Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Only 7 Christmas Songs I Can Stand Anymore

As I've gotten older, I've had to face one inevitable fact: I've grown less and less warm to Christmas music. It's not that I hate it, I don't have that strong of a feeling toward it, but I've just found that years removed from being a kid, I've found less and less Christmas music to be excited about.

I love really alternative stuff, that's always fun. Punk Rock Christmas, James Brown's, Elvis', and Motown's Christmas Albums are all really awesome. And who doesn't love Feliz Navidad? Once? (Not more than once.)

But the majority of the time, I just haven't bothered putting Christmas music back on my iPod at this time of year (I didn't do it all this year) and I've managed to avoid any stores or areas where they're blasting carols.

I still find a lot of the religious music moving, surprisingly. But it has to be done especially well. Too often, I find singers emoting way too much on a song as simple as Little Drummer Boy or The First Noel. Just sing the song. I'm sure the Lord would've preferred to sleep anyway.
(But if you want to hear a really good religious song done well, find Whitney Houston's Go Tell It On the Mountain. And then go tell it on a mountain how much you love it.)

Here's The Only 7 Christmas Songs I Can Stand Anymore (Even Though I Cheated a Bit)

1.) All I Want for Christmas Is You - Love Actually
Move aside Mariah Carey, because I prefer Olivia Olson's joyous, more innocent version of the song. The fact that the scene is one of many great scenes in this ridiculous movie makes it even more special.
This song actually leads me to talk about the entire soundtrack, which is awesome. It's not a traditional "Christmas" album, but it's romantic, it's uplifting, and it's upbeat. What more do you want from a Christmas album?
I do make a couple replacements... "Christmas is All Around" is kind of an annoying song, so I replaced it with the audio of the opening scene I lifted straight from the movie, complete with my favorite Billy Mack (played by Bill Nighy) quote: "Oh! Fuck wank bugger shitting arse head and hole!" And I replace the heartbreaking track of Joni Mitchell singing "Both Sides Now" with a live version of the same song. It's amazing. And on the song Hugh Grant dances to ("Jump" by the Pointer Sisters) I add in the radio DJ's message before the post, and I splice in the bit of dialogue he has with his assistant, before the music cuts back in (which doesn't happen in the movie, but I thought was funny).
And if a guy ever says he hates Love Actually, it's because he has no soul. 

2.) Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree - Home Alone
It's a pretty definitive Christmas album if ever there was one, composed by one of the masters of cinematic scores, John Williams.
Now, there are three albums to be aware of: the first movie's soundtrack, the second movie's, and a Home Alone Christmas album combining highlight holiday songs from both movies. More of my favorites exist on the first movie's soundtrack though, but incidentally, Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" is only an in-movie sound cue and not included on the soundtrack, so I added it in, because out of everything, that's actually my favorite song in this whole movie.
There is admittedly one other change I make to the soundtrack on my iPod, and it's "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", because I just love Judy Garland's version and prefer it to Mel Torme's, used in the movie.
I would've changed "Carol of the Bells" too, but this is a really great version, and I have a separate version that also makes this list.
Other than that, enjoy Williams' awesome score!

3.) O Tannenbaum - A Charlie Brown Christmas
There's three things I can't imagine a Christmas without: the Coca Cola Bears, the Christmas Story marathon, and Charlie Brown. The Vince Guaraldi Trio capture perfectly not only Christmas joy, but the spirit of the Peanuts perfectly.
You can hear hints of Charlie Brown sound cues throughout, and there's a lot of great tracks, but this one that opens the Christmas special, is absolutely my favorite. Anytime a classic get remixed tastefully, I'm always in favor of.
Anytime I hear this soundtrack though, I can immediately see every scene from the Charlie Brown Christmas special crystal clear. It's a testament to how good the Trio is.
People also point to Linus as the most inoffensive evangelist of all time, with his retelling of the Christmas story, and even though he points to Jesus as the reason for the season, we can all take from that what Jesus really stood for: kindness, peace, and love.
I do make one change to the soundtrack though: I substitute the instrumental "Christmas Song" for Nat King Cole's version. Because you also can't have Christmas without Nat King Cole's "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." (So that's four things. Whoops.)

