I like Christmas. I really do. Somehow Christmas makes me think of home, of where I'm from, of who I'm from, more than any other time of year. It's a beautifully spiritual time, if you can hit the right notes, and keep your mind in the right place.
(insert obligatory paragraph about over-commercialized Christmas here -- even the complaining about Christmas has been overdone and is now clicheed.)
I can avert my eyes from the "shop shop shop" ads, or at least simply enjoy the christmassy feeling that the combination of the colours red, white, and green bring to my emotional memory, and not read the words.
But what I can't do, guy-sensitive-to-music that I am, is shut my ears from hearing Christmas music every flippin' place I go.
And dear readers, some of that Christmas music has got to go.
Now, you will notice this post has many embedded videos. The one introduced as a Tom Waits video, and the very last one are the two best, so if you're impatient, watch them and skip the rest. Be warned, many of the others are there to serve as examples of terrible Christmas music. I put them up for the same reason people look at boogers after they pick them, and slow down for car crashes: some people just want to know, even (or especially) when somebody says, "You don't want to know. Really." And some of the music (I chose the videos for their music -- ignore the images if you can) is a musical car crash. I'll even put a car crash warning on them, just so you can skip them if you don't like the smell of putrescence. And if you DO like putrescence. . . this post should be a proper hall of masochistic wonders for you!
For the music overkill. . . as when I posted a bunch of poetry in a previous blog, if you don't like it, skip it!
(car wreck warning: worst. Christmas. song. ever. Wham!)
See, most mediocre, half-hearted pop-songs clutter up the airwaves for a little while, and then have the consideration to vanish, as their limited shelf/radio-life expires. Even if you REALLY hate the latest steaming pile of Black-Eyed-Peas, it'll go away in about three months. That's not to say it hasn't already overstayed its welcome, but at least it's gone now.
Not so Christmas music. EVERY DECEMBER, radio programmers dig up, and warm over all the crappy songs from Christmas past, trotting dead horses back out and into radio rotation, so that we're STILL listening to George Michael whine about "Last Christmas" when by now, it's been twenty-four Christmases since he gave you his heart, and you're still glad you gave it away, and it's been twenty-three Christmases since his mopey, sloppily written, limpidly sung song should have ceased forever to grate on shop customers' ears. Instead, here in Korea, modern pop bands are COVERING it, just so I hear it even MORE often!
Rain: the biggest male popstar in Korea. Put me out of my misery now! (SUPER MEGA TRAIN-WRECK WARNING)
whew! at least it was short.
Now to be fair, I recognize that it's hard to make a good Christmas song --
Your choices are these:
Option 1. write your own song.
(car wreck warning: bryan adams, riffing on the tired old "Christmas makes us better people" theme)
In which case, your own songwriting skills are on a playlist right before, or after, some Christmas classic, and bud, I don't care how underrated a songwriter Bryan Adams might be. . . his junky Christmas anthem pales next to the majesty of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."
From Paul McCartney, this is my submission for the worst track any Beatle ever recorded, and that INCLUDES the plastic ono band. . . but every Christmas, it comes back again.
(car wreck warning: wonderful christmas time)
The images in the video make me smile--"Hey everybody! Even though the Beatles broke up, I'm still using drugs. . . see?"
Making a Christmas song, option 2:
Do a version of a Christmas classic.
You have a better chance of success here, except that with all the good ones, somebody's already done it better.
Ella Fitzgerald sang "Baby, it's Cold Outside" with Louis Jordan . . . that means Avril Lavigne, Michael Buble, Jack Johnson, Fergie, and any band assembled by a producer rather than by the musicians finding each other, should leave it alone. Really. Why bother trying.
(listen to the words: it's the only song in the world that makes date-rape sound charming and nostalgic, if you listen to it cynically enough)
Annie Lennox did Winter Wonderland really well (there's a link to her version later). . . this version makes me want to cancel Christmas altogether, hide my head under a pillow, and hibernate until February.
(Big Car Wreck warning. This clip is like using a corkscrew instead of a q-tip. Really, don't watch more than the first fifteen seconds of this one. I'm ashamed of my culture right now. No Joke. this is the worst video clip in the entire post. in case you doubt me, let me just say: Ozzy Osbourne/Jessica Simpson duet. Still doubt me? I dare you to press play!)
(Warning: every time someone plays this clip in its entirety, an angel loses its wings.)
(As my sister's friend says, "You make baby Jesus cry.")
Making a Christmas Song: Option 3 (if you can pull it off): make an amazing Christmas song that gets overplayed until people hate it anyway.
Dear Mariah Carey:
Thanks for this one! It's AWESOME
(the first 435 times)
Dear radio programmers who play "All I Want For Christmas Is You" practically on repeat every December: please? stop? You all agreed to take "Crazy" off the air before people got sick of it -- can we now give Mariah the Gnarls Barkley treatment, before you start losing listeners through death by immolation? Yeah, it's rare that an actually talented artist makes a Christmas album at the top of her game. . . but every five minutes I'm hearing "All I Want For Christmas. . . " either the Mariah version, or the cover from the "Love Actually" soundtrack. At some point, thanks to the "shuffle" function on CD players, I'm going to hear them back-to-back, and I heard that if that's followed by back-to-back versions of "Last Christmas" by Wham! and then by the K-Popstar Rain, every Starbucks in Korea will implode.
