Deck the Halls and Cover Your Ears

December 18th, 2008

Why is most Christmas music so awful?

This question was brought home to me a couple of days ago, when my primary laptop suffered a massive seizure and died, followed 24 hours later by my iPod, which had five thousand songs on it, songs assembled over a period of years.  And, of course, the iTunes backup was on the computer that had just, etc.

So . . . the good news: there’s a wonderful program called MediaWidget ($29.95 online) that will not only allow you to copy everything on your iPod to a new computer, but will also analyze and HEAL a stricken iPod.  It resurrected mine, and I copied all 5000 songs (complete with playlists) to my secondary laptop and then onto a brand-new iPod.  In the course of doing that, I realized that I had almost no Christmas music.  And for good reason:  most Christmas music sucks.

And that led me in turn to the surprising discovery that LITTLE ELVISES, a few chapters of which I posted here, happens around Christmas time.  And I’d like some good Christmas music, both for my iPod and for the book.

Please help.  Give me the names of three Christmas recordings that don’t suck.

I’ll start with these:

Aretha, “O Holy Night”

The Modern Jazz Quartet, “England’s Carol”

The Ronettes, “Sleighride”

Please — lend a hand.  Let’s build a Christmas section for everyone’s iPod and, at the same time, give me a sound track for my book.

Oh, and the creativity pieces are coming in, and they’re killer.

32 Responses to “Deck the Halls and Cover Your Ears”

  1. Lisa Kenney Says:

    I’ve got Christmas videos embedded in my last couple of posts, but I warn you — if it were up to me, almost all Christmas music except for very old songs sung by The Vienna Boys’ Choir (or something similar) would be banned from airplay. But, outside the traditional, I’ve always loved The Pretenders, 2000 Miles. I don’t know if that’s really a Christmas song though. I’m also a big fan of the Vince Guaraldi trio. I had the Christmas music cable channel on this afternoon and it was just awful stuff.

  2. Suzanna Says:

    A friend of mine gave me a compilation of very kitschy Christmas songs from probably the 50s and 60s, and although the songs could easily be considered awful they are so silly they always make me smile and sing along. I’ll see if I can dig it up and send titles of my favorite ones. Don’t think this will help resolve your need for good Christmas music but they may make you smile.

    We have two other Christmas CDs that may fall in line with the good Christmas music theme. One by Emmy Lou and the other by Nat King Cole. I’ll look at those too.

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Yes!!! “2000 Miles.” GREAT record. (As is the new CD, “Breaking Concrete.” And I can handle the Vienna Boys Choir. Stephen Cohn, one of the people who will be blogging on creativity here, recently had a work premiered by a remarkable choir here in Los Angeles. Most of the sopranos were boys, and the purity of tone was remarkable, in part, I think, because most children don’t have vibrato.

    Lisa’s got some great Christmas music videos right here.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Suzanna, THANKS just for saying Emmylou. “Star of Bethlehem,” which I think Neil Young wrote, is one of the top ten maybe-Christmas songs of all time. (“2000 Miles” is another.)

    No one could sing that awful “Chestnuts roasting by an open fire” like Nat King Cole, but then nobody could sing much of anything like Nat King Cole.

    Creepiest line in a Christmas song: “He sees you when you’re sleeping.”

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    And we shouldn’t forget the Gert Jonnys’ “Krizmazz Kookies Yummm Yummm Yummm.” One of the highest-calorie Xmas songs ever.

    Now I’m replying to my own blog?

  6. Thomas Says:

    If you want to rebel against your teachers, parents, and clergy, there is always the Danish satanic squeal-master of the high C, King Diamond, and his December 25th 1985 release of No Presents for Christmas. It’s a whole new, and rather refreshing, take on the concept of Christmas bringing good things to good people. As the chorus goes:

    “There’s no presents, not this Christmas
    There’s no presents
    Tom and jerry, drinking sherry
    They don’t give a damn”

    It sure puts me in the spirit… But then again, there is always Aretha.

