Worst Christmas music
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My wife recently found the radio station that’s already playing nonstop Christmas music, now through Christmas day. Obviously, this has made my life a living hell. While there are some genuinely good Christmas songs, they’re few and far between. And if I have to listen to “Do You Hear What I Hear” one more time, I’m moving into a motel for the next month. What do you think are the worst Christmas songs? —Jerrad
Oy. You know, for me, there are practically no good Christmas songs, apart from the ones on the Muppets/John Denver Christmas album. I’m not a fan of any of the overplayed holiday music that hits every available store/mall/public space at this time of year. But two in particular that go beyond “grating” for me and well into “face-grating-with-sandpaper,” to the point where I’ll attempt to leave the area if they come on: Any iteration of “Santa Baby” (otherwise known as “Hey Santa, I’ll Put Out If You Do”), and that godawful “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).” Later iterations of the Chipmunks at least got a little slicker and smoother with the pitch-changing speed-up effect, but “Christmas Don’t Be Late” combines the irritating shrillness of Chipmunk voices with the obnoxiousness of their bratty-kid characters and Dave Seville’s barely in check abusive-dad routine, then adds the plodding sensation of a record that feels like it was slowed down to an unconscionable drag instead of sped up for extra annoyance.
I both love and hate Christmas music. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to curate a list of it that doesn’t suck, and I’ve been successful enough in my efforts that I can reliably listen to an hour or so every night between Thanksgiving and Christmas and feel suitably in the holiday spirit while still enjoying some terrific tunes. (I realize this sounds crazy; be thankful you are not my wife.) But I hate pretty much every song that’s become a standard since, oh, 1965 or so. The best Christmas music nowadays is on the margins, not in the mass-produced stuff that gets snapped up by shopping malls and department stores to berate you for months on end. But the worst, by far, are those original Christmas songs that try to tell stories about how the holiday is about more than materialism. There are a million of these, from “A Soldier’s Silent Night” to that weird one I only heard once about the kid seeing Jesus or an angel or something behind his couch. (Ask The A.V. Club?) But the worst by far has to be “Christmas Shoes,” the heartwarming tale of an adorable poor kid whose mother dies to teach some crabby guy a lesson. It has all the worst elements of Christmas treacle, but Patton Oswalt’s devastating takedown of it is almost enough to make me glad the song exists. Almost. Then I hear the final chorus of the song performed by a children’s chorus, or remember there was a TV movie of it starring Rob Lowe, and I weep anew. (Special runner-up: Faith Hill’s maudlin “A Baby Changes Everything,” which comes complete with a twist ending. Spoiler alert: The baby is Jesus.)
There are a few Christmas songs that will make me unabashedly rock out with my cock out. One song that does not fall into that category, however, is Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Wonderful Christmas Time.” For a holiday that’s so incredibly earnest and that celebrates old traditions, the song makes Christmas sound both dorky and dated. There’s no rhythm or spirit to it, and good luck singing along. It sounds like Sir Paul was basically just making the song up as he played around on a keyboard. It also feel interminable. Honestly, I just tried listening to it all the way through for the purposes of writing this, and I couldn’t make it. Oh, and the worst part? Despite how not-catchy it is, it somehow gets stuck in my head, so it makes me want to kill myself. I’m going to listen to Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” immediately to cleanse my holiday palate.
I’m all for a song inspiring viral videos in which people install enough dancing lights on their house as to be visible from space. But The Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s medley/aural assault “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” couldn’t possibly put me further from the holiday spirit. There’s a semi-touching story at the heart of this track, inspired by a cello player playing a carol in the midst of his ravaged homeland. But good intentions didn’t translate into touching melodies, as the TSO sledgehammers “Carol Of The Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” into submission over the course of its seemingly interminable running time. I’m hardly an old-fashioned get-off-my-lawn miser when it comes to the classics. But when the results sound like an outtake from Queensrÿche’s Holiday Mindcrime, electric guitars make me neither holly nor jolly.
