Dreck the Halls? The Good and the Annoying
Editor’s Note: As any shopper knows, there aren’t many silent nights during the holidays. Radio, television, and speakers in stores surround us with music that ranges from the heartfelt to forgettable pop. Some love the din, others can’t stand it. Here are some of our staffers’ picks for the best and the worst.
The Good King
Favorite music of the holiday season? Although this is a close call, the nod goes to Good King Wenceslas, which — unusual in a Christmas carol — makes no actual reference to the birth of Christ. What it does contain is the finest aural evocation of a howling winter night I know of. More than that, it lays claim to being the Christmas anthem for the age of Obama.
The carol tells the story of the aforementioned Wenceslas, sainted king of Bohemia in the 10th century, as he sets off with his page on a harsh winter night to carry alms to a poor man whom the king has seen out gathering wood on the feast of Stephen, Dec. 26. “Page and monarch forth they went/ Forth they went together /Through the rude wind’s wild lament/And the bitter weather.” If “rude wind’s wild lament” does not freeze your blood, you are insensate.
As they struggle along in the deep snow, the page begins to lose heart, but is able to push on after the king tells him to follow, literally, in his footsteps through the deep snow.
The carol ends on a note that might have been directed to the 1 Percent: “Therefore, Christian men, be sure/Wealth or rank possessing/Ye who now will bless the poor/Shall yourselves find blessing.”
— Jim Fox
Make Mine Melancholy
I like my Christmas music bleak and melancholy, and the more melancholy, the better. My vote for most beautiful Christmas carol goes to Once in Royal David’s City, which traditionally opens the broadcast “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” on Christmas Eve from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England. I also love Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, and the complete Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky, not the suite. You can’t go wrong with the music from A Charlie Brown Christmas Special, Nat King Cole singing Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, or those secular hymns to the pleasures of Christmas in the city, Winter Wonderland and Silver Bells.
However, was it really necessary for Bob Dylan to record an album of Christmas “favorites?” Isn’t Little Drummer Boy noxious enough without Dylan singing it in his guttural croak? And what was gained by Dylan singing Must Be Santa in a style that veers between the worst Jewish wedding band ever and an Oktoberfest polka on steroids? This is Dylan in merry prankster mode having a spot of fun at our expense, as he frequently does, correct? Right?
— Nicola Smith
I like Christmas music in the same way that I like country and western music from the early 1960s and 1970s. Both genres were such a part of my childhood environment, I couldn’t get either one of them out of my head even if I wanted to. I’m stuck in Folsom Prison, serving a life sentence, as it were, condemned to spend the rest of my years merrily humming The Little Drummer Boy and Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.
I know the tunes and lyrics to Make the World Go Away and Joy to the World equally well. This time of year, I stare into the computer screen with Another Day, Another Dollar dancing around my brain with Feliz Navidad for a partner and the First Noel trying to cut in.
It makes for a crowded but congenial internal musical environment. Regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, those songs help me turn off the distractions of the outside world. I may have turned 21 in prison doing life without parole, but I’m also dashing through the snow and dreaming of a white Christmas. And that suits me just fine.
— Diane Taylor
Rockin’ Around the Tree
With its weird juxtaposition of cheerful lyrics and grim, frantic music, Carol Of The Bells strikes me as an anti-holiday song, a musical metaphor for the ugly, anxious undertow that comes courtesy of a commercial Christmas.
The words are upbeat: “Hark how the bells, sweet silver bells; All seem to say, throw cares away,” but the music rams along in a minor key like grouchy shoppers in wet boots cramming in one more visit to a crowded mall.
My favorite Christmas carol is a lot lighter.
As little kids in the 1970s, the holiday sound track in our house was a couple of eight-track tapes, mainly Elvis and old standbys from 20 years prior. Dad would pick one out, and away it would roll, all afternoon, all weekend, year after year, until the songs settled into our bones. One in particular had us cutting up the red shag rug — Brenda Lee singing Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. I still love that tune, with its bright guitar riffs and swinging saxophone solo. It’s playful, carefree, and in no sort of hurry, the way holidays were meant to be.
— Aimee Caruso
All I Want for Christmas ...
I couldn’t help it. There I was, not too long ago — sitting at my laptop, minding my own business — when the opening to an unmistakable tune started playing on the radio, and before I knew it the words had surged from my fingertips to the keyboard and seemed to be posting themselves as my Facebook status.
