It seems like the holidays are starting earlier each year. Case in point: I was at a Home Depot to buy some light bulbs and was inundated with Christmas trees, wreaths, lights, the works. It was September. Don't get me wrong. I love the holidays. It just seems odd to me that people want to start so early. In seemingly every city, there's a given radio station which opts to switch to full holiday programming beginning sometime in November. This always leads to the a debate between me and my better half at what point it's acceptable to listen to Christmas songs. My wife's response is typically something along the lines of "but it makes me happy". I mean, honestly, who can argue with that? Like my grandfather used to say, "Yes, dear."
This week, conditions were finally perfect. Thanksgiving had come and gone. Days had become short, nights crept in earlier and earlier. And as the first flakes of snow fell here in Chicago, earbuds everywhere were switching over to holiday playlists. Which made me starting thinking of what I consider my favorite Chrismas songs. And just as I started thinking this, my wife texted me: "Christmas music. Game on."
What makes holiday music so important to the point that musicians strive to write, as one put it, "a song that breaks through the pop culture consciousness"? Why is it that so many strive for such lofty heights but managed to leave us with the equivalent of expecting a Red Rider BB Gun and receiving socks (e.g., this and this)?
Here's my take: All-season songs are already powerful to begin with. They serve as our means to remember, the embers which remain after the fireworks have faded away; the coat rack on which we hang our memories. How many times have you heard a song you've heard hundreds of times before, but every time manages to bring you to such lucid memories? As important as the everyday songs that we know and love are, holiday songs raise the stakes. If I were an A&R rep working with musicians on a holiday song, I'd keep three themes in mind to make sure the song goes the route of breaking pop culture consciousness:
1) Hope - lyrically, taking advantage of the opportunity when almost everyone is open to consider things as they might be instead of as they are, "What if we acted this way every day?"
2) Longing - whether it's being home or being with a loved one, we like being reminded how we're loved and wanted.
3) Harmony - both literally and figuratively. A song's melody should draw the listener in, with lyrics that make the listener linger beyond the holidays, starting the year anew with changed perspective.
ANYWAY, on to this month's list. People have been writing holiday songs for over two thousand years, so to narrow down to five songs across all genres would be nearly impossible. While there are scores of standards, carols, and hymns from which I could chose, I'm limiting my list as contemporary songs recorded over the last 40 years. That meant some difficult exclusions (sorry, Vince Guaraldi Trio, but you'll always be a favorite. You too, Nutcracker Swing).
NUMBER #5 - Raveonettes, "The Christmas Song" 
"All the lights are coming on now / How I wish that it would snow now / I don't feel like going home now / I wish that I could stay."
Far and away the least holiday-sounding track of the list. Recorded the same year they introduced America to "whip lash rock 'n' roll", this Danish duo somehow finds a balance between emoting key sentiments of Christmastime with the band's signature sound. The two-part harmonies and overdrive which made their debut album Chain Gang of Love the perfect summer album of 2003 work just as well with sentiments of lights glowing, snow falling. The perfect song for gazing at Christmas lights.
NUMBER #4 - David Bowie and Bing Crosby, "Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth" 
"I pray my wish will come true / For my child and your child too / He'll see the day of glory / See the day when men of good will / Live in peace, live in peace again."
There are so many reasons to love this song. While the primary melody is indeed a standard, "Peace on Earth" was written at the request of Bowie, who was less than thrilled to sing "Little Drummer Boy". Written, rehearsed, and recorded within an hour, the song is a marvel in and of itself. Beyond that, old guard and new guard harmonizing together, with Bing Crosby representing the standards era in literally the last days of his life, and a thirty-year old Bowie representing modern music. In hindsight, few would have believed that within a month the world would have lost one of its greatest singers ever. The intentional ("It's been a long time since I've been the new anything") and unintentional comedy between Crosby and Bowie have become a season tradition since originally airing over thirty years ago. Who knows? Perhaps in ten years time this will be redone by Bowie and an equally myopic Brandon Flowers. Lyrically speaking, for a song penned so quickly, its hope for peace and goodwill is an always welcomed sentiment, but particularly during the holidays.
NUMBER #3 - Plastic Ono Band, "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" 
"So this is Xmas / And what have you done? / Another year over / A new one just begun."
A precursor to the Imagine album, released only nine months later, Lennon's brilliance shines through on this protest song which happens to be a Christmas song. From the opening bar, listeners become immediately aware that they're not listening to the typical tune of good tidings and winter wonder. Walking the find line between being thoughtful and jarring, Lennon asks us what we've done, whether our year was wasted or put to good use. Lyrically, the song empowers the listener to be the change they wish to see in the world. Trivia fact: At the beginning of the track, Yoko Ono's and Lennon's whispered Christmas greetings are often mistakenly quoted as "Happy Christmas, Yoko. Happy Christmas, John." In fact, they are wishing happy Christmas to Ono's daughter (Kyoko) and Lennon's son (Julian).
NUMBER #2 - Ron Sexsmith, "Maybe This Christmas" 
"And maybe forgiveness will ask us to call / Someone we love / Someone we've lost / For reasons we can't quite recall."
A hidden gem that I wouldn't have discovered without the help of file sharing in the early Aughts. In fact, the only reason I came across the track was because it was mistakenly listed as being recorded by Elvis Costello. Written and recorded by a Canadian singer-songwriter who unfortunately hasn't yet broken through commercially, this track is a quiet, more hopeful complement to "Happy Xmas". Rather than challenging the listener, the song exudes hope for a year when we realize that this Christmas could be something more than gift exchange.
NUMBER #1 - U2, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" 
"Pretty lights on the trees / I'm watching them shine / You should be here with me / Baby, please come home."
A sharp contrast to the mellow nature of the first four tracks, this song belts out out bittersweet holiday tidings from the opening chord. A long-standing classic, originally written by Phil Spector (who also had his hand in "Happy Xmas", all before becoming crazy, of course) and originally recorded by Darlene Love in 1963. So popular is the original recording that Letterman has invited Darlene Love to perform every year since 1986. So what makes the U2 version better? First, the track was recorded at the height of U2's Joshua Tree era, during which time they were the hottest act on the planet. Bono's take on vocals lends more credibility to the lyrics - the longing for home and to be with one's loved ones is believable. By the time the song you get to the coda, you're ready to take whatever plane, train, or automobile necessary to celebrate Christmas with your loved ones. Icing on the cake is that Darlene Love agreed to lend her voice for backup vocals. This song has always been in my top five, alternating with Lennon for the top spot. But it wasn't until 2004 when it locked up the top spot. Driving to Chapel Hill, shopping for an engagement ring, snow falling, Bono crooning ... A nice reminder that it's not fully Christmas until you're home with the ones you love. And so ... regardless of where you are, who you're with, what you celebrate, or what music you're playing to set the mood, wishing you and yours happy holidays and happy new year.
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