Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Great WTF? Moments in Christmas Music
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Frosty the Snowman
Fiona Apple

There are a few great indie rock Christmas compilations (Yuletunes, Maybe this Christmas), and there are an awful lot of tired, pathetic indie rock Christmas compilations (too numerous to name, but certainly including "Maybe this Christmas Tree"). Sony's 2003 "Christmas Calling" easily falls into the latter category, because it has only two redeeming qualities -- Tenacious D's "Sh*t I Want" and Fiona Apple's "Frosty the Snowman." Yet even then, the latter is only "redeeming" because it is one of the great "What the F---?" moments in recent Christmas music.

Fiona Apple, as you will recall, was one of the reigning queens of teen angst. She wrote her 1995 debut album Tidal when she was sixteen, and her subject matter was primarily her violent rape, her parents' divorce, and the fact that guys are jerks. Incongruously, for a teenaged girl who appeared to weigh about 70 pounds, she had a smoky lounge-singer voice and a slow swing style that made the whole thing sound more mature than it really was. She then followed up with her 1999 album, which was equally overserious, but which carried the exasperating title When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and if You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and if You Fall It Won't Matter, 'Cuz You'll Know That You're Right. Her style had changed to match producer Jon Brion's quirky and twee preferences -- lots of carillon for instance -- and she started indulging that strange tremor in her voice that blows past "vibrato" on its way to a "warble."

She then went silent for several years, and given her strange predilictions, fans could only fear the worst. The flames were fanned in 2003 as rumors spread that the reason for the delay was that Sony hated hated hated her new album. How dare they! They just hate Fiona because she's so honest and she dares to use carillons and 38/7 time signatures! Then a new Fiona Apple track was released on Sony's Christmas Calling -- four years after her last album -- and it was the absolute least Fiona Apple-like song you could imagine. She had recorded "Frosty the Snowman."

First of all, she sang "Frosty the Snowman," which is positively ludicrous for an artist more well-known for penning bitter songs to her rapist. Joni Mitchell's "River," maybe. But "Frosty the Snowman?!?" Surely the Sony Borg had brainwashed her, or were punishing her.

And then her interpretation of the song was not to "interpret" it at all -- she just stands there and happily belts out "Frosty the Snowman" like she was at a campfire sing-along. No tone of resentment at being "made" to sing such a ludicrous song.

The effect is disconcerting, to say the least. It's unreservedly cheery music from someone never known to be cheerful. It's perfectly well-done, so it seems churlish to criticize it. Yet, because there is no flourish, no soul, nothing but good cheer, you come away with the impression that any member of any medium-sized church choir in America could probably have sung it just as well -- albeit with less of that weird vibrato, and less of that lingering aftertaste of the bizarre.

Is it fair to criticize the performance because it is so unexpected from that artist? Is it fair to criticize a Christmas song because it offers nothing but the generous happiness that is supposed to be the "Christmas spirit"? Is there something wrong with me that I am shocked by the absence of irony? The core question is this: What is Christmas music?

 7:08 AM

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Best Christmas Song of All Time
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Fairytale of New York
The Pogues with Kirsty McColl

In the UK, it's a big deal what song is #1 on Christmas Day -- the BBC plays it up as a sort of contest each year, and it's often a way of measuring what the favorite Christmas music of any given year might be. Becaue the Christmas sales reflect the particularly quirky buying patterns of the holidays, the Christmas #1 allows novelty records and outsiders a once-a-year shot at fame. You may recall that this was one of the plot points of the film Love Actually -- Bill Nighy's desperate attempt to make a comeback via a turgid Christmas song, which led to an ironic bid by the "fake" song for the real BBC #1 that year. In recent years, however, non-Christmas songs have won out (such as the cover of "Mad World" used in the film Donnie Darko), which surely is some sort of reflection of the modern British character.

There's a song perfectly poised to take advantage of the new irreligiosity of Christmas, and don't think that the labels don't know it.

This year, Warner is re-releasing "Fairytale of New York" in a naked (and publicized) bid for the #1 title. On its release in 1987, the song hit #2, but no higher. It then settled into a relatively well-known position in England, as drunken Brits belted it out at office Christmas parties across the Isles. Recent polls there have even ranked it as "The #1 Christmas Song Of All Time." Surely, then, Warner's sees a good shot at easy money on back catalog property. Once again, Kirsty McColl won't be around to enjoy her success -- she died in an accident in 2000, just as her song "In These Shoes?" was enjoying stateside popularity.