4.) Don't Save It All For Christmas Day - Clay Aiken
The schlockiest holiday song I have on my list is this cover of Celine Dion's Christmas song by American Idol season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken.
Like any Christmas song, the message is incredibly simple, and it's not overdone here. Sung live, Aiken really powers out the key change note and it's awe-inspiring. On the recording, it's a little more subdued, but by no means less impressive.
The thing that separates Aiken from Celine for me too is that I believe Aiken when he sings it. I believe him when he sings anything. There's an inherent sincerity to his voice that Celine, for all her power and bravado, often misses for me.
I can forgive the corny lyrics and sappy, saccharine ideology if only because Clay's voice carries absolute conviction that almost makes me say, "Oh, of course, why didn't I think of doing this sooner!?"

5.) Christmas Eve / Sarajevo 12/24 - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
When I talk about remixing old songs into something new and awesome, this is the end all, be all. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra's medley is an epic version of "Carol of the Bells." Mixed in is "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", and it's entirely instrumental. There's mostly no bells though, because it's taken over by an impressive string section (electric guitars, violins, and the like) and drums and if you see it live, an amazing light disply.
I like my Christmases cozy and intimate too, but every once in a while, you just need a truly epic and bombastic anthem to get behind and this is it right here. I've heard other attempts to modernize other songs and they're mostly hit or miss, but this one is right on the mark.

6.) Batman Returns Soundtrack
Now, this one is a bit more of a personal call for me, your mileage may very.
I love Nightmare Before Christmas, but it makes far more sense to listen to that at Halloween for me. There's just not enough of it that's Christmas enough for me, with the exception of "Making Christmas" (of which, I really love the Rise Against cover for the Nightmare Revisited soundtrack. Marilyn Manson sings "This Is Halloween" so, that should be enough argument for you to download it already).
But Danny Elfman still gets representation on the list here, because much like how the Vince Guaraldi Trio found the intersection of Christmas and the Peanuts, Elfman finds a way to combine Gotham's most ruthless vigilante with a bright and shiny holiday. Of course, there's nothing shiny and happy about a Batman-based Christmas soundtrack, but like I said, this is a pretty personal call for me.
When I was a kid, Batman Returns was the predominant version of Batman I had (The Animated Series was just starting to make a name for itself) and I had already seen the original Batman movie. But this one, set at Christmas, and with a really excellent SNES game to accompany it, immediately sends me back to childhood.
I can clearly feel the carpet beneath my numb feet as I knelt in front of the glow of the television, playing through Batman Returns which had much of the same soundtrack as the movie.
In particular, the "Fight Against the Circus" and "Wild Ride / Rooftops" evokes enough Christmas spirit to me, along with a sense of Batman adventure, and is completely Elfman-esque, reminding me of both Beetlejuice and Nightmare.  
Again, your mileage may vary, but if you're looking for an interesting, off-beat Christmas album, I think you won't be disappointed with the greatness of this instrumental.

7.) Joy to the World - Glenn Close, Placido Domingo
And finally, a little old-school traditional Christmas song of the religious nature never hurt anyone.
Especially if it's one of the Three Tenors and frikkin' Glenn Close knockin' the roof off the joint.
I don't enjoy many of the religious songs anymore, like I said, but other than "Whitney's Go Tell It On the Mountain" (and also Julie Andrews' "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", if you like), this is probably all you need.
Domingo sings the first verse, Close plays it close to the vest in the second, and then they both just let it rip on the final verse. There's back-phrasing, belting, and bravado like you've never heard. Backed by the London Symphony Orchestra, the result is astronomical.

Happy Holidays, everyone!