Friday, November 28, 2008
My holiday snack soundtrack
Hey, don't eat the pasta tree! Let's talk about something inedible this morning.
I'm a merrily uncool member of the Christmas Nerds Consortium (CNC) and the Sergeant-At-Arms of its offshoot, the "We Love Christmas Music" club. You may find our members hard to put up with this time of year, but I hope you'll refrain from wishing us ill.
I'm not saying I love that retailers begin putting up Christmas decorations and displays and playing winter holiday music in October. And I'm not saying everyone should be forced to listen to Christmas music everywhere he or she goes for almost two full months. I understand that not everyone observes Christmas, not everyone likes Christmas and that some people choose to celebrate a completely secular Christmas (and would rather not hear religious songs in public places). And I get why people might get sick of hearing the same songs over and over, too, as many stores seem to have the same holiday mixes playing overhead.
I also recognize that there are other holidays going on around the same time that get overshadowed by The Christmas Machine. I do try to be inclusive. I like non-Christmas holiday music, too (Does the Klezmer Nutcracker count?). Still, I will admit that I love Christmas music best -- when it's the "right" Christmas music (meaning: the style liked by me). So it doesn't annoy me in the stores if they're playing something I can appreciate, and it's on all the time in my house throughout December (when there's no one else at home who seems annoyed). And I'm trying not to be too annoyed by the songs (and arrangements) I don't like -- in the spirit of a happy December, etc.
So, while I celebrate Christmas attempting not to step on the toes of other holidays' celebrants, or on the toes of those who opt out entirely or have different traditions, and while I wouldn't force any part of the holiday on anyone uninterested, it just so happens that it's my favorite holiday. And I get excited about it. And a big part of how I enjoy the season is pulling out my Christmas music! Putting on that first record is a pleasant ritual. Some years I "sneak" a little, but my official self-determined rule is that I can start playing X-mas songs the day after Thanksgiving -- today! -- and that's when Christmas starts for me.
So, what's the "right" Christmas music in my opinion? It's not too narrow a category, or I wouldn't own more than thirty Christmas records in addition to a similar number of cds, but that doesn't mean I'm not picky.
Some of the modern "classics," frankly, make me itch. No offense to their fans, but there will be no Manheim Steamroller for me. I'm not into The Trans-Siberian Orchestra, though it has a nicely wintry name. I was okay with the "A Charlie Brown Christmas" soundtrack until I worked in a bookstore where it was played overhead constantly. Piano jazz overload! Now, no thanks. I'm not finding many albums I like from current recording artists, either. You won't find contemporary country, Christian, or pop music in my collection and when it's jazz I like it old and jumping, not modern and smooth. I also don't want to hear too many synthetic-sounding instruments unless maybe Information Society did a Christmas album I don't know about. I like vocalists I can sing along with, and often choose more up-tempo songs that move me around the house. I have to get things done! I'm not falling asleep in front of a fireplace (though I wouldn't mind having a fireplace). I mean, I have my contemplative moments, but they also tend toward the classics.
What I enjoy are the arrangements and vocalists of the 40s and 50s (earlier, if I can find it); decades-old jazz, gospel, and bluegrass; and the eclectic -- dixieland, organ, "lounge," etc. I'm always looking for something a little obscure that fits my mold, too. Some of the "easy listening" classics are a little too classic (i.e. overused). Or a little too "easy listening." Or just plain saccharine. I don't care to hear to Eartha Kitt sing "Santa Baby" 12 times the same way on 12 different albums. Bing doing "Christmas in Kilarney?" Once a year is almost more than enough. I'd rather discover Leroy Carr singing "Christmas in Jail - Ain't That a Pain" or a new-to-me yodeling Christmas carol from Austria.
A few years ago I started putting together a spreadsheet of all the songs I have, cross-referenced to the album or cd title. It's not finished, of course! I'm a nerd with librarian tendencies, but a lazy nerd with librarian tendencies. So far, I've listed 458 songs, including 10 versions of "Jingle Bells" (by the following artists: Arthur Godfrey, Barbra Streisand, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Meadows and John Eastman, Julie Andrews (and Andre Previn), Maddox Brothers and Rose, Milton Page, Robert Mason (instr.), Tex Beneke and the Modernaires with Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, and The Westminster Brass). And that's with 27 cds still to catalog. So you can see how I might need a whole month to listen to everything.
I was looking at that spreadsheet the other day, in anticipation of dusting off my holiday music this weekend. I have a modestly challenging collection, yes, but it isn't so big (and my place is not SO small) that I don't have room for one (or five) more. There have got to be cool songs I haven't heard. Am I the merriest I can be??!! I don't think so. Feel free to recommend your favorite albums or songs/artists in the comments.
In the interest of ending this post someday, I'll close with a few of my own recommendations and mention 5 of my current favorite holiday cds:
1. Where Will You Be Christmas Day?-- obscure recordings from 1917-1959, many bluegrass and gospel
2. A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector -- Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, Darlene Love, The Crystals, and The Ronettes
3/4. Christmas Cocktails 1 and 2 -- "ultra lounge" holiday music.
5. Happy Holidays/I Love the Winter Weather -- Jo Stafford (2 albums on one cd)
Are you lyrics-friendly? Looking for some smooth operators to sing to you? My favorite Christmas vocalists are almost all women. No gender bias meant, but they're easier for me to sing along with. ;) Their non-holiday music isn't too bad, either, by the way. They are:
Julie Andrews, Jo Stafford, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, The Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, Julie London, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, Kate Smith, Kay Starr, Lena Horne, and The Supremes.
Oh, but is there anything I like that is a bit more current? Why, yes! As noted, I'm not a big fan of Christmas Music made since the 1970s, but I have a few favorites from more recent years, my top pick being Sufjan Stevens' boxed set of Christmas music (originals, covers, many amazing arrangements, interesting instruments, etc.). I'm open to modern music, just cranky about most of it that I have heard to date.
So, here's to the tolerance of holiday music! Let's both do our parts. I'll try harder this year not to sneer when people talk about Hilary Duff's (to choose at random) cover of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve," if you'll try not to run over my toes with your bicycle just because I'm humming "Jingle, the Christmas Mouse."
Or maybe you're already in my un-cool club, in which case -- holler if you want to have a holiday record party!