Tag Archives: Christmas music

When Did Christmas Music Start to Suck?

 

Out of sheer curiosity, earlier today I took a quick listen to Rod Stewart’s new holiday album, Merry Christmas Baby. I shouldn’t have bothered, because it sounded pretty much exactly like I thought it would be: over-produced pseudo-jazz.  There’s pianos and strings abound to recreate the feeling of sitting by a fire.  Good ol’ Rod even gives his best Louis Armstrong impression during “Have Yourself A Merry Christmas”.

I’m no Rod hater – dude was great in Faces and “Do You Think I’m Sexy” has its own kitschy appeal –  but Merry Christmas Baby is a great example of “The Christmas-Album-Suck”.  Almost every single Christmas album since the early 1990s has been layered in slick production with arrangements as big as the Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center.

Every year around this time, we’re bombarded with Holiday-themed albums from major artists.  Neo-crooners like Michael Buble, Harry Connick, Jr. and Josh Groban have certainly attempted to capture the singing styles of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby over the years. They seem so intent on paying homage to the days of old, but the music itself doesn’t suggest this. It’s as like if John Coltrane had played with Kenny G: they both technically play same genre (I’m saying this very loosely), but only one pushed boundaries and changed musical history.

There a few exceptions to this trend.  A Very She & Him Christmas is charming and delightful in its retro feel and Zooey Deschanel’s soulful singing.  Then there’s Bob Dylan’s bizarrely traditional Christmas in the Heart and Cee-Lo’s Magic Moment. Yet, both of those albums still manage to get pulled into the Christmas-Album-Suck albeit in different ways.  Dylan’s venture into Christmas land (mostly) sounds it came from the 1920s. When was the last time you heard anyone sing the Latin verse of “O Come All Ye Faithful” outside of a Christmas Eve Mass?  (Of course, I’m not entirely convinced that this album wasn’t some sort of weird joke by Dylan and meant to be listened to ironically.)  As for Cee-Lo, he attempts to conjure up the Ghosts of Christmas Soul, but once again the production makes the album feel a lifeless like the Christmas trees tossed on the curb-side around New Year’s.

I blame the downfall of Christmas music on Mariah Carey and her horrid “All I Want for Christmas”.  Some may suggest that it’s the quintessential Christmas song and it’s certainly the most popular Holiday song of the past 20 years.  Sure, we all know Mariah can sing but the song itself is so over-the-top and so sugary-sweet like that nasty candied fruit, it makes me want to vomit.  All I want for Christmas is to escape this song whenever I go to a retail store.

It wasn’t always this way, though. In the mid-1950s as Tin Pan Ally faded out of fashion and crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby lost some of their steam, the next generation of musicians were coming of age and prominence capturing the attention of the youth of America. And with a new-form of popular music came a new sound to traditional and popular Christmas songs.

Elvis gave a rockabilly spin on Christmas classics with Elvis’ Christmas Album. For what its worth, Elvis’ version of “Blue Christmas” is probably the definitive version of that song. Ray Charles put his trademark piano and vocals on The Spirit of Christmas.  “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was portrayed as a  “funky reindeer” while the usually awful “Little Drummer Boy” was given a soulful treatment complete with horns.  And let’s not forget Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” which proved that Christmas music could rock and also swing.  (Check out Keith Richard’s version of the song – it’s also pretty good.) And to prove that this new sound was taking over the airwaves and culture, Berry asked Santa for an electric guitar. Other songs released during that era included perennial favorites such as Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas”, The Drifters’s version of “White Christmas” and Bobby Helm’s “Jingle Bell Rock”.

But it wasn’t until 1963 that rock and roll had its first Christmas masterpiece.  The Phil Spector produced A Christmas Gift For You showed Spector’s “Wall of Sound” in full-force. (This is how you do layered production, in case you were wondering.)  Traditional songs were given a vamped-up treatment and the album was bursting with imagination and creativity.  Hal Blaine’s drums pushed “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Winter Wonderland” to new sonic heights. With the Crystals, the Ronettes and Darlene Love at the helm, Christmas music never sounded so exciting or sexy.  (The only downside to the album is Spector’s creepy speech over a string-laden version of “Silent Night”.)

