Here, There be a Writer

Friday, December 21, 2012

What Your Hear on the Radio...

This is a personal look at Christmas songs that I have heard and listen to every year. I wanted to share some of the less main stream music out there that I have come across that I feel is just as good. First we look at the “genres” of Christmas music out there (is that correct?), styles maybe, or types. Okay, types of Christmas music then!

There are several kinds of Christmas songs that play on the radio, and as I have the pleasure of having a radio at work, I get to hear them played ad nauseum since about two weeks ago. I admit that it not as bad as those that work retail They will often have to listen to this music from Halloween until after the 25th. It strikes me as odd that with the increase in the music out there, that the same old tired songs are played, some even multiple times during the day.

I am just a tad sick of the same old repetition. I propose a solution. This week’s blog will feature the worst Christmas songs to come out of the radio airwaves and possible alternatives to those same old tunes. Maybe a bit of history tossed into the mix too. You should learn something new every day!

Let’s see what type of songs we have first; there’s the standard Christmas carol, a traditional song that has been around since time began. These come in two kinds; first the religious songs/hymns, something like “O Come All Ye Faithful”, “O Holy Night”, or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” comes to mind. You hear them every year; most musical artists will cover one or more of these at anytime. Now, I am not going into the implications of these songs. My beliefs are NOT the focus here, but what we hear being played during the Christmas season. Most time when I listen to the radio these are the one in a constant rotation on the radio. But, I have found that I get less irritated with them, usually because there are hundreds of versions of these Christmas carols that are recorded and therefore you will get less repetitive with these. Although I am not vindicating them, there are guilty parties here too!

The other side is the traditional, but the secular Christmas songs, such as “Silver Bells”, “Here Comes Santa Claus”, or “Santa Baby”. These songs are not based on Jesus’ birth, but focus on the non-religious aspects of Christmas. Many of the songs in this category are the ones that I usually can’t stand, because, at least with the radio, they are the ones that get very repetitive when you listen longer then 30 minutes. Mind you, there are songs I like in this category, but after having subjected myself to the radio for the last few weeks, I have come to the conclusion that a number of songs from this category are just overdone, terrible, or both.

Then you have your story songs, these can be both secular and non-secular. Here the song tells a story. Plain and simple, right? Not so much. Songs of this nature are harder to do, because you have to either know a story already, or can make one up that sounds legit. Trying to write a story into a song isn’t always easy when you have to factor in meter and rhyme, although not all the time. (Oh geesh!) They can be quite touching and inspiring, or they can make you want to take a sledge hammer to the back of your hand. Over the last 10 years there have been a few Christmas story songs that have left a few nasty tastes in my mouth. I won’t lie, I loath “Christmas Shoes.” (I put the link for those who are actually interested in hearing this song) This song is the biggest reason that I could ever think of hating Christmas on the radio. It is over played and sorely over exposed. The premise doesn’t make sense. A child wants to buy shoes for a dying mom, so she can look pretty for Jesus. It just feels like the writer was trying too hard to find sad things to put in his song. It's cliche! That’s not how you write songs! I kid you not, “Christmas Shoes” is just a terrible song.

Then you have your silly Christmas songs like “Grandma Got Ran Over by A Reindeer” performed by Elmo and Patsy (a recording duo from California who had one other major hit, “The Doomsday Waltz”. Elmo was a veterinarian turned folk singer with his wife Patsy.), “The 12 Pains of Christmas” by Bob Rivers (The funniest way to deal with this Greek epic poem disguised as a Christmas carol other than the Muppet version), and the popular radio choice of “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” performed by Shirley Temple. These songs are certainly not meant to be taken seriously, but they lighten the mood of a somber time of year. I think Sesame Street’s take on this song is a tad better, “I Want a Snuffleupagus fro Christmas,” sung by Big Bird and Anne Hathaway. In many cases, these songs are a way to break up the monotony of some of the other deeply religious or sentimental songs. Some of these are good and some are not so good.

There are few other miscellaneous categories that I also thought of while writing this blog. There is the generic Christmas pop song about Christmas (usually involving love or a significant other), like “Mistletoe” by Justin Beiber, “Christmas through Your Eyes” by Gloria Estefan, or “My Only Wish (This Year)” by Britney Spears. These songs ooze a sentimentally that is over trite even before they sing the first notes I like a little variety in my Christmas songs, because as others have pointed out, Christmas music gets old fast: Todd in the Shadows: One Hit Wonderland - Grandma Got Ran Over by a Reindeer.

