12/9/08

"Holiday" Music That Doesn't Suck


Picture courtesy of flickr user elycefeliz
UPDATE:  Check out all the Wired For Music holiday playlists!
UPDATE 2:  Click here to download this year's playlist.

Well, it's that time of year again.  All my favorite December accoutrements are back in vogue:  eggnog, pagan winter trees, mindless consumerism, and of course...Holiday music!  Now I should clarify, my usage of "holiday" here is not because I'm actively engaged in the War On Christmas (though I am), but rather because many of my favorite songs of this season have little if anything to do with Christmas.  Frosty the Snowman?  How did that ever get labelled a Christmas song?  Did the power of Christ compel Frosty to come to life?  Sounds pretty damn Voodoo to me.  Others, of course, are overtly religious, but even an atheist like me can admit that that doesn't mean they can't be wonderful songs.

Growing up Jewish, I never really got exposed to good "Christmas music," but I did get exposed to many beautiful Chanukah (and other Jewish) songs.  My only experience with Christmas music would be the horrible crap I heard repeated ad naseum at the mall, in drug stores, on the radio, in TV commercials, and basically everywhere else my ears were from late November - New Year's.  And frankly, I fucking hated it.  And for good reason:  most of the music played in public this time of year is simply fucking awful.  Even good songs (like the aforementioned Mr. Snowman) get mangled over and over again by hack "artists" looking for a quick buck.

Well, I'm glad to say that Wired for Music is here to help.  In addition to some really good resources for decent holiday music, I'm giving you my very own playlist of holiday favorites.  This time of year is when every musician in the world becomes a cover band, and half the fun is seeing how 50 different bands treat the same tune.  The other half is hearing your favorite bands come up with some originals about the same topics.  And the third half is drinking eggnog.


Those of you know who me (i.e. my readers) may be surprised that there isn't more indie rock here - but that's because I think it takes more than a hip band covering a classic tune to make it good holiday music.  What it takes is an appreciation for what's good about a song, and an artist's ability to put his or her own unique twist on it, thereby heightening the good qualities of the original piece while making it sound new and interesting.  And of course, the most important factor in good holiday music is that it sound....good.  Not grating, cloying, hip for hip's sake, or whatever else.  Just good.  This is by no means a complete list of "good" holiday music, but I hope it's enough to get you through the rest of your holiday shopping.


Here are some quick notes on each track so you have something to read while you listen:
  1. Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas - Eels  I was torn between this track and the Eels' excellent "Christmas Is Going To The Dogs," which has the added benefit of also being about dogs.  But this one won out because A) the tune is way better, and B) it features the line "baby Jesus, born to rock."  (Well, the lyrics claim it features that line, but I can't hear it, but whatever).

  2. Frosty The Snowman - The Ronettes  You may recognize this one from Goodfellas.  My favorite thing about this (other than the production, which is of course spectacular) is the thick accent that comes through on the word "Frosty."  Hilarious, yet awesome.

  3. Christmas Wrapping - The Waitresses  The horns!  It's all about the horns!  Also the heart-breaking lines: "The perfect gift for me would be/Completions and connections left from/Last year ski shop/Encounter, most interesting/Had his number but never the time/Most of '81 passed along those lines."

  4. Blue Christmas - Johnny Cash  This starts out lame, but within 5 seconds, Cash's voice simply takes over your brain and you know that he's telling the truth, regardless of the "oohs" and "ahhs" in the background.

  5. Christmas Night in Harlem - Louis Armstrong & Friends  The voice, the horns, the little laugh he does in the middle of the line "everyone will be all lit up like a christmas tree" - Louis does this one up right.

  6. Christmas In Hollis - Run DMC  An instant classic, which I first heard pumping out of Argyle's limo speakers in Die Hard.  Man, that's an awesome movie.

  7. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer - Ringo Starr  Another Jewish boy tries to come to terms with Christmas his own way.  I feel you, Ringo.  UPDATE: According to the Internet, Ringo Starr is not Jewish, and never was.  Discuss.

  8. Santa Baby - Eartha Kitt  This, for me, is the definitive version of "Santa Baby."  You might have your own opinion on the matter, but you are wrong.

  9. Santa Claus is Comin to Town - The Jackson Five  Despite the horrible emotional pain all those children singing were no doubt experiencing at the time of this recording due to being forced to rehearse night and day, this song still just sounds like an expression of pure anticipatory joy.  Maybe they thought Santa would kill their parents and set them free?

  10. Oi to the World - No Doubt  A heartwarming Christmas tale sung by a hot blonde.  What more could you ask for?

  11. Entr'acte - Duke Ellington  Ellington does Tchaikovsky.  Need I say more?  Yes, I need: do yourself a favor and check out this whole album.  Every track is fantastic.  Ellington the orchestrator/composer is every bit as fascinating and listenable as Ellington the jazzman.

  12. We Three Kings of Orient Are - John Fahey  Crazy record collector, crazy record label creator, and crazy gifted guitarist John Fahey makes this sound both melancholy and hopeful in equal turns.  This just calls out for a roaring fire and some cocoa.

  13. I Saw Three Ships - Sufjan Stevens  Five discs is a but much for Sufjan's Christmas music, but taken one at a time, most of the songs are pretty good.  I don't know what kind of wind instrument that is over top of the banjo at the beginning of this track, but I like it.  And you will, too.

  14. Silver Bells - Doris Day  A beautiful voice, an animal rights activist, and easy on the eyes.  Doris Day was a class act.  This one is definitely traditional, but it passes the "good" test in my book.  I hope you agree.

