Saturday, December 10, 2011

Occupy Christmas Music: Songs and Albums Worth Tolerating

I can't think of anything else to write about, so I'll write about this: my wife, because she loves me, bought me the She & Him Christmas album. It was the first thing I saw as I walked through the door after a three-day trip. I haven't listened to it yet, but I'm really looking forward to it. She & Him is a group made up of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward--Zooey of Elf and New Girl fame; M. Ward the accomplished alt-folk singer-songwriter and one of the Monsters of Folk. The songs they record for She & Him are reminiscent of mid-fifties pop-chanteuse music; I saw them in Chicago for free with my in-laws at the Millennium Park amphitheater and quickly gobbled up both their releases, so yeah, I was eager to hear what they did on a Christmas album.

I get bored easily with Christmas music, to be honest. So much of recorded holiday music is opportunistic and pandering. You're more likely to hear harps and violins at the Wal-Mart in December than you are to hear them in heaven, and there's a reason for that. But when I find Christmas music that's different, that someone took on for the challenge of it rather than for the quick buck it churns out, I take notice. So I thought I'd offer a list of songs and albums that I've come to rely on during the holiday season. I welcome your feedback and supplements.

These Are A Few of My Favorite Singles
  • "O Holy Night," by Tracy Chapman. A song that's far too often overblown (see this for an example) is made especially poignant and pensive by a reliable folkie.
  • "We're Following the Wrong Star," by Billy Bragg and Ben Sollee. I can never seem to get enough of Billy Bragg, and the fact that he even has a Christmas song fills me with Christmas cheer.
  • "Gabriel's Message," by Sting. Sting recorded this song for the Very Special Christmas project years ago; the version on his more recent holiday album isn't as good, but it's still good.
  • "St. Stephen's Day Murders," by Elvis Costello with the Chieftains. Leave it to Elvis to sing about murder for a holiday album.
  • "Angels We Have Heard on High," by Crystal Lewis. This contemporary Christian musician turned jazzy for her Christmas album, and this one is the best track among a number of greats. "Slow down, fellas," she jokes during the band's jam. "What's your hurry?"
  • "God's Own Son," by Nicole C. Mullen. I want to write a Christmas play just so I can choreograph this song. Funky tuba--what else needs to be said?
  • "I Saw Three Ships," by Bruce Cockburn. I've actually only ever heard this once, and I've never found it since. But it's awesome.
These Are a Few of My Favorite Albums
  • Shawn Colvin, Holiday Songs and Lullabies. I'd listen to this all year round if it didn't make me self-conscious. Best tracks are "Love Came Down at Christmas" and "Little Road to Bethlehem."
  • Jars of Clay, Christmas Songs. I like Jars a lot; we've seen them in concert several times. They interpret songs in really interesting ways. Best tracks are "Winter Skin," "Wonderful Christmastime" and "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."
  • The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Boogie Woogie Christmas. Seriously, who's cooler than Brian Setzer? Best tracks are "Blue Christmas," "Sleigh Ride," "The Nutcracker Suite" and "The Amens."
  • The Blind Boys of Alabama, Go Tell It on the Mountain. The singing group collaborates with an eclectic bunch of singers. Best tracks are "Last Month of the Year," ""Born in Bethlehem" (with Mavis Staples) and "I Pray on Christmas" (with Solomon Burke).
  • Oh Starling! Joy. This is probably hard to find, since it was produced as a fundraiser a couple of years ago for Scum of the Earth Church in Denver. But it's cool. Look for "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."
  • Bing Crosby, The Voice of Christmas. C'mon. It's Bing. "Mele Kalikimaka" is wildly entertaining, and "Adeste Fideles" is old-school brilliant.
  • The Fab Four, A Fab Four Christmas. Christmas songs arranged to sound like Beatles songs. "Away in a Manger" sounds just like "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." This will probably eventually get old, but it hasn't yet.
  • Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas. Every year for five years, Sufjan and friends put out an EP of Christmas-themed music. Then they boxed it. I lost volume 2 somewhere along the way, which is bitterly disappointing, since it includes "Once in Royal David's City." But "We're Goin' to the Country" and "Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming" are great, as is everything else.

That's what I've got. What have you got?


3 comments:

Carol B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carol B. said...

I have an mp3 of "O Holy Night" performed by a group of musicians from New Orleans on a post-Katrina episode of the short-lived TV show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It's gorgeous.

Also love Annie Lennox's Christmas CD.

David A. Zimmerman said...

I posted the wrong Nicole C. Mullen song by accident. Although "Merry Christmas Baby" is, in fact, a good song, the one I was thinking of is "God's Own Son." I've updated the post.