Just as I was agonizing over whether to play my records from the 1970s from the end of the decade backwards or the other way around, I realized I had the perfect excuse to put off deciding: Christmas.
If you know me, then you know that when December rolls around, the “normal” records get put away and the Christmas music comes out. I can’t help it. There’s something ingrained in me and I can’t get it out…not that I would want to. I like Christmas.
Does that seem strange? As a lapsed-Catholic Buddhist Atheist (and, some would say, honorary Jew), I put my love for Christmas in the same category as my love for Jesus Christ Superstar. I don’t believe in all the old Christmas stories — Jesus and the virgin birth, the Wise Men and Santa and Rudolph — but I think they’re nice. And I certainly can’t get behind the modern holiday tradition that starts with Black Friday stampedes and ends when the malls close after sundown Christmas Eve. But I do like giving gifts when you find just the right one for somebody, I do like decorations and trees in the house and holiday cards, and I do like the music.
For some strange reason, I like some kinds of music only at Christmastime — country, for example…and the cornier, the better. Loretta Lynn does a wonderful hootenanny version of “Deck the Halls,” complete with fiddles and a very strange pronunciation of “apparel.”
I also find myself liking certain recording artists I can’t stand at any other time of the year. Why is that? Is it just the holiday spirit? Am I drunk? Maybe it’s that we expect holiday music to be schmaltzy and overblown, so we can get behind the Barry Manilows and the Mariah Careys and their theatrics for once.
Yes, Barry Manilow. He’s put out a few Xmas collections, apparently, and I can’t vouch for them all; but the one I’ve got, A Christmas Gift of Love, is brilliantly bombastic. He rips into “Happy Holiday” like nobody’s business, be-bops his way through “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and follows that with a jazzed-up version of “Home for the Holidays.” He slows it down for a nice interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” a good choice of song you don’t find on too many Xmas albums, and thankfully devoid of the dramatic crescendo and change of key found in every single one of Barry’s down-tempo top-40 hits, from “Mandy” right on through to whatever he ended with…or is he still going? I don’t know.
You’re to be forgiven for thinking I’m being a little (or a lot) sarcastic when I say this is a brilliant Xmas album, but I mean it. The Divine Mr. M, like most — but not all — Jewish recording artists, rocks Xmas.
It’s well known — and there’s a good article about it here — that many of the most popular Christmas songs, at least the ones not about Jesus, were written by Jewish composers and that some of the best yuletide performances on record are by Jewish artists as well. Go figure. Barbra Streisand’s A Christmas Album is a classic, and her version of “Jingle Bells” is just plain crazy. In a good way. Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You is also nothing short of a holiday classic.
As for other artists I only like at Christmas, consider the Roches. I like their holiday album, We Three Kings, quite a lot, but other albums by these three harmonizing sisters drive me to distraction. I can’t say I’ve ever listened to a whole album by Tiny Tim, nor have I wanted to, but his rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” complete with children’s choir, is killer.
Just as artists you normally hate become great at Xmas time, it’s interesting how recording artists you really like can turn suddenly bad. Al Green put out a bad Christmas album. Al Green! I know, I couldn’t believe it either.
Some singers record their holiday material grudgingly. Johnny Cash does a scary, spoken-word version of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” about a poor woman who dies weaving garments for her starving child. Merry! And he refuses to sing the rum-pa-pum-pums in his “Little Drummer Boy.” Joan Jett, on the other hand, gets totally behind the song on her I Love Rock and Roll album…a bit of an odd choice for a non-Xmas album, but I support it.
David Cassidy, normally so chipper, sings “Frosty the Snowman” as a dirge on A Partridge Family Christmas Card. Sure, the snowman dies, but isn’t that song really more about reincarnation? I also dislike the Carpenters’ holiday record, Christmas Portrait. (Where’s a dirge when you want one?) There’s just not enough Karen on it.
Did you ever notice how many Christmas songs are about being gay? Think about it. While we’re on the subject, Johnny Mathis gets a special shout-out for outing himself way before it became popular with his appropriately over-the-top “yoo-hoo” in “Sleigh Ride” (1958).
My favorite Xmas record of all time is the Andy Williams Christmas Album. If it’s a White Christmas you’re dreaming of, it doesn’t get much whiter than this. My mom loved this album when I was a kid, so I’m sure that has something to do with it. She probably had a crush on Andy. I’ll have to ask her one day…
Speaking of crushes (and caroling Jews), I bought Herb Alpert’s Christmas Album years ago, thinking it would be better. The instrumentals on here are, not surprisingly, better than the vocals — this came out right after “This Guy’s in Love with You,” Herb’s first attempt at singing and his first #1 hit. But people bought that record because he was sexy and sultry, not because he could sing. (Why does the analogy of Antonio Banderas acting in English-language movies spring to mind?)
And so, the TJB’s attempt to create a new seasonal classic for the ages with the somewhat obscure “The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle” falls flat. Maybe the burden of this band of pseudo-mariachis trying to be both Mexican, which they’re not, and non-Jewish was just too much. Nice try, though.
I could go on and on, but I have some serious decorating to do. ¡Feliz Navidad!