  15. Sleigh Ride - Spice Girls  The talking almost ruins this one, but the amount of fun the Spice Girls are obviously having during the actual musical bits make it all worthwhile.  Can they sing?  No.  But they can have fun, and isn't that worth something?  If you're looking for more musical quality, check out Mel Tormé's version of this song.  It's good.

  16. I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm - Kay Starr (remixed by Stuhr)  There are a lot of holiday music remix albums, and lots of them are bad.  Some of them are good, and some of their tracks achieve, dare I say [Editor's note:  I dare] greatness.  This one succeeds because you can tell that both the original and the remix are good.  And like I always say, too much of a good thing is totally awesome.

  17. Carol Of The Beasts (Instrumental) - Pete Seeger  Banjos + whistling + holiday times would probably = fun, right?  Not to Pete Seeger.  Pete Seeger keeps it real.  Deal with it.

  18. Jingle Bells - Sammy Davis, Jr.  What can I say?  Jews do Christmas music right.  Always have, always will.

  19. Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis - Tom Waits  This stretches the definition of "Christmas song," and for that I'm grateful.  Keep the Kleenex handy for this one, it's a tearjerker.
So, what are your favorite holitimes songs?  Do you have any?  If not, what do you listen to this time of year to stay sane?  Tell me in the comments, and be sure to check out the second and third installments!

16 comments:

99 said...

1. Goddamn It, You're a Kid - Babybird. Featuring the classic lyric, "Fuck you, Father Christmas."

2. Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy - Bing Crosby and David Bowie. Two great tastes . . .

3. Blue Christmas - Elvis Presley. Awesome. A true classic.

4. Happy Xmas (War is Over) - John Lennon. A great sentiment.

5. Father Christmas - The Kinks. One of the all-time best, and particularly appropriate for a nation in a depression. "Father Christmas, give us some money."

6. Office Christmas Party - Los Abandoned. Just a fun song.

7. Fairytale of New York - The Pogues. Probably my favorite Christmas song ever.

8. Give The Jew Girl Toys - Sarah Silverman. Must be heard to be believed.

9. Al Hanism - Shudder to Think. For Hannukah.

Jordan Hirsch said...

@99:

I almost put Elvis's Blue Christmas on here instead of Johnny Cashs's...tough call (for me). And of course "Father Christmas" is brilliant, but I assumed everyone knew it already.

As for that Pogues song, I've long hated it and apparently will continue to do so. It's just grim...and somewhat off-key. Subjective sentiments (well, the "grim" part) I know, but there it is.

Oh, and Sarah Silverman is simply not funny.

99 said...

give back your card, you're no longer allowed in the human race.

Jordan Hirsch said...

@99: ok, upon 2 further listenings, the Irish dance music part of that song is listenable. But I'd still never choose to listen to it.

And again: Sarah Silverman...not funny. Can everybody please get over her, please?

Molly Malone said...

don't mean to jump into a fray here, but i think i'll add something to irk each of you.
"Fairytale of New York" is awesome.
"Give the Jew Girl Toys" is not entertaining.
and a side note: "Happy Christmas" is one of the few songs i can think of that employs children singing that doesn't make me want to poke my eyes out with a fork.

99 said...

if you don't like sarah silverman, that's fine. i didn't like her for a while. now i do.

but fairytale of new york? seriously, that's when you have to turn your card in.

Anonymous said...

Ringo Starr isn't Jewish.

Anonymous said...

Someone should pay attention to this list and put together a compilation CD and call it Holiday Music That Doesn't Suck...even though I already own a lot of this music I would buy it again all package together!

Anonymous said...

What about Darlene Love's Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)? Of all the songs played on the 24/7 Xmas music radio stations, this is one of the few that I enjoy.

Lightnin' No Last Name said...

Nice list...but not a single version of "have yourself a merry little christmas"? That's disappointing, especially considering the fact that it's a major bummer of a song.

My guilty pleasure around the xmas season is George Winston's "December" - and it's definitely a GUILTY one. What about David Grisman's acoustic christmas album?

Oh, and Sarah Silverman = Larry the cable guy for the other half of the country as far as I'm concerned.

Jordan Hirsch said...

@Lightnin': I couldn't agree more with your assessment of Sarah Silverman. 'Nuff said.

And I do have a favorite "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," but I considered it too depressing to include here: it's Aimee Mann's beautiful version from "One More Drifter In The Snow." And Grisman's acoustic Christmas album is beautiful; I'd rank it right up there with Seeger's and Fahey's holiday works, only much more playful.

Mr. Emily said...

The Boss' cover of Santa Clause Is Coming To Town totally rocks - most notably from dec '78. The Jackon 5's cover never really spoke to me after hearing Bruce do it.

White Christmas as covered by The Flaming Lips was always fun. But maybe it's because it's on vinyl.

I like Xmas songs that are hokie and fun. When the artists get all serious about Jesus, I lose interest. Especially when they are about a boy who's mother is dying and her last wish is to have new shoes for christmas. yeah, seriously.

Anonymous said...

Good times - Your Juarez Friend

Christina said...

I must say that your playlist lives up to its title. Well done. I especially liked the remix of "I've got your love to keep me warm." As for my favorites, I never get tired of the Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown Christmas Album.

Anonymous said...

great post

Mitey Miss said...

Thanks for the list. See if you can hunt down "What Child Is This?" done to the tune of G n R's "Sweet Child of Mine" and rendered in lounge lizard style by Joey Cheezy (sp?). Serious genius. Let me know if you find it?