I refuse to acknowledge any Christmas trappings—musical or otherwise—until the Thanksgiving dishes are done, but then I tend to load up on the holiday cheer. I watch Christmas specials, tour local lights displays, bake cookies, deck the halls with Boston Charlie—the works. My iPod has a Christmas-music playlist that’s close to eight hours long, filled with traditional carols, novelty items, forgotten pop, rock standards, and classical. (Hey, my name is “Noel,” after all.) The one song you won’t find on my iPod? “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” the 1979 comedy record by Elmo & Patsy. It’s not that the joke is badly written. Songsmith Randy Brooks adds in all sorts of clever detail—I do like the line about “You can say there’s no such thing as Santa / But as for me and Grandpa, we believe”—but from the tinny down-home sound to the insidious melody, “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” is the kind of gag that wears out its welcome long before December 25th.
A lot of my friends claim to hate Christmas. Me, I like the idea of universal fellow feeling, I’ve made my peace with consumerism, and I enjoy getting presents, so my feeling about the holiday itself is, what’s not to like? And I don’t have any big problem with Christmas music; I guess most of it’s junk, but so is most of everything else, and I have Christmas albums in my collection—by the likes of Phil Specter, Louis Armstrong, Leon Redbone—that I did not purchase at gunpoint, and have been known to take for a spin even when there’s no frost on the pumpkin. But sometimes, larger issues are involved. Take “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen. These jokers originally aspired to be a real band, but they were unable to crack the charts until they managed to leech off the Peanuts craze with their novelty single “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron,” a No. 2 hit in 1966. (Tapping into someone else’s success was already second nature to the Florida-based group, since they were one of those American bands, such as Paul Revere and the Raiders or the Sir Douglas Quintet, who chose their name in hopes of being mistaken for part of the British invasion.) The first single was a cute enough little one-hit, and it might be easy to remember these cockroaches with some affection if they hadn’t doubled down with a string of sequels that continued to pick the meat off Charles Schulz’s bones while simultaneously wearing out the welcome of both the band and the indisputably great but way-overmerchandised comic-strip character they took as their inspiration. “Snoopy’s Christmas”—which also manages to strip-mine the enduringly moving story of the Christmas truce of 1914, just to make a lazy buck off a record almost guaranteed to go back into rotation on the radio every December—is some kind of landmark in secondhand, seasonal whoring. Although it does go down easier than the Guardsmen’s 2006 comeback song, “Snoopy Vs. Osama.”
I demand a certain degree of celebration from my Christmas music; Gloria Estefan’s “Christmas Through Your Eyes” doesn’t celebrate the season so much as lay down and cede it to a poorly sketched image of childhood wonder. The song, co-written by Estefan and saccharine merchant Diane Warren, pushes a bizarrely cynical brand of nostalgia, sung as it is from the perspective of an adult who sees rain when the song’s subject sees “the rainbow hiding in the clouds.” (Also, rain? In a Christmas song? Granted, Estefan is from Miami, but the Christmas Through Your Eyes LP still features a version of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”) The instrumentation is drippy, the sentiment syrupy, and, worst of all, the song’s final chorus completely wastes a key change. If the songwriting device that even lifts Aerosmith’s Warren-penned “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” out of the maudlin depths can’t inject a degree of jubilation into “Christmas Through Your Eyes,” Estefan and Warren probably didn’t need that children’s choir, either.
