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The HeldenFiles Online: A not-too-brief history of columns about Christmas music

By Rich Heldenfels Published: December 20, 2013

As regular readers know, I am a fan of Christmas songs and have been writing about them in the Beacon Journal for quite a few years, most recently in conjunction with Malcolm X Abram. Malcolm and I will be doing a video chat about holiday fare for Ohio.com soon, but for now I thought I would post a few of my previous columns about holiday music, in case you're pondering the sounds of the season.

2005:

It's time for holiday songs, and with them the themes of the season.
Drunkenness. Poverty. Sex. Failed romance.
Yes, for every Silver Bells and White Christmas, there's a Christmas in Prison and Daddy's Drinking Up Our Christmas.
The Everly Brothers put their anguished harmonies to work on Christmas Eve Can Kill You "when you're trying to hitch a ride to anywhere." The Pogues' superb Fairytale of New York begins on Christmas Eve "in the drunk tank." Jim Croce's It Doesn't Have To Be That Way lamented that "the Christmas carols sound like blues" because a romance "should never have ended."
I confess to owning all those songs, and a few hundred more. I love Christmas music. But I especially love weird and sad holiday songs -- the kinds of things issued on semi-obscure singles and in collections like Blue Yule, A Lump of Coal, Bummed Out Christmas and Have a Nice Christmas: Holiday Hits of the '70s (just the place to find Wayne Newton's disco-fied Jingle Bells).
Let's face it. In about a week you're going to be ready to smash any speaker putting out yet another tinny rendition of Rudolph or Silent Night.
For many singers, even some interesting ones, the very idea of a Christmas album freezes the imagination and clogs the epiglottis, leading to yet another assemblage of predictable songs predictably done.
As an antidote, there has long been a thriving business in novelty songs and parodies, among them Martin Mull's Santafly, Stan Freberg's Green Christmas, Father Guido Sarducci's I Won't Be Twisting This Christmas and the Bob & Doug McKenzie version of The Twelve Days of Christmas. First day's gift: Beer.
That tradition continues. A recent e-mail touted a CD of holiday-themed songs about lawyers (as in Let 'Em Sue, a parody of Let It Snow.) You can find out more at www.lawtunes.com.
Some songs have leapt from iconoclasm to become radio standards at holiday time. The Waitresses' Christmas Wrapping and the Kinks' Father Christmas are both played often enough to take the novelty out of their novelty.
But there's still plenty of fun to be found in nontraditional Christmas songs, especially when you start thinking in terms of subgenres.
Like the too-much-alcohol songs. Fairytale of New York is just one example. Consider, too, Elvis Costello's St. Stephen's Day Murders, where people drink "till the beer is all spilled and the whiskey has flowed," or Commander Cody's Daddy's Drinking Up Our Christmas. The Cucumbers had the basics in Ho Ho Ho & A Bottle of Rum, and Clyde Lasley offered a thorough account of how Santa Came Home Drunk.
Then there are songs of economic misery. Root Boy Slim's Xmas at K-Mart is one great example. "I must have died and gone to heaven," Root croaks. "Cause hell is Christmas at the 7-11." Jethro Tull's A Christmas Song asks "how can you laugh when your own mother's hungry?" The Mighty Mighty Bosstones' X-Mas Time (It Sure Doesn't Feel Like It) includes among its complaints that there's "nothing you can spend." The Dance Hall Crashers have some alarming detail about how I Did It for the Toys.
You can find no-romance songs, epitomized by Prince's Another Lonely Christmas -- also notable for one of the great record labels ever, with Prince looking decidedly unlike Santa. This group also includes Alone on New Year's Eve (the Manhattans), Christmas Ain't Christmas Without the One You Love (O'Jays), and Far Away Christmas Blues (Little Esther).
On the more upbeat side, it's remarkable how some of the grimmest songs of the season can be toe-tapping. Like John Prine's Christmas in Prison, where at least "the food was real good."
Think also of Christmas songs about sex. Yes, they exist, and not just when you wonder where the mistletoe might lead. Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin' is a standard among bluesmen (and Albert King's version seems especially needy). Jimmy Butler's Trim Your Tree is indeed, as one album notes, "cheerfully salacious."
I know nothing about singer Josephine Premice except that she sang Mama, Give Me What You Gave Santa Claus -- although the song is a lot less racy than the title somewhat creepily suggests. But I have no doubt what Clarence Carter suggested in Back Door Santa.
But the eerie stuff doesn't end with original songs and lyrics. The idea of doing a Christmas song the same old way so repels some musicians that they have to bend the classics.
On Mojo Nixon's Good King Wenceslas, Mojo and band toss out the lyrics in favor of a chanted la-la-la-la-la. Guitarist Kenny Burrell retooled Little Drummer Boy in a steamy, Bolero-like way. A Four Tops version of Merry Christmas Baby -- really just singer Levi Stubbs with a big band -- finds the band throwing in a riff from Fly Me to the Moon.
And, speaking of (a possible) Christmas in prison, Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You album not only includes some legitimate Christmas classics but the gonzo likes of The Bells of St. Mary -- done by Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. But you might prefer instead to think of some holiday peace -- with the Ramones' Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight).

2006

About this time last year, I mentioned that the themes of Christmas songs included drunkenness, poverty and failed romance.
Season's greetings once more. With lots of different songs, too.
You have had weeks to wallow in musical standards. Sure, some of them are great. But you've heard them. Instead of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, wouldn't you want to try Lynn August's Christmas by the Bar-B-Que?
Sadly, too many modern singers try just to remake the traditional tunes -- or aim awkwardly for a new Christmas standard. Bette Midler's current Christmas CD includes a revamped version of From a Distance that doesn't compare with her 1990 version.
Midler's venture calls to mind the hilarious, deliberately awful Christmas Is All Around, the reworking of a 1967 Troggs tune for holiday exploitation in the movie Love Actually. You can find the full rendition on the movie's soundtrack, and it's everything the movie excerpts imply.
Songs that once seemed fresh and odd can become commonplace. The Bing Crosby/David Bowie collaboration on Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth seemed weirdly entertaining for the first 20 years or so, especially when you considered the video of those two. Now it is easily slid into holiday-song playlists.
On the other hand, the O'Jays' Christmas Ain't Christmas Without the One You Love takes on a more bittersweet air this year, given the unexpected passing of Cleveland singer Gerald Levert, son of the O'Jays' Eddie Levert. Although Lou Rawls' latest Christmas album is full of merriment (although I still prefer his '60s Christmas recordings), you can hear hints of the cancer that made the CD's release posthumous.
Holiday songs, and therefore the making of holiday CDs, can be deceptive. The songs seem easy, meant for sing-alongs; the notorious William Hung doesn't sound as bad on holiday recordings as he does with more demanding material.
But that relative ease can make for boring music. James Taylor's Deck the Halls, laid-back to fault, can put you to sleep in the first round of fa-la-la. Wynonna has a remarkable voice, but she doesn't bring anything fresh to her Christmas CD. You're better off finding her 1993 version of Jesse Winchester's Let's Make a Baby King.
At the same time, it is possible to get past the musical cliches. In 1966, James Brown transcended the much-covered Merry Christmas Baby by tying it up with a strong string section and adding a Jamesian chant-shout of "I want to bring it a little bit higher" toward the end.
This year, Twisted Sister released an interesting Twisted Christmas collection by using holiday lyrics mainly as foreground.
After an acoustic opening, Dee Snider -- echoing Tina Turner -- declares that "we never play anything nice and easy." From that point on, the sound is all Sisterly, including the perfect match of Oh Come All Ye Faithful with the music for We're Not Gonna Take It.
Still, even Twisted Sister sticks with traditional words of joy and celebration. And there is another side to Christmas music than that -- the side that makes you want to watch Bad Santa as much as A Christmas Carol.
Cleveland's Harvey Pekar got to the point in liner notes for the 2003 holiday anthology Yule Be Miserable. (Selections include two different songs titled Christmas Blues.)
"If you tend to get depressed, it gets especially bad during holidays," Pekar wrote. "You think everyone is out having a good time during the week between Christmas and New Year's, but you feel rotten as usual."
That explains why some folks need Cleveland band Genuine Son's Christmas in Heaven -- not the Charles Brown song of the same name, but a touching musical setting for the much-circulated poem I Am Spending Christmas With Jesus Christ This Year.
And if comfort is not to be had, pass the eggnog, heavy on the nog. Consider songwriter Bill Danoff, who co-authored Please, Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas with then-wife Taffy.
Also known as a founder of Starland Vocal Band and co-writer of Take Me Home Country Roads, Danoff had the idea for Please, Daddy, after a friend "said there ought to be a real Christmas song," Danoff said in an e-mail.
John Denver recorded the song, although Danoff thinks Alan Jackson's 1993 version "is the closest to what we had in mind at the time."
Indeed, Jackson does well with that song and plenty of others on his Honky Tonk Christmas album, far superior to his Let It Be Christmas in 2002.
Honky Tonk Christmas includes Merle Haggard's working-class chestnut If We Make It Through December and a melancholy Jackson composition of broken romance, Merry Christmas To Me. From the lyrics: "I opened up the present that I gave me/And realized how much it hurts to be alone."
Then there's Chris Isaak's Christmas on TV, where he watches It's a Wonderful Life while thinking of his former love celebrating with a new man.
Joni Mitchell's River has become a holiday mainstay in recent years even though it's a song drenched in pain. The lyric leads to the declaration that "I made my baby say goodbye."
For all this melancholy, though, it's possible to laugh through the misery. Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen certainly allowed for both emotions in his decade-old Merry Christmas From the Family.
The extended family, of course, with the lyric noting "Brother Ken brought his kids with him/The three from his first wife, Lynn/And the two identical twins from his second wife, Mary Nell/Of course he brought his new wife Kay."
You may find yourself singing along with the choruses, including:
Carve the turkey
Turn the ballgame on
Mix margaritas when the eggnog's gone
Send somebody to the Quickpak Store
We need some ice and an extension cord
A can of bean dip and some Diet Rites
A box of tampons, some Marlboro Lights ...
To which I can only add, Merry Christmas to your family, too
.

