is just doing it because someone at his label half-jokingly suggested it and he figured he’d go along with the gag. But unlike with She & Him, the oddness of his vocals doesn’t quite overshadow the nifty arrangement, which is as adept in its White Christmas homage as Weiland is uncomfortable in his. You can practically hear the dancing girls sashaying into the song around the one-minute mark. If you replaced Weiland’s vocals on this one with Michael Buble’s, you’d have a classic-sounding song that would sound at home in any of the last six decades; as is, though, it’s a forced-sounding throwback that wilts in the long shadow of its inspiration.
Steven’s grade: C
Genevieve’s grade: C-

Little Big Town, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”

Genevieve: This is about as straightforward as a holiday cover can get: Quietly picked acoustic guitar and pretty four-part harmony that wouldn’t seem out of place at Midnight Mass. Even the brief electric guitar solo is tasteful. I generally like Little Big Town more when they’re in rollicking mode, but it’s hard to deny how lovely their harmonies sound here. There’s not a lot of personality to be found in the ultra-simple arrangement—really, this could be any group of above-average carolers—but it’s hardly necessary for Little Big Town to loudly assert themselves with a song as timeless and straightforward as “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” It’s as warm and cozy as sipping a cup of cocoa next to the Christmas tree.

Steven: Yep, that about sums it up perfectly, GK. If there’s a running theme in my responses to this year’s Christmas songs, it’s that I most appreciate the ones that play it more or less straight. I don’t want experimentation or irony here; I want sounds that are pretty, comforting, and well-sung. Little Big Town’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” might be the simplest song on our list—as you say, it’s just vocals and guitar—but that’s part of why it works so well. It sounds like a sincere expression of happiness and reassurance for a time when those things are all most people want. 
Genevieve’s grade: B+
Steven’s grade: A-

The Killers, “The Cowboy’s Christmas Ball”

Steven: Like I said earlier, I don’t like much Christmas music, but what I do like tends to be traditional. I like choirs, old-school crooners, and Muppets singing my Christmas songs. The Killers’ “The Cowboy’s Christmas Ball” obviously doesn’t fit with that; I wouldn’t even classify it as a real Christmas song. It’s more like a goofy novelty tune that happens to mention Christmas in the title. But I guess you could call it traditional, since The Killers have recorded Christmas songs for six straight years, with the proceeds always going to charity. With that in mind, it’s difficult not to like this ersatz country number, which bounces along good-naturedly enough on a jingle-bell beat and Brandon Flowers’ smirky narrative. It’s not much of a song, but I’d definitely suggest paying the download fee on iTunes. It’s better to give than receive these days anyway, right GK?

Genevieve: As you say, it’s really hard not to like this song, what with its jovial sing-along and charitable intentions. Sure, it’s not really “Christmas-y” in the traditional sense, even with those bells thrown in the mix; on the other hand, what says “God bless us, every one” better than the spirit of good cheer and bonhomie on display here? This song is the night after Christmas when you escape from family time to meet up with old friends to drink and exchange presents. If I were feeling particularly Grinch-y, I could take issue with its goofy high concept—it’s a remake of a song from Michael Martin Murphy’s 1991 album Cowboy Christmas, based on an 1890 cowboy poem of the same name by Larry Chittenden—and Brandon Flowers’ exaggerated cowboy appropriation, but damn if this silly song doesn’t make my heart grow a size or two. Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals!
Steven’s grade: B
Genevieve’s grade: B+