The song is relatively unknown in America -- which is ironic, given that the song is set in New York City. That obscurity is changing, though. The song has been steadily gaining in popularity in recent years, for a number of reasons. It's a great song, with a catchy beat. It's fun to sing along to. And it is emphatically un-Christian, which is a big selling point in the modern world. And it is un-Christian to a degree that was previously unknown. "The Christmas Song" or "White Christmas" or any of those other sentimental favorites aren't religious, but "Fairytale of New York" knocks over the town creche while on a drunken bender.

It's a duet sung between Shane McGowan of the Pogues and Irish thunderball Kirsty McCall -- and though there have been a couple of abysmal covers in recent years, it will always be a duet between Shane McGowan and Kirsty McCall, so perfectly do they inhabit their roles. "Roles" is the right word. They're Irish lovers/spouses in the New York slums of the 1930s or 40s, who fight, who insult each other, who despair that the good times will ever come back. (Some think the song is set in the 1800s, like the Irish immigrant movie Far and Away, but there's a reference to "Sinatra.")

It starts off with McGowan slowly singing "It was Christmas Eve in the drunk tank..." in the manner of one who still hasn't slept it off, and it's all downhill from there. He tells her that he dreamed of her while in the jailhouse, and now he has gambling winnings they can use to celebrate Christmas. But she'll have none of his sweet talk -- he promised her that New York was a wonderland. They had good times, he reminds her. The good times are over, she says. He's a bum, she's a junkie. They have nothing. "Happy Christmas your arse," she says, "I pray God it's our last."

"I could have been someone," he protests.

"But so could anyone," she blasts back. "You took my dreams away when you first met me." And this line is so bracing that you can't help but wonder what he's going to say. What can anyone say to that?

Well, of course this no-good man, says just the right thing. No-good men like him know what to say to stay in the good graces of women. Her dreams aren't gone, he says:

I kept them with me babe

I put them with my own

Can't make it all alone

I've built my dreams around you

And that's it. That's the song. He tears his heart out of his chest and gives it to her, and that's the end of the song. Once more through the chorus, "And the boys of the NYPD choir were singing 'Galway Bay,' and the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day," and you're on to the next tune, which suddenly sounds lifeless and dull compared to all this raw emotion.

In short, it's a drunken fight between down-and-outers, who are disgusted with each other and the sentiment of the holiday. Maybe that is why "Fairytale of New York" more accurately conveys sentiment than most other Christmas music. Maybe there's no better way to show the strength of something than to try to kill it and fail.

The polls are right -- even though it is the least religious and least sentimental song in all of Christmas music, it's the best Christmas song of all time. It's worth writing about in November so that you will have all of December to listen to it. Go buy it now. It's on the good Christmas compilation "The Edge of Christmas" (which now costs only $4) along with the Pogues album "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" (where it was first released), the Pogues' various best-of compilations, and Kirsty McColl's own best-of album.

 2:51 PM

Monday, November 21, 2005

Great Christmas Music #5
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Long Way Around The Sea

I have come to realize that most people have never heard of some of the Christmas songs I would put in my Top 10. A case in point is "Long Way Around The Sea," by the band Low. I cherish this song like some fans cherish their favorite team's pennant season.

Low is one of the foremost "slowcore" bands -- "slowcore" being the musical genre that proclaims that "slow is the new fast" and "quiet is the new loud," and that rebelliously aims to evoke a meditative state rather than an agitated one. (After all, there's only so much hell-raising you can do by getting faster and louder; by the time you've heard G.G. Allin and the Murder Junkies destroy the human condition with two verses and a bridge, you realize there's not much more you can do with the "punk" sound. So how do you rebel? You do a judo throw on the whole concept. You defy the audience's expectations by being slow, man, slower than slow. You want to dance? That's so over. Of course, there will inevitably be a backlash against this someday, as people get fed up with posers who try to impress people with their ability to withstand seven straight hours of depressed guys noodling around with a bass guitar and a cymbal.)

