We got our Christmas tree today, which means that Christmas music is now an inescapable reality for the next 19 days. In order to insulate myself from this yearly aural assault, over time I’ve developed a catalog of “go to” Christmas music to insert into the rotation whenever the (dreaded) question “should we listen to some Christmas music?” is posed. Here then for those unable to take one more year of Christmas muzak are some alternatives. And though they don’t escape the melted candy-cane gooieness of the season completely, if you can get them onto the playlist, you might be able to ask for something other than ear plugs from Santa this year.
1. John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together
Anything from this CD is great! One of my fondest Christmas music memories is listening to this album with my friend Shane while serving an mission in Thailand. We were at a Christmas party for the missionaries in our local area and had ensconced ourselves next to tape player in order to prevent the holier among us from plugging in anything by the Motab. About the third time round the full tape the mission leader came by and ask, “hey, haven’t we heard this song already?” Shane and I looked at each other, looked at the mission leader, and said together: “nope.” Liars may go to hell, but sinning never sounded so good.
2. Mannheim Steamroller: Christmas
This CD has long been my answer when asked to “put on some Christmas music.” The best part of Mannheim Steamroller: Christmas is that it’s legit, honest to goodness Christmas music. Deck the Halls, We Three Kings, the whole works. It just happens to be arranged in non-tedium inducing ways. Yes, I’m the first to admit that the Kurzweil’s haven’t aged particularly well, but they beat the hell out of anything about anthropomorphic snow men and dead grandmothers.
3. Handel’s Messiah
Again, what you’re after when dodging Christmas music is anything that doesn’t sound like Wonderbread with a slice of beige fabric topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. So even if you’re not a classics person, Handel’s Messiah is totally listenable when faced with the alternatives. It is a complex piece filled with dynamic voices (both instrumental and human) and is truly amazing when you actually listen to it in its entirety. One of my earliest memories, in fact, is going with my family to hear Handel’s Messiah one Christmas when I was about five. I remember two things in particular: First, trying my best to sing “for, unto us a child is bo-o-o-ooo-oo-oooorr-oorr-orrrn!” And second, the green plaid pants my mom dressed me in for the occasion (the fact that I still remember those pants so vividly either means that I looked rockin in them, or that even in 1978 green plaid was gauche).
4. Trans Siberian Orchestra: whatever in limited doses
Trans Siberian Orchestra is getting to be a bit ubiquitous, but compared to the alternatives, how can you not embrace the conflation of rock opera and Christmas music!? TSO is like Muse for me; I’m good for one or two songs, but midway through the third I’m ready to come up for air and dial things back from 11. Winter Wizards is perhaps their most famous piece, thanks to some creative holiday lighting, but Christmas Canon is my personal favorite (though this video is, as fitting a rock opera, a tad cheesy).
5. Sting: Gabriel’s Message
Sure, lots of rock stars do Christmas songs, and some of them are actually pretty good (Annie Lennox’s Winter Wonderland, for example). But the thing I like about Gabriel’s Message is that it’s actually about Christmas, unlike, say, Santa Baby or even U2’s It’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). As an aside, the A Very Special Christmas CDs have some good songs on them in this vein.
6. Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy with Will Ferrell & John C. Reilly
A shot for shot remake of the David Bowie & Bing Crosby song/video done 100% sincerely until the end, which makes it perfect. Comic Christmas music has its place, but tires so quickly (please no more Bob and Doug McKenzie’s 12 Days of Christmas). This, however, will have a warm place in my heart for years to come.
7. Little Drummer Boy
I like the story, Rankin/Bass’s hack job not withstanding.
8. Select Christmas Hymns
The goal, again is to find the non-boring stuff, and believe it or not, your local hymnal probably has one or two solid Christmas tunes in it that won’t put you to sleep. My go to’s in the old hymn book are Angles We Have Heard on High and I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. The first because the harmonies on the chorus are fun to listen to (almost as much fun as listening to your typical congregation trying to sing them). And the second because it’s so amazingly dark for a Christmas hymn. I mean, “And in despair I bowed my head: ‘There is no peach on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.” Yeah, Longfellow recovers nicely in the fourth and fifth verse, but man, how very honest for a season which has become one of self delusion and temporary Christian conviction.
All right, so there you go. Christmas music to get you through the month of Christmas muzak. To quote John Hodgman, you’re welcome.