Now, that's not to say there isn't good Christmas music. However, Christmas concertos, carols and, of course, Handel's most famous oratorio Messiah are all serious music and therefore beyond the bounds of this discussion. When I speak of Christmas music, I mean "pop," in the sweetest sense of the word. The kind of stuff that makes the holiday genre so nauseating and, at the same time, so fascinating. Crooners were born to sing the stuff. For schmaltz addicts--those with a craving for Sinatra, Bennett or Der Bingle--Christmas is like . . . well, Christmas. Crosby's "White Christmas," still the biggest selling single of all time, is on umpteen Christmas compilations.
After the crooners, though, Christmas music becomes something of a mystery. Why do musicians who show little or no detectable psychosis the rest of the year get charged up about doing "Frosty the Snowman" as a ballad, or spend endless hours fine-tuning their speed-metal versions of "The Little Drummer Boy"? There's the spirit of the season, the nogs and grogs, the fa-la-la-la-la and all that rot--bah, humbug!--but there's more to it than that. For one thing, Christmas music sells. So much so, in fact, that from 1963 to 1974, Billboard instituted a separate Christmas singles chart. Revived in 1983, the Christmas chart was again abandoned in 1985, but its existence at all shows just what a force Christmas music has become. For a surprising number of musicians and singers, a Christmas tune provided the only hit of a career. Eartha Kitt will always be remembered for "Santa Baby." Until you mention "Jingle Bell Rock," no one remembers Bobby Helms. In the final analysis, Christmas music is the only novelty-song genre to earn a modicum of respect.
It's just a hunch, but I'd say that another reason musicians of every stripe get involved in Christmas music is that it allows normally serious acts to get silly, and nasty acts to get tender. Who would ever guess that ex-Black Flag audience-baiter and all-around angry youth Henry Rollins could turn in a fairly stunning reading of "A Visit From St. Nick ('Twas the Night Before Christmas)"?
One downside to Christmas music, though, is that it commonly comes with no liner notes or session credits. In the case of crooner tunes, which have been packaged and repackaged over the years, the only name to appear with the song is the singer's. No matter how many fiddles are sawing away in the background, "White Christmas" is credited solely to Bing Crosby. The rest of the musicians have been lost to time and record labels that didn't care.
Because tunes like "White Christmas" have become landmarks of American popular culture, a lot of Christmas music exists in a time warp. Neither old nor young, Christmas music rarely gets dated. Yet every year, new voices are added to the din.
A word about buying Christmas music. Because it never dies or even gets old, most Christmas music should come cheap. The only exceptions are some classical discs--boxed sets of Handel's Messiah hold their value year-round--and brand-new efforts like this year's The Bells of Dublin by the Chieftains. Other than that, most Christmas music falls into the discount or midline price ranges. If you want a Mannheim Steamroller CD but it's a painful $16.99, wait a week. The closer to Christmas, the bigger the discount. The real trick to surviving Christmas music is the ability to seek out the unlikely, unwise and unexpected. Just in time for the holidays, we offer this guide to the best (or at least the most offbeat) in holiday music.
VARIOUS ARTISTS Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits--
Here's where to start. Considering the skill the folks at this company display the rest of the year with reissues and theme-oriented compilations, it's no big surprise that Rhino Records is the champ at assembling Christmas albums. Although all its holiday records have their merits--the jazz collection Hipsters Holiday, the country twanger anthology Hillbilly Holiday and the bluesy Blue Yule are the best--these two have all the mainstream hits. Everything from Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and Nat "King" Cole's "The Christmas Song," to the Chipmunks and the Harry Simeone Chorale's obnoxious and overplayed version of "The Little Drummer Boy." The best part here, though, is that you also get tasty nuggets like Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby." And what Christmas collection would be complete without Elmo 'n Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"?