Noise 101 : Christmas CD Picks for Dec 3 Reflector
By Sean-Paul Boynton
Depending on when you’re reading this over the course of the holiday season, you’re either about to be bombarded by familiar Christmas standards being blasted out of every retail store’s sound system, or have just escaped that non-stop glee-fest. Either way, you’re undoubtedly familiar with this musical tradition, and unless you’ve been living under a rock your whole life, you know these songs off by heart, and may or may not want to kill yourself whenever you come across another Yuletide playlist.
Because, frankly, Christmas songs are downright depressing. Not because of the lyrics, necessarily, but because they’re so eager-to-please; one can picture the monstrous, toothy grins emanating from the speakers as any one of these songs play, leering creepily like skulls or Botox-injected plastic surgery victims. They all call for forgetting your sorrows and enjoying the simplicity of the holidays, not realizing that such a task is impossible to achieve. You can’t forget about the fight you had with your mom the other day just because “it’s Christmas,” and even if you try (and lord knows we all try), the resentment is still there, festering until the guests leave and you can finally let her have it.
So…why is an album of traditional Christmas songs the choice cut of the holiday season, especially one created by a man thought least likely to be such tunes? (He is Jewish, after all, and even though he became a hardcore Christian back in the late 1970s, he seems to have left the secularism and pulpit-preaching behind.) Well, for one simple reason: Bob Dylan gets it. He understands that, underneath every old-fashioned Christmas song, there is a deep sadness, a knowing that the quest for simple, lighthearted naivety is indeed futile, and such quests simply distract us from making the most out of what we have and getting over the hurdles that life throws at us.
Of course, this could all be useless over-analyzing, as Dylan and his band seem to be having an off-the-cuff ball with this whole affair, especially in the barroom polka-fied reading of “Must Be Santa,” and one can picture the smile on Dylan’s face in the first few lines of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” And let’s not get ahead of ourselves; no one is questioning Dylan’s Christmas spirit (and not just because he’s donating all the funds collected from this album’s sales to worldwide charities that help the hungry). He must have grown up with these songs just like the rest of us, and knows how deeply sewn into the fabric of the western world they have become.
But then again, the way these songs are played raises the question of just what Dylan is communicating here. Apart from “Must Be Santa,” the tracks are tackled at slow, stately crawls, drawing out dryly picked guitar notes and the dustiness of the drums. Even the occasional jingling bells sound lonely, as if being reigned in from some other Christmas party that’s much more lively. This is no more evident than on this crew’s version of “Christmas Island,” where the Hawaiian guitar licks and female chorus are almost biting in their sarcasm and bittersweet sentiment.
And then there’s that voice. While many laughed when imagining Dylan semi-singing “The Little Drummer Boy” in his present-day croak with all his now-familiar vocal inflections, the results here are ghostly, haunting, and rather sad. What becomes clear after just a few songs is that this isn’t the sound of a man singing Yuletide karaoke; this is an old-timer going through Christmases past in his mind, remembering all he has lost, all he has loved, and how it’s all gone, for whatever reason. Dylan’s reading of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” can bring a tear to the eye of the unsuspecting listener, and affirms the theme of the record: “I’ll be home for Christmas/If only in my dreams,” he sings defiantly in the closing last bars, his voice cracking with the secret knowledge that he won’t be seeing his loved ones tonight, but God knows he’ll try.
Is it a coincidence that the annual record for suicides is Dec. 26? Not at all, says Dylan, who always had a dark side and puts it to astonishing use here. The holidays are when many people that they’re alone; even if there are people in the same room, they might as well be alone just the same. There is no escape from the realities of life, no matter what season it is, and Christmas In the Heart ends up being one of the most honest holiday-themed albums made in recent memory, from the first ringing bell to the final “amen.”
Staff Xmas song picks
I grew up with A Very Speacial Christmas Vol.1 in the tape deck every December, and Christmas just ain’t the same without it. My favourite track from the motley assortment of ‘80s gems, ever since I was a little girl, has been Madonna’s “Santa Baby.” I don’t know why; I can’t relate to her frankly greedy wish list, but kudos to her for asking for what she really wants. And hey, dozens of other cover artists can’t be wrong!
For me, “Up On the Housetop,” released by the Jackson 5 in 1970, is my favourite eclectic Christmas song due to its cheesy, funky and bumping sound. Within the classic song are new lines about what each of the brothers wants for Christmas. While the older boys asked Santa Claus for guitars, basketballs, new shoes and a list of girls to kiss, the King of Pop wished love and peace to everyone. A Christmas party is not the same without this track.
Sitting in front of a fire and sipping hot cocoa while wearing fleece pajamas doesn’t even come close to the warm feeling in my heart when I hear “Last Christmas” by Wham. There’s just nothing that says “happy holidays” like letting your ex know how you’ve moved on to someone more deserving of your love. But in all honesty, I can’t help but sway my hips to George Michael’s velvety voice. By far my favourite holiday tune.
Over deadly funk-rock, Cristina recounts her fondest holiday memories: her mother pretending everything is fine for the sake of the family get-together, her and a boyfriend spending Christmas in poverty, and eulogizing a Christmas tree while her friends pretend to have fun at the disco. Despite being perhaps the most depressing holiday song ever written, the funk of the music makes me want to dance like no other X-mas tune around.
What can I say; this is a great song, and even better when featured in the film Love Actually. This song encapsulates what is Christmas for me, and how this time of the season makes me feel: “So if you really love Christmas, come on and let it snow.”
This song is the essence of my childhood. My dad and I used to listen to this song when putting up the Christmas tree every year. At one point I asked my dad if I could have singing chipmunks for Christmas; apparently those aren’t real. Like Alvin, I was always flat when singing along and putting on my handcrafted ornaments on the Christmas tree.
The unmistakable timbre of Elvis’s voice would send shivers down anyone’s spine. When it’s Elvis singing Ernest Tubb’s “Blue Christmas,” those shivers become shivers of Christmas joy. Tubbs’ 1950 version is more honky-tonk than merry, whereas Elvis’ 1957 version conjures visions of holiday memories with those we love and couldn’t bear to be away from during the holidays. Elvis called this the favourite of the Christmas songs he recorded, and I can’t help but agree.
There are several reasons why this song resonates as my all-time favourite Christmas jingle. First of all, what child wouldn’t want one of the most dangerous animals in Africa for a Christmas gift? I know I did (and still do). Along with loving the overall message of the song, one just can’t help but adopt a big, toothy, hippopotamus-like grin when they hear it.