Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas songs

So I gently teased Cathy for listening to the Roger Whittaker Christmas album while decorating the other day. But the fact is, it's the soundtrack to Christmas for her. Growing up, this was the record that her parents played a lot during the holidays, but especially when decorating the house. And while I have only done a few Christmases with their family, they do go all out, especially with the tree. Practically every ornament has a story about where it came from.

We're not quite at that level yet, but we're slowly building our own story. These things take time. But so far our story seems to involve a lot of Disney ornaments or ones made by the local jewelry school. Which is all good.

Anyway, I was making fun of Roger Whittaker, but I thought I would put up my favourite Christmas songs. I make fun of Christmas music and don't listen to much of it because, really, so much of it is just awful. And I'm not being a cynical bastard. If I was, I'd hate all Christmas music, but I don't. But if the ratio of a good song to a bad one is 1:50 (a number I'm pulling out of a hat), then Christmas music has the odds even more stacked against it. The ratio has to be 1:500 or something.

The fact I can pick 10 favourite Christmas songs is a sign of that. If you asked me to pick my Top 10 all-time favourite songs, couldn't do it. No idea where to even begin. It would be a nearly impossible task.

But here's my Top 10 Christmas songs. Once you get out of the Top 5, it gets pretty arbitrary, but the first five are pretty solid.

1. St. Stephen's Day Murders - The Chieftains and Elvis Costello. Yes, the title sounds particularly grim. And yes, the song is about contemplating murdering your family during the Christmas holidays. And yes, the song's narrator seems pretty joyful over the prospect of doing it. But it's a fun song about really loving your family, even with all the quirks. And even if, like nearly all of us, you're desperately ready for them to leave by the time St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day) rolls around.

2. Fairytale of New York - The Pogues and Kristy MacColl. All right, this one is depressing, no two ways around it. But it's classic, haunting and sad. And it never hurts to have a reminder that not everyone is having a merry Christmas.

And honestly, I can think of few lyrics that hit me as hard as these sung between Shane MacGowan and MacColl:

I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you

3. The Rebel Jesus - The Chieftains and Jackson Browne. I could put pretty much the entire Bells of Dublin album on this list, as I love it. But I'll stick to these two songs. This one just a reminder that perhaps there's more to Christmas than sales and to try and do better.

4. The Holly and the Ivy - Pamela Morgan and Anita Best. The entire album wobbles a bit and I'd love to hear Morgan and Best do an album without youth choirs and what not. But The Holly and the Ivy just shines, with two of the finest female vocalists in Newfoundland harmonizing beautifully.

5. Maybe this Christmas - Ron Sexsmith. Every blue moon someone comes out with such a simple, pretty Christmas song that it make you ache and wonder why more people can't do this. And then you remember that the really good songwriters make it look effortless.

6. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan. That the Barenaked Ladies can groove out a Christmas song and have some fun is no real surprise (sorry Laura), but it's always so refreshing to hear McLachlan sing something that doesn't sound like she's in mourning.

7. Song for a Winter's Night - Sarah McLachlan. Having said that, when she does it right, and you're not numbed by every single song sounding the same, she can do a pretty, slow and sad Christmas song (although it wasn't originally released as a Christmas song, it's been co-oped into one). I will also commit the sacrilege and say her version is better than Gordon Lightfoot's original. Sorry.

8. Snoopy's Christmas - The Royal Guardsman. Despite being absolutely played to death over the years, I still have affection for this song, which I loved as a kid. Although I remember being deeply puzzled and annoyed that the rest of the songs on the album were just standard Christmas songs and not more about the Peanuts gang and Christmas.

9. Gabriel's message - Sting. It's totally over the top and overly dramatic, but I do like it. It's one of the few Christmas songs that remain on my iPod year round.

10. I saw three ships - Bruce Cockburn. There are likely thousands of versions of this song. I just like Cockburn's guitar playing and the comfort of his voice.

Any favourites of yours that I should consider? And don't bother suggesting anything by Mariah Carey or I'll have to come over there and slap the life clean out of you. Seriously.

Last Five
1. There's a fire - OK Go
2. Two - Ryan Adams
3. You make lovin' fun - Fleetwood Mac
4. The man with the child in his eyes - Kate Bush
5. No surprises - Radiohead*


Vicky said...