2007, the first collaboration with Malcolm, was a plaint about overdone songs:

Christmas music has been available on the local airwaves for more than a week now.
Need we add that we're sick of it already?

Not all of it, of course. We are definitely not mocking the baby Jesus. (Editor's note: Whew!)

When we were discussing holiday songs, good and bad, Malcolm spoke up immediately for Donny Hathaway's This Christmas and James Brown's Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.

But there are some holiday songs that are so overdone, so over-covered, so glutinous in their attempts at holiday cheer that they have the feel (and taste) of a sticky bun left on a radiator until it has melted into ick and goo.

Let us offer a few examples.

Sleigh Ride

Why It's Popular. Written by composer Leroy Anderson (with lyrics later added by Mitchell Parish), it's one of the most relentlessly cheery songs of the holiday season.

Why We Hate It. It's one of the most relentlessly cheery songs of the holiday season! Also, it has a tick-tock beat that remains in most covers of the song, and a ting-a-ling sound that recalls a cash register opening and closing with holiday purchases. (This may explain its seemingly endless plays in stores.)

Are There Bearable Versions? TLC reworked it fairly well, and there's a version by guitarist Rick Holmstrom that makes the original tune almost unrecognizable. Which is a good thing.

Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer

Why It's Popular. Elmo & Patsy's tune was a refreshing antidote to artificial holiday fun the first few times it was played.

Why We Hate It. It got a lot less interesting as the plays began to run into the billions. Kind of like a McDonald's burger.

Is There a Bearable Version? No, a thousand times, no.

Happy Xmas (War is Over)
 

Why It's Popular. It's John Lennon, for one thing, and boomers can't let him go. The antiwar sentiment fit with its original release in 1971. And, alas, it's relevant again.

Why We Hate It. Covers are one big reason. Like Hathaway's This Christmas, or the Pogues' Fairytale of New York (with its ode to the drunk tank), Happy Xmas is basically uncoverable. Yet people keep trying to do it, only to sound like wan variations on Lennon.

Also, there's the kiddie chorus.

Is There a Bearable Version? Only Lennon's, and even it has been heard too much for too long.


The Chipmunk Song.

Why It's Popular. Because people think those doggone Chipmunks are cute, especially Alvin. And the little scamp is a holiday-song tradition. (See Nuttin for Christmas.)

Why We Hate It. After you've heard it in your supermarket and retail store and office and on the radio and in TV specials and your worst holiday nightmares and the drunk tank, it starts to grate a little.

Hey, it's been around for almost 50 years. It's about as fresh as the Hula-Hoop in the back of the garage. Your grandpa's garage.

Ever bearable? Well, Justin Timberlake had some fun with it on Saturday Night Live. And didn't need a box to do it. Other than that, nope.

White Christmas

(Rich Heldenfels, clutching a Bing Crosby LP to his chest, wanted to abstain from this one. Too bad.)

Why It's Popular. It's Irving Berlin. And Bing Crosby. It has longing and nostalgia and snow.

Why We Hate It. Rich returning briefly notes that most singers don't do the first part, where we learn that the singer is in California. But it's a slowwwwwwww song. And it seems easy to sing. So everyone tries to cover it, and the covers are so reverent that they make it seem even slowwwwwwer and routine.

Are There Redemptive Versions? Yes. The Drifters. Elvis Presley (who borrowed liberally from Clyde McPhatter's lead on the Drifters' version). The Temptations. Joan Morris.

In fact, there are enough that Malcolm is rethinking whether White Christmas should be on the list at all.

We're going to the mall to clear his head and clog his ears. Can't wait for all those string arrangements.

With that 2007 column, we also invited readers to submit their faves and fouls from Christmad fare. This is the resulting column:

Not long ago, we asked you for your thoughts on Christmas songs good and
bad. (Since we're in the media, we, of course, concentrated on the bad.) You
responded in a big way.
You told us faves. You started raves. You sent CDs and Web links.
And you commented, quite thoroughly and inventively. Here's what you had to
say, with some editing and notes clarifying a few remarks. Where you provided a
name, we included it. Others wrote anonymously.
------------------

Do you know Boney James' Christmas album? Fourplay has an excellent one, too. Patti LaBelle's is also great. I play it all the time in my beauty salon.

I'm tired of the Whispers and you can just kill me to death with the Temptations. Their O Holy Night is awwwful. Everybody that thinks they can sing thinks they can do a Christmas album.


It's not the songs themselves that are bad, but certain renditions of those songs. The most notorious example I can think of is Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town as sung by artists who sing the title phrase three times after each verse, not just once as the original version calls for.

Jeffrey Jacobs, Canton


My very favorite song is the funny Blue Christmas sung like Porky Pig. I have to stop what ever I am doing and listen. You can't help but laugh! My husband likes the funny Walking in Women's Underwear. It is sung to the tune of Walking in a Winter Wonderland.
And now for the song that I HATE more than any other Christmas song: Suzy Snowflake. That song makes me cringe. I work at the huge, beautiful Brimfield Wal-Mart and they play taped Christmas music and that Suzy song is one of the ones played. YUCK!!


Here's a new one that I found very amusing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNHnyY-R4rg. [The song is We're Having Reindeer for Breakfast on Christmas by Chuck Picklesimer, and it is funny.]


We start playing Christmas music from Thanksgiving dinner throughout December. I constantly play the original soundtrack for Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas. Its gentle, soothing, simple accompaniment makes one smile all day long. Another great CD is Ray Charles' The Spirit of Christmas, especially the track of the same title.

Nearer to Christmas Day, playing classical English carols like In the Bleak Mid-Winter, The Holly and the Ivy featuring King's College Choir, Cambridge, are necessary traditions. Throw in Jingle Bell Rock and you've got a fun, thoughtful range of holiday music at the Albrights. It's piped throughout the house. Bring on the snow!
Renee Albright, Westfield Center


For me, it is not so much the songs I don't like, it is the artists. Some artists should not sing Christmas carols. On the other hand, Johnny Mathis can sing just about anything and it sounds good. My least favorite is the Drummer Boy combo sung by the two older gentlemen. It's been around for ages. It is awful, awful, awful!! [We checked with the reader and she was referring to the Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth medley by Bing Crosby and David Bowie. ''I had no idea that was David Bowie,'' she replied. ''Yikes. It still stinks.'']

