Really, really bad holiday songs

(updated slightly on 12/24/10)

I’ve been exposed to almost nonstop holiday music for the last few weeks, and although I realize that you probably tuned into this blog for political commentary (such as it is), I’m doing music criticism today (such as it is).

Just some observations:

Holiday (i.e. Christmas) music is the only music that is universally hated by everyone listening within a half hour of beginning to listen to it.  Yes some of it is due to religious objections, but the fact is that Christmas is not actually a religious holiday.   Never was.  Some Christian sects don’t even observe it, and with good reason: the historical Jesus likely was not born in December.  The holiday Christmas was merely invented to replace the Pagan celebration of Yule, which was either a celebration of the rebirth of a dead god or of the sun, or both.  Any yammering to the contrary from anyone — pro- or anti-Christmas — serves no purpose.

Back to the subject, I think the better reason for most people can’t stand holiday music is that a lot of holiday music is just phemonenally bad.

I’m not going to bother to come up with a list of 12 worst, as so many bloggers have done.  In fact, a lot of those bloggers have erred in that they have attributed the fault not to the song, but to the singer.  While hearing the screechy Celine Dion assault “O Holy Night” leaves one wishing for the sound of fingernails scratching on blackboards, the fault is just as often with the song itself.  In a word, too many of these songs suck.  And if a song sucks, then even Jose Carreras can’t resurrect it.

Examples of songs that suck?  Too bad I don’t know a lot of the names, but the ones that I do know are plastic gems like Santa Baby (actually written in 1953), All I Want for Christmas is You, Wonderful Christmas Time (which is not only among the lamest Paul McCartney songs ever recorded, but even more horrifying, it’s being covered by other artists), any song that threatens Santa to either bring “peace on Earth” right now OR ELSE, and any song about “having Christmas all year long,” which would quickly lead to WWIII.  Any song that compels a singer to over-sing, vibrato-ing madly about “peace” and/or “brotherhood” over a heavy drumbeat  should have all evidence of its existence destroyed.  Usually equally as bad are songs about missing or having sex with your sweetie on Christmas.  That is truly is something anyone can do at any time; there is no correlation with any holiday unless one is a Pagan and celebrates Beltane.  And then, of course, there are those stone-cold techno-trash remixes which serve no purpose whatsoever except to make an already annoying song more annoying — or several such songs at once in a sort of jumbled digital music salad.  It’s even worse if they trash a good song this way.  Bing Crosby’s version of White Christmas comes to mind; yes, someone remixed this with a god-awful computer-tinny drumbeat thing.  Whoever did this, I hope they find a day job soon, somewhere far from the music industry.

Mistakes singers of holiday songs make that nearly compel me to want to end their careers violently are usually limited to having a voice that is not up to the song (see remark about Celine Dion above).  This is absolutely epidemic among holiday-song singers, especially those recording the old-standard holiday songs in the last 40 years or so.

A more recent mistake, however, is adult female singers singing in baby talk.  The whiny-snotty voice of Taylor Swift comes to mind (when is she finally going to get to the overexposure stage???); too many of them actually sing that way all the time.  But lately I’ve heard more than a few launch into holiday songs in not just baby talk, but exaggerated baby talk.  It’s as if it weren’t bad enough to begin with.

One time when some overgrown girlie singer was simpering and cutseying the already horrid “Santa Baby” to death, it got so bad that we all shouted at management to turn the bleeping radio off.  The song had only been playing about 10 seconds before we did so.  But we had to; it was survival.  Another 10 seconds and we’d all have been howling in pain; no doubt with bleeding ears.

Basically, if you’re a recording artist and are considering doing holiday/Christmas music, I have only one thing to ask: please don’t.

On the other hand, there are quite a few holiday songs I can actually stand:

Almost everything Vince Guaraldi wrote or interpreted for A Charlie Brown Christmas.  He even came up with a magical intrepretation of the notoriously lame “Little Drummer Boy.”

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Andy Williams (this is from his heyday and highlights his beautiful, soaring tenor; there have been other good recordings of this, but no one’s quite matches Andy’s).

“The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” by Nat King Cole (gentle and classy).

“Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives (if Santa Claus were real and could sing, he would sound like this: fat and merry and slightly sloshed).

“The Chipmunk Song” by somebody on helium (it’s so bad it’s good, which is more than anyone can say for “Santa Baby”).

“Rockin Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee (yes, her voice can be irritating — but it fits here).

“Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms (actually one of the best early rock songs there is, and this is the best recording).

“Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (tough stuff).

“Sleigh Ride” — (any instrumental version.  I hate it when someone tries to sing this, unless it’s the Ronettes).

“Happy Xmas/War is Over” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono (the one “peace on earth” holiday song that actually seems heartfelt and appropriate rather than just plain old overwrought).

“Another Auld Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg (Fogelberg evoked a vividly bittersweet scene that one can only fully understand when one is well past the age of 30 — odd in a way, since Fogelberg apparently wrote it while in his late 20’s; it’s probably the sole modern holiday song about lost love that actually works.  I’m not surprised that it’s no longer heard very often — it can be very hard to take — but it is great).

“Snowfall” by Dan Fogelberg (brilliant instrumental that sounds good all winter long; for other good “winter” music, listen to “Yule Dance” and “Feast of Fools” by the same artist).

“White Christmas” by Bing Crosby (no other singer needs to go anywhere near this song).

“Feliz Navidad” by Jose Feliciano

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Frank Sinatra (every word in this song seems to me truer to most adults’ experiences of Christmas — wistful, somewhat sad, certainly loaded with bittersweet nostalgia — than all of that hyper-righteous “peace on Earth” drivel lumped together into one steaming pile of reindeer droppings.  And Sinatra sings this song just right, with a worldly weariness).

“I Wonder as I Wander” (a stark beauty that’s nearly forgotten — probably because it’s so frickin’ hard to sing — and it’s a shame).

“What Child is This” a.k.a. “Greensleeves”.

“Coventry Carol”

“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (sung properly — that is to say as a carol, not a pop song; or else, if you need a laugh, “I Came Upon a Road-Kill Deer”).

“Deck the Halls” (or its modern version, “Wreck the Malls”).

“God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” (or better yet, “The Restroom Door Said Gentlemen”).

“The Nutcracker” (all of the music).

“Carol of the Bells” (sung as a carol, not a pop song)

“O Come Emanuel”

“The Wassail Song”

“A’ Soalin”

“Christmas Canon”

I’ll be adding more as I remember them.  Right now I’m having too much trouble getting the memory of…was it Madonna?…forcing “Santa Baby’ out of her nostrils one time too many, which is to say ONCE.