  7. Ken H. Says:

    I’ll offer a slightly more quirky collection (I think). The Waitresses Christmas Wrapping is one I enjoy. The Chieftans cd The Bells of Dublin has a song with Elvis Costello called St. Stephen’s Day Murders which is cool (as well as a couple of others). Squirrel Nut Zippers Christmas Caravan is fun. Esquivel Christmas by Esquivel is my pick for most obscure but worth a listen.

  8. Ken H. Says:

    Just checked and I believe the Esquivel cd is called Merry Christmas From
    The Space Age Bachelor Pad. Enough said.

  9. Peggy Says:

    It’s not officially Christmas music but I’ve always loved the Christmas-y sound of Prokofiev’s “Troika” from the Lieutenant Kije Suite. Lots of sleighbells. Oh, and Snoopy vs. the Red Baron by the Royal Guardsmen!

  10. John Lindquist Says:

    “East-West” by The Pleasure Fair is a regular part of my yearly holiday show on a Madison FM station. And then there’s “Eat Like A Norwegian” (sung to the tune of “Walk Like An Egyptian”) by Ole and Elmer – a duo from Eau Claire, Wis. “A ‘Saolin” (done live) by Peter, Paul and Mary is especially festive.

    Really notable is the version of “The First Noel” that the Crash Test Dummies do on the album “Lump of Coal.” The video to that just kills and is on their website, crashtestdummies.com – go to “Clips.”

  11. Lisa Kenney Says:

    I’m with you on the creepy factor for “he sees you when you’re sleeping.” Also, it may just be me, but I have never understood “O Christmas Tree/Tannenbaum”. It’s a love song to a…tree.

  12. suzanna Says:

    http://heavens-gates.com/50s/50s_christmas.html

    Hysterical 50s Christmas music and really really bad art work too!

  13. Dana King Says:

    Tom Lehrer once said countries should hire professional songwriters to write their folk songs, to improve the quality. Christmas music shows he may well have been wrong.

    Being an instrumental music guy myself, Wynton Marsalis and the Canadian Brass each have some formidable Christmas recordings.

  14. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Good Lord, what a bunch. Put all these suggestions together, and you’d have the most severely twisted Christmas playlist in history.

    Thomas, I don’t suppose you have an mp3 of King Diamond. (Does ANYONE have mp3 versions of the songs they suggest? Please, pretty please with candy canes on top, e-mail them to me. Please?) Thomas, the lyrics to the song are the worst things I ever heard. Drinking sherry? Have you ever had a sherry hangover? The only cure is to stand directly in front of a speeding train.

    Ken H (aka my nephew, Ken) — Great picks. And I’m amazed electrons can move freely in Iowa, given the current temperature. The Chieftains are cool, even if they’re Irish (although I’m Irish, I still haven’t gotten over the Lord of the Dance), and Elvis Costello brings added value to everything he does. I actually really like the Squirrel Nut Zippers. I have to admit that the Waitresses are new to me, although I’m tracking them down. The title of the Esquivel album is literally unimprovable. “Merry Christmas from the Space Age Bachelor Pad.” Just once before I die, I want to write something that pitch-perfect. Wonder where Esquivel is now? Actually, forget “wonder” — he died, according to Google, in 2002 and he was described in one article “the undisputed king of space age bachelor pad music.” There are very few statements I can think of that are literally undisputable, but that’s one of them.

    Peggy
    (she’s my editor at Morrow, folks, so I guess I have to be careful what I say on this blog) — I know the “Troika,” like it, and will happily add it to my growing list of great maybe-Christmas songs. And I’d just like to point out that the leap from Prokoviev to the Royal Guardsmen is a breathtaking demonstration of cultural breadth, if not necessarily good taste. Also, anything with “Snoopy” in the title should be handled with the same sort of care you’d take with a vial of the ebola virus. Or maybe it’s just me.

    John — I’m a little taken aback by the idea that anybody has room in their holiday celebration for my singing on “East West,” which is an old Hollies song covered with endearing enthusiasm, if not much talent, by one of my former bands. I haven’t heard a note of that LP in years, although my nephew Ken (see above) presented me with an LP, complete with its brooding flower child jacket, several years ago. Yes, we were brooding flower children, obviously a harbinger of darker things to come. And none of us liked our teeth, so we didn’t smile for photos. I absolutely NEED “Eat Like a Norwegian,” and I’ll bet you all my Pleasure Fair royalties for the next ten years that you have an mp3. And John . . . the Crash Test Dummies? You? What else don’t we know about you? Did they really do a Christmas album called “Lump of Coal?” I have new heroes.

