Friday, December 19, 2008

Some thoughts on Christmas music ...


(I do truly plan to get back to regular blogging, but I'm doing a couple of year-end recaps for other sites. Here's something I wrote for a forum boldly repurposed for a blog! I'll try to throw up some other Christmas-related posts over the next few days. -- ed.)

I have a reputation among many as someone who loves shitty Christmas music, but that's really not true. I mostly just KNOW what the shitty Christmas music IS because I listen to so much of the damn stuff in my attempts to create good Christmas Eve (contemplative) and Christmas morning (vaguely festive) mixes. Then I use this music to torture my friends (as any good friend does). So I don't sit down and make a mix entirely of Chrissy the Christmas Mouse and The Cat Carol or anything.

I totally get why people hate holiday music. In general, the stuff that's become popular (outside of some of the legendary tracks, like White Christmas by Bing Crosby) is so damn anodyne and syrupy that it grates on you after a while. Since the easiest way to set yourself up as a music star is to make a Christmas CD that will sell multiple copies every year, everybody makes one, and all of the mega-stars have a song or two that makes its way into mall mixes from year to year (hence Jessica Simpson's Re-joyce, the worst Christmas album I've ever heard, managing to spawn all of these songs you have to suffer through). Hence, the idea that holiday music sucks takes hold.

But, really, the best Christmas songs have come to be so popular because they're ridiculously solid songs (there are tons of Christmas songs that have fallen by the wayside over the centuries; I've probably listened to 'em all, and there's a good reason they did). And when you hear a good version of, say, Silent Night or Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, it strips away all of the bullshit and gets you down to brass tacks.

I'm guessing that some of my rules won't apply to all of you (I can't STAND that Celine Dion album my friend Andy's always going on about), but I wanted to get that "Holiday music sucks!" meme out of the way and discuss some of my favorite tracks and some of the best music I've heard.

So, forthwith, my ten rules for picking good holiday music/creating a good holiday mix. I'll be referring to Frightened Rabbit's It's Christmas So We'll Stop throughout this piece, as it's my favorite discovery so far this year. Feel free to go and download it so you know what the hell I'm talking about.

Ten Rules for Picking Holiday Music You'll Like

1.) The best holiday music has a tinge of melancholy to it. This isn't always the case (Santa Claus Is Coming to Town is one of my favorite Christmas songs, and it's pretty joyful), but for the most part, Christmas, Hannukah, New Year's, etc. are melancholy times of year, and they deserve melancholy music to go with it. Obviously, there's a lot of joy at Christmas, but most of that is generated by kids, I think you'll find. People started having Solstice celebrations because December is the darkest time of the year, when things seem the most hopeless. So if the best summer songs are a little wistful, the best WINTER songs are a little sad. But, really, even the religious roots of Christmas are kind of sad -- a doomed world, lost in its own sin, crying out for someone to save it and finding that someone only very briefly. Other than that, the best Christmas songs are about the season's ephemerality -- how you can never recapture the feeling of being 8 and tromping downstairs to see what you got for Christmas, how you can't get home to be with the ones you love for the season, how things are bound to end and decay and die, but we're going to have to press on for just a little while longer. If you remove the subset of Santa Claus songs from the list of Christmas songs (and there aren't that many that have survived), most great holiday songs are fundamentally sad ones. It's Christmas So We'll Stop fits this criteria because it's about a man facing the fact that the shit of the world has paused for two days towards the end of the year, but it's all just going to start up again on Dec. 26. The best Christmas songs are OBSESSED with this idea.

2.) In general, I skew away from most Christmas albums released by major labels in the '90s and '00s. As always, there are exceptions, and your mileage may vary (Andy's obviously does), but I've found that Christmas music is best when it feels heartfelt. Most albums released by major labels post-1990 (when the labels realized just how much cash they could make from NEW Christmas albums instead of collections of old hits) are pretty cynical cash grabs, only there to make labels lots of money. I tend to look for stuff released before 1990 and stuff released by indie labels and artists (like Frightened Rabbit!). This isn't a hard and fast rule: The Cat Carol, after all, is an indie recording, while Mariah Carey's infectious All I Want for Christmas Is You is a major label thing. But I've found that it TENDS to be true, and that's enough for me. I've also found that it tends to be true for major label Christian artists, so tread with caution in that arena.