The great Christmas songs get played more often than the crappy ones, so we even tire of them, sadly. (Sorry, Bing Crosby. The song's great, but I've just overdosed on it. All respect to you, but I never want to hear "White Christmas" again.)
So that's the quandary of Christmas music. Either there are a zillion other versions (probably by better musicians), or your song's not gonna hold water next to the other Christmas classics, or it's gonna get so overplayed we're sick of it anyway--it just takes us three years instead of one week.
At the root of the problem, or at least a major part of it, is this:
Most Christmas albums are basically Christmas-spending-spree cash-ins from artists who are either getting old and running out of fresh ideas, or whose appeal will fade quickly (often due to lack of true talent), and need to capitalize before they become irrelevant, or who were all about the money anyway, right from the start. For proof, go to a used CD shop and see how many "where are they now" bands have numerous copies of their Christmas Album on the shelves, where nobody's buying them.
These cynical money-grubbing artists are hilariously parodied here in "Love Actually" by the fictional artist "Billy Mack" -- THIS makes me laugh, because it's so true.
(Car wreck. . . no, train wreck. . . no, mid-air-plane collision. . . this is the Titanic of bad music videos. . . but it's funny, and a parody. . . does that make it ok? I especially like the interview clips before and after the actual song, and the naughty elves with stripper poles.)
help us all! at least they're not serious, like Ozzy Osbourne and Jessica Simpson up above.
And so it is that bad artists make most of the Christmas music out there.
Conversely, it is only rarely that a really great artist does a really interesting take on Christmas. The artists who could make a really interesting Christmas album are rarely the ones who actually DO make Christmas music, because actual artists aren't usually into cash-grabs. I've been hearing an Aimee Mann Christmas song lately at Starbucks (I can't find it to post it), and that's nice. . . I think Tom Waits would make the best Christmas album ever, but he's too much of an artist to make one, the same way I think Robert Redford is the Hollywood star who'd make the best U.S. President. . . for precisely the reasons he would never run for president.
Come on, Tom, give us some more. (Tom Waits: Christmas Card From a Hooker In Minneapolis) -- Neko Case sings a gorgeous version of this song, too, but it never gets on the radio, or on YouTube.
This, THIS is good. Sad, funny, tender, Tom Waits.
So my Christmas wish is that we could retire some of that Christmas dreck that's been recycled for too many years. Please? We could also make a rule that radio stations and shops can only play a Christmas song a maximum of three times (maximum four) per twenty-four hours, so that we don't get sick of Bing's White Christmas, and Annie Lennox's "Winter Wonderland," which I still like. . . barely.
(embedding disabled by request, so you have to follow the link to hear the song)
In a world of MP3 CD's, there's just no excuse anymore for playing "Merry Christmas" by Mariah Carey on repeat for eight hours a day in your coffee shop. Really, none. Radio programmers: It's OK to play just regular, nice music in December -- mix it up a bit! Then we can enjoy the Christmas music when it DOES come on, instead of sighing and gritting our teeth until January.
(It's a pretty poor reflection on the caliber of Christmas music that I'm actually GLAD no other holidays have special pop-songs for them -- but then again, that's not a bad business idea. Do you think there'd be a market for crappy Thanksgiving albums? What about crappy Valentine's Day music? I'm SURE if you made a bad Independence Day album, Americans would buy it. This might be my million-dollar idea!)
Before I go: here are some more Christmas songs I DO like if I don't hear them too often, and the last one is my favourite Christmas recording ever -- if you only listen to one of these songs, make it that one (if two, add the Tom Waits one above).
Jackson 5 (and most of A Motown Christmas)
(Most of Christmas With the Rat Pack is pretty good, too -- Sinatra, Dean Martin, Davis Jr. and co. know how to handle a classic Christmas tune).
This, by Sarah McLachlan, is not about Christmas, but it's about Winter. I'd love to hear this at Starbucks as I sip my maquillado.
And I especially love this one. One of the most beautiful voices I know (Stevie Nicks: you've heard her before on this blog), matched with what I would argue to be the most beautiful melody ever penned. Shimmering! (As the Wizard of Oz would say, "Pay no attention to the early '80s hair! I am the great and powerful OZ!")
And now, it's survey time. . . which songs need to be retired, in your opinion? (see above: also, Boney M)
Which artists need to make a Christmas album? (I humbly submit Alicia Keys and Tom Waits)
(PS: Blood On The Tracks Era Bob Dylan would have made an absolute wonder of a Christmas album, too. Not anymore though.)
Which Christmas music needs to be played more? (did you know Sufjan Stevens has a Christmas Album or two out?)
And what are your favourite Christmas recordings (after Handel's Messiah)?
And my favourite Christmas songs:
Silent Night (the one melody I really never tire of)
Hark The Herald Angels Sing
The First Noel
O Holy Night (in moderation, and sung tastefully)
Angels We Have Heard on High
Joy To The World