December has barely begun, yet it already feels as though we have been subjected to Christmas music for an entire holiday season. Familiar tunes have permeated retail environments for weeks now, and commercial television has been hijacked by the relentless yuletide promotions of jewelers and department stores. The frenzied songfest will only intensify as the Last Shopping Day approaches.
For those with an insatiable appetite for perennial holiday favorites, it’s a golden time. Personally, I find a few Christmas songs in the week leading up to December 25 to be sufficient, but I’ve usually had more than my fill by then. When it comes to Christmas music, I prefer be selective, which means embracing the recordings I appreciate while avoiding the ones I hate. The latter effort, however, can be quite difficult.
Of the traditional carols and hymns, the one song that I truly loathe is The Little Drummer Boy. What don’t I like about it? Everything. Its worst offense is what may be the dullest refrain ever penned: pa rum pum pum pum. This is a fatal flaw, as the annoying phrase is repeated incessantly. All that remains is a monotonous melody with a lyrical narrative that drives me up the wall. All my life, even when I was a child myself, I’ve wanted to grab that kid by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. “Listen, drummer boy,” I’d snarl menacingly, “the newborn king doesn’t give two figs whether or not you have a gift for him, and he sure as heck isn’t going to be pleased by some ankle-biter beating away on a snare drum!” I don’t care if it’s meant to be taken metaphorically. It’s a stupid analogy.
The only possible saving grace for The Little Drummer Boy is that some variations include the line, “The ox and ass kept time.” Regrettably, that synonym for donkey, the sole bit of double-entendre joy in an otherwise boring exercise, is now customarily omitted in favor of lamb. I wish the song would go away, but like its obnoxious refrain, The Little Drummer Boy is played unceasingly this time of year.
If that were all that I found intolerable about Christmas music, I might still be able to handle the typical hour of holiday radio programming. Unfortunately, there seems not to exist such a block of broadcasting that is free of the gadawful Mannheim Steamroller staple Deck the Halls. Oh, how I hate it. And this is coming from someone who actually likes electronic music. I mean, criminy, I enjoy everything from Keith Emerson and DEVO to Isao Tomita and Wendy Carlos, so I’m no elitist snob. But the pulsating bass line, wailing lead synthesizer, and look-at-me, cutesy-pie, faux-jazzy fiddling around with the melody makes me want to stick forks in my eyes. Or better yet, my ears. I’ve had farts that were more creative. And yet, try walking from the far end of a big box retailer to the cash registers without hearing it.
Even my heroes can disappoint me during these endless days of Christmas pop. Paul McCartney, whom I revere as the greatest songwriting musician of our time, also contributed a holiday ditty that I despise nearly as much as Little Drummer Boy and Mannheim Steamroller’s Deck the Halls. You know the one I’m talking about. Wonderful Christmastime. It was recorded during a period in which the future Sir Paul seemed unable to separate the wheat from the chaff, right around the time he made the wildly uneven Back to the Egg, which might as well have been called Diamonds and Turds. How could an album that included the brilliant Arrow Through Me, Getting Closer, Again And Again And Again, and Baby’s Request also feature the abysmal Spin It On, After The Ball/Million Miles, and Old Siam, Sir? Only his producer knows for sure.
And only McCartney knows what was going through his head when he made one of the cheesiest Christmas songs ever. It would have been bad enough had he been satisfied with the the clunky verse and sappy chorus. But the falsetto representation of children singing ding dong is simply unforgivable. You have to ask yourself, did the old Beatle really like this awful song, or was he trying to see if he was infallible on the charts? In any case, he’s had the last laugh, as Sir Paul reportedly earns annual royalties of half a million dollars from Wonderful Christmastime alone. (So if you should ever find yourself knocking back a few eggnog at the pub with Macca, don’t feel bad about letting him pick up the check.)
One might conclude from my tirade that I’m some cynical Grinch who abhors all Christmas music. Not so. In fact, my album collection includes a pair of Christmas efforts that I regard as two of the finest albums ever recorded, holiday-themed or otherwise. The first is A Charlie Brown Christmas, Vince Guaraldi’s terrific 1965 soundtrack to the classic Peanuts special. What an inspired idea to complement a comic strip’s satirical take on the commercialization of Christmas with the improvisations of a jazz trio. To this day, the rollicking Linus And Lucy is the musical essence of Peanuts. But nostalgia aside, the album stands on its own as a simultaneously joyful and contemplative interpretation of the holidays.
Then there is the truly wonderful Home For Christmas from Amy Grant. Released in 1992, it was Grant’s second Christmas album. Her first was recorded nearly a decade earlier, and though it is a pleasant enough collection, it is somewhat dated by its heavy reliance on keyboards, a fashionable sound at the time. Home For Christmas is lavishly produced and achieves a timeless feel, the sort of album that just as likely could have been made today as half a century ago. The orchestral arrangements are worthy accompaniments to Grant’s beautiful voice, which had matured since her earlier Christmas effort. What’s more, Grant delivers the definitive version of David Foster and Linda Thompson’s great Grown-Up Christmas List, which is to Wonderful Christmastime what up is to down.
Amy Grant is the exception to a general rule that Christmas albums are stopgaps when an artist isn’t sure what to do next, and multiple Christmas albums from the same artist are a sign of creative and economic desperation. Witness the yuletide struggles of the band Chicago. In 1998, frustrated by their label’s shelving of Chicago 22 (Stone of Sissyphus) and on the heels of an album of big band covers and two more greatest hits compilations, they released Chicago XXV: The Christmas Album, an uneven collection of standards and originals. It was followed by a live album and yet another hits compilation. In 2003, they shamelessly rereleased their previous Christmas effort with the addition of six new songs and dubbed the endeavor What’s It Gonna Be, Santa? The next year, former bandmate Peter Cetera, in an attempt to find success with his own ridiculously titled holiday disc, put out You Just Gotta Love Christmas. And just this past October, after even more greatest hits packages, Chicago fired back with Chicago XXXIII: O Christmas Three (yes, Three, though really it should be O Christmas Two-And-A-Half). The utter chutzpah of this move prompted Cetera’s brother Kenny to suggest that the band missed a great opportunity; they should have invited their old friend to rejoin the group and called their product For Pete’s Sake, It’s Another Christmas Album!
As for O Christmas Three, I cannot responsibly judge what I have not heard. But I feel it’s only right for me to issue a warning. The first track – and I swear on Rudolph’s red nose that this is true – features Dolly Parton on Wonderful Christmastime.