Hark! Songs for Christmas

Miss Penn’s TV wishlist and the recent slew of Christmas-themed episodes (especially the Parks and Recreation one) have convinced me to embrace the holiday spirit.

Even if I can’t be bothered to think about gifts yet, and am still piqued by the absurd lack of snow, I can catch the cheer through over-exposure to Christmas music. The good kind.

Here are ten of my favourites, rather than the even hundred I could easily run up to!

The Band – ‘Christmas Must Be Tonight’

This song basically sounds like a nativity play set to music by (mostly) Canadian cowboys. It’s sweet without being schmaltzy, and like many of their songs somehow sounds so warmly authentic that it’s hard to believe it’s not a traditional tune they’ve simply rearranged.

Robbie Robertson apparently wrote it after the birth of his son, which I can well believe as it’s essentially a story about being amazed by the appearance of a baby. He’d obviously never been traumatised by digitising old midwifery magazines with far too many images. Suffice to say I no longer think of birth as a miracle, it simply seems icky.

Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters – ‘Mele Kalikimaka’

This Hawaiian-themed Christmas song is joyous and cheery, and not quite as cheesy as Bing Crosby’s other Christmas offerings- making it easier to cling onto the last shreds of your self-respect while singing along to it. (Although if you’re a Bowie fan then maybe you’d prefer ‘Peace on Earth’/’Little Drummer Boy‘.)

There are tons of versions of ‘Mele Kalikimaka’, but one of my other favourites is definitely The Puppini Sisters’ one, and it seems especially fitting given that they apparently picked their name as a tribute to The Andrews Sisters. Miss Penn and I got to see Stephanie O’Brien (one of the Puppini “sisters”) last year and she was fab! Go see ’em in 2012 if you can.

The Kinks – ‘Father Christmas’

I’m very partial to The Kinks (and not just cos they’re North Londoners). I really enjoy the incongruity of happy tunes with dark subject matter. ‘Art Lover’ is probably my favourite of their songs (it’s so deliciously messed up!) but I also appreciate songs like ‘Dead End Street’ and ‘Father Christmas’, which are cheery little tunes about destitution. Good times!

I also think there’s a lot of hilarity to be mined from Santa being beaten up or abused. Skip to almost the end [the 3:50 mark] of Incubus’ ‘You Will Be a Hot Dancer’ to hear him getting called a “fatass” too.

Tom Waits – ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’

This is maudlin and pretty and a story entirely told in letters (which I love, Lady Susan is one of my favourite Austen novels) and realistic in pointing out that it being a celebratory time of year doesn’t necessarily make a difference for anyone. Also! The Tom Waits library has the lyrics along with Very Important Notes at the bottom. The fact that the first one is a transcription from the Tom Waits Yahoo Group discussionlist makes me hardcore love the internet. Publicising and popularising random stories about teenage pimps in chinchilla coats is what insta-communication is for.

I have to say though, I don’t think that site makes the most of the web’s hypertextual potential, so here’s a link to Little Anthony and the Imperials’ ‘Goin’ Out of My Head’ which is so pretty, and sort-of referenced within the song. (Further implied by Waits commonly performing the two songs as a medley in the ’70s. Yeah, I read the shit out of those notes.) And here’s the Neko Case cover of  ‘Christmas Card’, which makes a nice counterpoint as you get to hear this song, that’s told from a female point of view, sung by a woman.

Run DMC – ‘Christmas in Hollis’

This song is batshit insane hilarity anyway (“I’m chilling and cooling just like a snowman”… SERIOUSLY?!) but then you add the video and it becomes this little slice of ridiculously over the top holiday perfection. The elf with the appalling ears who apparently can’t say anything except “naughty” and “nice” is THE BEST THING EVER!

I am almost jealous of people who remember the 1980s properly, it looks like it must have been the most entertaining decade of all time. (And it actually produced a whole lot of fun music.)

The Blind Boys of Alabama – ‘The Last Month of the Year’

This is simply a wicked bluesy gospel-y song about Jesus’ birth by the guys whose version of ‘Way Down in the Hole’ was used as the theme tune for the first season of The Wire. It’s a traditional song (also known as What Month Was Jesus Born In), so there’s about a billion versions out there. There’s Jeff Buckley, The Kingston Trio, Chris Isaak and many more…

So even if astronomers think that Christmas ought to be celebrated in June instead the festivities are unlikely to be moved. I mean, do you want to live in a world where this song doesn’t make sense?

The Pogues – ‘Fairytale of New York’

This Pogues/Kirsty MacColl song is pretty much everyone’s favourite Christmas song (and always going around winning such thematic polls). And that’s with good reason aplenty, but that does mean that it’s one of the most overplayed at this time of year.

So I suggest you check out Christy Moore’s rambling cover version from his 1994 ‘Live at the Point’ album. He’s basically singing a duet by himself. And there’s a fairy ring in the intro, just in case you needed more convincing.

Joni Mitchell – River

I’ve had a very hard time taking this song entirely seriously since Robert Downey Jr.’s horrifically tacky cover version in Ally McBeal. Watching it when it aired was a bit like being beaten over the head with a sled, while someone simultaneously tried to stuff turkey down your throat and strangle you with some especially shimmery strands of tinsel.

But I can’t really deal with anything standing in the way of me listening to Joni (and especially Blue, which is both one of my favourite albums and the one that ‘River’ comes from), so I got over it. This song is beau-ti-ful, it manages to sample ‘Jingle Bells’ without being in your face with its Christmas-ness, and it’s capable of making me want to go ice skating. I hate ice skating. That’s how good it is.

Sufjan Stevens – ‘Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance’

If you’re hungry for Christmas tunes, Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas might be a good place to start. It consists of five EPs of festive ditties, several of which are original compositions. I really like this one, it’s just so fun and sweet, even if I’m confused by his inability to spell ‘boogie’.

If you’re in a grumpier mood however, maybe ‘Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)‘ would be more your speed. There’s poems written in it, and they’re not very nice. Ha!

Louis Armstrong – ”Zat You, Santa Claus?’

This tends to put a smile on my face, cos it’s Louis Armstrong, and cos it’s got some of that childlike sweetness and wonder that Christmas is supposed to be all about. The same thing that makes ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ cute is at play here, the fact that you can warp kids’ minds with your stories.

However, if you’re in a sadistic frame of mind it’s definitely possible to read the song (with the mention of goblins and a whole lot of shaking going on) as a child’s legitimate fear over home invaders. And if you saw the Supernatural season three Christmas episode you’d understand why this is the time of year you ought to be particularly worried about that kind of thing.

Merry festive season y’all, and try not to get eaten by Christmas monsters!

One thought on “Hark! Songs for Christmas

  1. Pingback: Pretty Good Year « Pop Culture Playpen

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