Tag Archives: Christmas

Treed

 

I decided to run a not-entirely-necessary errand in the city yesterday. I could have put it off until next week but I wanted an excuse to see the lights and the city tree — or at least a tree in the city of Boston — before Christmas.

This here is my kind of Christmas tree. It’s just a little bit lopsided, and the lights were hung with care, but not with obsessive precision. It’s charming and human and analog and friendly and 100% in keeping with the spirit of the season.

Sometimes, I look at holiday decorations and I can only imagine the sorts of arguments that broke out at every step of the process. It’s definitely the result of two or three highly-fussy people butting heads all day, with each one repeatedly insisting that the others were “doing it wrong” and sighing that “it’s up to me, alone, as always, isn’t it?”

Result: a very pretty house. And a catalogue of petty resentments that have almost, but not really, blown over when it’s time to decorate again next year.

(“Mom? It’s almost time to open gifts. Is Uncle Dave coming to Grampa and Gramma’s Christmas party?” “Shut up. But tell me: doesn’t Grampa’s inflatable Santa totally make much more sense there in the front yard, next to the mailbox? You’re not opening any presents until you agree that putting it close to the house, by the walk, would have been completely insane.“)

 

This was a Three-Tree Holiday Season for me. I seemed to be campaigning my way up the Eastern seaboard and checking off big city trees as I went. I saw the National Christmas Tree in DC. It was a perfect cone with such a precisely-laid grid of LEDs that I was a little disappointed that it didn’t blink over into a conical video ad for LG 4K HDTVs every six minutes. The Rockefeller Center tree is somewhere on the “amazing” spectrum, for sure. But it’s huge, and up on something that looks uncannily like an altar, and it seems to demand that you bow down before it. The fact that the approach is preceded by trumpeting angels and terminated by a huge golden man grasping fire adds to this off-putting “LAY THE BODY OF YOUR FIRSTBORN BEFORE ME AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE CAROLS” vibe.

The tree in Boston Common hits it right on the nose. Tall and proud, bright and beautiful, well worth the trip, and at no point is any reasonable person inspired to wonder how many additional teachers’ salaries could have been paid with the budget for that thing.

It was colder last night than I imagined it would be, and the steady drizzle made me regret using my daypack’s umbrella pouch to hold a camera monopod instead of the item the good people at Osprey Bags intended. I walked from Copley Square to South Station, spending time at the library, the Public Garden, the Common, and the shop windows at Downtown Crossing.

I found myself in a rather prayerful mood as I strolled through the evening mist, my hands clasped behind me. I was aided by the weather, I suppose. But I gave thanks for the people in my life, and I thought pleasant, comforting thoughts and enjoyed many fine memories of those people I’ve lost.

Plus, I arrived at South Station early enough to get a burrito at Chipotle before my train. All in all, it was a very good day.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

Programming Note For Those With Taste

The David Letterman Christmas Spectacular — which isn’t the official title of the last new Letterman show before Christmas but absolutely ought to be — is airing this Friday night. Please check your calendar, set your DVR, wind your watches, block your hats, and nog any eggs whose palatability could be improved by such a procedure.

This show is a beloved holiday tradition in my house. For decades, the show’s followed this same template:

Paul Shaffer tells the story of a Cher Christmas special that aired in the 70s, and then does his impression of Cher singing “O Holy Night”:

Jay Thomas comes on and goes into what Dave has endorsed as The Greatest Talk Show Guest Story Ever Told:

And then Jay and Dave compete in the Late Show Holiday Quarterback Challenge. They take turns chucking footballs at the meatball on top of the Late Show Christmas tree until one of them knocks it off.

“Why is there a meatball on the top of the tree?” you may well ask. You may also ask why it’s on top of a souvenir Empire State Building that’s on top of a large cheese pizza. The original reason for it is no longer relevant because, like all family traditions, the correct answer is now “Because it’s Christmas. And at Christmastime, we always put a cheese pizza on top of the tree, and then cover the top spiky branch with a souvenir of the Empire State Building, and then plop a giant meatball on top of the whole thing.”

Then there’s a guest, and then there’s the moment the whole show has been building towards: Darlene Love sings “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)”.

There’s such obvious joy on every square foot of that stage. Chorus, strings, extra horns, the blonde curly-haired keyboardist who supplements Paul in the keyboard pit every time an arrangement on the show calls for four hands (I can’t believe I couldn’t find her name on Google), the fake snow, the special lighting…it’s obvious that the whole show derives enormous pride and pleasure in these three or four minutes. As well they should!

[Edited to add: reader Tim Schwab suggests that the band’s second keyboardist is Bette Sussman. Yup.]

Am I spoiling it for you by embedding all of these clips? Of course not. Is it spoiling your family Christmas party to know in advance that your Aunt is going to play “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” on a concertina, that your grandfather will wear the same Santa tie that he wears every year, and that your Mom will be bringing those mini pecan pies that she bakes inside muffin tins? Of course not. I look forward to this for weeks for the same reason why I usually order the same sandwich at my favorite diner. I loved it the last time and I know I’m going to love it the next time.

I’m informed that Jay Thomas won’t be telling his story or hurling a pig product at a cow product this year. Dash it. Well, I’m sure that they’ll find a way to use that time that will provoke Letterman fans to say “Hey, remember that one Christmas when they…” for many years to come.

I’ve always felt some sympathy for the one “normal” guest booked for that show. Everyone else on that stage has an established, eagerly-anticipated part to play. The guest probably feels like they’re joining their boyfriend or girlfriend’s family Christmas dinner for the first party. Should they join in on the traditions, or wait until they feel entitled?

This year, they’ve got Kristen Wiig, who clearly knows how to make some funny in any situation. Actually, by this time in the “Anchorman 2” promotional campaign, I reckon she can make some funny and plug the movie in any situation up to and partially through the Biblical apocalypse. If Dave got raptured during the interview, she’d probably slide into the empty chair and use some of her anchordesk material, barely even noticing the angels as they cleave their way through the audience with swords of purifying fire.

(You have to admit: we’ve been hearing an awful lot about this movie for a very long time.)

When Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” he intended to document and popularize ways to celebrate the holiday. It was like one of those Martha Stewart Christmas magazines, only the polar opposite of smug and insufferable. The sole downside of that book is that it’s probably guilted a lot of people into trying to honor the Dickens tradition instead of anticipating and enjoying events and celebrations that have some personal relevance.

I do not go caroling, I don’t cook a goose, and though I’ve attended lots of Christmas parties, I’ve never polished and buffed my calves in advance in hopes that they would “shine like moons”, as Old Mr. Fezziwig’s did.

But I do watch the David Letterman Christmas Show. I’m keeping Christmas my own way and am made quite glad of it.

Amazon Advent 03 – “White Wine In The Sun” (Tim Minchin)


Album Art

White Wine In The Sun

Tim Minchin

Ready For This? (Live)

Genre: Miscellaneous

Continuing my kickoff theme of “Comedians, And Please Give Them Their Full Due As Musicians,” we have this triply-appropriate and hugely wonderful track from Tim Minchin. (1) The album is filled with clever, funny songs; (2) but “White Wine In The Sun” is just a flat-out beautiful piece of music; and (3) as a bonus…it’s actually a Christmas song.