Slowcore usually sounds like lukewarm Radiohead.

Anyway, Low consists of three Mormons from Utah, which is damned uncommon in the indie music world and in the music world in general. They aren't "Mormon musicians" in the sense that they proselytize through their music;* they're just Mormons who like to rock... really slowly.

* The parallel, of course, is the difference between "Christian music" and music played by Christians. The former is a ministry, the latter is a profession, and the former always becomes the latter. Case in point: Michael W. Smith, a "Christian musician" before he became a Christian musician. Amy Grant -- "Christian musician" to Christian musician to Target spokeswoman. Jessica Simpson -- "Christian musician" to Christian musician to self-parody. Seldom does it go in reverse. Bob Dylan went Christian, then he went secular again, and was last seen in a Victoria's Secret commercial looking like Vincent Price.

Low's 1999 album "Christmas" is fantastic if you're ready for slow, intense emotion during the Christmas season. Though the album is highly regarded by the few that have ever written about it, the album actually seems to put some people off -- some because of its slow speed, but others because the Christmas theme is treated reverently. Believing that Christmas has meaning brings a band dangerously close to being a "Christian band" rather than just a Christian band, and members of Low take the Christmas story seriously. They sing about the meaning of Christmas earnestly, and as a result the music is suffused with genuine spirituality. That's a real rarity -- there are a lot of god-awful Christmas albums produced by "Christian musicians." Mostly because there are a lot of "Christian musicians" who are strong on the "Christian" and weak on the "musician," if you know what I mean and I think you do. Low manages to break out of that ghetto and make some amazing music.

It starts off with an upbeat song called "Just Like Christmas," which sounds like a bunch of depressed Mormons doing their best to try to do a "happy" Christmas record, which it pretty much is. Strangely, it works -- the tension makes the song much more interesting than if anyone else had tried it. Another high point is "If You Were Born Today," which frankly advises Christ that he would be dead by age eight in the modern world. Again, when they do it, it works. Their version of "The Little Drummer Boy" is bizarre and wonderful, and raised more than a few eyebrows when it was featured in a Gap ad in 2000. It takes you a very long time to realize that the song is indeed "The Little Drummer Boy" and not something else entirely.

But the shining star of the album is "Long Way Around The Sea," a somber and sparse retelling of the Wise Men story in Matthew 2. Most of the song is nothing more than "Take the long way around the sea," sung over and over again in a slow incantation. It powerfully evokes the journey to Bethlehem and their arduous return by a different road to avoid Herod. And given Mormon theology regarding Lehi's travel across the seas to the New World, and Christ's subsequent visit there, I suspect that the imagery takes on a more distinctly Mormon bent than any other Christmas song I have heard.

At any rate, it's an incredibly moving song, and I halfway pray that it remains relatively undiscovered. I have only heard one "cover" of it, and that was on one of Pedro the Lion's Christmas 45s. (He's another Christian artist who isn't a "Christian musician," and he trends toward emo and slowcore of his own, so it's a good fit. It just isn't as well-done.)

Few Christmas albums succeed when the artist tries to slow down the music and get "serious." When one takes away the fast rhythm, usually all that is left is the blazing ego of the performer or the poor songwriting that infects most Christmas music. It gives Christmas a bad reputation for mawkish, false emotion, which in turn conveys the idea that Christmas is a childish holiday.

But when Low peels away the fast rhythm and the peppy lyrics, you see them more clearly, and it's worth seeing. All that remains are three musicians earnestly presenting songs about faith. It's "childishness," yes, but of the sort that confounds the wise.

 6:00 PM

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Sort of Christmas Music That Invites Debate
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto
James Brown

People of good will (and good taste) cannot disagree that James Brown's 1968 album A Soulful Christmas is one of the best Christmas albums of all time. Nor can they disagree that "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto" is a great Christmas song.

Not to be dogmatic or anything. It's just a fact. And if you don't think it's a great Christmas song, I will fight you. That's no lie. [/gratuitous Anchorman reference]

To be sure, it's one of the best "socially conscious" Christmas songs, the top of a short list that probably includes John & Yoko's "Happy Christmas" and not much else worth mentioning. And for a "socially conscious" song, it's not even controversial (like "Happy Christmas" is); James Brown simply begs Santa Claus not to forget the kids in the ghetto, because he remembers being a kid and wondering if Santa Claus would come. No one disputes that poverty is a bad thing. That's not the "debate" that I was referring to in the title.

