“That’s someone shooting Tiny Tim for his PS3”
Of Christmas, the wise Ebenezer Scrooge cynically but rather sensibly wondered, “What was Christmas but a time for running into debt and getting one year older without getting even one hour richer?” That was 1843 and not even the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come could foresee the horrorshow to come in which people would trample minimum wage employees to death and unleash thick clouds of acrid pepper spray into the weeping faces of innocent babes in the effort to procure a Tickle Me Elmo, Furbie or whatever mass-produced crap has in any given year temporarily excited the mindless, collective consumerist impulse. Happy birthday, Christkind!
The crappy Christmas Carol-free zone!
Christmas Carols too have been given a bad wrap, sullied by their association with joyless, joint-zapping visits to the mall. For those working in retail, imagine how much worse it is. The fact that the same roughly eight or so songs mercilessly begin mannheim steamrolling anyone that ventures outdoors around mid-September is enough to justify anyone feeling like the Grinch. However, having avoided malls and shopping centers altogether this Yuletide, and running my own store (Brightwell – shameless plug) have allowed me to hear Christmas music in a new and holy light. I decided in this newly-awakened joy/mania to attempt to come up with my Top 10 Christmas Carols.
Right away I realized that there are so many great songs that it would be impossible to choose just ten. Who can deny the undying beauty of 12th century‘s mournful “Veni, veni Emmanuel“? Similarly, the sounds of the 16th century’s “Ding dong merrily on high” have somehow never ceased to excite the humors in my otherwise bile-filled vessel. The 19th century gave us the equally beautiful “Stille nacht, heilige nacht,” “The first Nowell,” and “What child Is this?” not to mention Tchaikovsky‘s entire score for The Nutcracker or Schubert‘s “Die winterreise” song cycle.
The thing about Christmas songs is that despite the fact that you’re generally inundated with an incredibly small number of songs (including, most egregiously, the gratingly-cheerful Thanksgiving carol, “Jingle Bells“) there are nearly constantly new songs being written in celebration of the season as well as numerous mostly-forgotten numbers waiting for rediscovery.
Although last year would’ve probably included “I’ve got my love to keep me warm” and “Baby, it’s cold outside,” I think that at this point I’ve heard them enough to last me a few more winters. So, without further adieu, here is my current Top 10.
Wham! “Last Christmas” — A double A-side with the equally amazing “Everything She Wants,” it defeated Frankie Goes Hollywood (who are curiously revered in the UK) and the always inexcusably-horrid Bob Geldof for the coveted number one Christmas spot.
Stevie Wonder “Someday at Christmas” — Written by Bryan Wells and Ron Miller, the latter of whom penned many of Motown’s great songs in the era, including Stevie Wonder’s “For once in my life.” I am reading that this song was later sung by Justin Bieber which I haven’t heard but who I know to be a young boy who pisses off grown-ass Rockists who should probably be fighting other battles with people their own age and not being so concerned with harmless tween popstars.
Bing Crosby “Marshmallow world” — Bing Crosby was the first artist to record this 1949 Carl Stigman and Peter DeRose composition. I pretty much like all versions of this winter song that never mentions Christmas (making it perfectly acceptable to subject your friends to until the dawn of spring) although Johnny Mathis‘ incomparable stylings make his version the one I aim to ape. (Since I can’t find a great video for the original, here’s one for the Johnny Mathis version).
Bing Crosby “White Christmas” — In The Charlatans‘ “A man needs to be told,” singer Tim Burgess wonders “Ever wonder how much the man who wrote White Christmas made?” (my italics). “The man” in question was Irving Berlin — maybe you’ve heard of him? He was only a world famous Jewish songwriter born in Tatarstan who later emigrated to the USA and wrote some of the most widely known songs in the history of time, including this not-very-Jewish song. Bing Crosby was the first to make it a hit, in 1942.
Slade “Merry Xmas everybody” — Speaking of depressing, no song captures the bleakness and forced gaiety of Christmas like this office party favorite. Although Gary Glitter, Mud, T. Rex and Wizzard all performed Glitter takes on this glitteriest of holidays, only Slade’s, with lines like “look to the future now it’s only just begun,” has the power to somehow simultaneously evoke a sense of boy soul-crushing boredom and existential angst.
Roy Orbison “Pretty paper” — A 1963 composition written by the great Willie Nelson, who later recorded it himself in 1979. The almost mantra-like lyrics focus on wrapping Christmas present with a disturbing break where Nelson wrote “There he sits all alone on a sidewalk/ hoping that you won’t pass him by/ Should you stop? better not, much too busy/ You’re in a hurry, my how time does fly” before refocussing simple-mindedly on the pretty paper and ribbons of the title.
The Nat King Cole Trio “The Christmas song” — Mel Tormé and Bob Wells penned this classic in 1944 during a summertime heatwave in an effort to distract themselves from the misery at hand. Two years later, The Nat King Cole Trio recorded the first of many versions – including many re-recordings by King himself.
Vince Guaraldi — “Christmas time is here” Written for the 1965 special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Guaraldi softly swings his evocation of wintertime in a bright and relaxed fashion on many of the originals. On this number, however, a choir of anklebiters sound browbeaten and despondent, like the pressures of Christmas cheer have practically been their undoing.
Denim “I will cry at Christmas” — In film, no director working today can mix what should be mutually exclusive emotions and tones like Bong Joon-Ho. In music, Bong’s equivalent is Lawrence, an under-appreciated treasure of humanity who can mix kitsch, bitterness, pathos, urgency and hilarity in a way that no one else can, often with just a line or two and a two minute pop song. This song first appeared as a B-Side on another of Lawrence’s absolute classic masterpieces, “It fell off the back of a lorry.”
On a personal note, tomorrow will be the 21st anniversary of my mom’s passing. Toss in some SAD, clinical depression and general Christmas blues and I will be toastily rocking this one with the help of my trusty TV (Megaro) and raising a wassail to toast the season and all of the great songs it’s inspired. Happy holidays!
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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