Thursday, December 17, 2009

Songs for Christmas

As a special bonus this month, I'm picking some personal favorites of the Christmas-song collection to share! A few notes:

1) Please jump in with yours. I selfishly want to discover all the great Christmas music known to man, and need your help. Sure, yes, feel free to debate/argue/discuss in the comments. But really, just give me your recommendations.

2) Apologies to the readers who don't celebrate Christmas--it's what I know! I'd love to hear some other holiday song recommendations?

3) A few years back, I graded all the well-known Christmas tunes in a 3-part monster blog. Check that out here: Part 1, 2, and 3.

4) Just like last time, I'm breaking this down into three categories: pop (Lennon's "So This Is Christmas"), secular ("Silver Bells," "Jingle Bells," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," etc.), religious ("Silent Night," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "Noel," etc.). I'm giving the pop songs 12 picks, secular 10, and religious 5. Why these numbers? Why not these numbers? I'm also going to try to make some different picks than I have in past Christmas-song posts, for variation's sake. Still, the greats are the greats for a reason.


Songs for Christmas!


Tom Petty, "Christmas All Over Again"

Four chords? Check. Can't miss melody? Check. Oddly evocative lyrics? Check. It's Tom Petty all over again.

The Kinks, "Father Christmas"
Reason #1,602 Why the Kinks Are One of Rock's Most Underrated Bands: give me a 60's rock band that produced a better Christmas song than this. Fun, funny, rollicking, and truly original.

Billy Mack (Love Actually soundtrack), "Christmas Is All Around"
Here's what Love Actually understands about Christmas music: it's the only time that cheap sentiments, cliched lyrics, and cloying pop aren't just expected, but welcomed. In June, I'm not touching NSync; in December, I'm unabashedly buying their cover of "Let It Snow" and hitting repeat. Billy Mack calls this song "Grade-A crap," and it would be, except that it's not. It's funny, and generous, and self-deprecating, and filled with spirit. There's nothing uncool about being happy, and having a good laugh.

BONUS Love Actually pick: Dido, "Here With Me"
This song has little (or nothing) to do with Christmas, save its inclusion in Love Actually. But I'm giving it major love here for three reasons:
1) Turns out I kind of like Dido. Her melodies are gorgeous, and she does "haunted-and-heartbroken" as well as any singer/songwriter from the past ten years.
2) I'm intrigued by how many British singer/songwriters insist on using electronic percussion on their albums.
3) It's made infinitely better by the actor's performance of "My best friend's bride just discovered I'm in love with her." As Dido's chorus swoops over the action, dude performs the unprecedented "triple-pivot, dramatic sweater-zip, sidewalk spin, head-in-hands crouch, and public-outcry-that-scares-onlookers." It comes at the 56 minute mark. It's fantastic.

Hanson, "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)"
Major props to long-time reader Elizabeth for this recommendation. If anyone can sell unrepentant holiday pop cheese, it's Hanson. Everything, from the overwrought Jackson-esque vocal stylings, to glistening production, to the background vocal monolith, is exactly what you'd want it to be. Looking for the most ridiculous, lovable, infectious, pop-rocking 4-minutes in existence? Shtop it--Hanson's got you.

My Morning Jacket, "XMas Curtain"
Some genius, once upon a time, wrote that music is the "unspoken, inscrutable language of the soul." The right combination of sounds can communicate something otherworldly, can transform into something new, and can transport you to any given time, or place. These songs tap into some secret only the gods know. And what I'm trying to say is this: Jim James might not be from this planet. When he sings about dawn, it sounds exactly like a sunrise. When he sings about evil urges, the accompanying music is recognizably evil and alluring. And when he sings about Christmas, it just sounds like Christmas. Sure, an extremely weird Christmas. But Christmas nonetheless.

Leon Redbone (Elf soundtrack), "Christmas Island"
I can't hear it without laughing. Which, I think, is its goal.

Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Santa Claus Wants Some Loving"
Have you ever thought to yourself, "I'm looking for a creepy riff-rock Christmas song. But it can't just be a little creepy. It's got to be much creepier than 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,' which is disturbing to begin with. It's got to be so creepy that even the uber-famous band singing it doesn't get love from their crowd when they perform it live. It's got to be creepy and off-putting enough that the band members' wives ask them not to play it anymore, and cancel that holiday vacation to St. Barts." If the answer to that question is yes, look no further.

Emmylou Harris, "Light of the Stable"
I've mentioned this one in the past, but it's an all-time favorite. Christmas music, above all else, must make you feel something; it has to resonate. Considering my idea of heaven is Emmylou Harris singing "Halleluja" while I judge a barbeque contest, this song resonates. I can't think of any Christmas vocal that tops it.

Low, "Just Like Christmas"
The song takes place in Oslo, and is exactly what I picture Oslo sounding like. I'd love to find out sometime. A different mood from Hanson, to be sure (this is Christmas in a dreamy, supercold haze, as opposed to Christmas in a McDonald's playland), but pretty and resonant all the same.

Vince Guaraldi Trio, "Christmastime Is Here"
I'll admit it: I have no idea who Vince Guaraldi is. I'm completely--willfully--unaware of his catalog outside the Peanuts Christmas soundtrack. He's probably a fantastic jazz pianist and composer, and wholly deserving of an audience the other 11 months of the year. I can't possibly bring myself to care, because the one thing that I do know about Vince Guaraldi is so unspeakably perfect, I can't go above or beyond it.

