Sunday, December 5, 2010

'Tis The Season: Great Christmas & Winter Rock Songs


Living in the frozen wasteland of the Upper Midwest as I do, Christmas and winter are interchangeable; in fact, it is said that Michigan has only two seasons -- winter and construction (ba-dump-bump!). Therefore, it is only natural, from a climatic sense, that I offer as a Yule gift -- to the one or two brave souls who actually read this blog -- a veritable avalanche of seasonal songs and holiday hits for your aural edification.

Of course, in the inimitable manner of the resident Dark Elf, these airs and arrangements are not necessarily your mother's cloying Carols or traditional rock tunes, so you won't see "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" by Brenda Lee, "Little Saint Nick" by the Beach Boys, "Wonderful Christmas Time" by Paul McCartney, or "Step Into Christmas" by Elton John on this list, because whenever I hear them my nervous system immediately shuts down and I go into anaphylatic shock due to profanely excessive saccharine overdose (or PESO, the acronym for the dread syndrome I have just scientifically identified).

No, we who live through this bleak season enjoy perhaps a brief interlude of the fabled "Winter Wonderland" scenario (snow just on Christmas day, preferably, and only layering lawns, housetops and evergreens, thank you very much), before the season descends into bitter cold, biting ice and the grayish slush that greets us every dim morn as we haggardly inch our way through turgid traffic jams whilst sliding o'er black ice-slicked roads. Bah, humbug!

And so, in an effort to maintain a merry equilibrium from equinox through solstice, it would do us all well to refrain from excess, noxious holiday cheer and listen to somber songs of sober presentiment as well as darling ditties of dubious delight; thus, of course, keeping in mind that half the world is starving while we gleefully fill our iPods with Santa Clausal frivolity. After all, the birthday we celebrate is not based upon the profligate whims of greedy mass-marketers. There is something a bit more to this day than getting stuff while stuffing ourselves. Thus spake the agnostic who still holds a glimmer of hope for mankind.

Have a happy Christmas and a hopeful, healthy New Year!

A Christmas Song - Jethro Tull
My favorite Christmas song. It has a traditional Old English feel, with welling strings and whispering mandolin (in lieu of lute), but with a decidedly modern moral take on the season ("The Christmas Spirit is not what you drink"). "Hey, Santa, pass us that bottle, will ya?"

7 O'clock News/Silent Night - Simon & Garfunkel
The juxtaposition of the world's greatest carol and the grim recitation of nightly news made this rendition of "Silent Night" a politically potent anti-war, anti-hate, anti-establishment protest song.

Happy Xmas (War is Over) - John Lennon & The Plastic Ono Band
Rousing and endearing, a tearful reminder of the loss of John Lennon, which echoes down the years and still touches some of us today.

Fairytale of New York - The Pogues
Perhaps the greatest Christmas song ever written. The pathos of a broken man reliving better days from a drunk tank on Christmas Eve reminds us that the highest incidence of suicides occur during the Christmas season. Cheers!

Wizards in Winter - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
I can just imagine this guy's electric bill.

Father Christmas - The Kinks
Pre-punk Christmas rock from snarky ol' Ray Davies.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town - Bruce Springsteen
Bruce is not my favorite, but he knows how get into the Christmas spirit.

Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy - David Bowie & Bing Crosby
The original odd couple, David Bowie and Bing Crosby. Obviously, they didn't discuss Bowie's rampant drug abuse nor Crosby's inveterate alcoholism. Hey, to each his own in regards to holiday cheer.

Winter Wonderland - Eurythmics
Annie Lennox has a wonderful voice.

Christmas at Sea - Sting
If Ridley Scott was to ever cast Gladiator aboard a tall ship on a wintry sea, this song would fit right in. Throw in Orlando Bloom as Balian the Pirate as well, matey.

Wintertime Love - The Doors
Jim Morrison waltzes into winter without a coat, gloves or shoes, and doesn't even notice.

Snowbound - Genesis
Yes, we all prefer Peter Gabriel as opposed to Phil Collins as lead singer for Genesis, but Collins trumps Gabriel in the sentimentality department. Which isn't always a good thing, granted.

New Year's Day - U2
U2 captures the bleakness of New Year's Day separated from loved ones by war and strife, and the hope of returning once again. To the loved ones, not the war.

Hazy Shade of Winter - Simon & Garfunkel
Hey, this is a Bangles song! What do you mean it was originally composed and performed by someone else? As if.

The Coventry Carol - Alison Moyet
A dark rendering of a very dark subject, Herod's slaughter of newborns. Makes you merry, doesn't it?

Blue Christmas - Elvis Presley
Elvis was once very charismatic before he became the pill-popping, peanut butter and 'nanner sandwich-eating mockery he later became.

Blue Christmas - Porky Pig
One of the funniest Christmas songs ever recorded. Th-th-th-at's all folks!