No -- here's the problem. Even though it is a great Christmas song, it is not a great James Brown song, and that uncovers one of the fundamental problems of Christmas music.

At his best -- especially in this era -- James Brown could rock so hard that paper ignited, women spontaneously combusted and the only hope of stopping the inferno was the three or four quarts of sweat pouring off his body. He never rocked a Christmas song that hard. But when James Brown's a little "off," he's still a damn sight better than some other pros ever get. "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" is a good example. Despite being released and re-released as a single, it was never a "hit" -- the only James Brown Christmas song to break the Top 40 was "Santa Claus Is Here To Stay," which is slow, forgettable and common, a big lump of oatmeal in the form of a song. (Even so, it is better than the oatmeal made by most other artists, which proves the point again.) "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" definitely isn't in the top fifty best James Brown songs, not in my opinion or anyone else's.

But by Christmas music standards, it's fantastic.

So what do we make of that? Do we lower our standards for Christmastime? And is it proper to alter those standards based on the artist? Is it fair to criticize James Brown because his voluminous Christmas output was not among his best work (yet not among his worst)?

All I know is this: when I hear "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto," I want to punch Mannheim Steamroller in the face. And that can't be all bad.

 9:50 AM

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Best Christmas Music
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
Darlene Love

The year was 1963, and girl-group Svengali Phil Spector was recording a Christmas album to be modestly called A Christmas Gift To You From Phil Spector. They had one "new" song to record, which Phil had written in conjunction with his crack songwriting team of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry (of "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Be My Baby" fame). The song was meant for the Ronettes, and specifically for Spector's girlfriend Ronnie, but she just couldn't sell the song. Spector got fed up and asked Darlene Love (a Spector stalwart who had recorded individually and with several Spector groups) to sing it. So she stepped up to the mic--right then, right there, in front of everyone--and belted out what may very well be the best single Christmas recording of all time.

And she sells it, like few others have sold a Christmas song. As you can hear -- the track is posted here -- the vocals are powerful enough to cut through Spector's trademark "Wall of Sound" and blow out your speakers. I think what helps the song work is that it's a love song more than a Christmas song; Christmas is just the occasion for her lover's return. And this girl is lonely. Santa had better watch out or he's going to get ambushed.

The only problem with this track, so far as I can tell, is that it is too classic. It's a staple of "oldies" radio, and Muzak, and commercials, and so on, and it's easy to get sick of the song because you've heard it so many times before (even if you weren't actively thinking about the tune). And it's amazing how "Good-Time Oldies" radio can take music that was considered transgressive in its time and reduce it to easy-listening pabulum.

But I still think this song has vitality. If you're not sold yet--if you still think that the song has been drained of any strength by the twin vampires of Christmas and Oldies stations--I urge you to recalibrate your ears through this experiment:

1. Listen to as much of this version of the song as you can stand. It's the same song, competently performed by the band "Hanson" (and it is "competent" -- give the devils their due), and competently engineered and produced. I could have posted a dozen other versions of the song that are equally peppy, unremarkable and bland. In short, it's a festive Christmas turd in your egg nog, just the sort of thing that your lowered expectations will accept during the holidays.

2. Now. Listen to Darlene again.

3. Put your socks back on.

For a generation who writes off "oldies" as elevator music (well, actually, for a generation that doesn't remember a time when they played music in elevators), and who only remembers Darlene Love (if at all) as Danny Glover's wife "Trish" in the Lethal Weapon movies, it's a great reminder that some of the music of "The 50s" (actual era 1957-1963) kicked ass. Even some of the Christmas music of "the 50s" kicked ass. If you still disagree, then you can go sit in the corner and play with matches, or torture animals, whatever it is you people do. You'll probably like the New Bomb Turks' version.

