Archive for November, 2006

Blog We Now of Christmas

First of the Christmas blog posts, of which there will be plethora.

I start listening to Christmas music on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  Many have commented to me that this is really a short period of time to get in all the great Christmas music, less than 30 days.  I’ve thought about it a good deal, and I disagree.

First, some perspective.  I sing.  A lot.  Really, a lot.  I sing everything from opera to pop.  I do it on stage, in concert, in musicals, in the shower, you name it.  I’ve been singing in public now for over 30 years.  I was a member of a choir that sang for the President and the Pope (not at the same time).  I soloed in the Vatican Square outside St. Peter’s Basilica at Christmas in front of about 250,000 people.  So I’m not some dude that just listens to music sometimes.  I’m not a professional – never have been good enough for that – but I’m a committed amateur.  Music matters to me a great deal.

My tastes are fairly eclectic, I like Mozart and Diana Krall, Brian Setzer and Chanticleer, Archangelo Corelli and JoDee Messina.  All the 40s crooners (especially Nat Cole) and two of the Three Tenors.  So it is not fair to say that I’m some sort of musical snob, either; I once listened to a Def Leppard album on tape so much that the tape disintegrated, but my favorite piece of music in the world is Rachmaninoff’s Vespers.  I can appreciate practically everything, even rap, I discover, although so far only Weird Al’s White and Nerdy.  This is just to give you a little background on what follows.

Back to Christmas.  There are about 50 good Christmas songs.  A Christmas SONG is different than a Christmas CAROL.  A song is by definition singable, usually by a solo voice, though there are limited exceptions (Baby, It’s Cold Outside).  A carol need not be singable by solo voice (Carol of the Bells), but is nearly always serious and just as often religious in nature.  Thus, Jingle Bells is a song, Deck the Halls is a song, Hark the Herald Angels Sing is a carol.  That’s how I define it, anyway, and if you’re going to follow along, keep that in mind.

For the four of you that have made it this far, let me get to the point: most Christmas music is crap.  As mentioned above, there are about 50 good Christmas songs, and every one of them has already been done perfectly, as God intended.  Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas need never be done again.  Burl Ives laid down the best version ever.  Santa Baby was done perfectly by Carol Channing and cannot be improved.  Despite this, every year we have a flood of Christmas albums by everyone from Eminem to Charlotte Church, and NONE of them add anything valuable to the existing store of music.  Once in a very, very great while, someone like Michael Buble comes out with a superb version of the Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting is how everyone knows it, but it’s not actually titled that), but oh, how rare that is.  SheDaisy, Snoop Dogg, you name the “artist”, and he’s tried to make something useful out of Frosty the Snowman, to no avail (Burl Ives again).

Where are the new additions to the canon?  Does anyone realize that it is possible to listen to one of these 24-hour Christmas stations (there are 4 of them in this market) for DAYS without hearing any song written in the last 40 years?  Well, let me amend that.  There are occasionally (twice an hour, average) original songs played, but rarely are any of them good.  None of them, to my knowledge, have ever been covered by anyone else.  None of them is ever sung at anyone’s door by a group of freezing carolers.

Perhaps the quintessential example of what I’m talking about is Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas (and as I type this, her only decent song on the entire album, “All I Want For Christmas is You”, comes on my computer playlist.  Karma.  That’s what it is.).  There are the usual 10 songs on the disc.  Five of them are standards: Silent Night, O Holy Night, Joy to the World, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Hark the Herald; two are non-original covers: All I Want, and Jesus Born on this Day; and three are originals: Christmas, Miss You Most, and Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child.  Judging from the demand for this album on the radio, this album was pretty well received.  But only ONE of the songs on it is played with any regularity, and that’s the one I mentioned earlier, the only one I have retained from this album.  It isn’t any of the five standards, because Mariah, bless her heart, adds nothing whatever to those songs.  She dresses them up, there are melismas everywhere like crickets chirping on a late spring evening, but none of them is close to requiring a second listen.  She’s not alone; everyone does this.  I have a Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas album here, too, and except that it’s 12 songs, it’s exactly the same stuff.  Six standards, three alternates, three originals.