“AHHHH I DON’T CARE I LOVE THIS SONG I DON’T EVEN CARE.”
What followed, of course, was a link to the music video for Mariah Carey’s rendition of All I Want for Christmas is You.
Cliche choice? I don’t care!
Not generally my preferred genre of music? I don’t care!
Not really even that good of a song? I don’t even care!
Carey’s arrangement — released in 1994 and featured prominently in 2003’s guiltiest of guilty pleasures, Love Actually — is my perennial favorite Christmas song, and may be the only earnest holiday song I actually enjoy.
It’s pretty cheesy, and it’s very bubbly. Friends mock me. Strangers judge me. But for me, it doesn’t feel like Christmastime until I hear Carey’s ebullient belting on the radio, or in a store, or on TV. I wag my head and hop around and try to sing along (and miss all the notes), and generally I look pretty stupid, and it’s great!
Gosh, I love that song. I don’t even care.
— Maggie Cassidy
Keep it Simple, Santa
It was a lot of fun, more than 30 years ago, to be part of a high school chorus that could do a presentable job performing Handel’s Messiah. But as a second bass with a limited range who couldn’t reach much higher than middle C, I’ll confess to mouthing the most soaring parts as more talented classmates hit the right notes.
That’s why a simpler song like Hark the Herald Angels Sing has always appealed to me. It starts low, the first verse is easy to remember, and amateurs like me can sing it loud. Heck, so can Charlie Brown and the gang.
I don’t believe in angels, but the fact that it’s a carol about Christmas, in the religious sense, probably doesn’t hurt its cause, either.
— John Gregg
Peanuts Is Enough
Favorites: Anything from A Charlie Brown Christmas, featuring the smart, timeless jazz of Vince Guaraldi. This is the only holiday album you’ll ever need. The choice to use Guaraldi’s music was daring for an animated show in 1965 — much like the TV special itself. One of the those Rolling Stone album guides (the good early versions, not the useless snarky one from a few years ago) put it best when it said that the album “provided the sympathetic underpinning to the Peanuts characters’ endless quest for truth and meaning ... Here were melodies and insinuating rhythms that captured the spirit of the holiday season.”
Least Favorites: Grown-Up Christmas List. This rather downbeat song was written in the early 1990s, but surged in popularity as a symbol of post-9/11 angst. To unearth an old chestnut, terrorism won.
Dominic the Donkey. Because nothing rings in the Christmas spirit like a braying burro from Italy.
— David Bailey
John Lennon Got It Right
Have you ever listened closely to the lyrics of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus? Now what’s that song all about?
Is there a new TV reality series: Housewives of the North Pole? Or maybe it’s just another variation on the theme of Cougar moms. Either way, I’m not sure this is the song I’d have pumped in to Toys ‘R Us stores to prime the imagination of young Christmas shoppers.
Then there’s that other holiday offering — All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth. Can you see Santa’s elves whistling while they work to a song about a kid who can’t whistle because he doesn’t have teeth? I think stepping barefoot on broken Christmas lights — tell the truth, how many of you have done that? — would be a more gratifying substitute.
I know what you’re thinking: What does a Jewish kid know about Christmas songs? The extent of our holiday music is the forgettable Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel — a song about a toy that is used primarily to keep kids busy by gambling away their Hanukkah cash.
But if I had to choose a song that conveys the true meaning of Chrtistmas, it would be John Lennon’s Happy Christmas (War is Over). With its message of peace and hope this song certainly needs to find a place in our holiday playlist.
— Don Mahler
I cannot defend the ferocity of my dislike for Little Drummer Boy. I think it goes back to Parochial school, where they forced us to watch the lighting of the Advent candles and the droning Drummer Boy made the ceremony seem to last as long as the six Star Wars movies. Perhaps the music was holding up lunch, or recess. And so, I have long thought it was the holiday low point. The other night, however, I heard a Christmas song from the Chipmunks squeaking from overhead speakers as I shopped. I realized how my non-Christian friends must suffer.
I’ve hit my lifetime limit of holiday pop tunes. So these days I like my Christmas music classical. The Messiah, perhaps, The Nutracker, or the annual St. Olaf College Christmas festival on public radio.
In my music, I wish for something better than the Black Friday sales and the wrapping paper massacre on Christmas Day. I wish for something better than us. For that, I turn to the likes of Handel, Mendelssohn and Bach. They looked into the dark winter sky and saw a shimmering light.
— Dan Mackie