There are only so many variations of the Twelve Days of Christmas, Winter Wonderland, and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer that one can endure. That being said, the first couple weeks of listening to the music each season, elicits that sense of joy, nostalgia, and the spirit of love, giving and acceptance that the Christmas holiday is meant to inspire.
So, I’ve decided to share some favorite holiday songs now, while they still bring cheer instead of the panic over those gifts I’ve forgotten or not had time to buy, anxiety over the immense and intense crowds in proximity of ANY retail store, or calculations of the amount of wine it will take to hear one more “super interesting” story at yet another random holiday party.
Without further delay- a list of a few kicking around my iPod this year…
This song has that timely yet timeless quality to it. On one hand, it has that late 50s/early 60s feel with the guitar licks, saxophone runs, backup singers and Brenda’s particular vocal style to transport you back to that “Christmas party hop.” Yet simultaneously, it still manages to translate each year, perhaps in part through the tradition of hearing it, but in large part due to the lyrics that relate to the tradition of the season itself- “you will get that sentimental feeling when you hear, voices singing, ‘Let’s be jolly Deck the halls with boughs of holly.’ And in the end, let’s be serious, she not only talks about rockin’ around the Christmas tree but she makes you truly believe it, and doesn’t that sound much more fun than simply gazing at and talking about it?
2) I know it’s cheesy, but it’s so darn catchy– Last Christmas, Wham! (1984)
Reaching Number 2 in the UK charts and in the top 10 throughout most of Western Europe with the single selling over a million copies in 1984, the song has inspired over 100 covers (from Taylor Swift to Coldplay to Florence and the Machine (!?!) and most recently even Gangnam Style), it lives on in the form of radio play throughout the world.
But it’s the original in all its 80s glory, replete with synth sounds, the distinct and far reaching depths of George Michael’s voice, images of 1980s attire and hair, and that familiar and catchy refrain, that keep people coming back for more or attempting reproduction. Disguised by its upbeat façade, in the end, it is a song about love lost that begins with hope of starting anew, only to reveal the vulnerability and persistence of the human heart to forget the hurt and potentially make the same mistakes again (whoa Wham! why do you have to get so deep)… “Now I know what a fool I’ve been, but if you kissed me now I know you’d fool me again.” So, if not this year, “Maybe next year I’ll give it <my heart>… to someone special.”
3) Battle of the Religious Carol Covers– O Holy Night, Josh Groban Version (2002)
Originally a French poem turned musical carol circa 1855 (apparently the same year in which Delaware and Massachusetts declared Christmas a legal holiday), O Holy Night is about “the night of our dear Savior’s birth.”
For the religious among you, this is a defining event in the Christian faith and the song pays homage to such significance. The lyrics itself convey the gravity and hope that such an event bestowed upon the world that lay “in sin and error pining, ’til he appeared and the soul felt it’s worth.” (Heavy, I know…) The original musical translation attempts to do justice in conveying that power, that feeling, in describing an event that means so much to so many people and the reason that Christmas is still celebrated today. However, ultimately, the interpretation and presentation of the song are essential to make it not only harmonious but to make it convincing enough to produce the intended emotion.
Top covers of the song have included a number of famous artists, but the one that wins out for me is Josh Groban. Some of the other famous renditions have included Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. Bing Crosby’s version (1962) was perhaps one of the more memorable to first make radio play, but Bing’s smooth, cool, almost too calm style fails to give the piece the treatment it deserves. In contrast, we have the version by Mariah Carey (1994), who has gained her diva fame in her ability to reach notes unthinkable. She definitely has the range and emotion to make the song convincing, but it almost seems to build too soon that by the time the song is supposed to reach its climax, it’s a bit of a let down.
Therefore, it is Josh Groban’s version (2002) that wins out for me, as he seems to get it just right. The build is actually so gradual that when he pulls out the final crescendo sequence, it really does feel like a “night divine.”
I suppose if Josh Groban was giving a private concert, it would be even more divine, but speaking of playful, let’s leave these hopes and dreams aside and move onto something a little lighter…
How could we have a best of holiday list without this one? With its slow swing beat as defined by its simple yet distinct instrumentation, contrasted by the high-pitched singing and dialogue, the song tells the story of Mr. Seville and his rambunctious chipmunks- Alvin, Simon and Theodore. It incites childhood nostalgia for the beloved once radio turned cartoon characters that made a revival in the early 80s just in time to become a staple in my Saturday morning cartoon line-up. But even more, the song encapsulates memories of childhood itself during the season in anticipation of the holiday, “We can hardly stand the wait, please Christmas, don’t be late…” Yes, please don’t!
And as a perfect segue to the song that seems to speak to me most this season….drum roll, please-
5) Overall Personal Favorite this Year– Thank God It’s Christmas, Queen (1984)
The clever and subtly sarcastic title aside, this song fits the bill for the not too sappy, not too over-the-top, but jusssst right song for me this year. It’s just enough 80s, just enough holiday feel, just enough sentimentality, and just enough Freddie Mercury. The song starts out with a somber but hopeful tone indicating the anticipation of relief that the holiday will bring for what has been “a long hard year,” accompanied by the slight jingle bells in the background for recognizable holiday flair. Although not packing the power of some of Queens’ more memorable hits, Freddie still manages to give his persuasive killer vocals to compel even the uninspired to “Thank God it’s Christmas.” And this year, “all my friends, on this one day of days,” I will be too.