Notes Toward a Unified Theory of Modern Christmas Songs

As is often noted, most modern recordings of Christmas songs range from utterly bland to excruciatingly awful. There are some that sorta-kinda work, though, and a bare few that are brilliant:

In the interest of promoting, you know, music that doesn't suck, it's perhaps worth taking a look at what makes the good songs work.

The key element is really an accurate assessment of the strengths of the artist in question. For example, the Pogues crafted an enduring classic by going with what worked for them in every other song they did: drunkenness, sordid relationships, and soaring music. It's a killer combination for them, but wouldn't work for many other bands.

In a similar vein, Ray Davies of the Kinks went for social commentary:

Darlene Love, produced by Phil Spector, went for a production that probably involved kidnapping people from neighboring studios to come in and yell "Christmas" in the background:

Death Cab for Cutie, on the other hand, working from the exact same lyrics, indulged their ability to find the creepy in anything:

While the best band fronted by two guys with Williams degrees went for completely goofy:

(As an aside, this sweet and dorky video is one of the absolutely brilliant things that YouTube has brought about. There were probably people doing this sort of thing before YouTube, but it's much more accessible now, and I think the world's a better place for that.)

The key to all of these (they're all songs I really like) is that they all make use of the strengths of those bands. "Fairytale of New York" works because it's a great Pogues song, not some half-assed by-the-numbers version of a standard Christmas song. And there are plenty of other examples among the highly-rated songs on my Christmas playlist. Blink-182 did an entirely typical bratty pop-punk thing, complete with obligatory dick joke. Cracker's "Merry Christmas Emily" is a typical catchy and snide David Lowry tune. "2000 Miles" is a good Pretenders song, no matter the time of year, and so on.

(Further evidence for this can be drawn from the fact that the two highest-rated songs on my Christmas playlist-- "Fairytale of New York" and "Valley Winter Song" by Fountains of Wayne-- are arguably not really Christmas songs at all.)

A depressing number of Christmas songs by pop groups are just by-the-numbers readings of standard songs. This includes some bands who are otherwise pretty original-- the Old 97's versions of "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "I'll be Home for Christmas" are annoyingly straight. If they're going to record Christmas records, I'd like something more in the line of "Big Brown Eyes," which is a sweet song, but from kind of a skewed perspective.

The world doesn't need another straight-up version of "Home for the Holidays," or a synth organ instrumental "Jingle Bells" that sounds like it probably comes pre-programmed on a high-end Casio keyboard (I'm looking at you, Booker T and the MG's). If you're going to record a Christmas record, you should do something with it. If you can't write your own holiday song, at least do a vaguely interesting arrangement of an old song. Springsteen singing "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" will be badly overplayed this month, but at least he turns it into, you know, a Bruce Springsteen song, with a belted-out chorus and gratuitous saxophone.

This doesn't always work, mind, either because some bands are just inherently kind of bland and colorless (*cough*cough*Coldplay*cough*), or because they're just bad. In my sweep through Amazon to pick up some of the stuff recommended in the comments, I picked up some real crap that I deleted as quickly as possible, because while a noisy version of "Blue Christmas" that would have Tom Waits saying "I think that's maybe a little too discordant, do't you?" may be an authentic expression of your particular artistic muse, I just don't need to hear that more than once. And largely personality-free versions of classic songs can be perfectly pleasant-- the Old 97's tracks I mentioned are still in the playlist. They're just not great.

But along with the other stuff, I also got a few oddball Christmas songs by the Killers, that are everything you expect from that band: kind of strange, not entirely coherent, but delivered with great conviction and a little bombast. And you know, while they're not entirely successful, they're at least swinging for the metaphorical fences, and that's worth something.

As the saying goes, Christmas comes but once a year. So if you're going to record a Christmas record, go big or go home. Record something that sounds like your band, not your band trying to sound like Bing Crosby. If you can't think of a good way to do that, maybe you should just wait until next year, and hope Santa brings you some inspiration in the interim.

(Sadly, poking around a bit didn't turn up any recordings of Christmas songs by either the Afghan Whigs or the Hold Steady. Which is kind of a shame-- it'd be really interesting to know what Greg Dulli and Craig Finn think of as holiday music-- but probably for the best, as I'm a little scared of what Greg Dulli and Craig Finn might think of as holiday music...)

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The world doesn't need another straight-up version of "Home for the Holidays," or a synth organ instrumental "Jingle Bells" that sounds like it probably comes pre-programmed on a high-end Casio keyboard

Preach it, brother! If I want to listen to old-school versions of classic Christmas tunes, I might as well try to find recordings by artists who first made them popular (e.g., Gene Autry's version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", which is one of the few versions of that song I can stand), or classical style choral versions for songs that date from before the 20th century (and I know you don't like classical music). If Current Popular Band tries to do an imitation of Elvis Presley imitating Frank Sinatra imitating Perry Como imitating Bing Crosby, that's a complete waste of studio time.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 22 Dec 2010 #permalink

"Christmas in Hollis" Run D.M.C.
"Christmas Song" Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds
"Zat you Santa Claus?" Louis Armstrong

By nice_marmot (not verified) on 22 Dec 2010 #permalink

I have a growing collection of great modern Christmas tunes. Among my favorite this year are My First Earthquake's "Fa La Freezing" and Luscious Jackson's "Let It Snow". The Barenaked Ladies version of "Jingle Bells" is nothing if not uniquely BNL, and "Christmas Day in the Sun" by Hot Hot Heat is quite nice.

Perennial favorites include Harvey Danger's "Sometimes You Have to Work On Christmas", Grandaddy's "Alan Parsons In A Winter Wonderland" and Pearl Jam's "Santa God".

Tori Amos has a full album from last year of her takes on Christmas classics that are certainly her own distinct style, and there's an interesting set of tracks from Venus Hum that are also nice modern interpretations.

Sorry, but I prefer the classics:

Father Christmas by Greg Lake

If you've seen the video, it really tweaks the Christmas idea.