    Lisa
    — Mary Higgins Clark wrote a Christmas mystery called “He Sees You When You’re Sleeping,” which I found out this morning when I decided to write it. On to the next idea. There’s a lot to say for falling in love with a tree. They’re solid, they’re tall, they stay where they’re put, they’ll wait up all night for you without complaining, they provide shade all summer, and in the winter you can chop them down and burn them for warmth, and they won’t argue with you. They might go a little passive-aggressive, but that’s easy to deal with.

    Suzanna — WHAT A SITE!!!!!! I spent two hours on it this morning. Go there, everybody. How could you not love a site that has the immortal Elmo and Patsy doing “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”? Sample lyric:
    “It’s not Christmas without Grandma.
    All the family’s dressed in black.
    And we just can’t help but wonder:
    Should we open up her gifts or send them back?” Timeless sentiment there.

    Dana — The Tom Lehrer quote, and your response to it, are right on the money. It’s hard to imagine that a totally random collection of tone-deaf street people (nothing against street people) could write anything worse than “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” or — well, or most of the songs on the site Suzanna recommends.

    You guys reaffirm my belief in the holiday spirit.

  15. John Lindquist Says:

    “Lump of Coal” is one of those long-deleted and rare compilation CDs from the early ’90s that had various rock bands doing their holiday thing, and it occasionally shows up on eBay. The Dummies’ version of “The First Noel” on that CD totally blows away the 2nd version they did on their later Christmas CD which greets you upon entering crashtestdummies.com .

    “Eat Like A Norwegian” is queued up & ready to send.

  16. Jen Forbus Says:

    Hi Tim, I’m a big fan of Harry Connick, Jr.’s, and that includes his Christmas music. His version of “Silver Bells” is my favorite, but anyone who prefers traditional sound would probably not like it. And of course “(It Must Have Been Ole) Santa Claus” is very up-tempo and fun. He just released a version of “Let There Be Peace On Earth” that gives me goose bumps. His duet with LeAnn Womack doing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is probably my favorite version of that song as well.

    Outside of Harry, I love the duet by Bing Crosby and David Bowie – “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth.”

    And laugh if you like, but I do enjoy the Boys II Men version of “Silent Night.” Martina McBride belts out an INCREDIBLE “O Holy Night.” John Berry also has several songs that I think are incredibly well done.

    I prefer “Mary Did You Know” by Kenny Rogers and Wynona. I know a lot of people opt for Kathy Mattae’s but, I prefer Kenny and Wy.

    Dave Koz has some fun instrumental stuff for Christmas while Jim Brickman has more traditional sounds with his piano.

    That’s my two cents! Of course in the present economy, I might be lucky to have it be worth half a penny!

    Happy Holidays!

  17. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Jen — Will be looking around, especially for the Dave Koz and Martina McBride. The Crosby/Bowie duet and the Boyz II Men “Silent Night” sound, at the very least, offbeat. I may put some of people’s suggestions online in a bit.

    Happy holidays, and I hope you have a trove of great books to get you through.

  18. Shadoe Stevens Says:

    The Birth of Christ by Boys 2 Men
    Rockin Around the Christmas Tree – Darlene Love and Ronnie Spector
    Merry Christmas Baby – Bonnie Raitt & Charles Brown
    Christmas All Over Again – Tom Petty
    Back Door Santa – B.B. King & John Popper
    White Christmas – Darlene Love
    Ave Maria – Eleven & Chris Cornell
    Please Come Home for Christmas – Willie Nelson
    Marshmellow World – Darlene Love

  19. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Shad — You, too, with Boyz 2 Men? Okay, I’ll search both cuts down and listen. I want to congratulate you on the overall excellence of this list and also for loosening your NO COUNTRY restriction to include the sainted Willie. I wanna hear the Chris Cornell and BB King especially.