My pet peeve about Christmas music on the radio is, it is all or nothing. It starts too early and then instead of filtering in a few holiday songs we are overloaded with nothing but Christmas. Then, the day after Christmas, they are all gone. Nothing. As if it never happened.
Barbara Guevin, Tallmadge


My all-time favorite has got to be the hippopotamus song [I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas by Gayla Peevey]. Any song that features a Shirley Temple-esque little girl who wants only a large smelly mammal for Christmas is the clear winner!
Alicia K. Bernhardt, Akron


The Twelve Days of Christmas has got to be one of the most irritating Christmas songs ever in my experience. Years ago when working in retail, there were two versions of this song on the tape played in the store. To this day, whenever I hear strains of this song, I cringe.


Dr. Elmo's Twisted Christmas CD features some of the worst in Christmas music, including the ''classic'' Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. The sequel song, Grandpa's Gonna Sue the Pants Off of Santa is about as bad as the title promises. Dr. Elmo's finale, Don't Make Me Play That Grandma Song Again, is a fitting conclusion.
Mark DeCapua, Copley


Topping the list would be Barbra Streisand's ''scat'' version of Jingle Bells. Close behind is Maroon 5's (or Ben Folds Five whichever) version of Silent Night. Painful to listen to. As is their version of Happy Xmas, War is Over.

On the other hand, I never get tired of hearing a good, properly crooned Christmas song by Andy Williams, Gene Autry, Jack Jones or even Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra, who sometimes tweak their songs a little but still manage to stay within the boundaries. Who could ever tire of hearing Burl Ives sing ANYTHING??

Although I'm not a big fan of holiday novelty songs, one that is growing on me that has been getting considerably more airplay within the last year or so is Dominick the Donkey (The Italian Christmas Donkey). It brings back memories of happier days when my parents were still here, especially at Christmas time.


If everybody is so sick of hearing the classic Christmas songs being replayed over and over, then doesn't that mean that there is a market for new material to be written? Why isn't anyone out there capable of filling in that niche? If John Lennon could create a new Christmas classic 36 years ago, what's stopping Ms. [Alicia] Keys from doing the same? Or whoever. (No, not Britney Spears.)

I'm actually surprised Michael Jackson never came up with one. That sort of thing, warm and fuzzy oozing of child innocence, is right up his alley. OK, that's opening up for a bad joke so I'll stop there.


The worst? Like Sleigh Ride, its obnoxious counterpart, Jingle Bells is really a more seasonal than holiday song . . . but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be included on your list of crappy Christmas tunes, especially as brayed by Barbra Streisand. When she reaches the ''jih jih jih jih jih jih jingle bells'' part, it's time to consult the Geneva Convention for a ruling.

The best songs? The effortless, timeless sway of The Christmas Waltz by Frank Sinatra, and anything by Leon Redbone.

Bumpity bump bump, boys!
Susan Korte, Canton


I love the old beautiful Christmas carols. I am a Christian and know the true meaning of Christmas. I think of older times at Rolling Acres Mall. They made Christmas special. There would be different groups in to perform, the piano at the food court, clerks dressed in holiday attire, the gift wrapping center, all the nice places to have a lunch.


Though I don't like most pop Christmas songs, there are two that have grown on me:

Christmas in Hollis by Run-DMC, from a period in time when I loved hip-hop.

Not exactly a song, but Santa Claus and His Old Lady by Cheech and Chong. Hearing Tommy Chong's stoned ''I've seen the dude!'' still makes me smile all these years later. I guess it doesn't get much airplay these days due to the over-the-top drug references, but I remember how much it meant to me in the late '70s.
Dale Gerus, Akron


First off, let me thank you for an article that had me laughing out loud! . . . One of my ''jingles that jangle'' is Silver Bells. I spent a magical Christmas in Germany with family 11 years ago but, at one Christkindl Markt, all I heard played over and over again over the speakers was Silver Bells. It totally ruined for me the effect of a traditional German Christmas.

I have four CDs of traditional German Christmas music (my ''must have'' holiday music) that remind me of and take me back to that incredible Christmas spent in Alpine Germany. Plus, I just HAVE to play my CD of A Charlie Brown Christmas each and every year. I remember the original broadcast of that on TV and it's become a Christmas tradition ever since.
Sally Burnell, Kent


I love The Christmas Song and Mel Torme. Is there a bad version of it out there? Maybe your readers will know. [They say yes. See below.]



My least favorite songs are: Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. [The Christmas Song, mentioned above]. This song drags and is boring. The other is We Wish You a Merry Christmas. This song is played to death before Thanksgiving has ended. My favorite is Tolls of the Bells (I think this is the right title). [Probably Carol of the Bells.] This song has numerous versions, by many wonderful artists. Mannheim Steamroller's version is the best. Most jazz versions of this song sound good.
Juanita Livingston


I look forward to hearing Do They Know It's Christmas by Band Aid, Where Are You Christmas by Faith Hill, O Holy Night by Michael Crawford, and Believe by Josh Groban. I never feel like the season begins until I hear these songs.

My least favorites: Santa Baby and Feliz Navidad and Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.
Dan Cox, Akron


My picks for Christmas songs I can't bear to listen to: Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. I was in high school when that came out, and the first season it was funny. Now I want to stick a screwdriver in my ear when I hear it!

Blue Christmas. I just can't listen to this one and not laugh, because I can only hear the Porky Pig-style version in my head!! Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree. I hate everything about this one, the lyrics, the melody, doesn't matter who sings it. I especially hate the Hall and Oates video!

There's another song that I don't know the name of, something about Christmas shoes, and a kid or parent dying. It's just so ''Lifetime Movie of the Week'' sickeningly sweet. [It's The Christmas Shoes by NewSong, and there was a TV movie based on it, starring Rob Lowe.]


I hope not to offend with my list of most disliked Christmas songs/acts: anything by Trans-Siberian Orchestra (so over-wrought), anything by Mannheim Steamroller (ditto), anything by Madam [Celine] Dion (ditto). CHRISTMAS SHOES!!!!!!!!!!!! Augh!

The list of those I love goes on and on: 2,000 Miles (Chrissie Hynde) and River (Joni Mitchell). The Muppets' 12 Days of Christmas, the whole Barenaked Ladies CD (some Christmas, some Hanukkah, all great) the whole Elf soundtrack, Johnny Mathis' Winter Wonderland (the kickoff song after Thanksgiving dinner), Weird Al's Night Santa Went Crazy, Bowie & Crosby Little Drummer Boy. I remember watching them sing on a special; Bing looked so sickly, but sounded wonderful.

The Bell That Couldn't Jingle. No idea who did it, on an old album, jazzy number about a bell with no ringy thing, Jack Frost freezes its tear drop and fixes it for Santa's sleigh ah, memory lane!! [There are recordings by Herb Alpert, Burt Bacharach, who co-wrote it, and others.]



Favorites: Little Saint Nick by the Beach Boys, Christmas Dream by Perry Como, Frosty the Snowman by the Ronettes, Joy to the World from the New England Christmastide CD, with 14 talented Rhode Island musicians.

Hate: Spike Jones, All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.
John Stetz, Canton


A song that makes me cringe is Silent Night by Stevie Nicks. I love Stevie, but she sounds like a sheep and I just want to start baaahing with her on this song. Also, stations could play more Trans-Siberian Orchestra. They have a lot of great Christmas music.


2009 focused on local artists.

  It's the time of year when holiday songs fill the air. And with them come local connections.

Musicians in and from the region have made Christmas recordings, some of them nationally known, others more obscure. They include the acoustic interpretations of Alabama-based After Class (including Buckeye violinist Mark Weldon); the ''romantic piano'' of Cleveland native Jim Brickman; the comedy of Lorain's Don Novello, better known as Father Guido Sarducci of Saturday Night Live; the boy-band pop of 98 Degrees (with Massillon native Jeff Timmons); swing from Lou Rawls; and rock from the Waitresses.

And that's just part of the available material. You could put together a long holiday playlist of all-local folks. What follows offers some of the names and music you might include.

Bob Hope

You may not realize it, but every time you give a listen to Silver Bells, you're paying tribute to Hope, who was born in England but grew up in Cleveland and considered it his home town. Hope introduced the Jay Livingston-Ray Evans tune in the 1951 movie The Lemon Drop Kid, and it was a staple of his holiday specials. His audio recordings of holiday songs include the odd Hopes for the Holiday, a CD with vocals by Hope and wife Dolores, released in 1994, when Hope was in his 90s.

