December 12, 2012
Back in the mists of time, the Christmas song – or even Christmas Album – was a contractual obligation of many recording artists. Even the Beatles found themselves subject to the tyranny of the Christmas record, putting out yearly recorded messages as a way to make up for not answering fan mail on time. The Christmas Song has proved to be the nadir of many a Band’s career and usually ends up as an embarrassing little side-note in retrospect. But eventually, the call of Christmas Music eventually proves too seductive for even the most credible of artistes.
It’s easy to see why, play your cards right and you get a chance at a very special kind of seasonal immortality – a place in the Christmas Celebrations of people the world over and most importantly, a steady stream of royalties from radio play and shopping centres. So it’s little wonder why acts from all genres have taken a crack at the Christmas record – but who does Christmas best? Is Christmas more suited to Jazz, Motown? Metal? Reggae?
In an effort to settle things once and for all, we’re putting the musical genres head-to-head in battle to the Christmas death.
Hymns and Carols
Dancefloor fillers they are not, but what would Christmas be without the Silent Nights, Aways in Mangers, The Decking of Halls? It would be Winterval. Political correctness gone mad I tell you! What modern Christmas hits have in floor-filling DJ-friendliness, traditional Carols and Hymns make up for in... like, tradition. Tradition, and the fact that many of us were made to sing them in all their droning, endless, 9 verse glory in school or church as youngsters once a year until we finally got to secondary school and they stop making you sing because you’ve suddenly become terrifyingly adolescent. But whatever your feelings on Christmas assemblies and endless church services, there’s nothing quite like the sound of a Brass ensemble playing Good King Wenceslas next to a tree or a Carol Choir singing Oh Holy Night because Oh Holy Night is not a song to be messed with.
Christmas Rating ****
Rat Pack Jazz & Swing
With members of the Rat Pack and their orbiting crooners trying their hands at everything from Original numbers to Christmas Carols and even Christmas Feature Films and TV specials, there’s a wealth of Rat Pack Christmas material to pick from. It’s lead to stars like Dean Martin and Bing Crosby becoming as much a part of Christmas as pine needles and excessive eating - if a Christmas song isn’t being bellowed out in a velvety croon, then it simply isn’t working. Though much of the Rat Pack’s appeal comes from the voices and the sound of a big band, there’s also something endlessly pleasing about their willingness to ditch the black tie for a nice Christmas jumper come December. These days, Rat Pack band leaders like Kevin and Mickey always find themselves pretty busy come Christmas proving that the old favourites show no sign of losing their shine as the years go by.
Christmas Rating *****
There are a few key features of Motown that make it the perfect fit for Christmas music. Firstly, the prominence of tambourines and bells on the backbeats of Motown tunes meant that sleigh bells fit nicely into the pre-existing structures of the songs. Songs were recorded to sound as good on a tinny car radio as they did on the loudest speakers and the resulting ‘high end bias’ is no doubt handy for making a song audible over the sounds of a busy shopping centre or supermarket (and though they're not strictly Motown there are similar techniques at play in Phil Spector-produced Christmas tunes from the 60s). Finally the label’s writing and recording process was frequently described as factory-like with studio boss Berry Gordon exercising his right to veto any song for not having the ‘Motown Sound’ – and who works in a factory? That’s right... elves. To this day, many of our DJs and function bands perform Christmas songs made famous by Motown artists. And don’t get me started on Purple Snowflakes.
Christmas Rating ****
A genre so covetous for bling should surely find plenty to sing about when it comes to Christmas right? You’d think so anyway. But what seems like a marriage made in heaven on paper makes you feel dirty all over in practice. Countless artists have tried their hand at the Hip Hop Christmas tune only to come out with something along the lines of Ludacrismas or 8 Days of Christmas. Funny, yes - but not exactly Purple Snowflakes. Even the mighty R-Kelly comes a cropper on World Christmas – creepy, sexy, Trapped in the Closet, running-out-of-tour-dates-to-serve-burgers-at-a-drive-through R-Kelly is always preferable to the ‘Peace and Harmony’ R-Kelly we get on his Christmas record. It’s not all bad though, Kanye West’s Christmas in Harlem manages to capture that warm fuzzy Christmas feeling with added sleazy talk about eggnog and an outro ripped from Strawberry Letter 23.
Christmas Rating **
Say ‘Make Me a Christmas Song’ to most modern bands and they’ll either give you a withering glare over the tops of their frameless NHS glasses or they’ll actually make you a Christmas song - but it’ll be all ironic. There was a time (specifically the 70s) when bands (specifically Glam Rock Bands) seemed not only happy to make Christmas tunes, but maybe preferred it to doing anything else. After Wizzard and Slade duked it out for Christmas number 1 with I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day and Merry Christmas Everybody respectively, it seemed like everyone in platform shoes wanted in on the seasonal song game. Mud, the Wombles and Showaddywaddy all released teeth-grindingly awful Christmas tunes that still make their way into Christmas playlists to this day. Step in to Christmas is good though, isn’t it? So few songs have the class to welcome the listener to the song in the first verse. That’s classy. Good for Elton.
Christmas Rating ***
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