Add Tim to my growing list of “whiplash musicians.” I went from not having the slightest inkling that he existed, to hearing my first Tim Minchin song, to owning everything of his that was available in the Amazon MP3 Store, to being very sad that I then had to wait for him to release his next album just like every other Tim Minchin fan…all in the space of about an hour.

I absolutely freakin’ love Tim Minchin. My first Tim Minchin song was “Prejudice.” It’s catchy, and funny, and thus it’s exactly the sort of link you’d receive as an IM on a slow weekday mid-afternoon. Mr. Minchin was nice enough to post a video of the song to his YouTube channel, so I’ll just go ahead and embed it right here-ish:

That’s, like, nine pounds of clever in a five pound bag. I had gone my entire life without realizing that “Ginger” was an anagram of a highly offensive word. And now, it’s difficult for me to think of it as anything else. It serves as a valuable reminder that wordplay, like all active sports, often leads to careless injury. So if you’re going to let your son or daughter go out and spoonerize with other children, make sure they’re wearing protection.

(Aside: I had no idea until very recently that “ginger” is used as a derogatory term for redheads. Is that a European thing? [Edited: or an Australian thing?] It isn’t an American thing, right? We had red-headed kids in my school and yeah, I think many of them got teased. But only under the eternal rubric of “we’re 284 children plucked from our safe and familiar surroundings; we’re hoping that if we ruthlessly tease any kid who’s in any way different, maybe nobody will sense how terrified we all are.”

I never even heard of that use of “ginger” until a few years ago…and I had thought that my experiences with the Mean Kids faction of my junior high school had left me with an exhaustive database of derogatory insults. True, I didn’t have red hair. But I also had no developmental disabilities nor any desire to kiss boys, and the Mean Kids sure didn’t let those details stop them.

In a way, this fresh use of “Ginger” is reassuring. It’s additional evidence that butt-headed prejudice has no rhyme or reason. It’s just a kind of free-flailing tendril of idiocy that doesn’t really care what it latches onto. Now that I know I can’t do anything to personally eradicate prejudice on a worldwide scale, the pressure’s kind of off, isn’t it? End of aside.)

When you’re done laughing at “Prejudice,” switch off the part of your brain that understands English and listen to the song again, solely as a piece of music. That’s some powerful late-Seventies arena-style singer-songwriting, isn’t it? Most of Minchin’s songs remind me of one of Jeff Koons’ monumental-scale balloon animals. It’s a colorful item of obvious whimsy. But the thing’s twenty feet tall and it’s made out of stainless steel. The thing is structurally-sound, thanks to the impressive amount of engineering and fabrication work that went into its production.

“White Wine In The Sun” is a pretty, pretty song. It packs a punch, too. The best way to describe it is as “A Christmas song for nice people who happen to be atheists.”

I hope my atheist friends aren’t offended by that turn of phrase, which I’ve been in love with from the moment I first encountered it. I saw it in a post by an atheist, who used it to describe his default appraisal of religious folk: “Nice people who happen to believe in God.” It’s perfect. I think this basic form describes the vast majority of people.

First and foremost: “Nice People.” Regardless of what sort of jewelry we wear around our necks or what kind of bumper sticker we put on our cars, we know that we all agreed to at least try to be nice to each other, as one of the simple Terms And Conditions associated with the license for human DNA. If you’re upset about that, then you should have read the whole document before clicking the “I have read and agree to all of these terms” and then hitting “Install.”

Then comes the “…who happen to…” bit. However you choose to perceive the big picture of our reality, primarily you’d like to be define yourself as a Nice Person, instead of being perceived through the weird veil of a clumsy adjective. Further, there’s no need to describe atheism or religion in anything other than a neutral tone.

At its core, though, this construct underscores the premise that a nice person is a nice person because of who they are and how they treat people. Maybe their nature has been positively shaped by religion, maybe it’s been positively shaped by rational influences (again, going solely from a non-judgmental dictionary definition of “rational”). So long as they’re nice people, what does it matter?

The singer of “White Wine In The Sun” kicks the song off by saying “I really like Christmas.” Then he calmly states his objections to religious holidays. And although he makes several valid points against religion specifically, they’re gentle and subtle ones, and he’s only mentioning them in passing.

He saves his intense emotions for the main bit, where he explains why he treasures this holiday: he gets to spend time with his parents, his brothers and sisters, and his Gran, all together in the same place. He’s filled with gratitude for this regularly-scheduled day filled with warm feelings of love and support and family and belonging.

What a marvelous sense of perspective. An airliner pumps tons of greenhouse gases into the air as it crisscrosses the country. But it brings you home. On that basis, you can only be grateful that it exists.

“White Wine In The Sun” is a live recording and the song cast an obvious spell on the audience. The audience had heard a dozen funny songs before this one. During the beginning of “White Wine,” they chuckled at all of the right parts. Those who had never heard the song before, however, seemed to grow a bit uneasy; the funny bits were more like clever observations than actual jokes. And soon, the funny bits disappeared entirely. You can almost hear the thoughts going through their heads: “Is Tim…being sincere? Is he trying to make me feel a genuine, cathartic emotion? Hey, where’s that crying sound coming from? Crap! It’s me!

Sure, I’ll admit it: I was powerfully moved when I reached the core of the song, and he started singing about his family. I’m very sad to say that I’ve shared my last Christmas ever with some of the people on that list of “Dad and brothers and sisters and Gram and Mom.” I still miss those people a lot, even years after losing them.

Just when I was thinking “I can’t believe I got through that without crying,” he started singing about his daughter. And that, dear readers, was when I was very, very glad that I was alone in the room.

I absolutely freakin’ love Tim Minchin.

Sample “White Wine In The Sun” on the Amazon MP3 store. Everything you buy on Amazon after clicking that link, whether it’s a 99-cent music track of a $7000 wristwatch, will result in my receiving a kickback in the form of Amazon store credits…which I promise to spend on foolish and wonderful things.

“Christmas Time Is Here Again” by The Beatles (Amazon Advent Calendar day 23)

I said “Merry Crimble” to everybody all through the holiday weekend, despite a unbroken streak of Not Saying That which began, I suppose, with my first exposure to air and daylight.

(Before that, there were no witnesses to anything I might or might not have said, and I refuse to ask you to accept unreliable single-sourced testimony.)

Yet all weekend long, I’d meet a friend or family member and return the good, time-proven Christian greeting with (yes) a “Merry Crimble.” It was all due to timing. My holiday meetup celebrations started almost immediately after I’d spent an hour on the UK-based Bagel Tech Mac podcast. The others were passing around Merry Crimbles. I tried it just to be sociable at first. I didn’t think I’d have a problem quitting, you know?

“Merry Crimble” comes from a Christmas record the Beatles made for their fan club. It beats out the two more famous holiday records recorded by the post-breakup Beatles. “Merry Christmas (War Is Over)” is a bringdown. You might as well add “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to the party mix, or even just rip the audio from one of those late night “Save The Children” commercials.

