Christmas is in less than a week. Holy balls. This year, the season has felt like a blur of shopping, strategizing, shopping, running around and uh, more shopping so far. Hooray for adulthood, I suppose, but a large chunk of my spirit yearns for flannel pajamas and a big cup of cocoa, and ignorance of all the plans. For the most part, I managed to avoid the Targets of the world, but I did find myself in many a store, all with piped-in holiday standards over the soundsystem.
Are they trying to kill me?
I understand that in-store music is built to appeal the most common denominator, to offend none. To be aural wallpaper. The problem with that is people like me aren’t factored into the equation. People who can’t help but pay attention to whatever music surrounds them, be it a Wilco concert or the umpteenth easy-listening version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” over the Muzak. No music is background music in my world. It’s the reason I have Shazam on my smartphone; if I can’t identify the song I’m hearing, I go insane. I spent half of a recent viewing of the film Young Adult trying to think of the name of the freakin’ Teenage Fanclub song that plays throughout. (Spoiler: it’s this one.) If the music is bad in my opinion, I shall suffer.
Yes, this means that I’m a Christmas music snob, just like I’m a regular music snob. What equals “good Christmas music” to me is purely subjective, though. Mainly, it’s the stuff that brings back memories. Allow me to take you on a tour of the holidays, AngieMusic style. There will be cheese. There will also be Macca. And, just maybe, you’ll share a Christmas music memory with me.
These songs are what Christmas means to me, sonically. In no particular order:
Paul McCartney & Wings – “Wonderful Christmas Time”
I seriously couldn’t write while this was playing just now. I just rested my hand on my chin and stared sappily off into the middle distance. I remember this song playing on local radio, and MTV, incessantly in my youth. Simplistic and synth-tastic, this is not the best Paul has to offer, and that’s grading on a curve since we’re technically talking Wings here. But there’s just. Something. About this one for me. I hear it, and I’m 8 years old again. The choir of children sing their song…
Paul Revere and the Raiders – “Dear Mr. Claus”
Never come across this one before? I’m not surprised. Since time immemorial, if a musical artist gleans the slightest bit of fame, they can opt for the quick cash-in: the holiday record. I own Christmas albums from The Mavericks’ Raul Malo, from Al Green, from New Kids on the Block. (Boy, is that last one terrible.) But this gem comes from my mom’s record collection and childhood, from the Raiders’ 1967 album, A Christmas Past…and Present. Mom played this record all throughout her youth, and mine, so it has tons of sentimental value for me. The record as a whole is a hippy-dippy holiday lovefest, complete with shout-outs to the US Postal Service (“Rain, Sleet or Snow”), to the reason for the season (“A Heavy Christmas Message”) and to the Salvation Army street band, who play in bumpers throughout the record. This song got played the most in my home, a cheeky, Christmas-themed spin on Cliff Richard’s “Living Doll”. With an extended whistle solo! Hearing is believing. PS, I thought Mom’s record had a big ‘ol skip in it towards the end of this song, until I picked this up on CD.
Who doesn’t own at least one of the A Very Special Christmas compilations? They’ve definitely plummeted in quality as the years go on, but the first Very Special Christmas is an undisputed classic. “Christmas in Hollis”? Madonna vamping to “Santa Baby”? I love it, especially since this and the second Very Special Christmas were for many years the soundtrack to my family’s drives throughout swanky neighborhoods to look at/judge Christmas lights. (Once my little sister grew old enough to have a say, we listed to this a lot.) But the crown jewel in my estimation is U2’s contribution. Recorded on the Joshua Tree tour in 1987, the band’s at possibly the peak of their powers here. Just listen to Bono belt out that first line: “The SNOW’s coming DA-HOWWN”… Bliss.
R.E.M. – “Christmas Griping”
You would think my R.E.M. obsession of my teens and twenties couldn’t possibly bleed into Christmas. You would think wrong. For several glorious years, members of the R.E.M. fan club would receive a holiday gift: a vinyl 45 of the band performing exclusive covers and/or Christmas songs. The year I joined, 1995, was the best single: a cover of “Wicked Game” on one side and a cover of Al Hirt’s “Java” on the other. Now, I think you get a CD with a few live tracks or something, but they used to really put some effort into the Christmas singles. Thought diligent trading of tapes with fans, I managed to get a compilation of all of the R.E.M. fan club singles through 1994. My favorite immediately became 1991’s “Christmas Griping”, where the guys (and one woman) hilariously complain about holiday chores and traditions over a warped medley of Christmas tunes. I assume the woman griping is Kate Pierson, but I don’t actually know. This puts a smile on my face to this day. And I kinda want to go to Michael Stipe’s house for Christmas because of this song. One word: s’mores!
Band Aid – “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
Wow, Bono rates twice on my list. The original charity single, I believe, this one assembled pretty much anyone who was a famous British recording artist (Paul Young! Boy George! Um, Heaven 17?) and put them in a room together to sing and to fight poverty and starvation in Africa. The results are a million times better than they have any right to be. The B-side of the 1984 single was “Feed the World”, which consisted of these singers speaking pleas for help and holiday wishes over an instrumental of the A-side. My friends and I envisioned a remix where the message was “Feed David Bowie”. If only there were mash-ups in the mid-to-late 90s.
Vince Guaraldi Trio – “Chistmas Time is Here”
Before R.E.M. or Neil Finn, my childhood obsession was with the Peanuts gang. Thanks to the enduring popularity of the A Charlie Brown Christmas special, and friends’ and family’s extended memories, the Seibold home at the holidays is a Peanutty explosion. It’s sort of embarrassing how many Snoopy ornaments currently hang on our tree. And I buy or receive new ones every year! Just as welcome of a tradition is listening to the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, which brought us “Linus and Lucy”, the instrumental widely regarded as the Peanuts theme. Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy score is at once modern and timeless, childlike and wise beyond its years. That piano starts, and suddenly it’s the holiday soundtrack to every person who was alive from 1965 onward’s childhood.
And so, this is Christmas, to me. War is over. Happy holidays to you all.