By Daniel van Voorhis –
The words need to jump out of my brain, bypass conventional speech and language, and burrow deep into your soul. I can’t fully convey the experience of good Christmas music. When I try to talk about it, I think I sound like a burnout who spent the ‘70s following the Grateful Dead trying to explain the “aura” and “vibe” of the “sound”.
You need to have the mystical experience of sitting in a dark house, lit only by the Christmas tree and the reflection of the Christmas bulbs on the house coming in through the windows, and the cool tenor of Mel Torme (“The Velvet Fog”) serenading you with “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)”.
You need to put yourself in a concert hall when the entire chorus, orchestra, organ and everything that can make a sound builds up to a crescendo in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and shakes the building.
Try to remember sometime standing in a line at a coffee shop, you’re feeling good, and the first piano bars of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here” play over the speakers. Go ahead and order that ridiculous coffee based confectionary hot drink drizzled with caramel and filled with nog or peppermint syrup.
I have written (and talked ad nauseum) about Christmas music. Some people are happy to join in the conversation and discuss the merits (if any exist) of “Little Drummer Boy”. Others think I’m going a little overboard as purveyor of Christmas cheer. Some might think, “Sure, the music is good, but stop being so dogmatic about good and bad versions of songs.”
Please read the first sentence again. Very few things make me happier. Very few things transform a mall or a store or party from an awkward, stale and tired group of people going through the December motions to a swinging, joyous and jolly affair.
Get to the Christmas party, hand the host your coats, and walk in just as the horns and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound kick in on the Ronettes version of “Sleigh Ride”. We have one month to bask in the brilliance of some of the best music in the western tradition over the past centuries. And then, on a sometimes overcast and rainy January 2nd (or thereabouts), just as the rain is washing tinsel and needles from trees down gutters and men on ladders are taking down the lights, we pack these songs away with the rest of the year. The songs hibernate. And then… Thanksgiving comes and goes, and the first strains of those heavenly choruses begin.
It’s too bad that we have become so oversaturated with bad covers of traditional carols and sub-par pop songs and hymns that we think we are supposed to like that we, sometimes, like a disaffected twenty-something walking away from their childhood hero, abandon our joy, love and unabashed glee for Christmas songs. It doesn’t have to be this way. Gene Autry singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” or Burl Ives crooning “Silver and Gold” can get old. When KOST 103.5 (or your regional adult contemporary radio station) starts playing Christmas songs early and gives you versions of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” sung by Luther Vandross and produced by David Foster in the 1980’s rather than Judy Garland’s stunning and melancholic turn, I understand your grinchy shooing away of my Christmas music proselyting.
Or, maybe you are a philistine that enjoys Mannheim Steamroller despite hundreds of versions of each of those tracks being done infinitely better by dozens of performers. And yes, Beth Anne (my beautiful wife of 14 years) this is directed at you. But I get it. The utterly crap, saccharine, and synth-bell saturated songs bring back warm memories. And I won’t begrudge you those. Listen and enjoy (but I do appreciate hearing you scamper over to the Bose to switch the track when I open the sliding glass door coming home from work at dinner time).
My own melancholic Christmas past has me rate albums like Mark Kozelek’s “Mark Kozelek Sings Christmas Songs” a little too high. Weezer’s Christmas album is better when it is filtered through my love of 90’s power pop and their releasing this brilliant EP album amidst their slow demise.
So we all bring baggage. We all bring an aesthetic. For once (and maybe just this once), I am not going to rank songs. But, I want you to recognize that there are important distinctions to be made between pop, traditional, and sacred songs.
Pop is generally for those songs recorded in the past few decades and essentially tied to one artist (with the occasional cover of that pop song working, as a song on its own merits, but also as a tip of the hat to the original). An example would be Wham’s “Last Christmas.”
Traditional songs are those that are usually about Santa or snow or chestnuts, etc… they are good for caroling and general merriment. These are usually covered by many, and while iconic versions exist, they don’t “belong to anyone.” Examples include “Sleigh Ride,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “White Christmas.”
The Sacred are those with distinctly theological lyrics that focus on the incarnation. Sometimes they are so commonplace that we forget that we are singing about God that became a baby and was born in manger to ultimately die for the sins of the world. It’s a big story. And sometimes we “fa-la-la” through them without getting the depth of the story being conveyed. Examples include “O Holy Night,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “What Child is This.”
So, I won’t do any rankings or give you any definitive “best” answers (but they aren’t easy to pry out of me). So without any further ado, here are some Christmas music musings for making your own playlists. Don’t be a sap and throw on a “That’s What I Call X-Mas Music #35” on at your holiday party. And don’t throw on a random station. You might as well start buying prepackaged shirt and tie sets or trusting Amazon’s curious “You Might Like” running list of items at the bottom of your checkout page. Think for yourselves! Curate your own taste. Playlists are easier to make than mixtapes (which is what we oldsters in our mid-thirties and beyond used to make to woo the opposite sex and make our perfect versions of albums).
Ok- a few thoughts for now, and perhaps more in the comments section (or a shared link or two).
Please listen to The Pogues “Fairytale of New York”. A beautiful song about love and frustration at Christmas that begins with the lyric, “It was Christmas Eve, babe… in the drunk tank”.
Even if it’s overplayed, please appreciate Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas is You”. Seriously, listen to it freshly with no knowledge of how dumb Mariah Carey seems or her generally confused bubble gum diva catalog.
Many have recorded “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)”. Darlene Love has the only version you need. In fact, 80% of the Phil Spector “A Christmas Gift For You” is brilliant. Be warned, the end of the album is creepy enough before you remember that he killed a lady by sticking the barrel of a gun in her mouth (sorry, not in the spirit of the article? But, seriously. He did).
White Christmas by Bing Crosby is iconic. I have no beef with the Irishman. But have you heard Otis Redding’s version?!? That dude has SOUL. And he makes it his own even more than Springsteen somehow makes “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” sound like “Born to Run”.
“Sleigh Ride” is hard to ruin, but it’s hard to top Mel Torme’s version on his album “Christmas Songs” with the Cincinnati Sinfonietta.
I am running long, and the editors at the Jagged Word get nervous when I hit 1200 words (and you might, too). So let me leave you with this: the greatest recording of a Christmas song ever. EVER. Put on some good headphones, turn out all the lights but the Christmas tree, take some deep breaths, snuggle up in a blanket and DIG.
All the Best,
The Man About Town
Composed while listening to a playlist of songs mentioned in the article (including tracks from The Kings College Choir, “Christmas Carols”, John Fahey’s “New Possibility” and the compilation “Holidays Rule” which includes some fine, fine modern covers).