Thursday, December 8, 2011

Top Five: Christmas songs

I know a list of Christmas music doesn't have a whole lot to do with film, but it's what's on the brain (and everywhere else) this time of year, so what the hell - time for a seasonal post! As torturous as some holiday music can be (I'd say the bad probably outweighs the good, sadly), don't put that shotgun to your temple just yet - there is enough of the latter to not only get you through December, but make you appreciate the month a little more, as well. After all, listening to the following five tracks is strictly prohibited any other time of year. Wouldn't wanna diminish their magic, now would we?

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#1. Christmas Time Is Here (instrumental) by Vince Guaraldi



You have no idea how difficult it is for me to keep this whole list from being comprised entirely of A Charlie Brown Christmas songs (the best Christmas album ever recorded, by a landslide), but for the sake of an interesting blog post, I had to mix it up and pick a favorite. Many credit Vince Guaraldi for bridging the gap between jazz and pop music (sparked by his 1962 B-side, Cast Your Fate to the Wind), and with this track it's easy to see, or hear, why. Christmas Time Is Here is a well-deserved anthem during the holiday season, pulling off the difficult task of sounding happy yet incredibly melancholic at the same time (perfectly capturing Charlie Brown's depression amidst all the holiday cheer in the aforementioned Peanuts special). Almost never failing to get me a little misty-eyed, it's one of those tracks that'll catch you off guard - you have to prepare yourself for when it comes on, lest you be caught weeping in a crowded mall when shopping for Christmas presents. Some holiday tunes are created with strictly children in mind, while others are clearly meant for the older crowd - I think what makes Christmas Time so universal is its continued ability to generate interest in the jazz genre amongst youngsters while striking repressed emotional nerves amongst adults. That's the key to its longevity, and what has cemented the Maestro of Menlo Park's presence around the holiday season since 1965. That and that it's simply six minutes of coolout jazz perfection. And to think network executives were strongly opposed to Guaraldi's score (which was unheard of for a children's program), as well as almost everything else that makes the special classic, prior to its airing. Fortunately, creators Charles Schulz, Bill Melendez, and Lee Mendelson persevered, and Guaraldi was able to achieve his dream of "writing standards, not just hits."

#2. Waltz of the Flowers by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky



Again, as with A Charlie Brown Christmas, it's very hard for me to just pick one piece from The Nutcracker. Going to see it with my family around the holidays was sort of an annual tradition growing up, so naturally, Tchaikovsky's music is, has been, and forever will be associated with this time of year. For me, Waltz of the Flowers stands out as a major, if not the, primary "theme" that's somewhat representative of the whole Suite - it's powerful and nicely structured, softly easing listeners into the melodies as it gradually crescendos, before starting all over again. It's a wonderful ride Tchaikovsky takes you on, and Christmas music doesn't get much better. Plus, now I have an additional positive association with Waltz ever since its brilliantly unexpected appearance in Cowboy Bebop.

#3. Sleigh Ride by The Ronettes



In 1963, New York City girl group The Ronettes took Sleigh Ride (already one of the better Christmas standards) and knocked it out of the park with this version that's guaranteed to make toes tap. One of the best, family-friendly holiday songs out there, it's ironic that it ultimately came from such a twisted murderer.

#4. Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney



Nobody does cheesy like Sir Paul McCartney. Practically dripping with his trademark whimsy, this 1979 gem packs some surprising thump with a prophetic synthesizer riff that delivers a preview of sounds to come in the following decade. Sure, the song's catchy, but it's McCartney's sincerity in the face of such cornball antics that ultimately make it so irresistibly charming. With tunes such as this, he's really gunning for that title of sweetest person on the planet.

#5. Last Christmas by Wham!



Never in a million years would I have thought anything remotely related to Wham! would ever find its way to this blog, but here we are. I've always had a soft spot for this relative downer of a holiday standard, and the 1984 original by the British pop duo is my favorite version. The most embarrassing inclusion on this list, to be sure (hey, I did put it at number five), it was also featured on Huffington Post's recent list of 15 Christmas Songs Too Annoying For Words. To each their own, I guess!

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Agree? Disagree? Have your own unsung Christmas jams worth mentioning? Let me know in the comments section, but before signing off, here's a slew of other holiday tunes I stand by that just missed the cut and are sure to keep you cool this Yule:

I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm by Billie Holiday (Verve Remixed)

Waltz For Zizi by Yoko Kanno (totally not a Christmas song, but it makes ya wanna curl up by the fireplace, don't it?)

Santa Claus Goes Straight To The Ghetto by James Brown

Pocketful Of Miracles by Frank Sinatra (again, not really a Christmas song, but it sure sounds like/might as well be one)

Boss Hog Egg Nog by J-Zone aka Chief Chinchilla (NSFW)

Christmas Coming by Alton Ellis

Merry Merry Christmas by The Flames

Christmas Is by Run DMC (far superior to Christmas In Hollis, trust me)

Little Saint Nick by The Beach Boys

African Sleigh Ride by Vince Guaraldi (not on A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack)

The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole (classic for a reason)

Happy Holidays!

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