Christmas Music for People Who Like Music

Four years ago, I was a cynic about Christmas music. It just seemed so full of shit. I was especially averse to the pop/rock stuff — with the exception, of course, of Joan Jett’s glam-rock “Little Drummer Boy,” which was clearly done for love, not money. It took living alone, romantic trauma, a dead dog, 9/11 and all that came after it for me to truly understand the absolute necessity — dare I say the glory and righteousness — of escapism through Christmas crap. That is, it took disillusionment of the most painful sort for me to finally respect the real power of illusion —and to use my illusion, if you will. Thanks to oldies radio — especially KOLA-99.9 FM (which has way better Christmas oldies than K-Earth) — I came to know the naked, embarrassing, sentimental and mystical comfort to be enjoyed and cherished in holiday pop music. Tuning into my old ’70s tube receiver over the past several years, I began to discover that the best Christmas pop of the ’60s and ’70s — far from feeling crass or canned — was some of the most genuinely inspired music of its time. Holiday music can ring so many bells at once: A song like the Peanuts’ “Christmas Time Is Here,” by Vince Guaraldi, is pretty and all, yet it’s so exquisitely melancholy, and beloved by so many millions of people, it’s become something much larger than itself. Sung by a group of children with a single piano beneath them, it’s a drowsy, jazzy ode to a dream about a dream that never comes true but also, magically, thankfully, never dies. Maybe it’s a dream of peace on earth. Peace and magic feelings and love. And comfort. Some sense of security. A longing for a security that doesn’t exist. The alt-country heroes Marah open with a crackerjack version of it on their ace new record, A Christmas Kind of Town (Yep Roc). By the way, I’ve sampled most of the new Christmas records out this season, and as a real record by a real band — not just a compilation of hits — Marah’s is the best. Like all good Christmas records, it’s not just a Christmas record: It’s a record. And it’s funny, engaging, familiar yet fresh — even for a non-country fan. Getting back to the Peanuts: One of the other very best CDs of the season is the reissue of the original A Charlie Brown Christmas, by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, put out by Starbucks. Okay, it’s Starbucks, but what the fuck can I say? It’s a perfect record. Perfect. Which is more than I can say for the misleadingly titled Forty Years: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Peak), a wholly unnecessary reworking of perfection by pianist David Benoit.While I was there Christmas shopping at ye olde crappy Starbucks, I also broke down and bought Elton John’s X-Mas mix, Elton John’s Christmas Party, and — natch — found it to be swell, and gay as hell. Why do women and gay men care about holidays so much more than most straight guys? (Rufus Wainwright’s “Spotlight on Christmas” — handpicked by Elton — is one of his best songs, and the Pet Shop Boys’ “It Doesn’t Often Snow at Christmas” is delicious.) Speaking of gay men: A John Waters Christmas (New Line), which came out last year, is okay but not as great as you’d hope. (The best song by far is “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” by Akim & the Teddy Vann Production Company, some weird thing he got off eBay sung by a child — a black-power take on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”).I really wanted to enjoy Brian Wilson’s What I Really Want for Christmas (Arista), a brand-new album of carols and redone hits (with various Wondermints, as usual, on vocal and other duties), but it feels sorta thrown together. “The Man With All the Toys” is yet another unnecessary cover of a classic, and yet it’s the liveliest cut on the album.But my favorite offering this year, reissued by Shout Factory after being out of print for a period of years — if you can possibly even believe it — is Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass’ Christmas Album. Just look at the cover, and you know what you’re in for. A sound they just don’t make anymore. No music sounds like this. How could music ever be so cheesy, and so cool, at the same time? Ah, the magic of X-mas.

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