3.) The Internet is your friend. Stay away from most all-Christmas radio stations and mall mixes. They tend to be filled with the same 100 or so terrible songs that you hear every year (one could probably go through these lists and remove only 10 tracks actually worth a damn). To find good stuff, turn to the Internet. As always, starting with iTunes and Amazon is not a bad idea (both tend to have lots and lots of rare things), but I'm rather fond of going to sites that are a part of something that calls itself the "Sharity community." These sites digitize old Christmas albums that are no longer available and share them. Some of the stuff is dreadful, but some of it is sublime, and none of it is the overproduced shit we think of as Christmas music nowadays. The BEST place to start your Christmas music search is Santas Working Overtime, which collects huge numbers of links to Christmas-related posts every day (it's how I found the Frightened Rabbit track). The best gateway to the "sharity" community is probably Falalalala and its forums (where I'm a member). I've also had very good luck with Hip Christmas, Ernie, Not Bert, and Christmas Yule Blog. If you just want someone else to prepare a mix for you, check out WOXY.com and its pretty awesome modern rock Christmas mix, some of the sites listed above (particularly Hip Christmas) or Pandora, which takes your favorites and turns them into very good mixes.

4.) If you like an artist, you'll probably like their Christmas music. Again, this doesn't ALWAYS apply, but most artists are going to apply their own sensibility to their Christmas recording. I love Sufjan Stevens, so, naturally, I loved his Christmas music. Same with, say, The Beach Boys. I find this is ESPECIALLY true with religious Christmas songs, and COMPLETELY true with Christmas originals (I probably wouldn't have downloaded It's Christmas So We'll Stop if it was by an artist I didn't like so much), which can be really awful, since they're usually even MORE of a cynical cash grab.

5.) Don't be afraid of songs that have fallen out of the mainstream. Two of the best tracks on Sufjan's Christmas album are The Friendly Beasts and Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, two songs you rarely hear anymore. That freshness can often surprise and entertain you, especially since you've PROBABLY heard the songs at SOME point, but you're not constantly inundated with them. Some other good songs you might look for include In the Bleak Midwinter, The Coventry Carol, I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming, O Come, O Come Emanuel, Still, Still, Still and the Old Wessex Carol. There are tons more, and I know I'm forgetting some, but these are some great songs that have gotten choked out by other standards.

6.) There are a handful of songs that are hard to screw up. For my money, I've heard maybe one or two versions of Silent Night that weren't at least palatable. The same goes for Hark the Herald Angels Sing and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (perhaps the most somber Christmas song). Many artists try to butcher Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, but the underlying song is so strong that few succeed. The same applies to Christmastime Is Here (though the Guaraldi version cannot be improved upon, to my mind). Perhaps the weirdest song that manages to be palatable in almost every version, though, is Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, which SEEMS like it would have spawned tons of teeth-grindingly bad versions, but mostly seems to give even artists I hate a chance to show a twinkle in their eyes.

7.) Look for genres you might not always enjoy. One of the best Christmas albums of the last decade is Putamayo's "New Orleans Christmas," released as a fundraiser in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While I don't always like jazz (though I like Dixieland jazz quite a bit more than smooth jazz), every track on this album is a keeper (including a Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas that may be the only song on Earth to consistently make me tear up). I've also had good luck with bluegrass versions of tunes, a capella stuff, sea chanties and even Celtic Christmas tunes. I tend to stick pretty close to alt rock when making my mixes, but getting in a few other genres never hurts. It's also a good way to slowly introduce yourself to artists you might never listen to if you didn't already know the songs they were covering so well.

8.) Don't be afraid of instrumental tracks. But stay away from Mannheim Steamroller. I actually can tolerate most Steamroller tracks, but their bombast tends to overwhelm everything it touches and the sheer over-the-topness of who they are makes for an irritating listening experience if you listen to a whole album by them. The same goes for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. However, you can find good, Christmas-y music on the scores for plenty of films that are set in the season (I'm not a huge fan of either movie, but The Family Stone and The Nightmare Before Christmas both have some excellent instrumental tracks that provide a holiday-like feel without blatantly quoting Christmas carols). Another favorite film score of mine for the holidays is The Royal Tenenbaums, particularly the track "End Credits" (if you can find it), which indirectly quotes Away in a Manger, uses sleigh bells very well and creates a holiday mood without ever turning into a Christmas song. Or you can just look for instrumental covers of Christmas tunes, preferably on a single instrument or two, though there are some worthwhile classical orchestra type things.

9.) Try the offerings of other countries. I'm not a HUGE world music fan (most world music seems kind of watered down by the time it gets here), but Christmas music often transcends borders, and there's plenty of great stuff out there from other countries. The aforementioned Putamayo has a "World Christmas" album that's pretty good, and you'll find lots of rare tracks from other countries floating around the Internet. Though I once downloaded about five albums' worth of Scandanavian Christmas music and found it mostly irritating. (That said, the best Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer I've ever heard was in German, and I haven't been able to find it since.)

10.) You can never go wrong with the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. I mean, duh?

So let me know your favorites in the comments. Or if you're looking for a specific song or a version of a song you might like, let me know, and I'll do my best to help out!

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