“Harsh words, Ihnatko!” you cluck. Well! Then watch the song’s official video, straight from YouTube’s John Lennon channel. I swear that I had not seen this video before I wrote the preceding paragraph. Warning: you might not want to watch this as it gets very disturbing early on and doesn’t let up. I bailed at around the 47 second mark, with the appearance of the third clip of someone cradling a dead child.

This is a holiday song with a message, and that message is “Fa-la-la-la-laaa la-la f*** you (if you spent any amount of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas feeling any kind of joy).”

Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time” is appealingly simple in both melody and content. Yes, I mean that as a compliment. You must admit that holiday songs which can easily be sung by kids’ choruses have a Darwinian edge over the ones that want you to feeeellllll something.

Alas, McCartney overworks the thing. One marshmallow is a delightful confection. Fifty pounds of marshmallows packed inside a pillowcase and then dropped on your head gets a bit wearying.

Whereas! “Christmas Time Is Here Again” is what it is: the Beatles getting together to knock out a Christmas song that would be fun to play and hear, without giving much thought to its commercial appeal or how it would contribute to their cultural legacy.

Only I’ve just listened to it all the way through and they don’t say “Merry Crimble” at the end, as I remembered. Perhaps the official representative of Apple Corps who posted this completely legal video cut it off before a talky bit at the end?

That’s all academic, anyway, because there is Crimbling on a previous Beatles fan club record:

But (dammit) it’s a “Happy” Crimble, not a “Merry” one. Honestly, I don’t know how etymologists handle their jobs. They need to get unravel these sort of word-origin forensics day in and day out. Plus, slightly clueless friends are always sending them samples of bugs that they’ve caught in their kitchens and asking for advice on pesticides.

(There ought to be some sort of professional courtesy-matching service. It’d pair up two people with similar-sounding professional certifications. Every time the bug guy gets a question on proper English usage, he or she can forward it to the entomologist. Someone asks the entomologist about when to use “that” instead of “which,” he or she sends it to the word guy. Physiologists/Physiatrists, Cosmologists/Cosmetologists…even Plumbers/Pilots, if they have particularly stupid friends and family members, would benefit from this service.)

Well, the point is that the Beatles made “Merry Crimble” famous and it’s a Lovely Holiday Tune besides. Alas, it’s not available on either Amazon or iTunes.

So! I’ll recommend that you try or buy “Gone Daddy Gone” by The Violent Femmes on the Amazon MP3 Store. Yes, I’ve heard the Ringo Starr version of “Christmas Time Is Here Again” and I stand by my decision.

(Oh, and the usual disclaimer applies: my Amazon Associates code is embedded in the link and anything you buy after clicking it results in my getting a small kickback. And the capital of Delaware is Dover.)

“Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home) by Darlene Love (Amazon Advent Calendar Day 21)

Album Art

Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)

Darlene Love

The Concert Of Love

Genre: Rock

Yesterday, I thrilled you all with an English paper I wrote during the second semester of my third Sophomore year in high school. I got a solid “B” on it and I’m real pleased with how it turned out. I think this essay heralded to my teachers and parents that I’d finally turned an intellectual corner and that I’d probably graduate sometime before I hit my 30’s, despite the premonitions of my guidance counselor and the unofficial motto of the school.

Listening to yesterday’s selection (Patrick Stewart’s one-man adaptation of “A Christmas Carol”) is indeed one of my Most Cherished Holiday Traditions. Tonight’s edition of the Letterman show is another. They’ve never titled the last show before Christmas as “The Dave Letterman Christmas Special” but yeah, that’s clearly what it is.

You could even say that the Dave Letterman Christmas Special is more organic than any overtly-declared Christmas Special starring Andy Williams or He-Man And She-Ra. Every Dave Letterman Christmas Special consists of several reliable highlights:

  • Darlene Love sings “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home) accompanied by a chorus and enough additions to the CBS Orchestra to make the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater look like the final party scene from “It’s A Wonderful Life”;
  • Jay Thomas tells his Lone Ranger story;
  • The Holiday Quarterback Challenge, in which Dave and Jay (Thomas) take turns hurling footballs at the Late Show Christmas Tree until one of them knocks the giant calcified meatball off the top off the Empire State Building that serves as the tree’s angel for the week of the holiday;
  • Paul Shaffer does his impression of Cher singing “O Holy Night” during one of her Seventies TV specials.

Dave might also tell the story about the time a stagehand cursed out Tom Brokaw during a staff holiday party, though this seems to have become more of a “Christmas week” tradition. Like the appearance of a fresh-cut tree in the living room, Dave saying “Why don’t you go **** yourself?” in a gruff voice is a giddiness-inducing sign that Christmas is near.

The cursing is just another data point supporting the argument that the Dave Letterman Undeclared Christmas Special is more like a family holiday party than a network holiday show. A good family Holiday party where the rundown of elements grew over time through an eager unspoken mutual consent, as opposed to someone reading some damned article in some damned magazine fronted by some damned lady with her own talk show and then forcing the whole family to bend to this madwoman’s insane will.

Why, exactly, is it important to celebrate the season by knocking a softball-sized meatball from the top of a Christmas tree? Well, why was it important in our house that my Dad hang up an old “Happy Halloween” decoration with the word “Halloween” covered up with a bit of paper with “Christmas” scrawled on it? He did it for a laugh one year, then he did it again the next year…and then it became so closely-associated with this time of year that it came into its own. Dave and Jay knock the meatball off the tree because it’s the Christmas show. No further explanation is required.

The second reason why you could describe The Dave Letterman Undeclared Christmas Special as “organic” is because the term is so carelessly-defined and its usage is so sloppily-enforced by government regulators. It can be applied to just about anything, regardless of its content or how it’s produced.

Anyone would agree that “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” is the high point of the show and possibly the highlight of the whole year. Here’s a great behind-the-scenes video (made by Letterman staffers Jay Johnson and Walter Kim) of all the work and pride that goes into this part of the show:

The highlight of the video is a full presentation of the number, assembled as a seamless montage of annual performances. Take some time to look at the faces of the performers. Look for Paul Shaffer in particular, pounding away at the baby grand with an expression akin to a silent shriek of absolute glee.

When I say “Every year, I’m at the edge of my seat when the song starts and I have goosebumps by the end,” I’m telling the literal truth. When I say “Every year, there’s nothing that will keep me from being home from 11:35 to 12:35 to watch it as it airs,” ok, that’s kind of a lie because my DVR is exceptionally reliable and unlike dinner with friends, it’s just as good when you’re watching it on video instead of experiencing it at the same time as everybody else.

But it’s true that the Letterman Undeclared Christmas Special is a genuine beloved holiday tradition. It’s just a TV show and yet it’s not just a TV show. Watching it is part of a process that connects me to a mood and a spirit that I’ve enjoyed every year of my life at around this time. It’s a reminder that this species has an exceptionally good core, despite occasional discouragements to the contrary, and overall it leaves me quite favorably-inclined towards recommending to my superiors that we keep your planet around for at least another couple of dozen years.