Martin Mull

The actor, writer and artist, who grew up in North Ridgeville, entered the Christmas-song pantheon with the 1973 single Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope, backed with the exploitation-movie parody Santafly, who has ''something in his bag for you.'' The latter is especially funny, and you can hear Mull struggling to maintain his Curtis Mayfield-like falsetto in the later portions. One anthology containing both songs is Rhino's 1994 Have a Nice Christmas: Holiday Hits of the '70s, which also contains songs by Bobby Sherman, Melanie and Jim Croce.

Mr. Jingeling

The beloved holiday keeper of Santa's keys, still remembered for his connection to Halle's department store, inspired this relatively brief holiday CD. It includes his song (''Mr. Jingeling, how you tingeling . . . ''); a story of how Mr. Jingeling became keeper of the keys; a song called I Have the Key, written by Jonathan Wilhelm, the current Mr. J; and a sing-along version of the original Mr. Jingeling song, with the lyrics printed on the CD sleeve. The CD is for sale through http://www.mrjingeling.com.

Mistletoe Melodies

Cleveland-based Little Fish records issued this compilation in 2005, but it has proven durable; Genuine Son's Christmas in Heaven — a set-to-music version of the poem I'll Be Spending Christmas With Jesus Christ This Year — has apparently been getting some radio play this year. But we're even fonder of the sun-drenched California Christmas by A.D. & the M.T.s, and there is an abundance of local name-dropping in Have a Merry Cleveland Christmas by Alan Douglas. Other artists include Kelli Rae, Michael Jantz, Jose and Ernie, Cats on Holiday, Donny Goldwood, Trained Eye, Carlos Jones and Christopher. It is available throughhttp://www.littlefishrecords.com.

Mark Mothersbaugh

Joyeux Mutato is a nice, odd break from the usual holiday musical fare.

Akron native Mothersbaugh of Devo and Mutato Muzika put this collection of mostly original instrumentals together in 1999. His basic M.O. is to lay down a series of pleasant synth-based, electronic beats, grooves and melodies that sound surprisingly seasonal, augmented by the occasional snatch of familiar holiday tunes.

Unsurprisingly, it's not for everyone, but if you make it past the repetitive opening track Jingles, Jingles, Jingles, then you might enjoy the CD.

Tracks such as the hip-hop flavored Happy Woodchopper and the techno thump of Enough Xmas for All may not inspire nostalgia in Grandma after Christmas dinner, but they could get toes tapping at hipster holiday parties.

The disc is officially out of print but is available online at Amazon.com.

Ohio City Singers

The Ohio City Singers are a group of Cleveland area musicians — among them, Chris Allen, Don Dixon (who also produced), Marti Jones, Brent Kirby and Doug McKean — whose informal holiday gatherings evolved into Love and Hope: A Cleveland Christmas Celebration, a 2008 CD collection.

Boasting more than a dozen original songs, its gems include Real Good Christmas Time, Suspension of Disbelief, Egg Nog and the title tune. And it still feels as if you're around a fire, listening to friends make music.

You can order the CD, and find out about Ohio City Singers performances, at http://www.theohiocitysingers.com.
O'Jays

Released in 1991, Home for Christmas is a mellow collection that features mainstays Walter Williams Sr. and Eddie Levert, both formerly of Canton, with former member Sammy Strain. The disc is mostly smooth R&B/jazz renditions of familiar tunes, such as the opening love ballad, I Can Hardly Wait for Christmas and White Christmas.

The dated production occasionally gets in the way of the trio's strong vocals, particularly the New Jack Swing beat of Christmas Time in the City, but the group really shines on the straightforward blues take of Charles Brown's Merry Christmas Baby and the doo-wop throwback, What Are You Doing for New Years' Eve.

It's available at Amazon.com and iTunes.

Pretenders

2000 Miles, a gentle ballad from Akron native Chrissie Hynde, has become a modern holiday classic that hits radio airwaves every season. It's a short torch ballad partially inspired by Otis Redding's Thousand Miles Away and the Christmas-light-filled trees on London's Oxford Street, which Hynde could see from the window of a recording studio.

The song ends the band's platinum-selling album Learning to Crawl and has been included on several compilations over the years.


Lou Rawls

The veteran jazz-soul singer, who had a home in Green, had numerous Christmas-themed releases, including Lou Rawls Christmas, released after his death in January 2006. But the classic is his 1967 album for Capitol Records, Merry Christmas! Ho! Ho! Ho!, with splendid versions of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Little Drummer Boy, Merry Christmas Baby, Christmas Is and other tunes. If you cannot find the CD (which is out of print), there are other collections of Rawls' Christmas songs, and cuts pop up on some holiday-music anthologies.

Relient K

Let it Snow Baby . . . Let It Reindeer is a 2007 compilation from the gold-selling Christian/emo-pop band from Canton that brings together the band's Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand EP with newer recordings.

For a group that has reveled in snarky, tongue-in-cheek punky pop tunes, singer/songwriter Matt Thiessen and the band show reverence in the arrangements of several of the tunes, such as the quiet, simple Oh Holy Night and a catchy take on Sleigh Ride.

Fans looking for the band's signature punk-pop songs should be satisfied with its caffeinated arrangement of We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

Thiessen also offers up seven originals that show versatility and growth as a songwriter. There's the gentle, piano-driven I Celebrate the Day, and the love-lost lament I Hate Christmas Parties.

The band also shows its collective vocal abilities with a nice a cappella rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

If you want to keep the young folks at the Christmas party a little bit longer, this disc may help. It's available at area and online retailers.

Michael Stanley

The 2009 compilation Tis the Season: A Heartland Holiday Sampler has Cleveland rocker Stanley as executive producer and also serves as a benefit CD, with portions of the proceeds going to local charities, including Feed-a-Family, Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital and Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital.

For the 19-track collection, Stanley corrals 19 mostly local artists (including several members of his various bands), who mix seasonally themed originals with arrangements of well-worn holiday classics in a variety of styles, from smooth jazz to folk to indie rock.

Overall, it's a pleasant listen and a good soundtrack to your casual office party.

Stanley gets the ball rolling with a lightly rocking take on God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman and turns in an emotional I Can Only Imagine. Among the best cuts on the disc are folkie Alex Bevan's humorous Santa's Skinny, which sports a bouncy groove; Gary Jones' bluesy original Tis the Season; and Acoustic Americana trio Hey Mavis' lightly funky toe-tapping Santa Knows, with sultry-voiced Laurie Howard admitting that she's been naughty.

It's available at http://www.linelevelmusic.com.

University of Akron Steel Drum Band

The 2001 disc A Kiss for Christmas comes from the hardest-working collegiate steel drum band in Ohio.

The disc fulfilled the dream of one of the band's biggest fans, Stanley L. Morgan, who dreamed of hearing the Steel Drum Band (which included his grandson Ronald Martin Jr. at the time) play Christmas songs. His dream was brought to fruition through the generosity of his widow, Eloise M. Morgan.

The concept may sound a bit odd, but the disc is quite entertaining and makes perfect background music for a relaxed office Christmas party. Most of the familiar songs are arranged by students and there are some special guests, including a traditional rhythm section, to add some variety.


The band dips into smooth jazz on the less known Bring Your Torches, which features some Earl Klugh-like acoustic guitar playing from Al Krasel.

An unusual concept done well that makes for an easy listen or as a good backdrop to conversation, it's available at http://www.uasteelband.com.


Waitresses

The band, founded in Akron and Kent but later out of New York City, achieved pop-culture status with I Know What Boys Like and the theme to the TV series Square Pegs. But its most enduring song may well be 1981's Christmas Wrapping, a rhyming monologue with musical backing, about a woman expecting to spend Christmas alone, with the late, great Patty Donahue providing the vocal.

''Bah, humbug! No, that's too strong, 'cause it's my favorite holiday,'' it begins, before winding up with a repeated ''Merry Christmas! Couldn't miss this one this year!'' five minutes later. Oddball-music expert Dr. Demento has called it ''one of the very, very few cutting-edge rock songs that dares to tell a Christmas story with a happy ending.'' CDs with it include Dr. Demento: Holidays in Dementia and the bargain-priced A Rock 'n' Roll Christmas.

