By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Troy Farah
By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Brian Palmer
Look, I should probably start with myself. The only Christmas music I listen to every year comes on Bing Crosby's White Christmas, featuring the Andrews Sisters and Carol Richards. From that an FBI profiler would be able to judge that I'm a white male, late 20s/early 30s, with a large collection of screwball comedy DVDs, at least one biography of Frank Capra, and a latent desire to be Chevy Chase in a Vacation movie, ideally not European or Vegas.
Your Christmas music diet is no less revealing. What follows is a kind of Christmas horoscope, with all due apologies to people whose particular tastes have been elided.
Pop stars: I'm not entirely sure you exist anymore. Back in the '90s, you went dutifully to the store every December 3 or 4 and picked up an album by Mariah Carey or Boyz II Men or some other basically family-friendly pop act.
Now, there are no family-friendly pop acts, and if Ke$ha has produced a Christmas album, I am literally begging you not to tell me about it. Nobody in the current pop firmament — country crossovers like Taylor Swift excepted — is especially eager to give off a vibe that says, "I absolutely did not spend last Christmas at a club with a bunch of half-naked women named after reindeer."
Country stars: You bought pop star Christmas albums back in the '90s. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" is cute enough, but "Santa Baby" is really kind of gross — if you're being honest.
Because traditional pop stars have vacated this market, steel guitars and Southern accents have gradually joined sleigh bells on the list of inherently Christmasy sounds — pretty soon, people will not even hear them as "country" so long as the pickup truck has a layer of snow on it. We're on our way to a radical realignment of our idea of Christmas music, and only Mariah Carey can stop it.
Frank Sinatra: You gave yourself a nickname in high school, and the nickname was something like "Dead-Eye" or "Slim" or "Slats," and you watched yourself play blues harp in the mirror with your trilby — Hey, Daddy-o, it's not a fedora, all right? — and you called your harmonica "blues harp."
There is nothing wrong with any of this, and there's nothing wrong with the three quarter-empty tubes of Brylcreem in your childhood medicine cabinet. A certain class of 17-year-old male just hits a point where all the only possible roles they see modeled among their peers are friendless nerd and EDM bro — it was nu-metal bro when this happened to me, but times change — and decides that the only possible response is to opt out entirely and emulate a much older, not-fully-understood model of coolness, when Men Were Men.
The result is a goofy sort of cargo-cult man, with all the straight-razor and hot-rod trappings of an old-timey photo with none of the ambition or charm or whatever that actually defined the men he's emulating. Usually, all this passes once the doppel-Sinatra realizes he is not a fantastically wealthy and mob-connected singer, and that those facts probably had something to do with the way the dames reacted when he called them dames. (Ten years later, I mostly just love the Marx Brothers.)
Punk Goes Christmas compilation albums: You are neither all the way punk nor all the way Christmas, but your car has an "I missed my ex . . . But my aim is improving!" sticker on it and your friends always tell you you could be a stand-up comic, really, the way you're so irreverent.
And some of this stuff is just serious enough about Christmas that you're in a seasonal mood just in time for your white elephant party, so it's okay, even if they made "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" about stalking a lady at the Buy and Bye.
Put the Christ back in Christmas music: I sympathize with you, because a lot of explicitly secular Christmas music is hokey and awful and many of the hymns every new Goo Goo Dolls version of "Jingle Bell Rock" is pushing out are moving and beautiful.
It only gets unnerving when you listen to the classics to the exclusion of everything that reads as Christmas to everybody else. Jesus is the reason for the season, but the season has taken on a life of its own that culturally is a pretty big deal. It probably won't kill you to drop "Winter Wonderland" between "Adeste Fidelis" and "Faith of Our Fathers."
Novelty Christmas Songs: Ray Stevens and Dr. Distorto thank you for your continued patronage. Grandma getting run over by a reindeer went from tragic accident to goofy sing-along under your watch, and your scientists have used supercomputers to uncover every possible dirty variation of the lyrics to "Joy to the World."
But novelty songs are sometimes made, not born. Your people have reclaimed Run-DMC's "Christmas in Hollis," passed around samizdat copies of Weezer's "Christmas Celebration," and even now are on the lookout for David Hasselhoff and Frank Stallone recordings of "Away in a Manger."
This article says nothing about me. It says a lot, however, about the author, particularly a lack of appreciation for creativity. For example, not all classic Christmas albums were recorded by Frank. There are many fine jazz Christmas song renditions. They are especially prevalent from female recording artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, etc., who join Rosie Clooney in giving particularly fine voice to the season. June Christy has a Christmas album with some unusual songs on it.
Charlie Byrd and Dave Brubeck have recorded particularly fine Christmas albums. But perhaps my all-time favorite of that genre is Chet Baker's Silent Nights.
The classic big bands could conjure up some great Christmas sounds. Music by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman could liven up any party and much of their work has been remastered. If your cocktail hour prefers quieter sounds, Nancy Wilson, Tony Bennett, and Dean Martin crooned some classic Christmas over the years.
For those who prefer blues, here is a list of albums I couldn't top that are all by respected artists of that genre and they will probably be less expected than many of the above.
We also can't forget R&B. Darlene Love is, of course, the ne plus ultra of an R&B Christmas. The Ronettes The Crystals, the Jackson Five, and the Temptations all have Christmas albums that are always part of my family's Christmas. My personal fave is an instrumental album by Booker T and the MGs.
And never forget Christmas music was made to be heard in church (and I don't mean a contemporary Christian megachurch). I'm an agnostic but you will always find me in someone's church at Christmas if they have a good choir. The most traditional carols were made to be sung by a large group accompanied by an organ. I mean, seriously, Joy to the World doesn't give you chills? The best Christmas music I've ever heard in my life was at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Perhaps because so many of our holiday traditions stem from Victorian England, it seem like churches with a British history expend the most time and energy on performing the holy carols most expertly (even when they are German songs).
Finally, I submit ... Elvis. Who has Christmas without a contribution from E?