Most of the stuff on the radio is just simply unlistenable.  It can’t be tolerated except in small doses.  When someone does by mistake make a really great new album, not only does it almost never have anything original on it of any value, what it does have gets overplayed until it collapses from exhaustion.  This is predictable, of course, because there isn’t anything else out there with that sort of appeal (here’s Johnny Mathis with It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, the definitive version).  Mannheim Steamroller was moderately interesting the first 427 times it was played.  Not anymore.

So I really think that 30 days is just about the right amount of time for a full exploration of the Christmas music available, certainly in SONGS, before they all just become hopelessly repetitive.  CAROLS are a little different, because in contrast to the song canon, there are hundreds of Christmas carols out there, the vast majority of them unknown now, but still beautiful and timeless and devotional, carols like Riu Riu Chiu, the Cherry Tree Carol, There is no Rose, and Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, my favorite carol of all.  Tomorrow, the text of that, and if I can figure out how to do it, a link to the song itself.

But don’t let me stop you.  Sing away.

Even the Best Can Lose It

Here’s Vladimir kramnik, the best chess player in the world. He’s playing a match against one of those awesome chess computers, and he’s doing okay, and has a forced draw, and then, in what has to be one of the great blunders of all time, he misses a simple mate-in-one and loses.

This is like Michael Jordan missing a dunk. It just doesn’t happen.

I feel much better, somehow, having seen this.

B! Y! U! COOOOOOOOOUGARRRRS!

BYU beats Utah 33-31 on the final play of the game.

I’m still in shock. Happy shock.

And Another One Gone

The greatest Hungarian soccer player ever has died at 79. Puskas Ferenc, whose family name means “gun”, was the leader of a Hungarian team that won the Olympic gold medal in 1952 and took Hungary to the World Cup Final in 1954. It is remembered by soccer afficionados as the greatest Hungarian team of all time, and one of the five or six best teams ever assembled.

It is a hard thing to be Hungarian. Your greatest achievement in the sporting world – the only place nations can measure themselves against other nations without killing people – is a runner-up to West Germany over 50 years ago. Your greatest player in the national sport played professionally in Spain. The last time a Hungarian team made the UEFA Cup second round was 1988. It’s almost impossible for Americans to understand, but those of us who lived there feel a keen sense of protectivism toward the poor, shorn little country, now about 1/3 its former size after being split into six pieces after World War I. It lost WWII twice, once to the Nazis on the way East, and once to the Soviets on the way west.

The language is unlike any other on earth, one of the three or four hardest to learn. It shares roots and rhythm with Finnish, but I know Finns who visited Hungary and they couldn’t make anything out of the language. There are only about 15 million Hungarians in the country, and another probably 10 million outside the borders, the vast majority of whom do not speak very much Hungarian anymore. The language and culture are disappearing. This is not unique to Hungary, of course. It happens everywhere.

Feri, hianyozlak. Legy bekes, es majd beszelgetunk a focirol odafent. Szia.

A Smackerel of Somethings

7. Brownies
22. Giraffes
24. Girls (see here for explanation)

Lots of news today, which I’ll just have to link to because there’s no time whatever to comment on it.

Milton Friedman died. He did a tremendous amount of good in the world, almost all of it with his amazing mind. We’re poorer for his loss, except that his death will bring us more converts. Even in passing, he’ll make us better off. How many people can you say that about?

The core CPI went up a piddly .1% this last month, which bond traders liked.

Then one of the Fed Governors opened his mouth and talked about how inflation was still a major concern. Bond traders disliked this even more than they liked the previous news.

In other words, the market is still being governed not by actual news, but by what everyone thinks the Fed will do. Remind me again why these guys do not have too much power?

Mortgage rates continue steady, relatively, in the 6.125-6.25% range for the 30-year. Better than June. Not as good as November ’05.

And please pray for Olivia’s mom.

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