Crosstalk: Does Christmas Music Suck?
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Noel: When I was about 16, I made a mix tape called "Joyeux Noel"—clever, huh?—drawn from my brother's copy of A Very Special Christmas, my mom's handful of promotional Christmas CDs, and my late grandfather's stack of vintage Christmas albums. I burned that cassette onto a CD years ago, and later dumped it into iTunes, and the songs from that tape still form the core of my Christmas-music listening, year after year. I typically dial up that playlist during the first weekend of December, which is when we start decorating around our house, and listen to it almost daily until December 26, at which point I don't want to hear any Christmas music again for a very long time.
So while I'm not one of those people who can listen to Christmas music anytime, in-season, I love it. The bells, the mellow vocal tones, the songs about arcane Olde English rituals and obscure Christian symbology it all gladdens my heart, like twinkly lights and the smell of Scotch tape. It's my understanding, though, that some people out there—you, for example—aren't crazy about your musical options this time of year. What gives, Scrooge?
Keith: I wouldn't put me entirely in the Scrooge camp when it comes to Christmas music, but I think I dread Christmas for some of the reasons you look forward to it: Every year, it's the same songs over and over, and most of them simply aren't that good. Christmas music sells, and everyone cuts some Christmas tracks, but a lot of it is ill-considered and recorded with little regard for posterity. And we're stuck with it. I know I'll be hearing Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmas Time" each Christmas until I die. (And just typing those words puts its insipid, ingratiating melody in my head.) Same with Bruce Springsteen's tossed-off "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," and so on. And that's not even the worst of it. There's no way I'm going to get through the next few weeks without hearing "Grandma Got Over By A Reindeer," the Chipmunks, and those damned barking dogs.
I'm not saying there isn't any good Christmas pop music. I just don't think there's nearly enough to fill all the hours of Christmas programming from now until the New Year. In fact, I think this is all you need:
• A Motown Christmas compilation, preferably something with Marvin Gaye singing "Purple Snowflakes"
• Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift For You
• The Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick"
• XTC's "Thanks For Christmas"
• Los Straitjackets' 'Tis The Season For Los Straitjackets
• Chris Isaak's "Christmas On TV"
• Run DMC's "Christmas In Hollis"
And that's it.
Unless I'm wrong.
Noel: Well if you're trolling exclusively in the pop and rock worlds, then you've made a critical mistake from the get-go. There are some great rock 'n' roll Christmas songs—and no, McCartney's isn't one of them, nor is John Lennon's equally repetitive (and smarmy) "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." By and large, rockers get too cute when it comes to Christmas, because rock is all about being cool, and Christmas is too warm. I'll forgo mentioning most of my favorite exceptions until later, though let me nod appreciatively to two: The Kinks' gloriously snotty "Father Christmas," the best of the "fuck Christmas" rock songs, and Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas," a throwback to the "hooray for Christmas" tradition of the kind of classic pop now filed under "easy listening."
Really, classic pop is where you want to be when it comes to Christmas. Johnny Mathis. Jack Jones. Nat "King" Cole. Any singer who'd look comfortable on television staring just past the camera while soap flakes fall from a catwalk. Christmas is about wood-paneled dens and dopey TV specials from the '60s and '70s, featuring musicians who even then had been painfully unhip for a decade or more.
And they're singing three kinds of songs:
• New attempts at writing a "holiday classic" that basically rearrange the wintertime/shopping/family-fun elements that have been staples of most modern Christmas songs
• Worn-out versions of those well-known modern Christmas songs (your "Winter Wonderland"s and whatnot)
• Openly religious hymns
Without getting into the whole "war on Christmas"/"triumph of secularism" debate, I'll note that I like the hymns the best. A good "Silent Night" or "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" beats the hell out of "White Christmas" any day.
Come on, now surely you like some of that twinkly crap too?
Keith: Well, I'm not made of stone, so, yes, some of that's fine. But I can only take a little bit at a time, and a playlist alternating solemn odes to Baby Jesus with uptempo Christmas-is-neat tracks is my idea of a nightmare. And for the most part, that's what you get with Christmas music. Christianity has served as the thematic backbone for more than a millennia of great music—up to and arguably including most of what we listen to today—and I've got nothing against family togetherness. But thematically, they tend to play out in the least interesting way possible in Christmas music. And Christmas music, almost without exception, has the edges shaved off. It's meant to be there in the background and not really listened to.