Ding Dong, Ding Dong - George Harrison
The silent Beatle makes some noise, and has a lot of fun while ringing in the new.

Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow - Jethro Tull
Another inspired Christmas tune from Ian Anderson and friends.

Girl From the North Country - Bob Dylan
I don't know how long this will be available on YouTube, given Sony's asinine greed, but this is a wonderful winter reverie from a very young Dylan.

California Dreamin' - The Mamas & The Papas
A perfect pour of icy pop into a frosty glass from 'Papa' John Phillips, 'Mama' Cass Elliot & Co.

I Believe in Father Christmas - Greg Lake
A decidedly bitter Christmas present from Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Rather like that same, stale fruitcake that gets passed around every year. Lake, however, triumphs over his own pessimism by song's end with a few words of hope and a magnificent crescendo.

Star of Bethlehem - Neil Young
This isn't really about the star of Bethlehem. In fact, by songs end, I am not even sure what the song is about. But Neil Young and Emmylou Harris make a great team, even if I am unsure what they're talking about.

12 Days of Christmas - Bob & Doug McKenzie
Who says Canadians can't throw a Christmas party? In any case, Bob and Doug McKenzie (SCTV's Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) offer up a Canucklehead parody of the tiresome holiday tradition. From up in the Great White North, eh?

Santa Claus and His Old Lady - Cheech & Chong
Even if you don't smoke pot, this addled epic will have you craving snack foods and giggling uncontrollably by the time it ends. A contact buzz, I suppose.

Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12-24 - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Another house wasting immense amounts of energy just to impress the neighbors. Meanwhile, the North Pole is deluged and poor Santa's workshop is flooded.

Do They Know it's Christmas Time - Band Aid
I think its fun to watch this video just to see how many ex-stars from 1980s have been arrested for engaging in sex acts in public restrooms. Do they have protected sex at all?


GREAT STOCKING STUFFERS:

Sting: A Winter's Night...Live from Durham Cathedral
If may seem off-putting to hear Sting singing in an 18th century style and sounding very unstingish, but this is a marvelous bit of winter musing recorded live in Northumbria's 10th century Durham Cathedral, with a host of talented musicians and vocalists. By the way, the title of Sting's studio recording of the same material If on a Winter's Night is from an Italo Calvino novel, If On a Winter's Night a Traveller.




The Jethro Tull Christmas Album
If ever there was a band that could capture the season and not sound contrived or over-sentimental, it would be Tull. Giving traditional tunes and themes a new lease on life, the band bundles ballads both new and old into an engaging package. My only complaint is that Tull decided to rerecord several songs that were already available on other albums. Unnecessary in my book.




A Winter's Solstice: Windham Hill Artists
Windham Hills has released about a hundred of these themed packages featuring various artists, but the original is still the best, and well worth a listen. Of particular interest are "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring", "Greensleeves", "High Plains, "Nollaig", and "Petite Aubade".

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a great list of songs. I'll be referring back to this again and again this season. Some I'd never heard before (Fairytale of New York) and some are classics (Blue Christmas) so you've got a great mixture here for almost every taste. I only have to say that I heard "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" about thirteen thousand times last year and can't even stand reading the title now, but I can see why it was included.

I also want to say I love this version of "A Coventry Carol", a song I've always been lukewarm about in the past. Thanks for posting this with the links and your gift ideas.

Funny, we used to get vinyl albums as presents but cd's are now "stocking stuffers". So is the music cheapened by being considered an "extra" instead of a "real" gift?

Iggy

nonfatman said...

Pleasantly surprised at you having included Snowbound on this list of great Xmas/wintertime songs, and I agree. I really like that one. I know what you are saying about Collins mawkish tendencies, but I don't think it was in full bloom on And Then There Were Three. The ballads, starting as far back as Ripples, I would say, tended to be a little formulaic, but they were still beautiful songs. Heathaze on Duke is another example, but there was really quite lovesick.

Tull's Christmas album deserves making your list, but I don't think it was as good as it could have been. I didn't have as much of a problem with the remakes as you did. Not all of them worked, but a few of them were quite good, like Weathercock for example, and were sufficiently different to warrant having been redone. I thought some of them, like Solstice Bells, came across as a bunch of inebriated guys singing Xmas carols at a party, rather than a polished song, and I think that was what Ian intended. I liked the three new songs a lot, except for the creepy stalker lyrics of First Snow on Brooklyn, and I liked most of the traditional Christmas instrumentals, but I thought a few of them were a bit cheesy. I thought the album was three stars out of five....I would have liked it more had Ian written a few more new Christmas songs for the occasion.

Jeff

AC said...

Ah, TSO. Gotta be my favourite Christmas music. I was hoping to see some on here. Now I don't have to bother posting them at C&K like I had originally planned :P

I don't have time tonight to listen to the whole list, but I think I shall in the next couple of days.