Recently, USA Today threw itself into the seasonal pile-on and declared Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” to be the worst Christmas song ever. According to writer Chris Chase, it and John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” are worse than the many uninspired versions of songs from the Christmas canon because “they were written by musical geniuses! Paul wrote ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’! John wrote ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’!”
Christmas music inspires that many exclamation marks in its detractors, who dismiss songs written and recorded for the holiday as mercenary cynicism. Yes, it comes with a whiff of the mercantile, but so does every song offered up for sale.
Like all popular music, Christmas music rises with the artists’ ability to imprint themselves on it. This year’s “Oh Crap, It’s Christmas” could only be the product of New Orleans’ Debbie Davis and Matt Perrine. The sense of humor in the title marks the album as theirs, as does the emotional ground it covers.
They can be silly, covering the Tiki holiday song “Mele Kalikimaka” and the tongue-twisting “Hannukah in Santa Monica,” but they are equally adept with the urbane wonder of “Christmas in Herald Square” and the solemnity of the Bing Crosby and David Bowie version of “Little Drummer Boy,” sung here with Susan Cowsill.
They’re joined on it by Frenchmen Street musical friends, who’ll also perform with them Dec. 21 when they play Cafe Istanbul, and they bring the combination of precision and irreverence that are hallmarks of Frenchmen, Davis and Perrine.
Fresh sound is the challenge
Christmas music is a musician’s challenge: How do you make a version that isn’t redundant? That’s every musician’s task, but it’s heightened when dealing with a catalog of 50 to 60 songs. On “A New Orleans Creole Christmas,” Irvin Mayfield and the Jazz Playhouse Revue give the standards elegance while rooting them in the city’s musical traditions. The rolling piano keeps “Winter Wonderland” moving as his trumpet plays the melody, and the version of “O Tannenbaum” would be at home in Preservation Hall.
Panorama Jazz Band avoided redundancy by shifting “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” from a minor to a major key. The bright, almost cartoonish results became “Christmas (Like Ya Just Don’t Care),” which starts with the familiar melody before a few banjo strums bring in Ben Schenck’s clarinet and the song turns into a second line. For now, it’s only available as a free download on Panorama’s website.
Part of the challenge is getting in the spirit of Christmas. The Los Angeles-based Living Sisters are clearly having a great time on “Harmony is Real: Songs for a Happy Holiday.” It helps that the side project for folk and pop singers Alex Lilly, Inara George, Becky Stark and Eleni Mandell, is fueled by the simple pleasure of singing with each other.
They also take on the other great challenge Christmas music poses: How to write a seasonal song. Naysayers contend that it’s a limited genre, and there’s nothing to say after Santa, Jesus, Frosty, elves and trees, but the same could be said of love songs with their boys, girls, clubs and dance floors.
Execution is everything
In both cases, execution is everything, and to the The Living Sisters’ credit, the songs come from a genuine place. The double entendre that drives “Baby Wants a Basketball for Christmas” makes its point without being smutty, while “Christmas in California” argues that the West Coast holiday experience is as valid as any. “Neon Chinese Christmas Eve” reflects on Christmas from a Jewish perspective without exaggeration for humor or pathos, and “Kadoka, South Dakota” is light-hearted, making the silly city name the heart of the laugh without treating the song as a joke.
Nostalgia is the secret ingredient in Christmas music, as almost every seasonal activity brings to mind similar things that happened years and decades before. Dealing with it requires a sure hand, but embracing nostalgia too thoroughly forgets that we remember those good times from the world of today.
Actor and “Family Guy” creator Seth McFarlane walled himself off from modernity with a 52-piece orchestra on his Christmas album, “Holiday for Swing!” Strings and horns weave together to form a barrier to keep 2014 with its iPads and Spotifys and Rokus at bay, making room for the swells in fedoras who want to cut a rug with dames in stoles before retiring to the fireplace for toddies and some cha-cha-cha.
Money isn’t everything
Those who accuse Paul McCartney of doing something for money likely have no idea how wealthy he really is, but they’re not entirely wrong. There is a degree to which musicians are exploiting the time of year, but what matters is how well they exploit it.
On “Holiday,” Earth, Wind and Fire cut new vocals to turn one of its classics, “September,” into “December.” Crass? Sure, but the hook and bounce remain indisputable, and other arrangements polish the band’s bona fides.
“What Child is This” has a mid-tempo slink that will bring to mind the hit “Fantasy” without quoting it, and only the lyrics remain in their funky remake of “Winter Wonderland.”
Christmas music has always had its detractors.
In Advocate writer John Wirt’s biography “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues,” Smith remembers his “Twas the Night Before Christmas” album being received by record buyers as a mockery of Christmas in 1962. Their anger prompted his label to pull the album.
Similarly, Irving Berlin, the writer of “White Christmas,” campaigned to have radios ban Elvis Presley’s 1957 “Elvis’ Christmas Album” because he thought Elvis’ version of his song was a travesty.
Maybe the problem McCartney’s detractors have isn’t the nature of his song but that it exists, that former Beatles made Christmas music at all. If so, it’s their loss because the best Christmas music is as powerful as anything released the rest of the year, and it reveals much about the musicians, music, the holiday and us in the process.