Worse Than A Fruitcake

There's almost no gray area when it comes to Christmas music. You either love it and feel it's charming, or it's a holiday plague that you endure, cringing instinctively every time a bell jingles and someone wants a "figgy" pudding.

I readily admit I love the damned stuff, though I've recently reduced the size of my collection from seven boxes to a mere three. I got to the point this past summer where I had to admit that no one really needs six versions of Chuck Berry’s "Run, Run, Rudolph."

Most Christmas records are compilations where perhaps a track or two are listenable. Of course that's also the theory propelling downloaders these days but that's another story. Of the compilations, one I go back to religiously is Rhino's Best of Cool Yule which has what is garage rock's greatest contribution to Xmas music: The Sonics, ahem, let me rephrase, Tacoma's immortal white boy spawns of Satan (a good thing), in their delightfully sloppy and menacing 1965 version of "Santa Claus." Booze, which may or may not have played a role here, has often been an essential aid when it comes to the experience of listening and playing Christmas music.

One of the most fascinating things about Xmas music, after the fact that a Xmas hit can do real business, is that oftentimes great artists, Sinatra is the perfect example, whiff when it comes to Christmas music. His attempts at CM are, much as we may love Frank, boring. He fell into the most common trap of CM: do everything as a ballad. Merle Haggard made the same mistake with the same results.

A lingering question about CM is whether this thriving (yet for some toxic) subgenre has ever spawned a coherent, listenable album that's actually a work of umm, art (albeit with a small "a")? When it comes to creating and being genuinely imaginative in Christmas music albums, the category suddenly slims down to a single competitor.

One of the chief wonders of Christmas music is Phil Spector's still unbelievable 1963 effort, A Christmas Gift For You. Spector's upbeat, energetic adaptation of his trademark, lush/busy wall of sound production style to goofy secular Christmas pop numbers like "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" (yes, Bruce did it betta), the best sung by Darlene Love and Ronnie Bennett (Spector) and her unmistakable, lip-curling, throat–twisting New York accent ("Frooaaawwwsssty the Snowman…"), is still astonishing after 23 years. The opening number "White Christmas," (by Love) is as good in its way as Bing's undying 1942 rendering. Overall, this is probably the only Christmas record that people who hate them can actually listen to.

Not surprisingly considering the overall firepower of the talent involved, much of the greatest Christmas music has come from 60's soul performers. Anything James Brown recorded is worth a listen. Despite the fact that it was a hit years ago for the great Charles Brown, "Merry Christmas Baby" is also powerful in the hands of the great Otis Redding. All of the handful of Xmas tunes cut by Big O are sublime. The best soul Xmas collections are the same basic pile of tunes, recorded by Atlantic Records in the Sixties, which have been cut and pasted into a number of reissues over the years. The best is still 1991's Soul Christmas on Atlantic. Part of that collection can be found on 1994's The Original Soul Christmas. The greatest track on both of the above albums, which is also THE single greatest Christmas music cut, Donny Hathaway’s "This Christmas" can this year be found on The Best of Ultimate Soul Christmas. Hathaway's hit may be the one Christmas song that truly transcends the genre, being a great pop tune no matter what the subject. His tragic death here in New York in 1979—in theory he jumped from a 15th floor room of the Essex House, but questions remain—snuffed out one of the geniuses of popular music. The man truly had an immense amount of juice.

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Donald N.'s picture

I was shocked that you love Christmas music - cancel my subscription to this blog! Just joshin - keep up the great work!

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