Neil Zaza

Northfield Center's own uberguitar shredder Zaza has made a seasonal cottage industry of his revved-up guitar-driven versions of holiday classics. His series of One Silent Night CDs are perfect for guitar geeks and folks who enjoy Tran-Siberian Orchestra's grandiose occasionally rocking arrangements. Zaza is unquestionably a facile and fluid player who can rip off a few bars of 64th notes in the middle of the melody of his orchestrated O Holy Night or turn Hark! The Herald Angels Sing into a power ballad.

But Zaza also shows a lighter bluesy touch on a refreshingly simple arrangement of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and a touch of gospel on Silent Night.
This one is for those who like their holiday music wrapped in leather pants and maybe a couple of turquoise rings.

All three discs are available at http://www.neilzaza.com, CDBABY.com and Itunes.

In 2010 we narrowed the selection to tunes from the previous decade.

Christmas Wrapping is 29 years old.

The song by Northeast Ohio's Waitresses was long considered one of the breaths of fresh air among Christmas fare. But as good as the song remains, it now seems as familiar as White Christmas.

These are the heavy-rotation times for holiday perennials. Billboard magazine's Dec. 3 list of the top Christmas songs ` based on sales and airplay ` was topped by Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas, from 1994, followed by chestnuts from Burl Ives, Brenda Lee, Bobby Helms, Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Band-Aid, Bing Crosby and Jose Feliciano. That indicates that anything with a 20- at the beginning of its release year has almost no chance of being heard.

It's not entirely true, of course. Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Taylor Swift and the Glee folks are among the more recent artists with holiday hits. But you probably still find yourself wanting a little relief from the oldest of oldies. So here's help.

Below are notable holiday CDs from 2000 to the present. Each is worth a listen and is decades fresher than what you might hear at the mall. Seek. Enjoy. On, Dasher ...

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Blind Boys of Alabama, Go Tell It on the Mountain (2003; reissued 2008). Hard-core gospel with help from celebrity friends, among them Chrissie Hynde (In the Bleak Mid-Winter), Mavis Staples, Aaron Neville and Solomon Burke. Choice cuts: I Pray on Christmas, with Burke; Last Month of the Year. You may also like: The anthology Love's Holiday: A Gospel Celebration (2007). (Rich)

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Deana Carter, Father Christmas (2001). Famous for '90s hit Did I Shave My Legs For This?, Carter showed a far different side on this spare holiday album consisting of her vocals and guitar work by her father, Fred, who had played with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Marty Robbins. Fred died in July, and this is a fine tribute. Choice cuts: A sublime Merry Christmas Darling, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. You may also like: Another family affair with a touch of melancholy, The McGarrigles Christmas Hour, rambunctious and charming work with sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle; Kate's son Rufus Wainwright, from her marriage to musician Loudon Wainwright; Kate and Loudon's daughter Martha Wainwright and more. Why melancholy? Kate passed away last January. (Rich)

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Cyrus Chestnut, A Charlie Brown Christmas (2000). Yeah, we had to find a place for the classic holiday tunes that are embedded in the hearts and minds of at least two generations of television viewers. This album was released as a tribute to Charles M. Schulz's 50 years of writing Peanuts. Led by former Wynton Marsalis pianist Chestnut, it does remain true to the blueprints of Vince Guaraldi's originals while adding some fine solos, hard bop swing and guests including Vanessa Williams, Brian McKnight, saxophonist Kenny Garrett and the Manhattan Transfer, among others. Chestnut's updated, slicker versions won't replace Guaraldi's original recordings in anyone's heart and he writes in the liner notes that it wasn't his intention to re-create. But it is an enjoyable listen and makes for good background music. Choice cuts: A laid-back Linus and Lucy, and a low-boiling and swinging O Tannenbaum, as well as the smooth original Me and Charlie Brown. Skip: The too-smooth-jazz take on Christmas Is Coming and Brian McKnight's lead vocal on The Christmas Song, as boring as just about everything else he's ever done. (Malcolm)

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Ledisi, It's Christmas (2008). A very nice blend of soul-filtered standards (Give Love on Christmas Day, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas) with several originals co-written by Ledisi herself. Choice cuts: Be There for Christmas, What a Wonderful World, the Keb Mo duet on Please Come Home for Christmas. Skip: A labored Silent Night. You may also like: Isley Brothers featuring Ronald Isley, I'll Be Home for Christmas (2007), notably the cut I'm in Love. (Rich)

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Shelby Lynne, Merry Christmas (2010). Singer/songwriter Lynne is a well-respected if underheard singer and this collection is as simple a statement as the title. Lynne applies her husky, soulful alto to primarily acoustic, country-fried, bluesy and occasionally jazzy takes on classics, including a reverent and simple Christmas Time Is Here; she also turns Christmas Time Is Coming into a back-porch rave-up. Choice cuts: The mildly depressing and bluesy Xmas, the aforementioned Christmas Time Is Coming and a soulful, gospel-flavored Silent Night. Skip: Does the world need another version of Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer? (Malcolm)

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Sarah McLachlan, Wintersong (2006). The Lilith Fest darling offers a deeply mellow way to slip into the holiday spirit. Choice cuts: Aching covers of Gordon Lightfoot's Song for a Winter's Night and Joni Mitchell's River. Skip: Happy Xmas (War Is Over). You may also like: Diana Krall ` who duets with McLachlan on Christmas Time Is Here ` has her own, torchy Christmas Songs (2005). (Rich)

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Sufjan Stevens, Songs For Christmas box set (2006). The eclectic, critically hailed indie rocker offers up a plethora of holiday favorites and originals in his unique baroque pop style. This collection gathers 42 (yeah, 42!) tracks recorded between 2001 and 2006 for holiday EPs made primarily for friends and family. Choice cuts: Fans of Stevens' often elaborately orchestrated, indulgent songs will enjoy his take on classics such as the spare, contemplative O Come O Come Emmanuel. Fine originals include the bouncy, catchy Come on! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance, the sad That Was the Worst Christmas Ever! and the just plain lovely All The King's Horns. Skip: No real clunkers, though some of the traditional tunes don't offer much new in their arrangements. But may we suggest that unless you're at a long, hip holiday party, you take these one or two EPs at a time so as not to overdose? (Malcolm)

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Sting, If On a Winter's Night ... (2009). Often somber and brooding, drawing on ancient texts and tunes, this work deliberately avoids the jolly, Sting says in the CD's notes. For him, ‘‘winter is a time of darkness and introspection.'' But the music sticks to the ribs. Choice cuts: Soul Cake (which Sting admits is more of a Halloween song), Christmas at Sea, the standard Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming. You may also like: Annie Lennox has also reached into the old canons for A Christmas Cornucopia (2010). But I prefer the timeless Chieftains, with celebrity guests, on The Bells of Dublin (1991). (Rich)

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Straight No Chaser, Christmas Cheers (2009). This is the second holiday release by the YouTube sensations (following 2008's Holiday Spirits), who will be performing Wednesday at the State Theatre in Cleveland. The a cappella group offers perfect harmonies, elaborate arrangements and a considerable sense of humor. Check the way The 12 Days of Christmas morphs into Toto's Africa. Choice cuts: The 12 Days of Christmas, Christmas Can-Can. Skip: A strained Santa Claus Is Back in Town. You may also like: Straight No Chaser, Holiday Spirits; Manhattan Transfer, An A Cappella Christmas (2006). (Rich)

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Various artists, 'Tis The Season ` A Heartland Holiday Sampler (2009). This compilation was spearheaded by executive producer Michael Stanley and features a gaggle of local artists including several past and present members of Stanley's bands. The 19 tracks are a mix of styles including smooth jazz, folk, blues and indie rock. Choice cuts: Stanley's lightly rocking God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, local folk legend Alex Bevan's funny toe-tapping Santa's Skinny, Akron's lively Americana trio Hey Mavis' almost funky Santa Knows. You may also like: Ohio City Singers, Love and Hope: A Christmas Celebration (2008), with local mainstays Chris Allen, Don Dixon (who also produced), Marti Jones, Brent Kirby and Doug McKean. (Malcolm)

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Also worth considering, depending on your taste and inclinations: Barenaked Ladies, Barenaked for the Holidays (2004), a pleasant blend of Christmas and Hanukkah fare; Bob Dylan, Christmas in the Heart (2009), raspy and raggedy and still endearing for Dylan fans (like Rich); Josh Groban, Noel (2007), especially in tandem with Andrea Bocelli, My Christmas (2009); John Legend's six-song NBC Sounds of the Season: The John Legend Collection (2006); Joan Osborne, Christmas Means Love (2007); Taylor Swift, Holiday Collection (2007, reissued 2009), clueless on Santa Baby but popped-up on Christmas Must Be Something More, and This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 1 (2008) with Jack Johnson's Someday at Christmas and more. Get ready to hum along.