Buy or try “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on the Amazon MP3 Store. You don’t need to guess why I prefer this live version to the original recording. I’ve embedded my Amazon Associates ID in the link; anything you buy on Amazon after clicking it results in a small kickback to me in the form of store credits, which I will then spend on gloriously foolish things.

(In the spirit of the season, of course.)

(“In the spirit of the season” is yet another one of those poorly-regulated phrases that can be used almost anywhere.)

“Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues (Advent Calendar day 26)

Album Art

Fairytale of New York

The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl

The Best of The Pogues

Genre: Pop

What’s your favorite Christmas-ish song?

Note the decisive use of the hyphenated suffix. If the lyrics include references to either the Batman or the Superman of this season (Santa and Jesus) then you can clearly file it under “Holiday.” Others, even some of the standards, are merely “seasonal.” I remind you, for example, that “Frosty The Snowman” is merely a winter-themed song. It only received its religious affiliations later in its life, when the last line “…I’ll return again someday” suspiciously became “I’ll return on Christmas Day.”

(Which was right about the same time when the Pledge of Allegiance became “One nation, Under God,” I think. Coincidence? Oh, absolutely. But I’ll change my tune if I’m ever booked to appear on a popular syndicated politically-themed radio show. Four hours is a lot airtime to fill and outrage, like methane gas, expands to fill the container into which it’s been introduced.)

Let’s also tip the hat to songs that simply use Christmas as a setting. There’s no real attempt to evoke the mood or the memory of the holiday. It’s just the day when These Things Happened.

I have two favorite Christmas songs. One secular, one very doubleplus not. The first tells a story of an event on Christmas Eve; the second talks about something that happened on Christmas Day. Both have the kind of lyrics that demand to be printed out and read as poetry.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrAwK9juhhY

Today is Christmas Eve. This is the day in the annual Musical Advent Calendar when I say “Screw it,” — maybe “sod it” would be more appropriate? — “I don’t care if this one’s a repeat from last year. It’s time for ‘Fairytale of New York’ again.”

There never has been, nor will there ever be, a better piece of music than this. I’m not saying that Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos weren’t as good; I’m simply saying that when you compare it to this epic song about regret, loss, and longing you must ultimately conclude that these are two very different pieces of music.

I don’t think the thought “I’m someplace where I really don’t want to be” ever penetrates so strongly as when it hits you on Christmas Eve. And the root cause isn’t always something as harmless as “Uncle Gob has cornered me and he insists that it’s my duty as a concerned parent to buy one of his $1200 water filters,” either. You can always stop payment on the check as soon as you can get outside and find a signal on your iPhone. But when it appears to you that your life has been a flawless sequence of self-destructive choices and that your remaining decisions have collapsed down to “live” or “die”…well, not even the end of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or a tube of raw Pillsbury Sugar Cookie Dough can break you free.

That’s the spot that the narrator of “Fairytale of New York” is in. It’s hard not to take pity on someone who’s in jail on a night like this but still, it’s hard to actually root for him, either. But you’re keenly interested. After I hear this song I almost always visit the lyrics. I want to sift them for more clues to what’s happening with this guy.

He’s a drunk and a gambler and probably an addict. Is he learning anything tonight? Or is he distracting himself from his situation with delusions about a past relationship? Is he giving up? Does he have any hope for himself and the future? He spends part of the song reflecting on a time when he seemed to have the world at his feet. Do those memories encourage him, or do they only drive him deeper into depression?

And whatever happened to the woman? Clearly, she’s out of his life. That must have been a good thing for both of them. Is she spending that same day in her own version of the drunk tank? Or has she found some answers that continue to elude her former partner?

Would she be flattered to know that here, at his lowest point, he consoled himself with thoughts of her? Would she pity him?

Hmm.

It’s a very malleable story. You could just as easily interpret the lyrics to mean that he’d made it out, found a new source of hope, and from the safety of a better life he’s thinking back to the day when he hit rock-bottom and the only cheer he could find was in a ruined relationship.

That’s the hallmark of a truly great song. It was one specific thing when it was written and recorded but its final character and flavor is only assembled and defined by the palate of the person who hears it.

There’ve been a bunch of viral Internet creations where someone takes a self-portrait with identical composition and lighting every day of his or her life for years. That suddenly seems boring. The only thing the series will teach you about yourself is “You got progressively older and you tried out only two or three new hairstyles.” But what if you were to write about the same song — particularly one as potent as “Fairytale of New York” — on the same day every year? What would the next ten to twenty annual essays reveal about the path you’ve taken through life?

Changes in weight, beards and hairstyles are easy to spot. Your assessment of yourself, the world, and how the first thing relates to the second thing can only be tracked through close examination. I would dare say that the results could be far more revealing and mortifying than a temporary distraction into the world of mullets.

Listen to “Fairytale Of New York” on Amazon MP3.

For the record, I’m headed out to the first of about four or five different parties and gatherings over the next 48 hours. At the moment, I suspect that I’ll look back on this blog post and the only source of embarrassment will be the fact that back in 2010, I was using Amazon Associates links to get little kickbacks from my readers’ Amazon purchases.

Listen to “Fairytale Of New York” on Amazon MP3.

I might tsk-tsk and think “How cheap and exploitative!” early on. But then I’d remember the gorilla costume I ordered with the resulting Gift credits in 2011. And then every last lingering regret will be instantly dismissed.

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” by St. Nick’s Lonely Christmas Band (Amazon Advent Calendar day 25)

Album Art

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

St. Nick’s Lonely Christmas Band

St. Nick’s Lonely Christmas Band

Genre: Holiday

Yes. Upon reflection, I do believe that we can categorize this album of Beatles-inspired Christmas standards as a “novelty record.”

But I hesitate to call it a mere “novelty song.” Anyone who owns a notebook with a built-in microphone can record a “novelty” version of the theme from “The Odd Couple” in which the melody is primarily articulated via hand farts. It’s not exactly hard work is it?

I want to show this song some proper respect. We should at least translate “novelty song” into…I dunno. French or something?

(…translate.google.com…)

Oh, fab. Yes, let’s go with that. This is no mere novelty song: it’s a true chanson de fantaisie.

This group clearly worked very hard on this. It’s easy to get a little drunk with your friends and then joke around about a Christmas version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band.” It’s automatic. Soon, everyone’s calling out titles like “A Christmas Day In The Life!” “What Child Is Leaving Home!”

Lesser men and women would have let the joke drop right there. Not these people. Oh, no. They’re professionals; they gave their souls to the Muse, willingly and gratefully. Once they hit upon a creative idea, they’re forced to prosecute it to the very end. And so they found themselves spending (Days? Weeks? Years?) working out how to make the accompaniment from “Within You Without You” fit with “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

I have to imagine that when they finally figured out (on their very last day in the studio) that the thumpy-thumpy-thumpy beat of “Frosty The Snowman” would work quite well with “Getting Better All The Time” everybody leaped up and threw papers in the air and hugged each other and lit cigars, and overall they behaved like the Mission Control people did when the crew of Apollo 13 splashed down safely.

