Just this month, Cyndi Lauper released her version of “Hard Candy Christmas,” the song Dolly Parton sang in the musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Lauper’s take is sadly typical of many recordings of Christmas music, as it adds nothing but her voice to the interpretation.
British singer Tracey Thorn amplified the song’s dark undercurrent in her 2012 cover, and it wasn’t clear that she’d be as “fine and dandy” as the lyric suggests.
The challenge Christmas music poses for musicians is how to give their recordings a reason to exist. There are countless versions of the best known songs already in the world, and most are perfectly, blandly professional.
New Orleans’ Sweet Crude recently released a recording of “Sleigh Ride” on Soundcloud.com, but it did so with style. According to band member Sam Craft, they heard the band’s high spirits and room for its emphasis on percussion and harmonies in the song.
“We arranged the song so that it would stand up amongst the rest of our music in a Sweet Crude live set,” Craft said. “So, it had to be dance-y and playful in that 21st-century indie pop manner that we espouse. That meant dialing back the tempo a bit, but filling that newly found space with loads of claps, clacks, shouts, tight harmonies and drums.”
For songwriters, the challenge is heightened. What fresh thing do you have to say about Christmas?
For Dustan Louque, the answer lay in his roots. He grew up in Cajun country, and recorded “Along the River Road” this fall to sing about the Christmas bonfire tradition.
“I thought about where I grew up,” he said. “Every year when they light the bonfires, I always well up. The culture still goes defiantly into the future. Despite all the crap that happens in the world, these traditions go on, and I was trying to capture that vibe. Remembering the past and giving these fires meaning.”
Louque has an ambiguous relationship with Christmas music. He has fond memories of “Elvis’ Christmas Album” and Vince Guaraldi’s music from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” but he got away from it over the years. “That Aaron Neville album (“Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas”) really hit home when it came out,” he remembered. “Beyond that, it never really did it for me.”
Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin is not only into Christmas music but sees the early ‘80s as the last heyday for Christmas pop songs. When he and songwriter Sam Hollander conceived of Band of Merrymakers, they had in mind Band Aid, the supergroup of British stars that earned Bob Geldof his knighthood as they released the benefit single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas Time.”
Band of Merrymakers brings together famous friends including Natasha Beddingfield, Michael Fitzpatrick of Fitz and The Tantrums, Dan Wilson of Semisonic, Christina Perri, and Mark McGrath to trade verses on songs, with proceeds from their recordings going to The Recording Academy’s outreach program to musicians in need, MusiCares.
“Fifty cents of each album goes to MusiCares, and that’s a lot,” Griffin said. “MusiCares spent more than $5.8 million helping musicians on the Gulf Coast after Katrina, whether it was to replace instruments or health issues or housing issues. I can’t think of a better thing to do with my time.”
Band of Merrymakers put out the single “Must Be Christmas” in 2014 and recently released its debut album, “Welcome to Our Christmas Party.”
According to Griffin, writing the songs was intimidating. “Some of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century have penned Christmas classics,” he said. “There’s such a rich tradition of songwriting, and we chose to take that as our challenge and our charge.”
Producer Don B also had different classics in mind when he made “When the Snowflakes Fall” with two artists he produces, Reil and Sammi. He was inspired by Donnie Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” The Emotions’ “What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas,” The Temptations’ Christmas songs, and “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole, and hoped his holiday slow jam can follow in their footsteps.
“Those songs stand out,” he said. “They’re classics, and they’re still not old to me.”
Don B is the son of New Orleans R&B pioneer Dave Bartholomew, and he used the Christmas song to introduce the two women to a larger audience.
“When you do a Christmas song, you get a lot of attention that month,” he said.
He’s not being cynical — or no more so than artists making Christmas music have always been.
Christmas songs have always been recorded with an eye on their future earning potential. Elvis Presley’s “Elvis’ Christmas Album” from 1957 charted into the early 1990s, and while Bartholomew doesn’t dream that big, he has hopes about the future of “When the Snowflakes Fall.”
“The song never gets old,” he said. “It could outlive me.”