And 2011 had us looking at sexy songs.


 Let it steam, let it steam, let it steam.
It's time for our annual consideration of holiday songs and this time around we're in a sexy mood.
To be sure, most holiday tunes don't go for that particular gusto. They celebrate religion, weather, shopping and family. But there are still those songs that allude not to stockings on the mantel but those held up by a garter belt, to gifts that can't be wrapped (or must be wrapped verrrrry carefully), to items that Santa picked up at Ambiance.
And it's not just us. There is, in fact, a CD collection called A Sexy Christmas (Aaron Neville, Toni Braxton and more). Mojo Nixon called his CD Horny Holidays.
In fact, there are three kinds of sexy songs at Christmas. One is the song that isn't sexy to anyone but you, because you heard it at a crucial moment in your romantic life. The second is the song that, you'll excuse the expression, can swing both ways, depending on the arrangement or the artist; Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, say, or I'll Be Home for Christmas can be full of romantic longing or a different kind of longing entirely.
Then there's the dirt. The nothing-left-to-the-imagination song. Merry Christmas, baby, you sure did treat me nice. I want to trim your tree. Baby, it's cold outside (and hot in here, of course).
But don't just believe us. Try out the following songs, or check out the brief selections in our online video. Build yourself a playlist. (We've just listed the tunes alphabetically by artist.) See what you end up unwrapping.



Charles Brown, Merry Christmas, Baby. Much covered, this is the original version of the smooth, jazzy standard from 1956, which is also about the afterglow of hot romance. Brown is indeed "all lit up like a Christmas tree" — because baby has really, truly treated him nice. (Rich)
Jimmy Butler, Trim Your Tree. When it comes to Christmas songs and sex, the favorite metaphors seem to involve either chimneys or trees. Butler rocks hard on the latter, with double and single entendres flying. (Rich)
Clarence Carter, Back Door Santa. Known for funky and risque tunes, including Slip Away and Strokin', the Southern soul man succinctly lays down his holiday season M.O. over a pulsing funk groove, "They call me back door Santa, I make my runs about the break of day, I make all the lil' girls happy, while the boys are out to play." (Malcolm)
Ray Charles/Betty Carter, Baby, It's Cold Outside. A writer recently suggested that this song involves "an older guy trying to get a girl drunk so she'll stay the night" and that it "might even be condoning criminal behavior." But when done well, it's much more about a seduction, and few can be more seductive than the amorous Charles here. He even has a hint of a chuckle, as if the conversation is all in fun, with the promise of deeper fun later. (Rich)
Isaac Hayes, The Mistletoe and Me. Hayes' many incarnations — hit songwriter, Shaft maestro, South Park voice — include years as a Love God, crooning covers meant for candlelight, the feelings made more intense by his deep-voiced monologues. The Mistletoe and Me is more than a little clunky lyrically, at least in the early going, but the mood is undeniable. (Rich)
Isley Brothers featuring Ronald Isley, I'm in Love. A creamy ballad that leaves no doubt about where love will lead. (Rich)
Albert King, Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'. There's also a notable version by Mack Rice, but guitarist King's version is more intensely sexual and direct. It's not just that Santa wants some lovin'. He wants it now. (Rich)
Diana Krall, I'll Be Home for Christmas. There are vocalists — Julie London also comes to mind — who don't seem to be doing anything blatant to woo you, but something in their singing says come hither. Krall often falls in that category, and perhaps no more so than on her Christmas Songs CD, which features a sprawling, ready-for-action Krall on the cover. I could have picked anything from the CD, but went with this pop chestnut because there have been so many bland versions over the years — and Krall is not bland. (Rich)
Julia Lee and Her Boyfriends, Christmas Spirits. Sure, it's lyrically anachronistic ("ain't no matter how you try, life's no good without a man, when he vows he loves you dearly, you know he's lying but it's grand") but the K.C. blueswoman's world-weary delivery and the moaning trombone solo should touch anyone who's ever had a longing to get next to another warm body around the holidays. (Malcolm)
Lonely Island, (Bleep) in a Box. The ridiculous lyrics and cheesy R&B-light groove of this YouTube hit are more likely to inspire laughs than romantic or lustful feelings. But the attention to detail by Saturday Night Live/Lonely Island member Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake as they affectionately parody the look, sound and feel of '90s one-and-a-half hit wonders such as Color Me Badd is funny and darn catchy, too. (Malcolm)
Amos Milburn, Let's Make Christmas Merry, Baby. Another bluesman using Christmas metaphors to croon sweet nothings and relay his ability to rock your world, holiday style. (Malcolm)
O'Jays, I'm What You Want This Christmas. Canton's own O'Jays insist that "we all gotta get some," they have "the gift that keeps on giving," you "don't need no batteries" and "it's unbreakable." All with raspy, intense vocals and harmony. Uh-huh. (Rich)
Elvis Presley, Santa Claus Is Back in Town. A young Elvis and his band cuttin' loose on a slow-burning blues song. The backup singers are a bit stiff, but Elvis' rough delivery gives the song a nice smutty edge. (Malcolm)
Sarah Taylor/Bill Mumy, I've Got Some Presents for Santa. Mumy, Lost in Space's Will Robinson — who co-wrote the novelty tune Fish Heads — teams up with a smoky, purring lounge chanteuse who makes no bones about what she's going to do to and with Santa when he shimmies down her chimney. (Malcolm)
Rufus Thomas, I'll Be Your Santa, Baby. Thomas showed us the funky chicken and how to walk the dog, and this tune has a sweaty dance groove that makes you believe the singer's promise of a Christmas you'll remember and that "when the new year rolls around, you'll still be asking for more." (Rich)
Usher, Coming for X-Mas? Usher was still in his teens when this song came out in 1995, but the feelings are purely adult. Even the part about hiding the phone bill hints not at a misbehaving adolescent but someone who is stepping out. Besides, Usher, like Ronald Isley (above), could sing the periodic table and have you thinking about something entirely different. (Rich)
   

And, in 2012, bummer songs:


