Saturday, December 4, 2010

Red Sweater Days: New Music Tuesdays' Favorite Christmas Songs

What's this appearing in your Facebook status or RSS Reader this Saturday morning? Isn't New Music Tuesdays only posted on, you know, Tuesdays? Well, given the mirth of the holiday season, its only appropriate to offer something a bit out of the ordinary. Moreover, since the mission of this blog is to improve your overall enjoyment and satisfaction of music, some relief from the tired gambit of Christmas music at retail establishments everywhere is in order. Mindful of those dual objectives, New Music Tuesdays presents its favorite twenty Christmas selections you might not be as familiar with, as opposed to compositions by Jose Feliciano or Anne Murray. We'll proceed in ascending order, from number twenty:

#20 – "Deck the Stills" - Barenaked Ladies (Barenaked for the Holidays, 2004)

We start with the only group or artists with multiple selections on our list. This minimalist parody of "Deck the Halls" is accompanied by full-chested bravado from the Toronto-based rock humorists as their re-w0rked lyrics reference the four names of a certain folk-rock supergroup. The song also benefits from the presence of now-former co-frontman Steven Page, who has since left the band.

(Listen to "Deck the Stills" here)

#19 – "Bizarre Christmas Incident" - Ben Folds (, 2001)

Almost as interesting as Folds' lurid tale of an intruding Santa is the story of how the song was almost never released to the public. The organizers of the soundtrack for the live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas asked Folds to contribute an original. He initially returned with "Bizarre Christmas Incident." But given the family nature of the film, the producers asked him to try again. He responded with the more appropriate "Lonely Christmas Eve." However, Folds still had a soft spot for his original composition, so in December, 2001, he released the track on his website.

#18 – "The Night Santa Went Crazy" - Weird Al Yankovic (Bad Hair Day, 1996)

Another parody joins the list at #18, via the ultimate patriarch of parodies, Weird Al. While many might have heard Al's account of Santa going postal, few likely recognize the source material: Soul Asylum's "Black Gold." Naturally, Al's satire is as warped as Soul Asylum's original was serious. Meanwhile, Al also delights with another dark Christmas-themed offering, "Christmas at Ground Zero," and his accompanying video is sufficiently Dr. Strangelove, considering the subject matter.

#17 – "O Little Town of Bethlehem" - Young Fresh Fellows (A Lump of Coal, 1991)

The first true traditional, spiritual number in this list comes via Seattle alternative act Young Fresh Fellows, fronted by often R.E.M. contributor Scott McCaughey. While their rendition is completely devoid of flash, the number never works as a schmaltzy affair, and the quartet's chugging guitars and meaty drum fills compliment the unadorned carol.

(Unfortunately, locating a streaming audio or video for this selection was not possible due to the relative obscurity of the recording. Various methods of tracking down a downloadable version are likely available through your favorite search engine)

#16 – "White Christmas" - Goldfinger (Sleighed: Other Side of Christmas, 2000)

The much-revered L.A. ska/punk outfit do the staid "White Christmas" of the Bing Crosby era a great service by their uplifting rendition. The ska format suits the old standard even better than the original Irving Berlin arrangement and the horns introduce a measure of levity to engender a truly festive atmosphere. If only it were a bit longer than its 1:03 of playing time.

#15 – "Do They Know It's Christmas?" - Barenaked Ladies (Barenaked for the Holidays, 2004)

While the original 1984 Band Aid version certainly supported noble causes through the work of organizer Bob Geldof and a greater array of star power, the already-referenced BNL does a better version, unburdened by the overproduction so germane to the original's decade. With then-BNL co-frontmen Page and Ed Robertson reducing the confusion of so many vocalists, drummer Tyler Stuart's tongue-in-cheek turn at Bono's legendary line, "well, tonight thank God it's them instead of you..." is all the more prominent.

#14 – "Santa's Beard" - They Might Be Giants (Lincoln, 1988)

The snark returns to this collection with They Might Be Giants' 1988 original, which is not to be confused with a Beach Boys' number of the same title. From TMBG's drum machine days, the Johns present the lamentations of a depressed soul during the holidays who's concerned with the lure of the man in red on his love. John Flansburg's alternate lyrics in the final chorus, "thrilling...Christmas...trembling fear" neatly sum-up the song's direction.

#13 – "Father Christmas" - The Kinks (Father Christmas single, 1977)

If the seasonal social commentary unleashed in "Do They Know It's Christmas?" isn't enough, The Kinks predated that effort with a more subtle entry through 1977's "Father Christmas." In classic Kinks style, the originators of power punk flip the tables on the traditional carol's merriment and cheer with a focus on "the real McCoy." While Ray Davies' snarkyness shines through here more than ever, at its core there is a genuine message on the truth of the holidays.

#12 – "R2D2, We Wish You a Merry Christmas" - Jon Bon Jovi
(Christmas in the Stars: The Star Wars Christmas Album, 1980)

So many elements of this number are captivating, from the sheer concept of C-3PO sending his droid counterpart a gift in song to the first professional vocal recording of Jon Bon Jovi (who landed the gig because his brother ran the studio where it was produced), "R2D2, We Wish You a Merry Christmas" is a sheer holiday treasure. It's chorus of kid vocals recalls John Lennon's seminal Christmas track (perhaps to be referenced below?), and original C-3PO and R2D2 performers Anthony Daniels and Ben Burtt reprise their roles here.