As the 60’s ended and the 70’s dawned, both the Jackson 5 and James Brown gave holiday cheer some much-needed funk. The Jackson 5’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” might be Michael Jackson’s vocal performance as kid (I’d say his entire career, but that’s just me).  Brown’s “Go Power at Christmas Time” shows the master of funk in full-flight.  He pushes his band, and demands the listener to “get down”.  The mid-song spoken section also might be the only case of a holiday song containing the word “bullshit”.  (Brown like John Lennon also used Christmas as a time for social awareness with his song “Christmas in the Ghetto”.)

Somewhere along the line, artists (or the labels) lost their faith in Christmas Music as forward-thinking music that lined-up with the artists’ credibility and creativity.  Instead, over the past few decades what we’ve gotten is the Christmas-Album-Suck that is void of any sort of imagination and is just seen as a cash-grab for the music industry.  They may sound comforting, but they lack the spark that fueled so many of the great holiday songs.

Christmas/Holiday Theme Week: Christmas In The Heart

Bob Dylan’s Christmas In the Heart might be the weirdest album in the entire genre of holiday albums despite the fact it is filled with traditional songs.  When it was announced last year that Dylan would release a Christmas album, many were left wondering what it would sound like.  Surely, Dylan would tap into the pre-rock blues or perhaps 1920s style that he’s been favoring in the past decade.  And it of course, Dylan would sprinkle the entire project with a wink and a nod.  After all, the idea of a Jew turned Born-Again Christian who is definitely not a Christian now, but may or may not be a Jew again, making a Christmas album is very absurd.  This irony, probably isn’t lost on Dylan.

Instead, Dylan delivered a Christmas album full of traditional Christmas songs – “O Come All Ye Faithful” even contains a verse sung in Latin – that had everyone who heard it shaking their heads wondering just what the hell Dylan was doing.  But, fans of Dylan should really know better.  Dylan has always had a penchant for turning people’s heads and doing the unexpected, whether it was going electric, or turning into a Christian.  In its own way, Christmas in the Heart is an ironic wink not to the perception of what a Bob Dylan Christmas album should sound like, and not the traditional view of a Christmas album as many people were expecting.

Because of the traditional and straight way in which the song are played (with the exception of “Must Be Santa” and “Christmas Island”) Christmas In The Heart comes off more as a novelty than game-changing.  Most of the songs are dominated by piano, instead of guitar. Of course, there is humor in Dylan in the album particularly on “Do You See What I See?”  Particularly when he  asks, “Do you hear what I hear?  Do you see what I see?”  No one sees or hears what Dylan can, and he knows it.  Similarly, when Dylan commands you to “listen to what I say” you wonder if he is throwing a punch at those who once viewed him a generation’s spokesman.  “Must Be Santa” is straight-up singalong polka that remains the album’s sole highlight.

Ultimately, Christmas In the Heart will never be considered a Christmas classic.  It’s also nothing something that will tarnish Dylan’s legacy either.  The only people who will listen to it, are people like me, who each year will put it out simply based on the fact that it is Dylan singing Christmas songs.

 

 

 

 

Holiday/Christmas Theme Week: Happy Xmas (War Is Over)

Today marks the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death.  With The Beatles, and with his solo works, Lennon remains one of my favorite rock artists. If Phil Spector totally changed the way in which Christmas songs could be heard, then Lennon changed the message of what a Christmas single could be with “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”, which was also produced by Spector.

Both A Christmas Gift For You and Happy Xmas are tied together not just by Spector, but also the Vietnam War.  A Christmas Gift For You was in November 1963, right after President Kennedy’s assassination.  Though the US was already involved in the Vietnam War, by the end of of 1963, Lyndon Johnson reversed Kennedy’s decision to remove 1,000 troops from Vietnam and ended up expanding the war.   It’s little wonder that A Christmas Gift For You didn’t initially catch on under the circumstances.

Flash forward almost 6 years later to 1969, with the war at its height John Lennon and Yoko decided to rent billboards across several cities with the slogan “WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It).  Happy Christmas From John and Yoko”.   It would be two years later before “Happy Xmas” would be released, but the slogans served as the basis for the song.