There’s your Christmas charity songs and the covers of the said charities singles (BAND AID, LIVE AID, FARM AID), which aren’t much better. “Do They Know its Christmastime?” The purpose of the song, a valiant effort by musicians in 1984 to help the famine relief in Ethiopia. It has become a regular culprit to the  Christmas homicide on the ears of many, myself included. Barenaked Ladies did a cover of this song and it didn’t help the song. The song is a condescending tribute to how Africa won’t have snow for Christmas. And the Christmas bells that ring there/ Are the clanging chimes of doom/ We'll, tonight, thank God, it's them/ Instead of you.” Don’t they realize that a good portion of Africa doesn’t celebrate Christmas? I mean, about half of the country is Muslim (45%), that logic doesn’t make sense, but what do I know?  Anyway, the song feels overly preachy about Christmas and the people in Africa.

Then there's Christmas songs from movies/TV specials that have just become that popular that they get their own air play, such as “Silver and Gold” or “Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives.

Also, there are the Christmas songs that are not really Christmas songs, but they fit with the feel of the season so they end up getting air play because somebody said so, “My Favourite Things”. There a number of Christmasey versions of this song. It actually fits with the feel of Christmas and winter, “Rain drops on roses, whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles, warm woolen mittens, brown paper packages tied up with strings…”

Right, I also forgot the songs in foreign languages category! Remember “Feliz Navidad”? Well, now you have that stuck in your head. Your welcome!

So, what does this mean to me? Well, I have come to uncover a number of artists that have released Christmas albums or single tracks that are just as good as many of the standards that you may already love and listen to or are part of the current crappy Christmas playlist on your local radio that clutter up the airways nowadays. I would like to bring to light some of these tracks to the forefront. After all some of you may agree that Song A or song B is a terrible Christmas song, or are sick of hearing it ALL THE TIME, and decide to try song C or D out. If not, that's fine. To each his own...

Let’s start with the Traditional Songs (both secular and non-secular). These are songs that I feel are basically better left on the shelf. It’s time to expand your horizons. ~cracks knuckles~ Now, I will point out that there are versions of these songs that I truly love. Some of these songs I prefer a certain artist’s rendition that is not main stream, while others are tried and true and played continuously on the radio. While others I just find are terrible songs, much to my chagrin.

What songs do I find terrible? Well, as I pointed out earlier many of the non-secular Christmas songs are fine. They are based on old traditional Christmas hymns. There is beauty in many of the lyrics to these songs. What bothers me is the badly produced versions of these songs. I really can’t stand any version of “O Holy Night” that doesn’t try to utilize a soprano or high tenor here. This song is so beautiful, so pure that you need a pure voice. Don’t give me Christina Aguilera or Mariah Carey! I want Celtic Woman or Jewel singing this. What about the secular songs? Well, “Santa Baby” is the prime culprit here. There is no version of this song that I can enjoy. It’s all selfish crappy materialism. Eartha Kitt, the original singer tried and failed. It’s the tone of the song I don't enjoy. Madonna ruined it. And every other version just makes it worse.

Now, what would I listen to, or recommend to others in this category? I have always been partial to versions that tweak the song while retaining the true meaning. Barenaked Ladies did a version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” with Sarah McLachlan using “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and “We Three Kings”. It’s very touching and brings tears to my eyes; which is what I think Christmas songs are supposed to do, at least in part. There’s also “Silent Night” by John Denver and the Muppets, and most anything the Muppets touch is gold, there are exceptions though. On the secular front, I love the track Sean McCann of Great Big Sea recorded a few years back, “Merry Christmas Everyone”. It’s not currently available online unless you were lucky to download it free from Sean’s website, but recently Great Big Sea played a charity concert and performed this song with members of Moxy Fruvous, Barenaked Ladies to name a few. There is a CD available to purchase and it’s on iTunes. I would recommend getting the track at least. It’s a solid song. There’s also “Christmastime is Here” by Hannah-Rei, a soulful rendition of the classic Vince Guaraldi Trio version. Another one is “Ding Dong Ding Dong” by George Harrison.

That’s a lot to take in, but seriously, there are songs that are just begging to be on the air, but are not played because they are not main stream. There are songs that are on the radio that don’t hate. To be fair, “Christmastime is Here” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio is played regularly, but I cannot get enough of this song, “Silver Bells,” “It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas,” or “Jingle Bell Rock.”

Onto Story Songs, as I pointed out earlier, “Christmas Shoes” is not a favourite, and it’s played far too much on most radio stations, which is another reason that I am not a fan. Anytime a song is overplayed, I will be less likely to enjoy it. There are other story songs from the very common “Rudolph the Red Nosed” by Jewel, “Frosty the Snowman” Jimmy Durante or “Little Drummer Boy” by Bing Crosby. Some of these are of the common variety story songs, but they are classics nonetheless. “Huge of the Luge” a lesser known story based song by Moxy Fruvous is a story song about a luge lovin’ Grandpa. It’s Fun! There is another one I would like to mentioned, “A Spaceman Came Traveling,” by Celtic Woman, its a little known song originally done by Chris DeBurgh. It tells the story of the Nativity with the Angel being a Spaceman watching over the earth. It’s touching and beautiful. I have never heard of it until Celtic Woman covered it on the album “Believe.”