Not all of the songs on this album are gold. Most of them will have exactly the desired effect on the people at your party, shopping at your store, or riding in your car. They’ll instantly recognize the holiday classic. Their brains will want to click the song into the background, but then they’ll sort of recognize something else that’s going on. And then watch and behold, as their expressions mirror those of a Final Jeopardy contestant who was about to write “What is the Po?” but who now can’t remember if that’s an Asian river.

(Expect a phone call later that day. Have the name of the Beatles song ready.)

A tip of the hat to my BFF John. His annual mix tape (now CD) is as integral to the Ihnatko Christmas as the airing of that Hershey’s Kisses commercial where the candies are rung like tiny bells. Which is to say: completely. “St. Nick’s Lonely Christmas Band” was one of the 12 groups represented on this year’s 24-track selection of holiday wonderment.

Listen to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” on Amazon MP3.

As always, my Amazon Associates ID is embedded in that link. Any purchases you make after clicking it will result in a small but valued kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits. I shall spend them lavishly, selfishly, and foolishly.

“Carol Of The Bells” by Rush Coil (Amazon Advent Calendar day 25)

Album Art

Carol of the Bells

Rush Coil

8-bit Christmas

Genre: Electronic

You’re all very correct to think so highly of me, sensation-seekers. Not only do I have an unfailing moral compass, but I often subject it to abnormal magnetic fields just to test its unfailing-moral-compassness, so that I can then make adjustments, as necessary.

Witness this selection. Also witness the fact that the link goes not to the Amazon MP3 Store, but to iTunes. See, there was a differrent track that I wanted to recommend, but it hasn’t been formally published anywhere (more on this, anon). So I went off looking for something similar that I liked just as much, and I found this track by Rush Coil on iTunes.

Cool. Then I went to Amazon.com for the link. Alas, they don’t have it.

Were I the possessor of a fallible moral compass, I’d have chosen something else. “Screw you, the trusting reader of my work!” would have been the statement. “Don’t you feebs realize that the whole point of this Advent Calendar exercise is to line the velvet pockets of my Amazon account with gift credits, so that I may purchase things like a Novelty Electronic Yodeling Pickle without ever asking myself ‘Why the hell do I waste me money on crap like this’?”

But no. I assure you that the primary purpose of here is to share music that I actually, genuinely like. And the prime mover for choosing Amazon instead of iTunes isn’t the kickbacks (though they’re very, very nice. It’s because I know that anyone can click an Amazon link and hear the music sample and buy it without having to download and install a separate app. If it were an iTunes link, you could only do two of those three things.

Lo:

Listen to “Carol Of The Bells” on the iTunes Store.

Allow me to close off this meta portion of the post by confirming that my strength is as the strength of ten men, for my heart is pure.

Onward to the song itself. It’s been a slow build, but “chiptune” music (songs that sound as though they were being played by the soundchips in vintage game consoles) has steadily made its way from Novelty to Meme to a legitimate, established genre. And I can honestly say that I like this version of “Carol Of The Bells” on its own merits, not because it’s such an odd way to arrange and record a tune.

I guess the lesson is that “on its own merits” is a very, very complicated thing, even with more traditional music. Pandora.com has got it exactly right: there’s a molecular profile to every song that links it backwards to every song you liked before you heard this one, and forwards to every song you hear after it. And the metrics of this phenomenon go beyond tempo, instrumentation, and vocals. There’s also a sense of time and place.

“American Graffiti” was the first big pop-culture phenomenon that underscored how powerful the phrase “Gosh, this is just like the stuff I liked when I was a kid” is in influencing what we like as adults. It’s true that your favorite songs in high school and college will almost always remain your favorites as you enter your thirties and forties and fifties. They have their own merits, yes, but they’re enmeshed with other pleasant memories, like a wad of gum in a shag carpet.

(Bad simile, Ihnatko: a shag carpet is a pleasant memory for no man or woman. Except for those who owned a carpet store in 1972.)

This sort of reaction isn’t quite as mainstream as “This song was playing on the radio the night I first made out with the woman who would one day become my wife.” But “Oh, man, this is just like the game that I spent all summer trying to beat in high school!” works, too.

(Aside: and “Carol Of The Bells” is clearly the soundtrack to a “jink your spaceship up and down and left and right, and shoot at waves of attacking aliens” kind of game. Other chiptune songs are clearly “sidescroller combat games.” Games are so burned into your subconscious that you can even pick out the nonviolent “momentarily stun the cartoon lizards and pick up the flowers” games as well.)

Let’s not get mired in that junk, though. I like chiptune music because by necessity, it launches a very clean and no-nonsense attack on the melody. It’s why a four-piece jazz combo can accomplish things with a song that a spongy 40-piece orchestra can’t. Every instrument and every melodic line is front-and-center and there’s no room for extraneous flourishes.

I mean, I’d love to get a hold of the soundtrack to the “Batman” Game Boy game. I long ago gave my Game Boy and all of its carts to a nephew (your correspondent can be quite a dope). But a vid of this game is up on YouTube. The music is a little sparser than I remember it, but yup: I’d definitely buy this track if it were available anywhere.

Which brings us back to the chiptune track I wanted to recommend. It was an version of “Mele Kalikimaka” arranged by “Mafialligator,” a (god-damned) genius on Something Awful’s forums. He’s released four annual collections of Nintendo-ized holiday music, under the series title “A Very 8-Bit Christmas.”

The bad news: no, you can’t buy “A Very 8-Bit Christmas” on iTunes or Amazon.

The good news: it’s a free download, according to the descriptions on Something Awful.

The bad news again: …but there’s no new release this year. And the older releases are old enough that they’ve aged back behind Something Awful paywall.

So I’m in kind of a pickle, here. And not the electronic yodeling kind. I’ve located other download links for the albums. But are they legit? I dunno. I’m going to post one set of links here, because as near as I can tell the content is behind the Something Awful paywall only as a “it costs us money to host these files” sort of thing, and not because access to these tracks is an exclusive perq of Something Awful membership. I’ve also been unable to find any links to Mr. Mafiassassin’s own site.

Also: this particular page-o-links contains a whole list of chiptune Christmas music collections, not just the Very 8-Bit releases.

The Page Of Chiptune Christmas Links In Question.

But head straight to the “Very 8-Bit Christmas” links first. Did I say that I was going to recommend “Mele Kamikimaka”? I meant to say “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.” No, wait: “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas…”

Yeah, there are plenty of winners, here. Mafialligator has real skills as an arranger. He’s not just copying down notes from a simplified set of sheet music. These are true, polyphonic performances.

These tracks get plenty of airplay in my house during the holiday season. When I set up and decorated my Christmas tree this year, I was listening exclusively to an “8-Bit Christmas” playlist.

(Streamed to my Apple TV from my iPad via AirTunes.)

(My parents and grandparents would recognize the melodies and the phrase “decorated my Christmas tree.” The rest of that would have required extensive explanation.)

