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.