Saturday, December 24, 2016

11 immutable truths I've learned about Christmas music

I wouldn’t call holiday music one of my primary genres of interest, but I happen to have a child who is enamored of Christmas and has almost as broad a musical appetite as I do. I can’t not go overboard when it comes to hooking my kid up with art, so I’ve spent a lot of this season digging into the bottomless reservoir of Christmas music, looking for unknown nuggets and giving old standards a deeper analysis than I’ve ever bothered to before. I’ve reached a lot of conclusions over that time, and I’ve deigned to make you privy to ten of them.

1. Low knows Christmas
It’s my understanding that they still have Christmas in places without snow, and I’m sure they do a fine job of it. You’ll forgive a Minnesotan, though, for feeling a little smug about spending the most wintry of holidays in the most wintry of states. That’s why I hold that Duluth’s very own Low gets Christmas from a different angle than any other band that ever put out a Christmas album. Their aptly titled Christmas EP opens with the cheery indie pop of “Just Like Christmas,” then dives into chilly, almost mournful reflection for the next seven tracks. Whether they’re repurposing old standards like “Blue Christmas” and “Silent Night” or crafting striking originals like “If You Were Born Today” and “One Special Gift,” they display an innate grasp of the specific melancholy that defines the season at least as much as peace on Earth and good will toward men. I was fortunate enough to make it out to their annual Christmas show at First Avenue this year (on a night of negative-20-degree weather for extra street cred) and can attest that Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker and various bassists have a much deeper understanding of Christmas than you.

2. Merry Christmas from Sesame Street is a stone classic
Although it’s not the most celebrated Muppet-affiliated Christmas property, this 1975 TV special soundtrack was a pillar of my childhood and it sounds just as good today. Oscar the Grouch’s misanthropic “I Hate Christmas” is justifiably the best-known cut here, but there’s not a bad track in the bunch. You’ve got Bert and Ernie delivering my favorite rendition of my favorite carol (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), a spirited “12 Days of Christmas” culminating in Snuffleupagus forgetting what present he got, the lovely original “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year),” and David (remember David?) delivering a proto-rap “Night Before Christmas on Sesame Street.” Stir in a couple of fantastic sketches - Prairie Dawn directs a Christmas pageant starring a reluctant Bert as The Tree, and Bert, Ernie and Mr. Hooper reenact “The Gift of the Magi” - and you’ve got something timeless that could only come from the peak era of Hensonian creativity.

3. “The Little Drummer Boy” is very good
I think I first became aware of mankind’s general hatred of “The Little Drummer Boy” while reading one of several Dave Barry columns bemoaning “a song, lasting longer than most dental appointments, in which a chorus of high-voiced women shriek ‘Rum-pa-pum-PUM, rum-pa-pum-PUM.’” Barry’s knack for drawing humor from overly literal nitpicking of popular songs has since been rendered redundant by the entire internet, but his sentiment stands. People haaaaate “The Little Drummer Boy” to a near “Wonderful Christmastime” degree. I don’t get it and never have. The staccato beat; the relentless, almost threatening progression of events; the somewhat saccharine but narratively sound arc of the story - this is a great damn Christmas song, whether it’s being performed by the aforementioned Low or the latermentioned Jackson Five or The Temptations or Bob Seger or a Christian hair metal band.

4. Christmas proves Springsteen knows Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band playing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is the type of thing that should be good for a quick goof, but damned if it isn’t a genuinely great performance and a deserving entry in the Christmas canon. The first time I heard it I wasn’t sure if I was listening to Springsteen or a spot-on parody, and therein lies the greatness. Springsteen plays this song exactly the way someone parodying Bruce Springsteen singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” would, from his opening line about it being cold down at the beach to the brief shifts into doo-wop to needling Clarence Clemons about asking Santa for a new saxophone. Springsteen’s a good dude by most accounts, but he’s got such a carefully maintained image that it’s nice to know he’s not afraid to take himself down a peg.