Almost 40 years later it’s become passe to release Christmas singles or exploit the season for charity events.  But it can’t be denied that the concept came from this song. Lennon, ever the political, made sure that his sentiments came through with silver bells.  Here was a song designed to make the listeners think about what they’ve done over the past year.  “So this is Christmas,” Lennon begins as he strums his the guitar, “and what have you done?”

Lennon’s genius shines through by making a very adult oriented theme a form (the Christmas song) normally considered “jolly”.  To drive the point home, the background vocals provided by the Harlem Community Choir who sing the “war is over” slogan.  Children tend to be oblivious to politics, and often see things in gray that adults often do not.  By having the children’s choir singing that particular line, Lennon is making the point that war affects everybody, and not just the troops (and their families) who were fighting in Vietnam.  If Lennon had sung “war is over, if you want it” the song wouldn’t be nearly as convincing.  Cynics could easily raise their eyebrows at a famous rock star making flights of fancy about how to end the war.  (Which, right or wrong, has always been a criticism of “Imagine”, particularly the line about imagining no possesions.)

This time of year is about coming together and forgetting life’s troubles.  Lennon reversed that with “Happy Xmas”, and made us remember what was going on.  But the idea of coming together for peace and love is very in the vein of the Holiday season, and in that sense, “Happy Xmas” might be the best representation of those themes.

 

 

 

 

Christmas/Holiday Theme Week – A Christmas Gift For You

Over a string-laden instrumental version of  “Silent Night”, Spector proclaims his vision of “something new and different for Christmas”.  In light of Spector’s murder charge, his statements come off as a bit creepy.  However, in November 1963 when A Chirstmas Gift For You was released, Spector wasn’t joking.  The album was so far ahead of its time in every way.  Christmas songs never sounded so sexy, and alive, thanks to powerful performances by The Ronettes, Darlene Love and the Crystals.  Elvis and Frank Sinatra may have recorded Christmas albums but those version were for sitting by the fire –  songs you could go to sleep to.  Spector’s versions went meant to be heard in bars and enjoyed by those who wander home with a random girl for Christmas-  just watch the Christmas scenes in “Goodfellas” for proof.

Unfortunately, Spector’s vision of Christmas as released at the wrong time. In November 1963, not many people were thinking about sexy girls singing about Santa Claus, and reindeer.   The album became a flop upon its initial release, and while it’s usually listed on a critic’s list of “the best holiday albums”, you’re more likely to find a Josh Grobin Christmas album or Mariah Carey one in the average person’s holiday collection.  U2 may have given a rebirth to the album’s sole original “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” in the late 80’s.   I certainly enjoy U2’s version (and it’s the version I was familiar with first).  But U2’s version traded in the power of the original for schmaltz.

With a few exceptions, most holiday songs or records have been slightly cheesy.  But Spector’s album was anything but.  Even the silly “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is given a slightly naughty reading.  If the joke of the song is that Santa Claus is really daddy, Ronnie Spector makes it seem as if mommy is really cheating on daddy with Saint Nic.  Of course it could be this is the only version of the song I’m familiar with, and up until a week ago, I assumed in the song’s context, Santa Claus was real.

After years of listening to Spector’s album, his version of the songs have become definitive for me.  I usually can’t stand “Frosty the Snowman” (it didn’t help I cried as a kid when he melted into water at the end of the holiday special), but Ronnie Spector’s commanding voice and Hal Blaine’s pounding drums might just bring any pile of snow to life.  Usually, the narrator in “White Christmas” seems to long for his or her childhood – caught up in the past longing for something that may or may not come.  Darlene Love may also dream of the same “White Christmas” as Irving Berlin intended, but dammit she wants it this year.

With A Christmas Gift For You, Spector proved that Christmas music didn’t have to be for kids and their grandparents with fond memories of their childhoods.  It could be exciting, fun, and even sexy.  Almost 50 years after its initial release, A Christmas Gift For You remains the essential holiday pop album, because it dared to be a rock and roll/pop first instead of a Christmas album sung by rock artists.