I guess the bigger argument I'm making here isn't that Christmas music sucks, so much as that the majority of it is bloodless and thoughtlessly performed, usually, I'm guessing, sometime in the middle of August in order to make deadline. And a good performance can make all the difference. The exceptions prove the rule. I mentioned "Purple Snowflakes" before. It's essentially Gaye's "Pretty Little Baby," but with a new Christmas-and-chestnuts-themed lyric. It's pretty inane, or should be. But the way Gaye sings it just breaks my heart. He's feeling as passionate about those snowflakes, pretty purple snowflakes, as he is about the girl breaking his heart in "Pretty Little Baby."
So what am I missing? What are the great Christmas-music moments that will redeem the tradition that gave us Mannheim Steamroller?
Noel: I can divide my ideal Christmas playlist into the songs everyone knows (or should know), and the songs that apparently only existed on some Texaco "Holiday Favorites" LP that my Daddy Bill got with a free fill-up in 1962.
Among those in column A:
• The Waitresses, "Christmas Wrapping," which also lands in the column of songs that always make me cry, although it's not exactly sad. Something about the way the saxophone swells after poor Patty Donahue finally meets the guy she's been trying to meet all year just melts me, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.
• Vince Guaraldi, "Christmas Time Is Here," which should need no defense from me, except to say that outside of Charles Brown's Christmas blues albums, Guaraldi's is some of the most beautifully melancholy holiday music available.
• Handel's Messiah, specifically the "Unto Us" part, which I defy anyone to listen to and not hum obsessively for hours afterward.
• Donny Hathaway, "This Christmas," which is one of the few post-1970 Christmas songs that's become a standard, and for good reason—it's joyous and it swings.
• Alison Moyet, "The Coventry Carol," which updates an Anglican classic for the ethereal Britpop era.
• Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming," by anyone. That's just a hymn you can't hear enough.
And among those in column B:
• Kay Starr, "(Everybody's Waitin' For) The Man With The Bag," which got a bump back into the public consciousness with the Christmas Cocktails anthology a few years back. Ditto
• Billy May, "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer Mambo," which shares Starr's second-cup-of-eggnog looseness. My favorite part: When one of the bandmembers hollers, "What the heck is a maaaaammm-booooo!" just before the horns come back in with that telltale "Rudolph" melody. (And let me add one more from Christmas Cocktails: Capitol Studio Orchestra's "Cha-Cha All The Way," which will have you singing, "Jingle bells, jing-jingle, cha-cha-cha" until you annoy everyone around you.)
• Lou Rawls, "Little Drummer Boy," which may be the only version of that song that isn't totally exhausting, mainly because Rawls disposes of most of the lyrics and just scats.
• Jim Reeves, "An Old Christmas Card," if only for the hilariously maudlin spoken-word interlude in which Reeves reminiscences about the first card his wife ever bought him. ("I know you must have looked through thousands of cards to find that wonderful poem that still brings a tear to my eye.")
• Jack Jones, "This Is That Time Of The Year," a completely forgotten song—I can't even find it on any Jones anthology—in which he describes the wonders of the season, from grandpa "think(ing) he's Caruso" and bellowing carols "at the spinet" to mother going to the bank and "hold(ing) out a dollar from every deposit." Much of what I love about popular culture is how it records fragments of time that even people who lived through them don't always recall, and that Jones song is like a trip into Christmas past.
But like "This Is That Time Of The Year," most of the Christmas songs that I've been listening to for almost 20 years now aren't available in stores. They're anonymous takes on songs like "What Child Is This" and "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear," recorded by some bargain version of The Anita Kerr Singers. Eleven months out of the year, they're hopeless kitsch. But for 25-odd days, it's some of the loveliest music ever made.
Keith: Okay, you're jogging my memory about some songs I like too, like "Christmas Wrapping." Only a monster doesn't love Guaraldi, and I'd like to throw Wham's "Last Christmas" into the mix if we could. But I still hold that what's hopeless kitsch—or worse—11 months out of the year doesn't improve with the season, even if I am forced to listen to it. And I think that's where we part ways. God bless us every one.