This Was Pop checks in with this year’s crop of new holiday music
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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 this year’s new crop of holiday songs.
Rod Stewart, “Silent Night” (from Merry Christmas, Baby)
Steven: The bad news is that Rod Stewart made a Christmas record in the style of his mega-selling, mega-sleepy Great American Songbook series. The worse news is that Merry Christmas, Baby will stalk each and every one of you at some point this holiday season, as it’s likely to become this year’s top-selling Christmas album. (It’s already in Billboard’s Top 10 as I write this, and will surely only go up in the weeks ahead.) I had a vague hope that a drunken Ronnie Wood would somehow stumble into Rod’s epically schmaltzy rendition of “Silent Night” and restore some of the singer’s long-lost Every Picture Tells A Story-style grit. Instead, we get a croaky croon backed by a red-cheeked children’s choir and a heavenly gospel choir, dueling it out in a heartwarming battle to the death via vomit-induced asphyxiation. That is toxic levels of uplift. Forget the war on Christmas; this is yuletide terrorism.
Genevieve: Did Stewart take a bunch of luudes before recording this? Why does he draw out the phrase “holy night” for roughly 45 seconds? I’m actually grateful when the children’s choir kicks in, just because it breaks up the dirge somewhat. “Silent Night” is already one of the sleepier Christmas songs (hymn, really), but Stewart puts it into a coma with this version. Listening to this song is the equivalent of sitting through a dry, overlong sermon at Christmas Eve Mass, a compulsory exercise in warmed-over holiday spirit that contains nothing of the sort, made all the more tedious by the festive context in which it ostensibly exists.
Steven’s grade: D
Genevieve’s grade: D-
Lady Antebellum, “On This Winter’s Night” (From On This Winter’s Night)
Genevieve: Unlike the choral-happy Rod Stewart, Lady Antebellum only manages to cram a single children’s choir into “On This Winter’s Night,” and sparingly at that. That’s a good thing: Children’s choirs are superfluous nearly by definition, but given that Lady Antebellum’s appeal rides largely on its vocal harmonies, slapping some mewling moppets on top of the chorus comes off pretty treacly. Granted, holiday music and treacle go together like eggnog and indigestion, but “On This Winter’s Night” mostly avoids being overly saccharine. A holdover from a 2010 Target-exclusive EP that was ported over to this year’s Lady Antebellum holiday LP, “On This Winter’s Night” is the lone original song on the album of the same name, and it holds its own next to sentimental fare like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” It’s by-the-numbers but pretty, and—even with that choir—unobtrusive enough to soundtrack hours of department-store shopping before it starts to grate.
Steven: Before we get to Lady Antebellum, I need to follow-up on your eggnog/indigestion comment. Do you really get an upset stomach from drinking eggnog? I find that one glass of nog coats my stomach with a thick, foamy, and highly durable film. You could shoot me in the belly at that point and I probably wouldn’t feel it. Is there a spicy brand of eggnog I’m not aware of? Anyway, back to “On This Winter’s Night”: This is the yacht-rockiest song I’ve heard yet by Lady Antebellum, which isn’t saying much, since I’ve only heard three. Their deep cuts could sound like Little River Band for all I know. “On This Winter’s Night” is also one of those songs about what “Christmas really is,” which should be a red flag for non-churchy types not already turned off by the words “Lady Antebellum.”
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Steven’s grade: C
Blake Shelton, “Blue Christmas” (from Cheers, It’s Christmas)
Steven: “Blue Christmas” might be my favorite Christmas song ever, though this designation is based solely on Elvis Presley’s definitive version. Still, Blake Shelton does fine by the song, even if his rendition is a little too heavy on the cheesy horns and a little too light on the lusty oomph that the King brought to the song. I could’ve also used some more of the Pistol Annies, who provide solid if anonymous backing vocals. In fact, let’s get rid of Shelton altogether and have his wife, and head Annie, Miranda Lambert give this song the energy and personality it deserves.