Now the miscellaneous categories; when you think of Christmas pop songs, you normally think of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee, which is one of my classic favourites, a light country rock song about dancing around the festive tree in jubilation or Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney (more synthey sounding), both very common and to some extent over played, but I enjoy them anyway. But for consideration in the pop category we have “Christmas Eve” by Blackmore’s Night, “The Christmas Song Song” by Rocky and Balls, or “The Christmas Waltz” by She and Him. Each has a different take on the Christmas song ranging from the sentimental to the silly.

There are the songs from movies/TV specials. I’ve already mentioned two of the biggies, from the Rankin Bass’ “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” There are others that make made their way into my Christmas heart. Those have become staples in their own right. It would be cool if “Bah, Bug, and Hum” from “Olive the Other Reindeer” a jazzy little number about the pitfalls of being a postal worker during the holiday season or “Where the River Meets the Sea” form Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas was on the radio. Heck I would settle for a soundtrack from either of those specials.

Songs that are not Christmas, but get played at Christmas, I mentioned earlier, “My Favourite Things.” There’s not much else to say. It’s a good song. I have heard crappy renditions that are over produced, but when they get it right it a great song. And I want to point out that I am involved in a yearly Christmas show that goes up the first weekend in December where we write and perform a Christmas show in 2 weeks that often utilizes non Christmas songs in a Christmas-like manner, “I’ve Got Love to Keep Me Warm”, “I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends”, and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” So, anything can be a Christmas song, when in the right context.

And finally, the Christmas songs in foreign languages, which run the gambit of languages used and usually focus on the birth of Christ, but “Feliz Navidad” is the most common, most used, and most irritating (in some opinions). It is fits more in the Christmas pop songs, a good nature tune about wishing you a Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year in Spanish, “Feliz Navidad/ Feliz Navidad/ Feliz Navidad/ Prospero Año y Felicidad”. There not much to the song itself and that’s why many people find it annoying to listen to. After all it’s the same verse/chorus repeated for almost 3 minutes.  I don’t really hate this song, nor do I find it terrible, it’s more of an annoying song. I do sing long to it, but after 2006 (when I put it on a Christmas mix CD), I realized that I could take it or leave it. What would I recommend to replace it? Well, I wouldn’t take it completely out, as I still enjoy hearing it at Christmas, but I would consider additional foreign language tracks to add a bit of variety.

Here’s one for you, “Riu Riu Chiu”. Bet you haven’t heard of this song before? Well, if you are a Monkees fan, then you have.  In 1967 the Monkees performed this on a Christmas episode of their show. Done in acapella this little song appeared. Riu Riu Chiu is a villancico, musical poem style from the 15th through the 18th centuries in the Iberian region (Spain/Portugal) and Latin America. It’s a song about the Nativity, so it’s basically an older version of what became a Christmas carol, “Ríu, ríu, chíu, la guarda ribera Dios guardó del lobo a nuestra cordera (Ríu, ríu, chíu, the river guards her; God kept the wolf away from Our Lamb.” It’s a beautiful little song. Acapella is a wonderful way to go with this song and the Monkees have amazing harmonies that absolutely blend together. Other artists to cover this song have been Bruce Cockburn, Sixpence, None the Richer, and David Archeleta to name a few. You should check them out.
There is the “Panis Angelicus” made more famous by Celtic Woman’s Chloe Agnew. Panis Angelicus the first part of a hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas an Italian Dominican Priest, a theologian philosopher and father of modern philosophy. “Panis angelicus/fit panis hominum;/Dat panis coelicus/figuris terminum (The angelic bread/becomes the bread of men;/The heavenly bread/ends all prefigurations). “Panis Angelicus” is the beginning of the Sacris Solemniis which is the hymn proper for the Feast of Corpus Christi. It’s a prayer, but something about the Latin and sung by a High Soprano or Tenor turns it into a beautiful song that I thoroughly enjoy listening to at Christmas. Other renditions to check out Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, and Placido Domingo with Yo-Yo Ma, each version has it amazing points.

I think this is why I prefer to utility my MP3 player and listen to the Holiday music of my choice. Then I can control what I listen to. That is the price one must pay if you listen to the radio, especially all day, everyday. There are good Christmas songs out there, not hard to look and play your own playlists, which I wholly endorse.

As a side note, there are also songs about the other holidays that fall in December; Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Yule/Solstice, and Festivus. I will feature a greater look at these holidays in a future blogs.

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