  20. Steve Wylder Says:

    1. King’s College, Cambridge Choir, “Once in Royal David’s City.” 2. John Jacob Niles, “I Wonder as I Wander.” (Acquired taste, I know.) 3. New York Pro Musica, “Riu Riu Chiu.” I wish I could include a beautiful version of “In the Bleak Midwinter” I heard on a folk music program, but I never learned the singer’s name.

  21. Steve Wylder Says:

    P.S. Lisa, there was a comedy group called “The Committee” back in the ’60s that did “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” spoken, with a heavy Russian accent. It was scary and hilarious at the same time.

  22. Sylvia Says:

    Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas – it’s a remix of traditional songs and a joy to listen to.

  23. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Steve — Haven’t heard “Riu Riu Chiu” since forever — there used to be a great LA band called The Modern Folk Quartet that did an amazing a capella version of it. (By the way, the Monkees recorded it.) And “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which is (or is it?) by Holst, has been recorded by the whole world, including James Taylor.

    Sylvia — How could I have forgotten about Mannheim Steamroller? Absolutely!

    Everyone — I now have the ultimate Christmas playlist on my iPod. Wish I could share it with all of you, but you can use this thread as a downloading guide.

    Happy holidays!

  24. Steve Wylder Says:

    Tim–Holst wrote the music for “In the Bleak Midwinter;” Christina Rosetti wrote the lyrics. I didn’t know the Monkees recorded “Riu Riu Chiu.” When someody asks about a train to Clarksville, Tennessee, I usually say that the last train to Clarksville ran about the same time the Monkees recorded the song.

  25. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Holst? Christina Rossetti? Who says this isn’t an upscale blog?

    Happy whatever holiday anyone is celebrating.

  26. Ken H. Says:

    I know this blog has likely lived its full life already but I just remembered one song that is a must. Fairytale of New York by the Pogues (and yes, they are Irish). It starts this way.

    It was Christmas Eve babe,
    in the drunk tank,
    an old man said to me,
    won’t see another one.

    Certainly this was Shane MacGowan’s reality one Christmas if his teeth tell us anything. The Pogues were influenced by the Clash (Joe Strummer did a lead sunger stint while MacGowan was “donw and out” on booze) and brought the tin whistle to its prominent spot in the world of rock! A killer blend of punk, jazz and irish folk songs. One of my favorite bands.

  27. Ken H. Says:

    That would of coure be “singer” not “sunger” (that is a strange sounding word) and “down” not “donw”. I must have been thinking in Gaelic!

  28. Ken H. Says:

    Of “course” Ahhh!

  29. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Ken —

    It’s good that someone in the family is actually Irish. I remember the Pogues and seem to recall that there was a very nice-looking woman in the group for a while, and Elvis Costello and she were an item. Does this ring true to you, or is it yet another fragment of my illusory past? Anyway, merry Christmas to all.

  30. Ken H. Says:

    You are correct. It was Cait O’Riordan and I think they may have even been married at some point. I believe they met on the set of Straight to Hell, a super-quirky western from the mid 80s with the Pogues, Elvis Costello, Cait O’Riordan and, coming full circle, Joe Strummer. (I am guessing with that group listed as the cast for a western that ‘super-quircky is redundant)Courtney Love, Grace Slick and Dennis Hopper all have bit parts as well. What I remember the most from it is that the town has all of the cowboys (the Pogues, among others) always sitting outside on tables drinking coffee! Not that’s my kind of red eye!Good soundtrack, odd film.

  31. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    God, the things you know.

    I’m going to check Netflix for “Straight to Hell.” Maybe make it a double bill with Sam Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country.”

  32. L G K Says:

    Howdy – I’m writing not just to nominate my few bearable Cmas tunes, but to request a copy as well of “Eat Like a Norwegian”.Thanks in advance, I have been looking for that song FOREVER.
    My nominations [“Yule Be Sorry!”], in no order:
    1] “Christmas is Coming”, Vince Guaraldi;
    2] “Blue Christmas”, Willie Nelson [NOT Elvis the Pelvis – his version sounds like he’s trying to stifle a sneeze!];
    3] “A Christmas Carol”, Tom Lehrer.
    Again, thanks much!

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