#11 – "The First Noel" - Crash Test Dummies (A Lump of Coal, 1991)

Inasmuch as anyone remembers anything about Winnipeg, Manitoba's underappreciated Crash Test Dummies, they remember lead singer Brad Robert's distinctive bass-baritone range. And in the group's take on the traditional hymn, Roberts plumbs new depths of his freakishly low pipes. Fortunately, before Robers spends too much of the song 200,000 leagues under low C, pianist Ellen Reid takes over and delivers a lovely, multi-part alto harmony.

#10 – "Winter Wonderland" - Phantom Planet (Maybe This Christmas, 2002)

Best known for penning and performing the theme for the Fox TV series, The O.C., L.A.'s Phantom Planet does an admirable job in re-envisioning the well-worn number in their 2002 rendition. It all starts off pretty typical, with singer-guitarist Alex Greenwald intoning the classic lyrics about sleighbells ringing, and a nice accordian part is introduced in the second verse. But it justifies its spot in the top 10 here by then-drummer Jason Schwartzman's (yes, that Jason Schwartzman) work on the chorus parts, which propel it in a new direction entirely.

#9 – "Little Drummer Boy" - Dandy Warhols (Special X-mas Single, 1995)

The synth-heavy Dandies inject some spirit into the old spiritual in their 1995 adaptation. Fittingly, then-drummer Eric Hedford's work drives the cause for the Portland (Ore.)-based quartet, while frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor's indie pop vocals offer a fresh take on the famed "bum-bum-bum-bums." Of course, the song is the basis for one of the oddest all-time duets in popular music.

#8 – "Christians and the Pagans" - Dar Williams (Mortal City, 1997)

If you're one of the types who believes that people of many faiths and ways of living can find common ground amid the joy of the holidays, this is your song. Williams' sincere narrative of a Christmastime family reunion flavored by differing beliefs is both earnest and endearing, and her less-aggressive Ani-style keeps the mood lighthearted considering the topic.

#7 – Happy Xmas (War is Over) - John Lennon (Happy Xmas [War is Over] single, 1971)

Our last selection in the original, moral message thread is Lennon's signature 1971 ballad. Entrenched in Vietnam War-era political discord, Lennon again appeals to our better angels. Meanwhile, Yoko Ono leads the Harlem Community Choir in belting out the anthemic chorus.

#6 – "Do You Hear What I Hear?" - Spiraling (Do You Hear What I Hear single, 2005)

As if the epic "Do You Hear What I Hear?" wasn't substantial enough on its own merits, the New Jersey quartet mash-up the Noel Regney/Gloria Shayne Baker treatment with The Who's Baba O'Riley. The resulting blend maintains the iconic presence of both pieces, and Spiraling singer/keyboardist Tom Brislin rockets the effort skyward at the end, proclaiming the number's hallmark "goodness and light" with marked passion.

#5 – "The Mummers' Carol" - Great Big Sea (unreleased)

Documenting the caroling traditions in their Newfoundland homeland, Great Big Sea offer this foot-stomper with all possible spirit of good cheer. Conjuring a scene reminiscent of the party at Fezziwig's in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the Newfie carol is nothing short of festive.

#4 – "O Holy Night" - The Sheila Divine (Viva Noel - A Q Division Christmas, 1999)

Long a favorite of full-throated singers everywhere, Boston-based trio The Sheila Divine and their equally strong-voiced frontman Aaron Perrino continue that tradition with their 1999 rendition. Over a dark and haunting Smiths-style arrangement, Perrino belts away with no hesitation.

(listen to The Sheila Divine's "O Holy Night" by scrolling to the bottom of the audio player found here)

#3 – "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings" - Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLaughlin (Barenaked for the Holidays, 2004)

Recorded on the back of a flatbed truck sometime in the early '90s, this folksy take before either act had achieved stateside recognition is magnificent in its understatement. While the unreleased version made its way around radio station holiday playlists and the intertubes for more than a decade, the BNL lads finally released it officially on their 2004 holiday collection.

#2 – "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" - Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band (In Harmony 2, 1981)

Having first performed his iconic rendering of the secular number in 1973, the signature December 12, 1975 recording from C.W. Post College in Greenvale, N.Y. was finally released by Columbia Records on the In Harmony 2 compilation in 1981. The Springsteen version is so popular among his legions of fans that the band often fields requests for the number in the middle of summer. Coupled with Clarence Clemons' featured role, The Boss' contribution to the holidays is at the top of many Christmas lists, including this one.

#1 – "Snoopy's Christmas" - The Royal Guardsmen (Snoopy's Christmas single, 1967)

Hoping to cash-in on a holiday-flavored version of their earlier "Snoopy vs the Red Barron" a year earlier, the Florida-based novelty act Royal Guardsmen produced their hallmark number laced with seasonal mirth. Alluding to the factual Christmas Day truce between the Germans and British during World War I, anti-hero Snoopy takes to the December skies to engage the "bloody Red Barron." Goodwill towards men wins the day as a cascade of bells, horns and gang vocals trumpets the spirit of the season.

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