At the wizened old age of 19, I spiraled into a vortex of grouchy, post-adolescent cynicism that threatened to swallow me whole. (Or at least my chances of ever being able to effectively talk to girls.) In short, I needed to mellow out a little—or at least choose my battles a little more selectively. Instead of listening to weirdly angry and/or angrily weird music all the time, I sought solace in, among other things, KEZW—an AM station in Denver that specializes in pre-rock-pop standards and the easy-listening classics of the ’60s and ’70s. I also decided to ease up on my admittedly tedious hatred of Christmas and just, you know, let it snow. These two things dovetailed during the holidays, when KEZW turns its playlist toward a predictably heartwarming selection of sublimely saccharine Yuletide tunes, from “White Christmas” to “Feliz Navidad.” As it turned out, I actually learned to love the corny, unfettered joy of such jams, except for one song: “The Twelve Days Of Christmas.” Maybe there’s some glitch in my brain that causes it, but I go totally nuts when subjected to the nagging, skipped-record repetition of the song’s structure. I never noticed it as a kid; as an adult, though, I can’t handle that virus-like recursion of the verses. It’s almost enough to morph me back into a scowling, Christmas-hating teenager. (For the record: No, I don’t like the Bob and Doug McKenzie version, either, for the same reason. Although the 10-year-old in me still thinks it’s the most subversive thing ever devised by man.)
As a Jew, I spontaneously burst into flames and experience stigmata in the presence of traditional carols and Christmas-themed pop hits. Growing up, us Semites stuck to our own classics, which were basically limited to “The Dreidel Song” and “Oh, Chanukah, Oh, Chanukah.” There’s nothing wrong with passing down ritualized yarns about home-baked spinning tops and freshly battered latke, but by the early ’90s of my adolescence, I yearned for a hipper composition that reflected my generation’s pop-culture Judaica. I wasn’t expecting “Chanukah Time in Crown Heights, Brooklyn” or “Happy Chanukah (I Don’t Want to Get Verklempt Tonight),” but feel we deserved better than Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.” I’d be lying if I denied there are some clever punchlines (“We got Ann Landers and her sister Dear Abby / Harrison Ford’s a quarter-Jewish, not too shabby”), but it’s also pandering and musically inept, and totally inessential in an era when anyone can play “Name That Famous Jew” on Wikipedia. At least “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has a great melody.
Speaking of which… I was going to feel really bad about shitting all over “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” until Tasha informed me that The A.V. Club already built a pretty scathing Inventory around the song a few years ago. Now I don’t feel so bad, because, let’s face it, it’s a pretty awful song, and not just for the reasons stated in the Inventory. Yes, the cause Bob Geldof and the British and Irish music superstars of the ’80s that were in Band Aid were bringing attention to, the famine that was ravaging Ethiopia at the time, was a noble one. But the lyrics of the song are such a guilt-trip that it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for the cause that these wealthy, mullet-wearing stars were berating us about. As grating as it was, at least USA For Africa’s riff on the Ethiopian relief song, “We Are The World,” had much more uplifting lyrics than “And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom / Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.” Add to that the muddy, demo-sounding production values and the “Who the hell is that singing?” nostalgia that only people over 35 will identify with, and you’ve got the makings of a Christmas song that should have stopped being played somewhere around 1989.
Ever since I turned 15 and was issued a copy of The Gift Of Fear and given a talk about Dudes Who Answer “No” With “But,” I haven’t been able to hear “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” as anything but a huge Megazord-esque assemblage of red flags. And that was before I saw a copy of the original score, which has the parts marked not for “man” and “woman,” but for “The Wolf” and “The Mouse.” Frank Loesser was wonderful at many things, but his take on male-female relations was deeply creepy—cheerfully predatory both ways, as anyone who’s heard “Marry The Man Today” from Guys And Dolls knows. Viewed from one very narrow angle, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is sweet. Viewed from all other angles, it is Date Rape City. On top of the obvious pushiness and refusal to hear “no,” there’s the bit where The Wolf tells The Mouse to go tinker with the stereo over there while he pours her another, and whatever double tequila shot or mid-century roofie he puts in tastes weird enough for her to ask “Say, what’s in this drink?” (The below Sims video is included for a moment at around :55, about “I’ll take your hat,” and for the couple of times the male Sim pulls the accidental boob-grope.)
