My wife and I went to a play in Salt Lake on Tuesday, and since we were up there, and it was a nasty cold night, we decided to make a real date of it. First to Trader Joe’s, for cookies, then dinner, then a play. (Okay, we ran short on time, and dinner involved a Wendy’s, still, it was fun.) And on the way home, my wife and I turned the radio to a station that plays nothing but Christmas carols. I have no idea what they play the rest of the year, but starting on Thanksgiving, it’s Yuletide all the time. And it occurred to me what a deeply weird mix of songs gets played on stations like that. It seems to me they come in three categories: religious Christmas songs (like “Silent Night” or “Carol of the Bells”), secular Christmas songs (like “White Christmas” or “Jingle Bells”), and sort of generic Holiday songs (like “Frosty the Snowman”), that don’t actually have anything explicitly to do with Christmas per se, but get played a lot this time of year anyway. And this station just jumbles ’em all up together.
It makes for an odd driving-and-listening experience. You’ll hear something sort of sexy and saucy, like the gold-digger anthem “Santa Baby”, which has to go close to the top of the Wildly Inappropriate Christmas Song list, right next to “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. Seriously, no kidding, listen to “Santa Baby”: it basically suggests that Santa, if he comes through with the right gifts, could very well get, uh, lucky. Mrs. Claus, beware! Then the very next song turns out to be something completely awesome, like Josh Groban singing “Little Drummer Boy”. (Don’t say it: I happen to like Josh Groban, I think he’s got a beautiful voice). Followed by Bing Crosby singing “Mele Kalikimaka“, almost certainly the Christmas song he’s best known for. (Rimshot!)
But for all the tacky “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” type novelty songs, Christmas really is about the music. For years, my wife and I were in a terrific BYU alumni choir, Canti Con Brio. We did two concerts a year, one of them a Christmas concert, and it was amazing. Every Christmas, many many Christmas albums come out, but it seems every year we’ll hear some great new song or arrangement. The great new addition for this year, for me, is BarlowGirl, doing Carol of the Bells. Great band, great arrangement. Or the extraordinary (though oddly named, considering they’re mostly about the cello) Piano Guys, doing Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel.
There are always tons of Oh Holy Nights. That’s a song that’s very close to my heart. Growing up in Indiana, my Dad always sang it at the Lutheran’s Christmas service, which I loved. I sort of dig Mariah Carey’s really splashy gospel version, though I realize that it’s an acquired taste. But there are many many versions: Kelly Clarkson, Charlotte Church, Jennifer Hudson and Carrie Underwood, Pavarotti and Nat King Cole, Martina McBride and Celine Dion, the cast of Glee and King’s College Choir. It’s supposed to be sort of showy, what with the high note on ‘oh night, di-VINE. But I really love this one, by the Celtic Women. Beautifully, and for once, reverently sung.
In the wake of the Newtown Connecticut shootings, Saturday Night Live opened their show last week, not with a comedy sketch as is their wont, but with this, a children’s choir singing “Silent Night.” A sweet and quietly appropriate gesture. “Silent Night” is the greatest of Christmas hymns, so deceptively simple. I love this beautifully haunting version by Sinead O’connor, but there are many other lovely ones, including this one, by cats. But even Elvis covered it, actually quite beautifully. And yet, somehow, it’s above all, a song for children’s voices.
Some of the most unlikely people have recorded Christmas songs. Like, BareNaked Ladies singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” And singing it well! Or Sufjan Stevens singing “Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel“. With banjo. And it’s great. Sufjan has an entire Christmas album that’s amazing. Or the Muppets chicken-intensive “Joy to the World”. Or, (and I’m not kidding, do NOT click on this link), the horrendous “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” by, again not kidding, Twisted Sister. A misogynist, heavy metal “Oh Come all Ye Faithful.” You clicked on the link, didn’t you? I did warn you.
One of the great Christmas bands touring this time of year is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I’ve never seen them live, to my eternal regret, but they’re incredibly great in recordings, if you like your classical music with electric guitars and rock backbeat, which I very much do. (So why is this great, and Twisted Sister horrendous? Don’t know. It just is.) Try this Christmas Canon, for an appetizer; one of the many Christmas arrangements that uses Pachelbel’s ubiquitous canon to set a Christmas song. (When I was ward choir director, we used an arrangement of “The First Noel,” that also employed Pachelbel.) Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Carol of the Bells” is pretty awesome too.
What’s the worst Christmas song ever, the ne plus ultra of tacky awfulness? I’d nominate this: “Baby It’s Cold Outside”. I chose a video version showing the lyrics, on purpose. “What’s in this drink?” He slipped her a roofie! It’s a song that has nothing whatever to do with Christmas; it’s about a jerk seducing a nice girl. And yet, there it is, in steady rotation on our Christmas station, though at least they use the Zooey Deschenel version from Elf.
And what’s the best, the greatest Christmas song ever? Aside from “Silent Night,” aside from the Christmas carols, the “Joy to the Worlds” and “Oh Little Town of Bethlehems?” Of the old Tin Pan Alley songs, songs by (mostly Jewish) songwriters for the Nat King Coles and Mel Tormes and Frank Sinatras for their Christmas albums and TV Christmas specials? Which ones still resonate? I’d nominate three.
Second, “The Christmas Song,” the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” song, is sweetly nostalgic. Justin Bieber (shudder) has covered it, but the classic Nat King Cole version is unsurpassed, though there’s a sweetness to the She and Him cover; love Zooey Deschenel’s phrasing.
Finally, of course, White Christmas. Bing Crosby’s stardom used to baffle me–I found him neither good-looking, charming or charismatic. But the voice was beautiful, and there’s a sadness to the song, heard in isolation from the (to me, kind of unwatchable) movie. Shoot me, but I’m also down with a recent cover by, I’m not kidding, Lady Gaga. She even adds an extra verse, which isn’t half-bad, either: “I’m dreamin’ of a white snowman.”
Christmas music makes the season, even more than the lights and the presents and the tree. Christmas is about the music, nostalgic music, worshipful music, even sometimes sort of playful music. Merry Christmas everyone.