Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Tis the Season, Part I

Break out the plastic tree, the concrete logs, and the virgin 'nog, it's Christmastime. Some of you, I'm sure, are not yet in the Christmas spirit. "It's still November," "We're still eating Thanksgiving leftovers," or "I'm Jewish," you might say. All reasonable arguments. Nonetheless, Christmastime is fast-approaching and, to get the holiday juices flowing, I thought I'd take a look at my favorite holiday through the lens of my self-granted expertise: music.

The way I see it, there are three types of Christmas songs, and all three kick donkey in different ways:

1) Religious. These are the songs about Jesus himself, Mary, Bethlehem, three kings, shephards, angels, basically anyone but Joseph. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, cared about Joseph. Obviously they mean more to you if you're, um, Christian (as does Christmas itself), so let's just go ahead and take that fact for granted.
Examples: Silent Night, We Three Kings, O Come All Ye Faithful

2) Secular. Fun for the whole family, because even the non-Christian kids love Rudolph. These songs are your garden-variety "carols," pertaining more to the iconic aspects of Christmas rather than the religious ones: Santa, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, or just general wintertime merriment.
Examples: Deck the Halls, Jingle Bells, Up on the Rooftop

3) Pop. These songs are secular, too, but they're not so much carols as they are pop songs. The difference is hard to explain but easy to hear. Basically, if it's about Christmas but it's not a) about Jesus b) a carol you've known since you were 3, it's in this category.
Examples: Do They Know It's Christmastime, Blue Christmas, Santa Baby

Using this website as my guide, I'm going to breakdown the most notable and lovable Christmas tunes to kickstart the season. This breakdown will come in three installments, and I'd like to start with the religious songs. Here are some of the most noteworthy:

Joy to the World:
A rousing tune to be sure, but only truly memorable if performed by a full and steady choir. This song's success, I think, depends on the "repeat the sounding joy" bit, and if it's sung in "a round" fashion and well. Points deducted because nobody really knows the words: "Joy to the world! The Lord is come...let's have...a drink...or two!"
Grade: B+

O Come All Ye Faithful:
Apparently there's an entire bridge to this one I've never even heard before. Okay at first, but more repetitive than toasts at a wedding reception.
Grade: C+

Do You Hear What I Hear:
No. This sounds like a song by the Mama's and the Papa's.
Grade: D

Angels We Have Heard on High:
Vastly underrated by the majority of Christmas song-singers. This song is the Robert "Big Shot Bob" Horry of the holiday catalogue: you wouldn't put it in the Hall of Fame, but, whenever you're around it, you get the feeling it's great.
Best part: "Gloooooooooooooooooooooooooooria. In eggshell see day-oh." Rad.
Grade: A-

Good King Wencesles:
I always knew the tune but never the words. Turns out this is some morality tale about the merits of charity during the Christmas season. Also, Wency was quite the bastard.
Grade: F+

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing:
This one brings it in a "at least we're not singing about Wencesles" kind of way. The melody fits the mood, always upbeat and always varying the slightest bit. The best part is "Part B" of each verse, where it shifts to minor mode and finally resolves on "Christ is born in Bethlehem." Thoughtful composition, and a pretty melody.
Grade: B

Silent Night:
A heavyweight. "Silent Night" sets the mood for what I like to call "wistful quiet-times," and is one of the only religious Christmas songs that really connects with me spiritually (for the record, "quiet wistful times" usually involves fondue and slippers). Of course, the melody is gorgeous, but I think the song's real strength is its versatility--I've heard at least a dozen legitimately good, very different takes on this song, and all bring out something fresh. And if you think I don't secretly enjoy the a'capella version by Boyz II Men, you obviously don't know me very well.
Grade: A

We Three Kings:
If not for the "Star of wonder/star of night" chorus, this song would be a glorified Wenceslas. I will say that this song is doubly enjoyable if sung by a deep baritone-to-bass voice.
Grade: B+

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear:
Not bringing anything to the table, not taking anything off. Congratulations, you're Tim Thomas.
Grade: C-

The First Noel:
I love this song. It's a standard pop melody with a strong lyric (I've always enjoyed the shephards' story the most). Also, I can't listen to it without thinking of its inclusion on "Home Improvement," when the kids' shirts accidentally spell out "No-Al" instead of "Noel," reminding me that there was a time when I thought Tim Allen was funny, Global Guts was exciting, and the Offspring were a good band. And that, friends, is high comedy.
Grade: B+

And my favorite...O Holy Night:
"O Holy Night" has long shared a storied rivalry with "Silent Night," and nearly everyone is on one side of the fence or the other. I actually had this exchange recently:
Me: I like "O Holy Night."
Dude: You're stupid. "Silent Night" is better.
Me: My hymn can beat up your hymn.
Dude: I have always hated you.
As I told Dude (before I beat him into submission), there is no match for "O Holy Night," specifically Nat King Cole's version. Once the song shifts to minor mode ("Fall on your knees"), melody building, instruments swelling, leading up to the final resolution on "night divine," it separates itself from the pack: perfect composition, beautiful arrangments, and Mr. Cole bringing his standard brilliance. And the melody just keeps climbing up, enacting the type of hope that the song itself recounts. This song, more than any other, fills me with the actual spirit of Christmas itself, rather than that of gifts and traditions, and that's the best of achievements. All due respect to "Silent Night," though: you're Bird...you just happened to be playing at the same time as Magic.
Grade: A+

Part II tomorrow...

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