Well, as I said, I went ahead and selected an iTunes track even though the link won’t win me a single sou in associate-link kickbacks. But if you’re really keen on kicking my back a little, or you’re just wondering if I was making up that thing about the Yodeling Pickle:

Yodelling Yodel Pickle TOY Novelty Retro Gag Gift

This link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. And after you click it, all of your Amazon purchases will result in a commensurate percentage of the final tally coming back to me in the form of gift credits. The fact that I was well aware of the existence of this consumer item indicates the fine, fine ends to which I will be applying these credits.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” by Kristin Chenoweth (Amazon Advent Calendar day 13)

Album Art

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

Kristin Chenoweth

A Lovely Way To Spend Christmas

Genre: Miscellaneous

This is probably the perfect time to slot in a song like this. It’s a modern recording of a Christmas classic, sung so very sweetly. Yes, it’s Kristin Chenoweth. Even when she’s singing an angry tune about throwing out a wretch of a boyfriend and vowing to never allow his presence to darken her thoughts ever again…it’s Sweetly Angry. As the boyfriend, you’d feel like it’s best to just pick up all of your clothes and books and CDs off of the front lawn, get them into the trunk of the car, retreat to Panera for a few hours and then circle back and try to fix the situation.

(But if you drove past and saw a smoking slab in the driveway that used to be your Playstation 3, you’d probably conclude that it’d be best to keep on driving and try again later, maybe after catching a movie.)

Why is this weekend the exact right time to put this song into the lineup? Oh, I can give you three reasons. I can also slightly draw this introduction out, to make absolutely certain that the album artwork doesn’t interfere with the formatting of the list.

Okay, we should now be clear to proceed:

  1. It’s the first weekend after the Thanksgiving holiday, and many of us are probably spending some of this time tending to holiday advance-prep. I myself put a half-gallon of apple cider in the fridge the other day, anticipating that this would be the big weekend that I set up my Bachelor Tree.
  2. Not only is “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” a timeless Christmas classic, but it’s also a timely reminder to book your reservations early if you’re traveling over the holidays.
  3. It’s still three weeks before Christmas, and we haven’t yet begun that slow transition from Grinch Personality Mode to Cindy Lou Who Personality Mode.

…Which means that I can cave in to my three-sizes-too-small sentiments and complain about these bastards at the record companies who know damned well that there’s only one good song on the CD, and cynically refuse to sell it to you online unless you buy the whole album.

I speak not of this track, of course (which you can purchase all by itself). I speak of Chenoweth’s fantastic rendition of “O Holy Night.” It’s the gold wedding ring that got dropped into the dark, rank grease trap known as “Deck The Halls (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack).”

Yes, of course it was a terrible movie. What a question!

It stars Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick. And if this were the 80’s, that’d be terrific news. As-is, it’s not a warning per se but suffice to say that we will study the trailer carefully before making a buying decision.

And oh, dear…there it is: the scene in which “Dad” is inside, or clinging on top of, an improbable and out-of-control vehicle or contraption, screaming and flying through the air.

Another example:

Another:

It’s such a common sign of an actor’s desperate need to begin Act Three of his career that I wonder if it doesn’t amount to a “suicide by cop” sort of tactic on the part of the actor or his agent. That is, he doesn’t have the courage to pull the trigger and end all pretensions of still being able to carry an entire movie by himself, so he has critics, audiences, and executives do it for him. Mark my words: ten years from now, there’ll be a movie trailer in which Johnny Depp will be seen riding an out-of-control rocket-propelled snowmobile over a snowbank and straight into a septic truck as his adorable kids look on.

(Honestly, it’s the best thing. The actor takes a few years off and then, free from the pressure to keep earning those A-list paychecks, he can begin his highly successful Act Three. He’ll re-emerge, usually as a producer of some well-regarded TV shows and as a strong supporting actor in independent dramas.)

Sorry…let’s get back to this song. The “Deck The Halls” soundtrack CD consists of 13 holiday songs. Eight of them are forgettable. Four of the rest are nice, but they’re so familiar that if you want to hear them you hardly need to actually spend any money. You pretty much just need to stand near a speaker placed in any public spot where more than nine people are likely to gather.

And then there’s Track 9: Kristin Chenoweth’s rendition of “O Holy Night.” It’s one of the loveliest versions I’ve ever heard. I’d buy it in a heartbeat. Ah: but it can only be purchased as part of the complete album.

Friends, there have been times when I’ve gone into a transaction knowing full well that I was being rooked. That this was a badger game. That this company or individual’s entire business plan was based on the concept that they could indeed push around people like me — humble, hardworking men and women, who work the land with their bare hands and are responsible for putting the food on America’s tables — get away with it.

Once, I ran out of gas on the highway, called AAA (if you’re a member, they’ll send a truck out free of charge), and then when the truck operator told me he didn’t have any change on him, I pretended to believe him…and that I was delighted to tip him $15 for the $5 worth of gas he’d just put in my car.

Once, I bought an unlocked phone which, no matter how hard I tried, couldn’t connect to AT&T’s digital network. After lots of runaround with Customer Service, and ultimately speaking to an engineer who’d been working there so long that he had been there through two different corporate takeovers and renamings, I learned that the solution was simply to swap my original 16K SIM card for a new 64K one. When I got back in touch with Customer Service and they told me that they couldn’t give me a new SIM without putting me on a one-year contract, I was angry, and I told them that I might switch to another carrier over this, but ultimately I agreed to the new contract.

(OK, yes, it helped that I already knew that AT&T was almost definitely going to become the exclusive carrier of Apple’s upcoming and unnamed new iPod Phone.)

But — my comrades — I cannot bring myself to allow the record industry to make me pay ten dollars for a song that should only cost $1.29, maximum.

The line has been drawn…HERE.

Listen to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As usual, my Amazon Associates ID is embedded in that link. Anything you buy during that shopping session will result in a small kickback to me in the form of Amazon gift credits…which I will then spend on foolish and wonderful things.

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (Frank Sinatra & Cyndi Lauper) – Amazon Advent Calendar day 6

Album Art

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town

Cyndi Lauper & Frank Sinatra

A Very Special Christmas, Vol. 2

Genre: Holiday

It’s certainly appropriate to have some actual Holiday Music in the mix this weekend. 90% of you are spending part of this time either shopping for gifts, or decorating the house, or writing out cards. Or perhaps you’re preparing a blistering post for your Facebook page about how incredibly childish it is to believe that a magical bearded man whom nobody ever sees is covering the entire world giving people the things that they ask for.

(A warning to everyone in that last group: we could see the “But I’m not talking about Santa Claus: I’m talking about…GOD!!!” payoff coming. Keep at it; the whole point of a first draft is to get you to that second draft.)

The first half of the holiday season is usually more bouncy and upbeat than the second half. This is the ho-ho-ho giddyup-jingle-horse section of the proceedings. The music should be big, and cheery, and so jolly that you can even see the humor in a set of novelty Christmas underpants with some naughty wordplay silkscreened across the front.

Yes: this is when Frank Sinatra and a 24-piece orchestra get up off the bench and put on their helmets.

To my way of thinking, there are only two ways to hear “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”: either it’s performed by a cafegymatoriam stage full of middle-schoolers, or it’s sung by Frank Sinatra. I imagine a musical version of “Chopped.” Your basket only contains one ingredient: this harmless and bland holiday tune. You have thirty minutes to turn it into something exciting and time starts…now!