Genevieve: Dammit, Steven, now you have me wishing for a Pistol Annies holiday album, which would be vastly preferable to almost everything on this list. The “ooooh-ooh-ooh-ooh” sway the Annies add to Shelton’s version is a nice old-school-country touch that plays well with Shelton’s crooning baritone, and is much less cheesy than that cringe-inducing saxophone solo. (Saxophone solos have no place in holiday music, and I say that as someone who used to play the saxophone.) Despite the qualifiers, though, Shelton’s “Blue Christmas” gets by, as you say, mainly on the strength of the source material, which remains one of the least-reviled tunes in the holiday-music canon. Nothing Shelton does here changes that, but he doesn’t rise to the occasion as much as he could have, either.
Steven’s grade: B-
Genevieve’s grade: B-
Scotty McCreery, “Let It Snow” (from Christmas With Scotty McCreery)
Steven: Living ventriloquist dummy Scotty McCreery is oddly well-suited for the Christmas music genre. While he just turned 19 a few months ago, his old-fashioned persona sits squarely in the 1950s, which means he’s comfortable with the sort of corniness that’s inherent to these albums and anathema to most people his age. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed “Let It Snow” in any context, and though I don’t quite like it here, McCreery’s anachronistic down-home jazziness is curiously cozy, like a fruitcake you’ll never eat but appreciate receiving every year from your spinster aunt.
Genevieve: You’ve never enjoyed “Let It Snow” in any context, Steven? Not even in Die Hard? McCreery’s take reminds me of the version used in that movie, sung by Vaughn Monroe, mainly in its finger-snapping, lounge-y cheesiness. Of course, that cheesiness is a lot less palatable when it’s not serving as an ironic chaser to 130 minutes of John McClane kicking ass, and McCreery’s version benefits from no such association. On the plus side, it gets in and out in two minutes flat, so it’s over before the murderous impulses it stirs up can boil over into a holiday-cheer-induced berserker rage.
Steven’s grade: C+
Genevieve’s grade: C-
Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Dreams Of Fireflies” (From Dreams Of Fireflies (On A Christmas Night))
Genevieve: The first new batch of holiday music in nearly a decade from the ADD-addled younger brother of Mannheim Steamroller, Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Dreams Of Fireflies (On A Christmas Night) EP pairs three soppy ballads with two of the screeching, electric-guitar-driven instrumentals for which the group is known. The second of those instrumentals, “Dreams Of Fireflies,” is reminiscent of TSO’s still-inescapable “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” in the way it cribs familiar melodies—in this case, Vivaldi’s “Winter” concerto and Mozart’s The Magic Flute—in service of progressive-metal melodrama, though its connection to the season rides mainly on some meager bells that are thrown into the mix to earn that “holiday” classification. It’s grating, it’s derivative, it’s shrill—and it’s sure to draw thousands of overpaying customers to the live shows on which TSO makes its living.
Steven: I’m sort of in love with the idea of a deeply ridiculous prog-metal band that fills arenas playing Christmas music every year. We have so many draggy ballads and chirpy children’s choirs in this month’s column that I was ready to love “Dreams Of Fireflies” solely on the principle of sheer batshit novelty. But… it’s grating, it’s derivative, it’s shrill. And it sounds like bad holiday bed music for a Radio Shack commercial.
Genevieve’s grade: D+
Steven’s grade: C-
Colbie Caillat, “Christmas In The Sand” (From Christmas In The Sand)
Genevieve: Humor is a tricky proposition when it comes to holiday music: Too little and you veer into schmaltz, too much lands you in “novelty” territory next to “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.” Colbie Caillat’s “Christmas In The Sand” navigates that trap nicely, invoking the same sort of tropical holiday juxtaposition heard in the Andrews Sisters classic “Christmas Island.” The image of a surfing Santa Claus is just the sort of gentle non-humor that holiday music calls for, and it fits well with Caillat’s beach-bunny persona. Oh sure, “Christmas In The Sand” has all the substance of a soap bubble, and its unabashed cutesiness is sure to turn off some; but in the very specific, very saccharine context of holiday music, it’s as refreshing as a Mai Tai on Christmas morning.