How about "Good King Wenceslaus" by the Skydiggers?

Bob Izumi Jr. said...

I am a cynic, and I hate Christmas and its hideous music with the fire of 1,000 suns. But I love Fairytale of New York.

Matt, Kara and Hunter said...

This is pretty corny, but my favorite Christmas cd is the one that Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers did together. That is what my folks always played at home and it will forever be burned into my head that when that music is played it is Christmas time!

towniebastard said...

Alas, can't find that version of the song on iTunes, Vicky, although I'd be curious to hear it. The version of that song I have in my head, oddly enough, comes from Love, Actually sung by Hugh Grant.

And I think Fairytale is a Christmas song only cynics can truly love. It touches something in our small, shrivelled hearts....

Anonymous said...

Love FairyTale of New York. Misty Morning, Albert Bridge feels xmasy to me as well (especailly the video).

Couple more favs:
-Bono and Pavarotti doing Ave Maria
-Bowie/Bing doing Little Drummer Boy
-I saw Three Ships by Sting

Snoopys Xmas by the Royal Guardsmen reminds me of growing up. I think VOCM played it hourly.

I still have nightmares growing up from the amount of Roger Whittaker and Nana Mouskari I heard at Xmas

In Iqaluit said...

Thanks for the list, Towniebastard. Here are some that I like:

- All of "An Oscar Peterson Christmas" is very nice for both Christmas songs lovers and the ones who listen hesitantly. It's all instrumental but tres funky. And he is Canadian. But I think he passed away last January.

- "A Louis Armstrong Christmas" is great too.

- Sleigh Ride by KT Tunstall is fun.

- Frosty the Snowman by Fiona Apple is very classic-sounding.

Anonymous said...

I'll have to think about it. One of my favourite Christmas Albums is from a friend of mine actually, but I'm not sure if any of their songs makes my top ten, just the sum of the album.

But what I really wanted to say was I can't believe Happy Christmas (War is Over) by John Lennon isn't on your list.

colette said...

Amber Christmas and Bells of Dublin are on permanent rotation starting Christmas Eve. I agree with you on the kiddie choirs on Amber Christmas--save it for the kid's Christmas pageants please! And I've been trying to find a decent recording of Snoopy's Christmas--it's practically the only gimmicky Christmas song I like (and I include "Frosty", "Rudolph" and all that ilk in my version of the gimmicky set.)

I like the very earliest carols--The Cherry Tree Carol, The Coventry carol, the Wexford Carol, Lo, How a Rose etc, etc. (No surprise there hey!) TB, there's something called the "Green's Harbour Carol" which seems to be a version of the Cherry Tree Carol and apparently is unique to the Trinity South shore. I've been trying to find a recording of that (if one exists) for ages.

RASA put out a lovely Christmas CD, BTW, in case you're not aware of it.

Anonymous said...

you might get a kick out of this:



KOTN said...

The Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton X-mass album was teh bane of my childhood. Every bloody year.

Then, one July, my brother and I found it.....

and it was never seen again.

towniebastard said...

Good lord, a bit of feedback on this one. Let's see:

Clare, I respect that it's a good song and it's John Lennon and all, but it's been played so much it's pracitically Musak to me now. I might have a revelation on it later, but for now, it's background noise.

Colette, I like Rasa and I always mean to get their Christmas CD, but keep forgetting. And I just downloaded a copy of the Wexford Carol with Allison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma which is nice.

Anon, I do have some fondness for that Tom Waits song, but I kind of hold out that he'll do something better for the season at some point.

Kent, I think my parents "Houdoni'ed" my Snoopy Christmas at some point. And yeah, getting rid of the Kenny and Dolly was probably a good idea.

Anonymous said...

Christmas decorations? Christmas song lists?

What kind of bastard are you, anyway?

Mont said...

Great list, one song I'd have to put up there is "Merry Christmas Baby" by The Ramones. Nothing says Christmas quite like leather pants and a hurling Santa.


Anonymous said...

Hey TB since we are on the topic of Xmas and music, I guess this news was xmas come early for us all:


towniebastard said...

Santa must have thought I was a good boy this year. Yes, it might come back, but here's hoping it's gone for good.

SRD said...

have you guys been following the UK charts? leonard cohen at 3 places in the top 40 (1,2 and 36) with hallelejuh!