It's interesting to note that almost none of the subsequent covers have tried to record it without the Phil Spector trademark "Wall of Sound." People, people... Spector wrote it, but that doesn't mean you have to perform it the same way each time. That may be easier said than done, come to think of it. People keep aiming for the Darlene Love version, and they keep falling short. She owns the song (or pwns it, in modern lingo). Maybe you should try something a little more your speed.

So rest in peace, Darlene Love.*

* Darlene Love is alive and well and singing her ass off in the Broadway cast of Hairspray.

 1:23 PM

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Worst Christmas Music
(click here for the introduction)

Jingle All The Way
Crash Test Dummies

In 1993, they had a hit single, "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm," which really only caught your attention because of the bizarre bassoprofundo voice of lead singer Brad Roberts.

And that was about it, really. Tick, tick, tick... fifteen minutes came and went.

The band faded, broke up in 1999, and then re-formed in 2000 to record some songs that the lead singer wrote with some lobster fishermen he met while recuperating from nearly losing his arm. (No, that's not Spinal Tap, that's the real story). The band members started releasing solo albums, and perennial backup vocalist Ellen Reid tried to revive her singing career after years of being overshadowed by Roberts' freakshow baritone. But like all soloists that realize that there's comfort in the old band name--there's Spinal Tap again--they decided to gather under the "Crash Test Dummies" name and release a Christmas album in 2002.

Of course! A Christmas album, nine years after your one hit! Just the way to jump-start the band after you've already broken up!

This sort of ridiculous thinking will be a recurring theme in the next month and a half.

As you can expect from an album released by a "band" that is nothing more than an umbrella for solo projects, it is completely schizophrenic. Half the songs are pretty (but forgettable), sung competently by Ellen Reid. She provides the only standout track on the disc, the rarely-recorded* "Huron Carol." If that were the whole album, it wouldn't even be worth comment.

* "Rarely-recorded" means that there are only a dozen versions on iTunes, including Bruce Cockburn's version in the Huron language. A dozen counts as "rare" in Christmas circles.

But there's more. The other half of the album is--let's be frank--a deeply disturbing assault on the Christmas psyche. Brad Roberts' voice is creepy (there's just no other way to describe it), which sort of works in the indie-rock context, but definitely does not mean that he should sing these Christmas chestnuts as though he were a Dean Martin-style crooner. Doesn't he know he sounds so odd? Does he have no friends willing to speak up? The effect isn't Christmas, it's Frankenstein -- "Unh. UNNNNHHHHH. Why people no like me? I sing for you! Chestnuts Roasting By Open... ARGH! FIRE! FIRE!"

Don't believe me? I've posted "White Christmas" so you can get a sense of how weird this album is. It could be the theme song to some movie about a Christmas stalker. And if "Silent Night, Deadly Night" was your cup of tea, then by all means buy the song on iTunes. Otherwise, save yourself the grief.

The lingering question is why anyone released his half of the album. Monumental indifference? Or a coal-black soul?

I'll let you be the judge.

 9:29 AM

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A brief note on copyright

There's a word for posting a nice, clean MP3 of a song on the Internet for anyone to download: "Theft." But at the same time, the Constitution recognizes citizens' right to violate that copyright through "fair use" of that property. I want to provide samples of this music for the purpose of informed comment, and so that people can decide to reward the artist by buying the album. Even where I have posted a track for the less-generous purposes of satire, I genuinely hope that someone, somewhere will really dig the music and buy it legally. The goal is to spur sales, not to encourage freeloading.

So here's the balance I struck: I will post crappy-quality MP3s (always ripped from albums that I personally own, not stolen), and I will keep them posted for only a limited time. You get the chance to sample the music, but I'm sure you wouldn't bother to keep it at that low bitrate. So if you want the song for real, you'll have to head somewhere like iTunes or Amazon to buy it. If you're an artist (or, more likely, an artist's lawyer) and you want the track removed, I'll be glad to pull it down.

Be a mensch. Buy some Christmas music.

 11:30 PM
The Best Christmas Music
(see this entry for the introduction)

Oy! To The World
The Klezmonauts

There are a lot of "stunt" Christmas albums out there: one-note-jokes involving run-of-the-mill Christmas music being played in an uncommon style, such as an "all-reggae" Christmas, or (less seriously) on a kazoo, or on wood shop tools. I’m all in favor of artists doing something different—please, God, do something different—but seldom are these “stunt” albums worthwhile.

