The best (and worst) of Christmas
Let me admit something to you right here and now that will likely cause my hipster music snob card to be permanently revoked: I love Christmas music. Absolutely adore it. I keep a couple of dozen Christmas songs on my ipod (now Spotify library) year round and never forward past them when they pop up on random. I like classic lounge singer tunes, choral renditions, and modern rock and roll takes, just about any way it comes I like. Why? Like all great music, great Christmas songs are heartfelt, emotional, genuine, and, often, a bit sad and melancholy (remember this for later, and it will explain why millions upon millions of people are absolutely wrong about something). Then again, like other all other types of music, there’s some really awful holiday songs, usually made all the more awful by the fact that they are nothing more than transparent money grabs.
So, to get through the season, I present to you my favorite Christmas/holiday themed songs, followed by some that will make you drop to your knees and pray for time to fast forward to Jan. 2.
The Pogues and Kirsty McColl – Fairytale of New York
I’ve always thought it was cheating just a bit to call this a Christmas song, as this isn’t really one, per say, rather just an unbelievably great song that happens to be set during Christmastime. It runs the emotional gambit, from joy to despair, love to hatred, adoration to disdain, plus it happens to have one of the greatest lyrical putdowns in music history. A brilliant song made more compelling by the tragic story of the wonderful Kirsty MacColl. Plus it has one of the better music videos ever made. (Hello, Matt Dillon). If for some reason you’re not familiar with this song and are really easily offended, fair warning that this tune has harsher language than one normally finds in a holiday song.
Blue Christmas – Elvis Presley
What makes this a great Christmas song? The same thing that makes all great Elvis songs great: swagger, soul, and those unbelievable pipes. Say what you will about what Elvis became not too long after this clip was shot, but the man could flat out sing. I’ve always said that Christmas doesn’t really start until I’ve heard this song at least once, so the 2011 version is now officially on.
We Three Kings – Just about anyone who can sing
And now for something a little more traditional. I used to think that this song was so good that just about any version of it was good, but a quick search through YouTube disabused me of that notion. Always one of my favorites during Christmas Eve services growing up as a kid. This choral version is quite nice indeed.
God Rest Ye Marry Gentleman/We Three Kings – Barenaked Ladies
You should know that I thoroughly despise Barenaked Ladies (the band, not the concept). That stupid Chinese chicken song they sing makes me want to break things and steal candy from children. But this version is just about perfect. Great arrangement, some nice harmonizing with Ms. Lilithfair, and the cut away to the aforementioned We Three Kings is a great touch.
Good King Wenceslas – Mel Torme
Thematically this has always been one of my favorite Christmas songs, especially the line “Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing” (a sentiment that many an alleged Christian of wealth and rank could probably stand to heed more often.) The problem with the song is that traditional versions tend to be sung be serious men with deep voices in the style of a funeral dirge. Enter the Velvet Fog, who gives it a bopping jazz makeover that transforms the song completely. Hallelujah.
Jesus Christ – Big Star
Like everything else Big Star did, this is just an amazing song that has largely flown under the radar. It’s generally not thought of as a “Christmas” song, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more straight forward celebration of the traditional Christmas story. (No, not the one that involves Ralphie and the BB gun.) From one of rock’s great albums, Third/Sister Lovers, part of the music snob essential 50. “We’re gonna get born now.”
Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis – Neko Case covering Tom Waits
Again, not your traditional song, and one that is only a “Christmas” song by the loosest of definitions. Another confession to make, I love Tom Waits as a songwriter, but have never been able to listen to him much, the gruff old voice thing just doesn’t work for me. But filter his words through the angelic vocals of Neko Case? Pretty close to perfection. One for the down and out.
The Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth – Bing Crosby & David Bowie
A stone cold classic, this one. The awkward Christmas special banter at he beginning makes it all the better. Legend has it that the Thin White Duke balked initially at singing Little Drummer Boy, so the Peace on Earth counter melody was added literally a few hours before taping. And voila, a classic is born. (apologies for the ad before this one)
I could go on with the good, but we’d be here a long, long time. So now I give you the bad. I don’t want to waste a lot of words on these, because quite frankly their awfulness should be self evident, but I do reserve a little vitriol for the the 800 lb Christmas song gorilla, Mannheim Steamroller. They are the Thomas Kincaid of music, churning out overwrought, soul-less, droning “new age” renditions of every Christmas song imaginable, while probably sleeping on the finest silk sheets atop piles and piles of money. Why people buy this stuff is beyond me, but it only goes to show you that millions and millions of people can most definitely be wrong.
Good King Wenceslas – Manheim Steamroller
Awful. Just awful.
Grandma Got Runover by a Reindeer – Dr. Elmo
This sends shivers down my spine, but it’s really almost unfair to pick on this. I’m doing it anyway. This also covers just about any other “novelty” Christmas song (I’m looking at you, Chipmunks) ever recorded.
It Must Be Santa – Bob Dylan
Oh man, this one hurts a lot. Even the genius among us have our skeletons.
Jingle Bell Rock – Billy Idol
Jingle Bell Rock is a pretty horrible song to begin with, but I think it’s the maniacal look on Billy’s face that really creeps me out here.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Scott Weiland
A new, contemporary entry into the Christmas Hall of Shame. Speaking of things the world just didn’t need, I give you former Stone Temple Pilots lead singer, Scott Weilend.
There you have it, the best and worst of the Christmas musical world. Now go get some eggnog and enjoy.
Posted on December 4, 2011, in Music, Tao of JLo and tagged Big Star, Christmas Music, David Bowie, Elvis, Kirsty MacColl, Mel Torme, Neko Case, The Pogues, Tom Waits. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.