Some singers serve this bowl of oatmeal as-is. Here you have your Pat Boones, your Andy Williamses, and others who were once on TV every year with a top-rated Christmas special but who are now on the Hallmark Channel four times an hour trying to scam senior citizens into taking out reverse-mortgages on their homes. Others, like Springsteen, lose their confidence and dump in malt vinegar and habanero peppers to spice it up. It’s an interesting recording, but you can no longer taste the original ingredient…so does that even count?

Sinatra wins this contest easily. Practically everything you need to know about Sinatra’s mastery is in this track. How did he manage to make “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” actually swing?

(With a lit cigarette in one hand and a tumbler of scotch in the other, I imagine.)

I prefer the “Very Special Christmas” version to the original. It’s tough to improve a Sinatra track but yup, Cyndi Lauper one of those people who can pull that off. Year after year, she validates the faith that I placed in this spunky, colorful pop artist back when I was in high school. Hit singles fade from consciousness and cultural phenomenons come and go. Only talent endures. This is why, two decades after their first hits, Madonna is opening a new chain of fitness centers and Cyndi Lauper is still recording remarkable performances.

And good gravy, she can actually keep up with Sinatra.

Frank’s career ground down to a somewhat undignified end, like a magnificent 1952 Cadillac that kept rolling long after it was only being held together by duct tape and primer. His final recordings were duets with a sometimes highly-improbable range of performers who looked and sounded as though they’d won some sort of radio contest instead of earning their way into the studio. Not the case with Lauper.

I had long assumed that this track had been recorded like all of Sintra’s late-career duets: Sinatra’s singing partner steps into a booth in a mall somewhere, deposits eight quarters into the slot, selects an available track that Frank pre-recorded months ago, presses a green button, and does his or her best.

Now, though, I suspect that the producers used vintage master tapes. Compared to his other 1990’s recordings, Sinatra is much more “present” here. And he’s in much stronger voice.

Also: oh, for God’s sake…if Sinatra were an active participant in this track, would he have agreed to second billing behind some broad with orange hair?

Listen to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

This link is tagged with my Amazon Associates ID. Everything you buy during that Amazon session will result in a small kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits. I solemnly vow to blow those credits on fun things.

“Oi To The World” by No Doubt (Amazon Advent Calendar Day 10)

Album Art

Oi To The World

No Doubt

A Very Special Christmas 3

Genre: Holiday

Oi To The World

Doing this Advent Calendar makes me realize that I’d be a terrible music journalist. OK, yes, because it’s the day before Christmas Eve and I’m only on Day 10 (thanks so much for pointing that out; you’re a real class act), but also because as I look through past entries, I realize that my selections are so arbitrary.

Mind you, they’re all good songs. I eagerly recommend each one. But here’s a peek inside my process. I have a big playlist called “Amazon Advent Calendar 2009 Candidates” that I throw tracks into over the course of a few months. We’ve got a pool of 105 to draw from.

“Oi To The World” was an obvious choice. No debate among the judges before I dragged it into the playlist. Grins all across the table, even from Simon. Play anything with a rocksteady beat and you’ve got me on your side. Lyrics like

Haji was a bloody mess, he ran out through the crowd
he said "we'll meet again we are bloody yet unbowed"
Trevor called his bluff and told him where to meet
Christmas day on the roof down at 20 Oxford street

If God came down on Christmas Day
I know exactly what He'd say
He'd say "Oi to the punks and Oi to the skins
and Oi to the world and everybody wins!"

On the roof with the nun chucks Trevor broke a lot of bones
But Haji had a sword like the guy in Indiana Jones...

…only seal the deal.

And let’s not gloss over the fact that it’s from No Doubt. It’s a cover of a — I think we’re OK in calling it a “novelty song” — by the Vandals. Here they are, performing it live:

I first heard the Vandals in the Eighties movie “Suburbia” and became a fan. But the first time I heard “Oi To The World” it was this No Doubt version and yes, it’s so much better than the original. It’s a tighter band and a cleaner production. I have actually heard this sort of argument dismissed with the snort “a clear mix isn’t punk.” Yes, shut up. You’re 31 and you work for a real-estate agency. Let’s all agree that hearing the bassline clearly is a good thing and then move on.

Plus, you’ve got Gwen Stefani. Once you write that name on the studio callsheet, you’re pretty certain that you’ll have a fantastic track on your hands.

I’m guessing that she’ll live long enough to record an inevitable album of standards from the Great American Songbook. Unlike most such albums by singers who’ve left their original bands and their original styles behind and are sort of grappling for their next step, it’s an album I look forward to buying. She has an extremely agile voice; she could really tuck into a Cole Porter lyric.

Okay. But there are more than a hundred songs in the Advent Calendar pool. Why choose this one?

Ah. There’s a story.

Every year, my BFF sends me a Holiday mixtape. He’s been doing this for so many years that it started off on cassette. And it’s such a strong offering that I still have a small box of these tapes in storage somewhere. I’m not certain that I have any machine that can play them, but I have the tapes.

He picks a different theme every year. It’s a closely-guarded secret. The only constant is the awesomeness. One year, it was lounge versions of holiday classics from various bands. That was a tough one to get through. I’ll put my hand on my heart and state that clearly. Sometimes I’ll come across a track that requires me to serenely commit to keeping my hands on the steering wheel and off of the “Next Track” button on the stereo.

Because an “iffy” song is always preceded and followed by a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. In the end I feel like I am a better, stronger man for trusting his judgment and listening to the whole thing all the way through. For his judgment is impeccable.

“Your judgment is impeccable,” I emailed him on Monday. The padded mailer had arrived on Saturday, to yelps of squealy glee. I put it on my desk, unopened; I wanted to save it for an hourlong drive I knew I had coming up. I didn’t even want to see the theme or the tracklist until shortly before my departure. But I did tell him how much I was looking forward to hearing it.

Monday. Time for the aforementioned drive. The last thing I did before stepping into the shower was open the envelope and rip the disc onto my iPhone.

Between the ripping of the envelope and the ripping of the CD, I uttered a mild profanity:

It was 22 tracks of Christmas songs recorded by “American Idol” finalists.

I immediately replayed the past 12 months in my head. Had I done anything to piss him off this badly? Does he burn two stacks of CDs for his “Naughty” and “Nice” list? Was this the disc of coal?

I determined that this was just one of those times when one must have faith in the Creator. I offered profuse apologies to iTunes for what I was about to ask it to do, and then I clicked the button to start ripping.

As always, it was an awesome CD. Not for the usual reasons — 20 awesome tracks — but still, awesome.

I’m slightly fascinated by “American Idol” finalists. A few of them are truly good enough to have made it on their own, and (bless you, sir) these performers are all well-represented on the disc. A few are just plain terrible and got to the Final 12 of their season because…I don’t know. Maybe the producers thought that the woman’s full back-tattoo of Mel Blanc would be a good TV or something.

To me, the most interesting performers are the ones whose professional careers couldn’t be more clear. If they hadn’t gotten on “Idol,” they would have found steady work in the music business. Weddings, cruise ships, corporate events…I say it without irony. They have marketable skills.