You think “stunt album” when you hear about "Oy! To The World," an album of Christmas classics done by a Klezmer band called the Klezmonauts. The idea of the traditional Jewish musical form (wiki) being wedded to Christmas tunes sounds like a quick joke that can't be sustained for more than a couple of minutes, but it works. The first few songs tease and tickle the familiar tunes with the high-tempo and minor-key trills of Klezmer music, and the effect is to simultaneously distance you and draw you in. Is that really "Joy to the World?" Why does this sound more "joyous" than the "straight" versions I've heard?

The band then (apparently) realizes that even a well-done Klezmer album can only go on for about three songs, so they start to seamlessly incorporate all sorts of other musical references. "The Little Drummer Boy" brings in the pounding drumbeat of Dick Dale surf music, while "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" slides into an Ennio Morricone spaghetti-western so gently that you are never quite sure where the changeover began. Quotes abound -- you find yourself saying things like, "Hey, was that 'Inna-Gadda-Da-Vita?'"* -- but they never overwhelm the music.

It's an incredible cure for cookie-cutter Christmas music.

Check out samples on the artists' website (including a complete download of "Oy! To the World"), and order a copy for yourself. Buy from the artist or eBay -- don't bother with the idiot on Amazon selling a copy for $60.

* No, it's actually "Sunshine of Your Love"

 1:15 PM

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Best and Worst of Christmas Music
(a Christmas countdown of songs that inspire, or that make the baby Jesus cry)

It's finally Christmas time, my favorite time of the year.

"Surely not yet," you say, as you gasp, or gnash your teeth, or softly weep.

I have some sympathy for that position.

I tend to jump the gun a little bit. Traditionally, the start of Christmas is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, where the Advent is kicked off by a violent orgy of elbows and groin-kicks by consumer-worshipers intent on getting the while-supplies-last $49 DVD players at Wal-Mart. Yet the Retail Borg has tried to push the date even earlier. Much, much earlier. (Mid-October, people? Christmas decorations in mid-October?!? That is insane. Can't you all just focus on whoring out Halloween and save the Christmas pimping until November?)

No, I take a higher ground. I define the beginning of the Christmas season as the day when I start planning how to wire up a nest of garish lights on my house, just as Charles Dickens did.*

* Not actually true. Dickens didn't know from Christmas lights, much less spastic wads of electric lights that my wife said "look[ed] like a Muppet sneezed all over the house." But there's a lot Dickens didn't know. For instance, he thought that Christmas was the first of twelve days of warm and gentle celebration. We now know that the twelve days after Christmas are properly devoted to a vague sense of unease and remorse now that the party's over and the credit card bills are coming due. It's the Christmas Hang-Over, often alleviated with a real hangover on New Year's Eve. Given Dickens' inability to capture the modern Christmas spirit, it's a wonder that A Christmas Carol is still considered relevant.

With the beginning of the "Christmas Season" come the first thoughts of Christmas music. Christmas music is a passion of mine (as my friends have come to suspect from my frenzied mix discs), which is why at this time every year I start to wonder -- really wonder -- whether I am a blithering idiot.

Because Christmas music sucks.

No, I shouldn't say that. Some Christmas music doesn't "suck" -- some of it is much worse than "suck." Some Christmas music is a crapulent river of filth, flowing through the air and polluting it with the stench of a bus station men's room. Metaphorically speaking.

With very few exceptions, Christmas music is mawkish, diabetes-inducing, sugar-frosted processed cheese, intended to:
(i) capitalize on the peak of a minor star's fleeting celebrity (e.g. "Hung for the Holidays"),
(ii) cash in on the fact that some people will buy anything put out by people who have a certain fame or notoriety (e.g. "Re-Joyce," the Jessica Simpson album), or
(iii) revive a faded star's career/milk the fan base one last time (e.g. the devastating opening scene of Love Actually).

It's almost universally true. Beyond that, you can only try to distinguish why this particular Christmas album is so unredeemably awful. Often, the artists are already talentless (see supra) -- and no amount of Christmas cheer can help you ignore the music, much less the dulcet tones of TV's John Davidson warbling "Santa Claus is Coming To Town." Just to give a "for instance."

