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.