5. Christmas is for Michael Jackson
I’ll confess that I’ve never been much of a Michael Jackson fan. I like the hits well enough, but his music has never stirred my soul the way that it did for most of my agemates. If I had to pick a favorite Michael Jackson era, it’d easily be his earliest work with The Jackson Five, and if I had to pick a favorite piece from that era, it’d easily be Christmas with the Jackson Five. While young Michael’s powerful-beyond-his-years vocals can come off a little creepy when he’s singing about romance and yearning, his Christmas songs overflow with a childish enthusiasm that can only be captured by, well, a child. His adolescent voice and delivery really are among the great wonders of the rock era, and they seldom got a  better vehicle than this collection of holiday standards. Michael Jackson’s “rooty-toot-toot and rummy-tum-tum” alone is worth any number of aging crooners’ Christmas cash-ins.

6. Christmas is for novelties
I’m pretty fond of the 1960s heyday of novelty rock songs, and possibly even more fond of the Christmas-themed sequels those hits frequently spawned. Maybe most famously, David Seville’s “The Witch Doctor” spawned the Christmas anti-classic “The Chipmunk Song,” but that was far from the last time a chart-topping weirdo found the yuletide spirit. The Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” spun off into “Snoopy’s Holiday,” in which the aerial aces declare a holiday truce. Sheb Wooley’s Purple People Eater teamed up with Santa Claus to stop a runaway Sputnik satellite. Even Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s decidedly non-Christmassy “Monster Mash” gang hatched a plot to hijack Santa’s sleigh only to be foiled by the irresistible force of generosity. Those were different times, I reckon.

7. “Here Comes Santa Claus” is the ultimate Christmas crossover
For the longest time I grouped Christmas songs into four distinct groups: Santa, Jesus, Winter, and General Christmas. Santa and Jesus might get name-checked in a Winter or Christmas song, but the overtly religious carols tend to eschew Santa and vice versa. This year, though, I paid close attention to Gene Autry’s lyrics to “Here Comes Santa Claus” for what must have been the first time and realized that there are references to Santa loving the rich and poor equally because he “knows we’re all God’s children” and exhorting us to “follow the light” and “give thanks to the Lord above.” Turns out Santa and Jesus are playing for the same team, I guess.

8. The California Raisins hold up
Look, there are times in history when cutting-edge clay animation, misguided advertising campaigns, and vaguely racist characterizations dovetail into something that captures the pop-cultural zeitgeist. I can neither excuse nor explain the existence of the California Raisins as a concept, but I can aver that the crass promotional tie-in albums released under their name are pretty dang good. Christmas with the California Raisins does what the band (fronted by legit rock legend and former Hendrix bandmate Buddy Miles) did best: crafting slightly updated, surprisingly authentic renditions of Motown-style tunes you know by heart. The Christmas album is full of soul-slathered standards, plus a rap version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that by all rights should be cringey but instead kinda rules. Apparently this was quietly reissued as Buddy Miles’ Greatest Christmas Hits, which gives credit where it’s due but is also somehow a little less fun.

9. Just because you shouldn’t do a Christmas song doesn’t mean you should
The dank back alleys of Christmas music are riddled with singles and albums whose main and perhaps only hook is “Can you believe ___ did a Christmas song?” With very few exceptions, these songs are good for one ironically amusing spin and very little else. I’m thinking here of endless CD samplers with titles like Punk Goes Christmas or We Wish You a Metal Christmas, or even, lord help us, Prog Rock Christmas. I won’t say these albums don’t sometimes feature a few gems - heck, seeking out gems from unlikely sources is one of my principal occupations - but by and large the gag’s shelf-life runs out in the time it takes to read the title.

10. “Christmas is Coming” owns A Charlie Brown Christmas
I love “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Time is Here” as much all good-hearted people, but for my money the best thing about Vince Guaraldi’s justly beloved piano jazz score is the bouncy, propulsive “Christmas is Coming.” You know the tune even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, but it’s nowhere near as iconic as those other two. I think that’s part of its strength - even though it’s deeply embedded in its source material, it can also live independently of it. It’s the difference between “Hey, it’s that Charlie Brown song!” and “Say, isn’t this that Charlie Brown song?” In my book (and maybe my book alone) that’s a meaningful distinction.

11. Seriously, Low
And then there’s “Santa’s Coming Over.”