Other times, the artist is minimally competent but the album is a misfire. Sometimes it's because the artist just can't engage his or her full talents, and sometimes it's because the record producers put too few resources into these forgettable albums, and sometimes its because the music is already too familiar. In all those cases, though, the underlying reason behind all these problems is one thing, always one thing, never not this one thing: people that don't give a sh*t about Christmas deciding that they want to whore themselves and the holiday for money.

Which is why I say that the music industry hates the baby Jesus.

These bastards are not just negligent, well-intentioned idiots. They are callous and contemputuous idiots who take advantage of people's benign feelings about the holiday to convert The Birth of the Baby Jesus into Cash Money. At no other time of the year is contempt for the public so nakedly exposed and so universally forgiven. If a father gave his child a steaming turd that he scooped straight out of the toilet bowl, he would be arrested and brought up on charges. And if he charged his child $16.95 for that turd, he would be knifed in prison. But Hanson released their album "Snowed In" and they're still walking the street. That's the problem. Oh, sure, there's some delicious satisfaction in knowing that a few years later you can pick up a used copy of "Snowed In" for 47 cents (plus shipping), but it's too little, too late.

So I want you to know that I am not some sort of freak who thinks that the stuff you hear at the mall and on the radio stations is good. No. No, no, no, no.

But the near-universal prevalence of awful Christmas music is why I cherish those morsels of good music that make their way into the Christmas canon. I hear them, and they lift my spirits and deliver real art, and I wonder, "How the hell did that happen?"

It takes a lot to come up with good Christmas music when all around you is filth and exploitation and low expectations. You're in a studio in June or July, singing songs that have been done to death (or that are new songs that would never have seen the light of day except that they are about Christmas), and you're working on something that most reviewers will ignore on principle, because they all know that Christmas albums are seen as the last refuge of scoundrels and idiots. It's a miracle that anyone can come up with anything interesting. Even if it's just one song that song stands out from the crowd and truly celebrates the spirit of the season, that's an amazing accomplishment. Often that song languishes in obscurity, or is overused and overpromoted until it sounds like nails on a chalkboard. Either way, the upside isn't all that far "up."

So the Christmas music fan has to sift through a shambling heap of indifferent crap by has-beens and never-weres, all in the hope of finding that one song in the brief window before it vanishes into the out-of-print pile or becomes hateful through overexposure. And it is only one song at a time -- a whole album worth listening to comes along about once every five years.

Why do it?

Well, love of the holiday, of course. But it's more than that. I think that Christmas music is the ultimate challenge for any performer. It imposes a huge "degree of difficulty" that only the best and brightest can overcome.

Take, for instance, the problem of music selection. New Christmas songs are seldom any good -- usually they only get recorded because (1) the artist just can't stomach an entire album of standards, or (2) the vain hope of creating a new "classic." Neither is a good reason, so the artist is usually left with a deeply flawed (but deeply earnest) song to perform. And the classics are completely familiar to the audience. Unlike any other type of music in the modern American canon, people already know the lyrics and are familiar with at least half a dozen performances of those songs. Performers have to bring something new and fresh to the songs that are most familiar to the average American -- the "cover songs" from Hell.

It reminds me of an interesting passage I read in an article about the show "Deadwood" by Alessandra Stanley in the NYT:

Westerns are a little like men's wear or a sonnet: there is freedom in constraint, and some limits can be liberating. In the essay "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner," Robert Warshow described the western as "an art form for connoisseurs, where the spectator derives his pleasure from the appreciation of minor variations within the working out of a pre-established order."

Christmas music is the same way. Singing "Jingle Bells" in an interesting way is as hard as writing a haiku. I'll demonstrate:

During "Jingle Bells"
I sing "Batman smells" -- for that
is more interesting

Total failure. The equivalent of the new Peter Cetera Christmas disc. You get the idea.

So for the rest of the days until Christmas, I intend to praise good Christmas music and blast the terrible stuff, one a day. Learn from my efforts. Avoid my mistakes. Seek out my triumphs. Tell your friends, check back daily, add to your collection. Demand more from the hardened criminals who release this stuff.

But if you own this album, don't bother. You're too far gone already.

 8:30 PM

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