As you're all well aware, for the last two years I've been posting monthly music lists, each spotlighting a particular year in music. That will resume next month with my year-end look at 2010, but for the holidays I'm doing something special:
As much as I love this time of year, it's hard for me to enjoy Christmas music. My family immerses themselves into the holiday spirit, so much that they find my distaste bewildering. I'll help put ornaments on the tree and set up lights outside the house without hesitation, but they can't understand why I make a beeline out of the room whenever I hear Der Bingle belt out "White Christmas" for the 5,000th time.
One local radio station here in Chicago, 93.9 "Lite FM," plays Christmas music around the clock this time of year with an absurd amount of gusto. They've been known to switch out their usual playlist of soft rock and power ballads for "Jingle Bells" as early as November 2nd; this year, however "Lite FM" showed some restraint and held off until the Thursday before Thanksgiving. For a lot of Chicagoans this is their soundtrack to the season, including the Allard household. What makes this so aggravating for me is that it's the same 15-20 songs played in a continuous loop; it's the same version of "O Tannenbaum" played every year, followed by a strangely toothless R&B rendition of "Sleigh Bells" --Natalie Cole, I think-- and so on, and so forth. They even throw in a live rendition of Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song" every now and then so they don't alienate their non-Christian listeners.
Worse yet, a lot of these songs reek of contractual obligation. The majority of the pop stars that record Christmas songs cut these tunes because they have to, and the effort shows. There's this antiquated rule in the music industry that most (if not all) major label artists have to record an Xmas song or album at some point in their record deal. This is not to say I hate all Christmas music or that certain artists don't rise to the occasion; in fact, there are four essential CDs that help me break up the banality.
My favorite is arguably A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, the 1963 compilation by which most holiday records are compared to. These 13 tracks capture a zeitgeist of sorts; you have Spector at the peak of his powers, all the artists featured (Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Crystals) brought their A-game, and it defies the novelty-song mentality that Christmas music harbored until that point. If the Brill Building is a little too quaint, might I recommend the late '80s compilation A Very Special Christmas? Granted, that CD spawned a legion of sequels, most of which are pretty hit-and-miss, but it's hard to beat the original.
If you're looking for something more ethereal and spiritual, look no further than George Winston's beautiful 1982 recording December. I discovered this disc during my public radio days, when I was scheduling a Sunday morning new age/ambient music show. AllMusic calls it "the mother of all solo instrumental albums"; that borders on hyperbole, though the recording itself is nothing short of wonderful. I cannot recommend a single track from December because they're all great. It was also around that time that I came to truly appreciate Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack to "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Considering how many times I've heard the song "Linus and Lucy" over the years, Guaraldi's best-known work (now 45 years old!) almost feels like a guilty pleasure. The instrumental version of "Christmas Time is Here" is an eloquent centerpiece; paired with the decidedly romantic "Skating" --the only other original composition on the album-- I have to let my guard down and absorb the warmth that Guaraldi, his trio, and collaborator Lee Mendelson have to offer.
Outside of the four albums I mentioned, the number of individual Christmas songs I like can be counted on one hand. The jazzophile in me smiles whenever I hear John Coltrane's 13-minute workout of "My Favorite Things," the rare hard bop tune that surpasses the original Broadway recording. Steve Allen's composition "Cool Yule" has been covered by every jazz singer and musician worth their salt; since Louis Armstrong popularized the song in the mid-1950s, however I'll give his version the thumbs up. As for pop songs, my discussion begins and ends with Phil Spector; the mad genius saved one last morsel of holiday magic for John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as evidenced by 1973's "Merry Xmas (War is Over)." The slow wind-down of the Vietnam War takes a backseat to the song's inherent message: Christmas is a holiday of peace and goodwill, and in troubling times may we overcome fear and animosity.
To be honest, I prefer Christmas-related TV. One of the few things in pop culture that can make me dewy-eyed is when the Peanuts gang lights up Charlie Brown's sad little tree, than start humming "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." The burning of the toys in "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" comes a close second. Plus, if it weren't for Christmas, I'd have never seen "The Simpsons." When that first episode aired in December 1989, my parents turned the TV on and sat me down on the couch thinking, "well, it's a cartoon. This should keep him quiet for a half-hour." Little did they know... ;)
I circle my calendar every year for David Letterman's Christmas show, which relies heavily on a series of so many tried-but-true traditions, you wonder why they do the same thing every year as opposed to just repeating an episode from 20-odd years ago. As familiar as they are, those traditions feel strangely fresh: Paul Shaffer's imitation of Cher singing "O Holy Night," Darlene Love's majestic live workout of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," Jay Thomas' Lone Ranger story, and Dave and Jay's "quarterback challenge" to see who can remove the star from the studio tree with an accurately tossed football. Of all those rituals the Lone Ranger story has the most minimal connection to the holidays, yet its easily my favorite of the four. Every year since 1998 or so, the actor formerly known as Eddie LeBec describes a wacky encounter he had with Clayton Moore in mid-1970s North Carolina, and with each passing year his brush with celebrity adds a little bit of exposition building into an ingenious payoff. If you don't believe me, check out this clip from last year's holiday broadcast.
Christmas is not for another 3 1/2 weeks, but the world around me is so immersed in the holiday spirit that I may as well send my early glad tidings to all my friends on this site. May your cards be delivered on time, may the wait at checkout stay under 10 minutes, may the tree in the living room not shed too much, and most importantly, please stay warm.