I once knew a girl who loved Peanuts, but didn't think that it was sad, or that Charlie Brown was a tragic figure. Which is insane to me, because that's exactly what I loved about Peanuts growing up--it was palpably sad, but always hopeful. How do I know I was right? Vince Guaraldi, that's how. It is sad in the best possible sense--it meets you when you're down, but it tells you you're not alone. And, occasionally, it picks you back up.

John Lennon, "So This Is Christmas"
As I get older, it gets harder to gloss over the goofy "war is over" childrens' chorale that eventually swallows the song. But the fact remains: "So this is Christmas/and what have you done..." remains the best opening to a Christmas pop song I've ever heard. The whole thing--from the delivery, to the perfect pop structure, to the production--is so effortless for Lennon, it's easy to take for granted its simple perfection.

Frank Sinatra, "I'll Be Home For Christmas"
Because this has always been a great song, but I'm just now starting to hear it.


Sting, "I Saw Three Ships"
Four years in, and Sting gets his first mention on the Blog! Congrats, Sting!

Vienna Boys Choir, "The Holly and the Ivy"
Part 1 in a 2-part tribute to my brother's Christmastime favorites. For some unknown reason, this ranks near the top of his list. I can't hear it without thinking of him and his weird affection for songs about shrubbery.

John Williams (Home Alone sountrack), "Carol of the Bells"
Part 2 in the 2-part tribute: This John Williams version does what a John Williams anything should do: knock you out, steal your wallet, puncture a lung, crack a rib, and make you want more. But my brother's got a vendetta against any "Carol of the Bells" version with actual lyrics. Again, I would've never noticed this, but he's got a point: it's a great tune. It doesn't need a choir of 60 children screaming, "bells, bellsy bells!" or whatever the words are. Either way, I'm including this version, so you can sing along to the Apocalyptic nonsense lyrics and wonder if your life is better without them.

The Temptations, "Little Drummer Boy"
One of my favorites from the "secular" group, because of that great, rising melody, and the endearing lyric. I haven't heard a version of this song that brings out those two points better than the Temptations'. Effortlessly cool, yet subtle and affected.

Jackson 5, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"
Little Michael wasn't ready to croon yet ("Give Love on Christmas Day"), but he could rock some soul-screaming vocals like no other. This version is so winning, and fun, that it makes every other sound drab and joyless in comparison. One of the rare Christmas staples that renders all other versions an afterthought.

Diana Ross & the Supremes, "Silver Bells"
A longtime favorite of mine, I used to prefer the Rat Pack versions of this song with their cool narrative emphasis and bouncy style. Now, I go for the smooth, deeply melodic version by Diana Ross & the Supremes. It's prettier, and dreamier, and somehow happier.

Nat King Cole, "The Christmas Song"
Every Christmas list I ever make will include Nat King Cole's version of "The Christmas Song." Let's be very clear about that right now.

Otis Redding, "White Christmas"
Three reasons this is probably my all-time favorite from this group:
1) As stated in Songs for December, Otis Redding owns this month. If December is a Season of Snuggliness (as November's Fan of the Month would say), nobody communicates that feeling better than Otis.
2) The dominant horn line is almost identical to my favorite My Morning Jacket moment of all-time: the outtro for "I Will Sing You Songs." Seriously, listen to this song. Then listen to the 5:28 mark of this song. Then tell me Otis Redding and Jim James aren't actually messengers from God.
3) It arrives at the perfect moment in Love Actually, which we've now established owns my soul.


Smokey Robinson, "Away In a Manger/Coventry Carol"
Noticing a Motown trend, are we?

Boyz II Men, "Silent Night"
You're damn right. It is exactly what you want from a Boyz II Men a'capella version of "Silent Night." Insanely overwrought, melodramatic, and weirdly deviant from the original, and always gorgeous.

Frank Sinatra, "The First Noel"
This one's grown on me over the years. I used to gloss over it because of familiarity and a weird personal connection to a Home Improvement episode. Now, it's one of my all-time favorite Christmas melodies. If done right, it's incredibly powerful; of course, Sinatra does it right.

Relient K, "Angels We Have Heard On High"
Proof that the SoCal mall-punk bands weren't stupid, just dumb. This is a brilliant cover of an old-classic, equal parts hilarious, fun, clever, and genuinely impressive.

Nat King Cole, "O Holy Night"
My all-time favorite, anytime, anywhere. True story: when I got a new computer last February, I didn't transfer any music onto it for a few weeks. There were four songs I bought--in February, mind you--on iTunes because I knew I had to have them in my library immediately. They were, in order of purchase:
1) Pearl Jam, "Nothingman"
2) The Band, "The Weight"
3) Bob Dylan, "Desolation Row"
4) Nat King Cole, "O Holy Night"

Now, a few bonus picks!

BONUS WINTERTIME SONG: Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson, "Winter Song"
Slightly goofy in the charming, childlike manner of so many Michaelson songs, impeccable vocals, gorgeous harmonies, and pitch-perfect songwriting. One of my favorite experiences as a listener is when I like something that I typically wouldn't like. I was surprised by--and grateful for--how much I appreciate this song.

BONUS NEW YEARS SONG: Guy Lombardo, "Auld Lang Syne"
You knew it was coming, and this is easily my favorite version.

"O Holy Night," as performed by a New Orleans jazz ensemble on an episode of Studio 60.
By my rubric ("Christmas music, above all else, must make you feel something; it has to resonate."), this is the best Christmas song I've heard this season. I can't hear it without getting goosebumps.

Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!

What are your Songs for Christmas?


ross k. said...

Hast thou forgotten "Zat you, Santa Claus" by Buster Poindexter and "Last Christmas" by WHAM! ?

(basically kidding)

Chris Milam said...

Thou hast!

(Not to be confused with "Du Hast.")

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