  Christmas songs are playing. So sad.
For every merry chime, there's someone making you cry.
What, you're saying that depression is not a traditional part of Christmas? That albums like Bummed-Out Christmas, A Lump of Coal and Yule Be Miserable are just novelties? Really
They're singing "Deck the Halls," but it's not like Christmas at all.
I'll have a blue Christmas without you.
I'm watching Christmas on TV, wishing you were here with me.
Oh, what a Christmas to have the blues.
Through the years we all will be together - if the fates allow. Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow.
To be sure, just talking about Christmas songs depresses some people; in a recent chat about holiday music, several University of Akron freshmen said they were bummed by the seemingly nonstop bell-busting playing of songs going back to before Thanksgiving.
The songs collectively form a something-for-everyone genre: tunes that are variously happy, reverent, optimistic - and sexual (as we noted in our 2011 holiday roundup), angry, political and yes, sad. In fact, a cursory search online will find plenty of lists of depressing Christmas songs; the Los Angeles Times, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Nerve website and Buzzfeed are some of the places to have offered suggestions. Despair is somehow made worse by setting it at Christmas time. See: Joni Mitchell's River, the Everly Brothers' Christmas Eve Can Kill You and many, many more.
And the sorrow begins with the holiday standard, White Christmas.
Tell people that it's a sad song, and they may look puzzled, caught up as they are by glistening treetops and sleigh bells in the snow. Part of the problem is that many versions omit songwriter Irving Berlin's original introductory passage, making clear that the singer is in Los Angeles but "longing to be up north," that a white Christmas is not going to happen.
In the 2002 book White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, author Jody Rosen says that it "is not an ode to joy, or snowmen or Santa. It is a downer, a lament for lost happiness - in spirit, if not in form, a blues."
Even as the song talks about days being bright, the musical phrasing around it is dark and gloomy, says Rosen (although some versions, such as the Drifters' - which Elvis Presley borrowed for his rendition - are much more upbeat). For the dreamer singing the song, holiday wonder "is conspicuously and hopelessly out of reach."
And indeed it was for many of its earliest listeners, the soldiers at various battlegrounds and bases during World War II, as well as their families back home. The war was a melancholy backdrop for several classic Christmas songs, such as I'll Be Home for Christmas, another account of dislocation, where the singer may get home "only in my dreams." Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas sounds anything but merry musically; its first draft warned that this Christmas "may be your last" before it was changed at the insistence of the director and stars of Meet Me in St. Louis, where the song premiered. It is most famously associated with Judy Garland's singing of it there, in a scene full of despair.
The urge to add bummer songs to holiday collections is almost irresistible. The new holiday set by Lady Antebellum includes Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), another lament buried under uptempo music; Blue Christmas, I'll Be Home for Christmas and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - fully one-third of its 12 cuts. And it would have been even better served by a more specific lament, say, "I'm a little drunk and I need Yule now."
Tracey Thorn's new Tinsel and Lights embraces Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Joni Mitchell's River (not released as a Christmas song but, because it mentions the holiday, added to the canon) and Dolly Parton's ode to gettin' by, Hard Candy Christmas. Pitchfork reviewer Marc Hogan said of Thorn, "The moments of goodness and light here bump up against plenty of songs that are depressing or otherwise unseasonal-feeling."
But the fact is, bummer songs do reflect a Christmas feeling, whether it's from the absence of loved ones, a lack of money or a sense of loss around this time. So here's a seasonal sampler in all its sadness.
The Everly Brothers, Christmas Eve Can Kill You (1972)
Well, the title certainly suggests that this song will not be a perky ode to tinsel, passing out presents and being snuggled in the warm comforting bosom of one's family. No, Don and Phil Everly apply their pristine brotherly harmonies to a lament of a lonely hitchhiker trying to get a ride on Christmas Eve over sad acoustic guitar chords and funereal organ. Extra points for the Everlys for making two-part vocal harmony sound so alone when singing lines such as "A car goes runnin' by, the man don't even turn his head, guess he's busy bein' Santa Claus tonight. The saddest part of all is knowin' if I switched with him, I'd leave him stumbling ragged by the road, I'd ride that highway to arms of my sweet family, and forget about the stranger in the cold." Someone give them a ride and a bear hug, please. (Malcolm)
Prince, Another Lonely Christmas (1984)
Originally a B side to I Would Die 4 U, this lost-love song blends the eroticism typical of '80s Prince ("Remember the time we swam naked in your father's pool?") with inescapable gloom. While many Christmas songs look ahead to the holiday, this tune is about the aftermath. "Last night, I spent another lonely Christmas," it begins; this holiday was already a bad one, and not the first. And, "every Christmas night for seven years now, I drink banana daiquiris 'til I'm blind" - oh, the misery! (Rich)
Over The Rhine, All I Ever Get for Christmas Is Blue (2007)
The venerable Cincinnati husband/wife duo of pianist/guitarist/bassist Linford Detweiler and vocalist/guitarist/pianist Karin Bergquist already make music that leans toward quiet introspection, and this song finds the protagonist working through her holiday blues despite having her loved one with her, over a jazzy bed of piano chords, upright bass, moaning backing vocals and Bergquist's bluesy melody. "Weatherman says it's miserable, but the snow is so beautiful. All I ever get for Christmas is blue. It would take a miracle to get me out to a shopping mall, all I really want for Christmas is you." (Malcolm)
Taylor Swift, Last Christmas (2007).
Swift covered the much-redone Wham! tune five years ago, but it fits tonally with all that has made her the young empress of pop. The song starts with the lament that "Last Christmas I gave you my heart. The very next day you gave it away." But listen closely to the way Swift bites into the lyric. The girl is pissed. (Rich)
Sufjan Stevens, Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!) (2006)
Stevens is the undisputed king of indie rock Christmas songs, having released 10 holiday EPs that became 2006's 46-song box set Songs For Christmas - and who just released another box set called Silver & Gold that features 58 more holiday favorites and originals. This song finds the protagonist chronicling the dissolution of a relationship with the pressure of the season highlighting the couple's discord. "I stay awake at night, after we have a fight, I'm writing poems about you, and they aren't very nice." The chorus sums up the untenable relationship, "Did I make you cry on Christmas Day? Did I make you cry, like every other day?" (Malcolm)
Dwight Yoakam, Santa Can't Stay (1997).
Broken relationships are a holiday staple. (See also Chris Isaak's Christmas on TV.) This hard-charging Yoakam composition is especially raw; a dad shows up at his estranged wife's home dressed as Santa and drunk (see the next selection for more in that vein). His departure has his children wondering "why Momma said Santa can't stay." And "She told him that twice yesterday." The kids may be home, but so is the mom's new boyfriend. And, as the dad leaves, "cold tears fall from his eyes." Yow. (Rich)
Alan Jackson, Please Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas (1993)
The song was originally recorded by John Denver in 1973 (although Bill Danoff, who co-wrote the song, prefers Jackson's take). And it's all in the title. A young boy who is "almost 8 as you can see," begs his old man to leave the bottle alone this Christmas for the sake of his mamma. "Please Daddy, don't get drunk this Christmas, I don't want to see my mamma cry. Mamma smiled and looked outside the window. She told me, 'Son, you better get upstairs.' Then you laughed and hollered 'Merry Christmas.' I turned around and saw my mamma's tears." (Malcolm)
NewSong, The Christmas Shoes (2000).
Possibly the most polarizing - and effective - of all holiday songs is this piece using illness, death and family loss to reveal the true meaning of Christmas. It's about a little boy asking a man to help him buy shoes - ones for his mother because "she's been sick for quite awhile" and the boy wants "her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight." It was so successful that it inspired a TV movie of the same name. Critics find it manipulative and maudlin, and it is. But it is also a gut punch, so openly emotional that, well, I was just listening to it again and tearing up. (Rich)
Merle Haggard, If We Make It Through December (1973)
One of Hag's signature tunes that became a number one country hit and Top 30 pop hit. Despite being nearly 40 years old, the song about a depressed blue-collar dad holding out hope that things will get better next year is certainly appropriate during these rough economic times. "I got laid off down at the factory, and their timing's not the greatest in the world. Heaven knows I been workin' hard, I wanted Christmas to be right for Daddy's girl," Despite not being able to help his little girl understand "why Daddy can't afford no Christmas here," Haggard's protagonist still holds dreams (delusions?) of "bein' in a warmer town come summertime." It's a classic country lament by a classic country songwriter. (Malcolm)
Pretenders, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1987).
Besides the Meet Me in St. Louis rewrite, the song was changed again for Frank Sinatra, who disliked the line about muddling through; it became "hang a shining star upon the highest bough." That's the lyric Akron's own Chrissie Hynde sang for this track on the first A Very Special Christmas compilation. Still, she told Entertainment Weekly in 2007, "I was in a particularly melancholy mood, so I don't think ours is a cheerful version. Singing it upset me; I was on the verge of tears. I was thinking about relationships, and how things had changed, and the people that I couldn't see and couldn't be with. But maybe that [sadness] is what most people feel at Christmas, and maybe that's why people relate to it.''
And to so many other things. (Rich)
Christmas songs are playing. So sad.
