Very few things make me happier than Christmas music.
Yes, I know, I am Jewish. Yes, I know that the (say it with a roll of your eyes – in one breath): cultural preponderance of Christmas music is somehow an oppressive normative superstructure in which I’m a second class religious citizen blah blah blah blah blah…But you know what? I don’t care.
First off, a large portion of the most popular Christmas music was written by my people and second, it’s just too good!!! Christmas music is the expression of the hopes, aspirations, dreams and a desire for universal joy in a culture that reminds itself yearly that just as the days will get brighter, so too can our spirits.
As these lists go, it’s hard to write an original and concise one. Christmas classics are classics for a reason and there are way too many good Christmas songs out there. So, to whittle it down a bit, I’m not including most of the standards. You can assume I love all those. Burl Ives, Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole’s Christmas songs and albums are pretty much assumed on my playlist as are anything from those stop motion animated movies about Rudolph, Baby New Year and Santa Claus.
This list, instead, tries to include those songs that, in addition to the standards are newer must-listen-tos on any Christmas playlist I create.
They are listed here in no particular order.
Having grown up in the 80s, “Do they Know it’s Christmas Time” is the one Christmas song that, more than others, seems to transport me back to my teens. It makes me feel, at once, warm, nostalgic, a little ashamed for liking it so much, and festive.
From Paul Young’s opening line (originally written for Bowie, who couldn’t make the recording) to my favorite part of the song, Bono’s “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you...” the song gets me every time. It reminds me of the bounty for which we have to be thankful, but also speaks perfectly to the compassion that the season should bring out in us. The song deals with heavy issues, but, despite this is inspirational.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas.” is, in my opinion, the gold standard for artistic activism. From the flow of the song and its melody, which manages to be both melancholy and upbeat, to the lyrics – the song creates a sense of thankfulness mixed with responsibility and balances those perfectly.
When the song ends you don’t feel guilty, but instead inspired to go out and help. It captures the essence of Christmas music perfectly.
Ah South Park. You magnificent bastard! Only Trey and Matt could take a classic Christmas song and make it so that no matter which form I hear it in, I can only hear Cartman. They did just that with “O Holy Night.” There are two versions of this song – One from a promo for a season 1 episode where Kyle is given a cattle prod to shock Cartman every time he can’t remember the words, and a second, more refined version from Season 3’s “Mr.Hankey’s Christmas Classics.” My preference is for the original as Cartman’s performance, while constantly being interrupted, is raw and full of apprehension, whereas the one from the the ‘Christmas Classics’ is fine, but, in my opinion, overproduced. However, the second is better for playlists.
Here’s the awesome, raw power of the original:
Here’s the ‘album’ version:
John Lennon [and Yoko Ono] – Happy Xmas
I debated long and hard about this one. But in the end, it needed to make the list. The song is so good that even Yoko Ono’s singing can’t tarnish its brilliance.
From Lennon’s opening lines that draw you in, and that first magnificent sleigh bell that hits at :21 to the children’s choir counter melody that buttresses Yoko and then John’s later verses, the song’s evocative nature is astounding.
I truly believe that the chorus of this song is one of the best in pop music as it perfectly creates the sense of unity and joy that the song speaks to. Let me try to explain. Different songs have different lilts. Those lilts actually get us to move our bodies differently depending on the song. For example, the lilt of some songs make you move your head up and down (think metal), back and forth (dance music), while others side to side (broadly speaking – waltzes).
The lilt of the chorus in “Happy Christmas” has the effect of a half-time side-to-side body movement that makes holding hands while singing it almost a subliminal obligation.
I generally eschew modernized covers of classics. For the most part I think they’re usually gaudy and poorly done. As a result I’m one of the few people who doesn’t enjoy the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Savatage, or Mannheim Steamroller. I enjoy new Christmas songs. I enjoy old Christmas songs. But I just can’t usually enjoy old Christmas songs done in radically new ways. Genre mashing is not something that I easily cotton to. A Dubstep version of “Little Drummer Boy” is as exciting to me as a root canal.
That having been said, one that I will always make an exception for is Bad Religion’s cover of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” which manages to turn the song into a fantastic punk rock anthem that highlights the bands brilliant use of vocal harmonies.
Anyone who knows Bad Religion might be surprised by their decision to make what seems to be a completely unironic Christmas album, but as the band has stated on numerous occasions, they are not necessarily anti-theist but are anti anything that seeks to remove moral autonomy and agency from the individual. Religion, to them, happens to be the most pointed example of that. Despite all this, the song is fantastic. It is quick, tight and powerful, a wonderful addition to the playlist.
What can I say Fairy Tale in New York other than how truly spectacular it is?
The music is superlative and the song manages to capture the optimistic cynicism that is such a cultural touchstone among the Irish, and turns the dour and dejected into a resigned hopefulness. Upbeat and optimistic despite its subject matter, the song navigates a human condition fraught with loss and suffering that can still find its way to hope and love.
“Fairy Tale in New York” is about a drunk and junkie whose dreams collapse.The song continues as they blame each other for their misery, but concludes with the narrator’s realization that their dreams are shared and they are each others happiness.
The poetry and bitterness in their bickering is, without question, some of the best:
“You’re a bum, You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot, You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last”
Despite this, we get the sense that if anything happened to either of them, the other would truly be lost. They are two misfits who found each other and bring out the worst and best in the other. By the song’s end, they are worn out from arguing and the truth of shared dreams and true love emerges. I can tell you all the reasons I think the music is wonderful, but I think you should just have another listen and enjoy it.
There are many other honorable mentions; Fiona Apple’s wry “Frosty The Snowman“, Hall and Oates’ “Jingle Bell Rockl (as well as the Bobby Helms’ original.), The Glee people singing “We Need a Little Christmas”, Mariah Carey’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” are also must haves as far as I’m concerned, and if there were time I’d explore them all. But the season is upon us and the days are getting brighter as I hope your playlists and spirits are too – it’s time to celebrate.
Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and joy to you all in the New Year.