Thursday, December 11, 2008

A bit more on Christmas Music, and How it SHOULD be done.

I've already pointed you to my previous rant about Christmas:
If you don't care to hear more ranting, skip the stuff about "Oh Holy Night" and start reading where it says, "Now I want to tell you about Sufjan Stevens".

As you may have gathered, O Holy Night can be a symbol of everything wrong with Christmas music:

It might just be the second prettiest Christmas song (nothing touches Silent Night) but it certainly IS the Star Spangled Banner of Christmas songs: that is, the one that can be mangled the most horribly by a showoff singer. It seems like this song is the subject of an unspoken contest, for which singer can sing it the loudest, accompanied by the largest orchestra (see also: Josh Groban, David Phelps (yuck) Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood Sarah Brightman, Martina McBride, and even Pavarotti).
(ps: this one's so bad it's hilarious, and we can't forget the South Park version.)

However, it is such a jaw-droppingly gorgeous song, that it sometimes even survives those munch-downs (being chewed up and spit out by so many octave-skippers), and stays good -- but I'll swear to you, that it's best when done in a stripped-down, simple way -- take away everything but the essential, and let the melody speak for itself.

For comparison, I'll give you some examples of how the song works, given a few different artists' treatments: here is Tracy Chapman's version, followed by Mariah Carey's version (the most overplayed one in Korea). I have put together these videos to provide a totally objective contrast, so that the photos selected for the slide shows in no way show which of these versions I like better.


By Tracy Chapman

By Mariah Carey

Here's Celine Dion's version -- which actually surprised me by knowing when to quit, and how many backup singers was enough (not her strong point)

Now, I'm not calling Mariah's version the worst (I'd put David Phelps and Sarah Brightman a full three levels of Hell lower than her for their versions), but let's just say 1. we've heard the overdone version already, and 2. it's the most overplayed version in Korea, and 3. this is Christmas, not a contest. Give me something I haven't heard before, that respects the song again.

So, my new favourite (or at least second, after dear Tracy), is Sufjan Stevens, who makes the song sound --gasp! Like a celebration. I've added a slide show of pictures from a few recent parties I've been to, to add to the festive feel.

Now I want to tell you about Sufjan Stevens

See, Sufjan Stevens is this quiet little indie folk-singer/songwriter from the United States, who sings touching, whispery songs about touching, whispery topics, and has won himself quite a loyal following doing so, because he just doesn't sound like anybody else, and he brings something unique to his music.

He sings about things he cares about, or at least sings as if he cares about them, and he always has an interesting story or something.  Well, in the early oughties, Sufjan recorded little do-it-yourself Christmas albums each year for his friends and family, and handed them out, and then his label put them all together into a collection called "Songs For Christmas" which is what Christmas should be.   I first heard this last year, and I wasn't quite ready for all the lovely packed into a double cd, so I listened through it twice and moved on, after picking a song for my Christmas Mix, but on more listens, it grows on me more: this is Christmas Music as it should be, and these are the kinds of artists who SHOULD be making Christmas Music.

He never goes over the top, many of the tracks are short little arrangements with bouncing glockenspiels or strumming banjos that just SOUND like walking in fresh snow or watching flashing Christmas lights.  The music is delicate and pleasant, but never quite cheesy, because there's always something you've never heard before, in each song.  He mixes sacred music with songs about Santa Claus and reindeer (because that's what Christmas is really like) and treats every song with a bit of respect, or a bit of fun, as it needs.  Frankly, if you grew up in the church at all, as I did, the tender beauty with which he delivers the sacred music is really moving.

Here are three of his songs: Hark The Herald Angels Sing, sounding like flashing christmas light, a simple, harmonized version of the beautiful, sacred hymn, "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming" and then "Sister Winter," which starts as a warm recollection of his friends, and builds to a blissful celebration of friendship and love on the holidays, an original composition that, because of its joyful spirit, fits right in alongside the classics.

This is how Christmas should sound.  Last night I walked around with Girlfriendoseyo, sharing this music in the MP3 player, and let me just leave it at this: get out and buy this CD set.  Get it

More about Sufjan later.

Happy Holidays, all! 

Happy Baby Jesus day, and happy winter gift-giving shopping festival, too! 


danielle said...

One of my favorites is "Did I Make You Cry on christmas? (Well, you deserved it).
Check out my Thursday blog post for your picture debut at ChubbO.

Anonymous said...

Great music. You can download it for free (and legally too) on

ZenKimchi said...

I've noticed more and more people have been saying to Mariah Carey what I have been saying since the early '90s:

"Pick a goddamned note and STICK TO IT!!"