For every merry chime, there's someone making you cry.
What, you're saying that depression is not a traditional part of Christmas? That albums like Bummed-Out Christmas, A Lump of Coal and Yule Be Miserable are just novelties? Really
They're singing "Deck the Halls," but it's not like Christmas at all.
I'll have a blue Christmas without you.
I'm watching Christmas on TV, wishing you were here with me.
Oh, what a Christmas to have the blues.
Through the years we all will be together - if the fates allow. Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow.
To be sure, just talking about Christmas songs depresses some people; in a recent chat about holiday music, several University of Akron freshmen said they were bummed by the seemingly nonstop bell-busting playing of songs going back to before Thanksgiving.
The songs collectively form a something-for-everyone genre: tunes that are variously happy, reverent, optimistic - and sexual (as we noted in our 2011 holiday roundup), angry, political and yes, sad. In fact, a cursory search online will find plenty of lists of depressing Christmas songs; the Los Angeles Times, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Nerve website and Buzzfeed are some of the places to have offered suggestions. Despair is somehow made worse by setting it at Christmas time. See: Joni Mitchell's River, the Everly Brothers' Christmas Eve Can Kill You and many, many more.
And the sorrow begins with the holiday standard, White Christmas.
Tell people that it's a sad song, and they may look puzzled, caught up as they are by glistening treetops and sleigh bells in the snow. Part of the problem is that many versions omit songwriter Irving Berlin's original introductory passage, making clear that the singer is in Los Angeles but "longing to be up north," that a white Christmas is not going to happen.
In the 2002 book White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, author Jody Rosen says that it "is not an ode to joy, or snowmen or Santa. It is a downer, a lament for lost happiness - in spirit, if not in form, a blues."
Even as the song talks about days being bright, the musical phrasing around it is dark and gloomy, says Rosen (although some versions, such as the Drifters' - which Elvis Presley borrowed for his rendition - are much more upbeat). For the dreamer singing the song, holiday wonder "is conspicuously and hopelessly out of reach."
And indeed it was for many of its earliest listeners, the soldiers at various battlegrounds and bases during World War II, as well as their families back home. The war was a melancholy backdrop for several classic Christmas songs, such as I'll Be Home for Christmas, another account of dislocation, where the singer may get home "only in my dreams." Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas sounds anything but merry musically; its first draft warned that this Christmas "may be your last" before it was changed at the insistence of the director and stars of Meet Me in St. Louis, where the song premiered. It is most famously associated with Judy Garland's singing of it there, in a scene full of despair.
The urge to add bummer songs to holiday collections is almost irresistible. The new holiday set by Lady Antebellum includes Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), another lament buried under uptempo music; Blue Christmas, I'll Be Home for Christmas and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - fully one-third of its 12 cuts. And it would have been even better served by a more specific lament, say, "I'm a little drunk and I need Yule now."
Tracey Thorn's new Tinsel and Lights embraces Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Joni Mitchell's River (not released as a Christmas song but, because it mentions the holiday, added to the canon) and Dolly Parton's ode to gettin' by, Hard Candy Christmas. Pitchfork reviewer Marc Hogan said of Thorn, "The moments of goodness and light here bump up against plenty of songs that are depressing or otherwise unseasonal-feeling."
But the fact is, bummer songs do reflect a Christmas feeling, whether it's from the absence of loved ones, a lack of money or a sense of loss around this time. So here's a seasonal sampler in all its sadness.
The Everly Brothers, Christmas Eve Can Kill You (1972)
Well, the title certainly suggests that this song will not be a perky ode to tinsel, passing out presents and being snuggled in the warm comforting bosom of one's family. No, Don and Phil Everly apply their pristine brotherly harmonies to a lament of a lonely hitchhiker trying to get a ride on Christmas Eve over sad acoustic guitar chords and funereal organ. Extra points for the Everlys for making two-part vocal harmony sound so alone when singing lines such as "A car goes runnin' by, the man don't even turn his head, guess he's busy bein' Santa Claus tonight. The saddest part of all is knowin' if I switched with him, I'd leave him stumbling ragged by the road, I'd ride that highway to arms of my sweet family, and forget about the stranger in the cold." Someone give them a ride and a bear hug, please. (Malcolm)
Prince, Another Lonely Christmas (1984)
Originally a B side to I Would Die 4 U, this lost-love song blends the eroticism typical of '80s Prince ("Remember the time we swam naked in your father's pool?") with inescapable gloom. While many Christmas songs look ahead to the holiday, this tune is about the aftermath. "Last night, I spent another lonely Christmas," it begins; this holiday was already a bad one, and not the first. And, "every Christmas night for seven years now, I drink banana daiquiris 'til I'm blind" - oh, the misery! (Rich)
Over The Rhine, All I Ever Get for Christmas Is Blue (2007)
The venerable Cincinnati husband/wife duo of pianist/guitarist/bassist Linford Detweiler and vocalist/guitarist/pianist Karin Bergquist already make music that leans toward quiet introspection, and this song finds the protagonist working through her holiday blues despite having her loved one with her, over a jazzy bed of piano chords, upright bass, moaning backing vocals and Bergquist's bluesy melody. "Weatherman says it's miserable, but the snow is so beautiful. All I ever get for Christmas is blue. It would take a miracle to get me out to a shopping mall, all I really want for Christmas is you." (Malcolm)
Taylor Swift, Last Christmas (2007).
Swift covered the much-redone Wham! tune five years ago, but it fits tonally with all that has made her the young empress of pop. The song starts with the lament that "Last Christmas I gave you my heart. The very next day you gave it away." But listen closely to the way Swift bites into the lyric. The girl is pissed. (Rich)
Sufjan Stevens, Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!) (2006)
Stevens is the undisputed king of indie rock Christmas songs, having released 10 holiday EPs that became 2006's 46-song box set Songs For Christmas - and who just released another box set called Silver & Gold that features 58 more holiday favorites and originals. This song finds the protagonist chronicling the dissolution of a relationship with the pressure of the season highlighting the couple's discord. "I stay awake at night, after we have a fight, I'm writing poems about you, and they aren't very nice." The chorus sums up the untenable relationship, "Did I make you cry on Christmas Day? Did I make you cry, like every other day?" (Malcolm)
Dwight Yoakam, Santa Can't Stay (1997).
Broken relationships are a holiday staple. (See also Chris Isaak's Christmas on TV.) This hard-charging Yoakam composition is especially raw; a dad shows up at his estranged wife's home dressed as Santa and drunk (see the next selection for more in that vein). His departure has his children wondering "why Momma said Santa can't stay." And "She told him that twice yesterday." The kids may be home, but so is the mom's new boyfriend. And, as the dad leaves, "cold tears fall from his eyes." Yow. (Rich)
Alan Jackson, Please Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas (1993)
The song was originally recorded by John Denver in 1973 (although Bill Danoff, who co-wrote the song, prefers Jackson's take). And it's all in the title. A young boy who is "almost 8 as you can see," begs his old man to leave the bottle alone this Christmas for the sake of his mamma. "Please Daddy, don't get drunk this Christmas, I don't want to see my mamma cry. Mamma smiled and looked outside the window. She told me, 'Son, you better get upstairs.' Then you laughed and hollered 'Merry Christmas.' I turned around and saw my mamma's tears." (Malcolm)
NewSong, The Christmas Shoes (2000).
Possibly the most polarizing - and effective - of all holiday songs is this piece using illness, death and family loss to reveal the true meaning of Christmas. It's about a little boy asking a man to help him buy shoes - ones for his mother because "she's been sick for quite awhile" and the boy wants "her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight." It was so successful that it inspired a TV movie of the same name. Critics find it manipulative and maudlin, and it is. But it is also a gut punch, so openly emotional that, well, I was just listening to it again and tearing up. (Rich)
Merle Haggard, If We Make It Through December (1973)
One of Hag's signature tunes that became a number one country hit and Top 30 pop hit. Despite being nearly 40 years old, the song about a depressed blue-collar dad holding out hope that things will get better next year is certainly appropriate during these rough economic times. "I got laid off down at the factory, and their timing's not the greatest in the world. Heaven knows I been workin' hard, I wanted Christmas to be right for Daddy's girl," Despite not being able to help his little girl understand "why Daddy can't afford no Christmas here," Haggard's protagonist still holds dreams (delusions?) of "bein' in a warmer town come summertime." It's a classic country lament by a classic country songwriter. (Malcolm)
Pretenders, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1987).
Besides the Meet Me in St. Louis rewrite, the song was changed again for Frank Sinatra, who disliked the line about muddling through; it became "hang a shining star upon the highest bough." That's the lyric Akron's own Chrissie Hynde sang for this track on the first A Very Special Christmas compilation. Still, she told Entertainment Weekly in 2007, "I was in a particularly melancholy mood, so I don't think ours is a cheerful version. Singing it upset me; I was on the verge of tears. I was thinking about relationships, and how things had changed, and the people that I couldn't see and couldn't be with. But maybe that [sadness] is what most people feel at Christmas, and maybe that's why people relate to it.''
And to so many other things. (Rich)I

I will post our 2013 video when it is available.


 


 

 




 

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