Steven: It’s funny you compared “Christmas In The Sand” to a soap bubble, because it reminds of Colbie Caillat’s 2007 hit “Bubbly,” which includes my choice for the worst pop-song lyric of the 21st century: “’Cause every time I see your bubbly face/ I get the tingles in a silly place.” “Christmas In The Sand” isn’t quite that stupid, but it is still pretty stupid. I don’t necessarily mean that as a putdown, since like you say, it’s a pleasingly light song that comes and goes pretty painlessly. It just doesn’t seem very user-friendly to a landlocked Midwesterner like me.
Genevieve’s grade: B
Steven’s grade: C+
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” (from This Christmas)
Steven: The John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John Christmas record is already the ironist’s choice for holiday music in 2012 due mainly to the cover, which depicts the Grease stars taking a break from wrapping gifts for actual people by enjoying a totally spontaneous cup of tea in a very candid and natural-looking photo. Believe it or not, the contents of This Christmas might be even more artificial than the album cover, at least judging from “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.” Look, John Travolta has had a rough year, and this is a season of charity, so I won’t pile on. Let me just suggest that somebody should have told him that his microphone was on and that he was being recorded before he started singing. His emphatically noncommittal delivery suggests that Kenickie force-fed him a valium milkshake before the engineer pressed play.
Genevieve: Oh good, another saxophone solo. This one actually ranks as one of the less offensive things about this “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” which usually includes some sort of horn solo to establish its rockin’-ness. As the lead, Travolta’s mush-mouthed singing is the most egregious (and calls to mind the way he sings the phrase “Christmas ham” in Hairspray, one of the best-worst onscreen singing performances of all time). But Newton-John also disappoints with a breathy delivery that seems to be aiming for coy but comes across slightly deranged, especially in her little “ha-ha!” at the end. This one earns a few points just for weirdness—as we’ve seen, the impulse with holiday music is to go safe, safe, safe—but it’s the strained, artificial sort of weirdness portrayed in photographic form on the album cover, and has no place in any holiday-music collection, be it sincere or ironic.
Steven’s grade: C-
Genevieve’s grade: D
Cee Lo Green, “This Christmas” (From Cee Lo’s Magic Moment)
Genevieve: I’m not sure why I was so surprised to discover that Cee Lo Green has a new Christmas album out; it’s not like the The Voice judge has an aversion to blatant cash-grabs or anything. Maybe it’s because his weirdo-troll aesthetic doesn’t really mesh that well with holiday cheer and goodwill toward men, as seen in the off-putting video for this song. (The album cover, on the other hand, is the stuff of laced-sugarplum dreams.) But visuals aside, Green is a perfect match for a song like “This Christmas,” the go-to R&B/soul holiday standard. He offers a fairly straightforward take on the song, which is enlivened by blaring horns and a funkified groove that edges as close to sexy as a Christmas song can get before things get a little squicky. It’s traditional without being turgid, festive without being festooned in jingle bells—all of which is to say, it’s about as tolerable as holiday music gets.
Steven: This was a weak crop of Christmas songs this year, so calling “This Christmas” the hands-down best track of the bunch is barely a compliment. Not only does “This Christmas” work better as music than any other song here, but it also sounds warm, welcoming, and happy, as all great holiday music should. Green has been wearing on my nerves a little lately, due to his overexposure on The Voice and elsewhere. (His redux of “Blitzkrieg Bop” for NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football makes Hank Williams Jr.’s “Are You Ready For Some Football?” sound like Beethoven’s Ninth.) But “This Christmas” restored Green’s goodwill with me. It truly is a Christmas miracle.
Genevieve’s grade: A-
Steven’s grade: A