If there’s one thing that’s certain in the Star Wars universe—well, beyond the established canon and that Jar Jar Binks is an abomination—it’s that Star Wars and Christmas don’t mix. First is the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, one of the all-time worst holiday specials ever made, so bad that George Lucas has allegedly made it his goal to personally destroy every bootleg copy. He’d also do well to give the same treatment to the 1980 Star Wars-themed holiday album Christmas In The Stars, which Rhino actually reissued in 1996. The album is a tour through a spaced-theme holiday courtesy of those two impish droids, C3P0 and R2D2. Produced by disco legend Meco (who is responsible for the infinitely more enjoyable (Star Wars And Other Galactic Funk), the album is made up of mostly original tunes or Star Wars-esque twists on other tunes, including “R2D2, We Wish You A Merry Christmas” which features a then-teenage Jon Bon Jovi on lead vocals. (Yes, the Bon Jovi and Star Wars universes have intersected.) But perhaps the most atrocious of these is the cringe-inducing “What Can You Get A Wookie For Christmas (When He Already Owns A Comb)” The song is the hokiest of the lot (and there’s a lot of goddamn hokey songs on this collection) and it also drags the beloved Chewbacca down to its nadir, emblematic of some of the awful, Krusty The Clown-level merchandising saturation points the Star Wars universe reached.
In my occasional stead as part of the scruffy-but-loveable writing staff of the website Popdose, I’ve spent the last few years becoming all-too-familiar with the worst that Christmas music has to offer, thanks to an annual feature called Mellowmas. (It even has its own theme song, sung by Alan “Undercover Angel” O’Day. I shit you not.) After being subjected to way too many possible contenders for this honor, I think I’m going to have to go with something from the 1992 album Hello, I’m Shelley Duvall… Merry Christmas. I’m a fan of Duvall’s work as an actress in The Shining, Time Bandits, Roxanne, and her numerous collaborations with Robert Altman, and although it hasn’t happened yet, I just know I’m going to successfully sell my daughter on Faerie Tale Theater one of these days. But I simply can’t abide Duvall’s Christmas album. Now, I know you want to believe I’m wrong about this. I only wish I was. But if you need proof, you need listen no further than the first track, “A Very Merry Christmas,” which is more than sufficient to kill anyone’s holiday spirit stone-dead. What’s that you say, Shelley Duvall? It’s what kind of Christmas? A blackberry, raspberry, cherry kind of Christmas? Seriously, you’ll probably need to go watch Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas three or four times in a row to recover from this experience. And I’m sorry about that, but, really, if I’m stuck with this musical monstrosity in my head, I’ll be damned if I’m going to be the only one.
I’m late to this, and most of the “good” ones are taken already. So let me mention one terrible song I kind of love and a whole career I hate. In the first category: “Jingle Bells” by The Singing Dogs. You know the one. But did you know the story behind it? I always assumed it was an ’80s recording using an early sampling keyboard, but it actually comes from Denmark in the early 1950s made by an amateur ornithologist named Carl Weismann, via tape-splicing. (The Atlantic ran an interesting piece on the song last year.) But for me, the nadir of Christmas music is the soulless keyboard-driven holiday cheer of Mannheim Steamroller. It sounds like the sort of music an Orwellian totalitarian state would pump into the air to help citizens dutifully celebrate the season. It baffles me that millions have embraced it by choice.
There are a few borderline-tolerable versions of “The Little Drummer Boy,” my personal favorite, so to speak, being the Dandy Warhols’ psych-pop take, but for the most part, the sound of a snare roll between Thanksgiving and Christmas means you’re in for a mid-tempo slog through denatured Christianity, putatively honoring the holiday’s religious origins, but mostly providing the pretext for a creepily sentimental fiction about a wandering waif asked to paradiddle for the baby Jesus’ enjoyment. (Also, the Middle East wasn’t exactly flush with snare drums two millennia ago.) It’s gotten so bad that a Facebook user has launched “The Little Drummer Boy Challenge”; contestants must make it to December 25 without hearing the dreaded tune. I’ve already lost after being blindsided by Bob Seger’s newest greatest-hits set, but perhaps for a few lucky souls, there’s still hope.