What they don’t have is any sense of artistry. What came to mind during my drive through track after track was “supermarket-brand chocolate ice cream.” It’s pleasant. It works. But it doesn’t require you to really process what you’re experiencing. It makes no emotional impact. Your brain responds “Yes, that was labeled correctly: we did indeed just enjoy a dish of chocolate ice cream” and then it’s completely forgotten.

Compare and contrast this with the experience of great chocolate ice cream. Better than the premium brands, better even than the stuff made at the ice cream stand ten miles away that’s only open during the summer. I mean a good, small restaurant that makes small batches right in the kitchen, supervised by the executive chef.

Your brain starts off thinking “yes: chocolate.” But it halts the first spoonful in your mouth. It’s…milk chocolate. With just a little bit of bitter dark chocolate powder? And a little malt, maybe? I’m tasting heavy cream…

It’s an experience. You can’t simply taste it and move on. It’s a kind of chocolate ice cream that puts a stop to the table conversation. It commands your full attention. And when it’s gone, it will be assigned a unique identifier in the database. “Chocolate ice cream, the way [name of restaurant] makes it.”

You don’t get that experience from an American Idol contestant. Even the good ones sing as though he or she’s not meant to distract the listener from their shopping.

I think “Idol” can ruin a singer. This is why I cringe when I see some random 12-year-old girl cast in a certain role on “America’s Got Talent.” Producers have story arcs in mind; a perennial one is “we make a little girl’s dreams of stardom come true; let’s make her cry and everything.”

She sings well enough. I imagine that a 12-year-old is at the age when she might acquire a real passion and decides, ideally on her own, to stop singing strictly for fun and commits to years of hard work. You can hear the potential in her voice. She needs to learn technique and discipline; she needs formal training from many hands. She needs to learn how to connect to, and unify, a live audience. These things takes time, along with the courage to be awful while you expand your skill set.

Thus, hand this poor girl an oversized check for $500,000 amid confetti cannons on national TV is the worst thing that could happen for her career. Instead of starting off at age 20 with a mature, interesting voice and potentially pursuing lifelong artistry, she’ll get a year, maybe two, of singing tired pop hits at Indian casinos. Then three or four years of frustration as she wonders why her career isn’t developing.

And then she’ll quit. Because at age 12, she defined singing as a career, and not an art. Also maybe because she’s an 18-year-old with a half a million dollars.

You can see these problems with the “Idol” finalists. Three unmistakeable signs of amateur, karaoke singing kept repeating themselves through the CD:

“Perfect Pitch Via The Braille System.” I felt like I wanted to thrust the music score in their face and tap the notes with a pencil. “Your note is here, I would say, with increasing anger. A professional can see an F-sharp and sing an F-sharp. These jokers feel as though it’s okay to just start in the general vicinity of the right note and then bend up or down until they’re finally on pitch. Note after note after note. It’s not a style choice; it’s a sign of a singer’s lack of ability.

“Too Many Notes.” Was it Dolly Parton who once said “You can’t buy class, but you can spray-paint it pink”? She’s actually a fine singer. What I’m getting at is that the lyric from “Joy To The World” is supposed to be

Let Earth receive her king!

And not

Let Er-her-HER-HER!-her-her-th,
Re-Ce-hee-hee-HEEEEEE-EE-HEEE!-ve
Her Ki-eh-IIIII-eh-iii-IIIInnng!

Too many notes! You’re singing things that aren’t there. This is another way of covering for lack of technique. A prime cut of steak needs just a light grilling and a side of vegetables. There’s nothing to hide. The “Sea Biscuit” grade gets days of marinating, injections of garlic cloves, and then a burial at sea in a thick rich sauce.

A good voice doesn’t need extra notes. The notes on the page will serve perfectly well.

“The Constipation Voice.” This is the technique where the first note of every line is sort of squeezed out slowly. As a listener, you sort of have to hang in there. It’s possible that the singer keeps forgetting the next line. It’s more likely that she simply has no taste.

That’s one of the things you learn with formal voice training, I reckon: taste. Do away with the tinsel, treacle, flashing LEDs and spray glitter and just sing the damned song.

So what does this have to do with “Oi To The World”?

I didn’t bother creating a new playlist for this mix cd. Instead, I listened to it via a Smart Playlist that always syncs the newest X tracks to the iPhone. I played the songs in their original tracklist order (which happened to be the order in which they were added to the library).

But for some reason, iTunes snuck “Oi To The World” into the middle. I don’t know why. I suppose it was Lilith’s kind act of charity and support during this, my time of great struggle.

I’m always pleased to hear a No Doubt song. But I’ve never been so goddamned grateful for one in my life. I present the tune here as an insignificant token of gratitude. It filled me with the courage I needed to get through the remaining 11 tracks.

Before I close, I must say that yes, my BFF’s streak remains unbroken: this was an awesome holiday mix CD. I have no bloody use for simply awful music. But I can definitely use bad music that gets me thinking about what I like and don’t like about musical performances. It was a 90 minute drive each way and I had plenty to occupy my mind throughout the whole trip. I’m prepared to stamp this one as “Awesome.”

(That said, when I got home I emailed my friend again, saying little more than “There will be a reckoning. Yes. A reckoning, there shall most definitely be.”)

Sample ‘Oi To The World’ on Amazon MP3

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 22: “Fairytale Of New York”

Fairytale Of New York

The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl

The Best Of The Pogues

Genre: Alternative

Amazon MP3: Fairytale Of New York

There’s just a narrow window during which I can sling “Fairytale Of New York” into the Advent Calendar and I keep missing it, year after year.

To those of you who have asked: no, I don’t start putting a list together weeks in advance. I don’t have a list at all; I write it daily, “live” as it were, as a play in three acts:

Act I: Superawesome songs in general. I head straight for an iTunes Smart Playlist that automatically maintains my personal Billboard Hot 100 of high-rated, high-playcount tracks and look for likely candidates. I keep a particular eye peeled for tracks that I bought this year and which folks aren’t terribly likely to have heard before.

Act 2: (Let’s return to this in a moment.)

Act 3: Actual holiday-themed songs. As Christmas draws nearer, the tracks have to start passing an important test. If I were playing this on the Apple TV while trimming the tree, and neighbors stopped by unexpectedly with a festive bundt cake, would I immediately think “Oh, ****…how long have they been at the door hearing this song?” If I’d suddenly dive for the remote and desperately click forward to another song, dear God, any other song…then I prolly don’t want to include it in the Advent calendar. Not so close to the actual holiday, anyway.

The Advent Calendar always officially ends with my favorite Christmas song, presented without irony or smirk.

Act 2 is that brief period when I’m in the mood for real holiday-themed tunes, and there’s still enough air between today and December 25 that I don’t mind talking about a drunk in jail on Christmas Eve musing about how, hell, his alcoholism will probably kill him before New Year’s, let alone the next Christmas Eve.

But a Twitterer reminded me about this classic Pogues tune and I was instantly filled with regret. Yes, for failing to use this song year after year. And at least because at the time of that important Tweet, the next song was going to be one from the soundtrack to “The Christmas Shoes,” which is utterly the sappiest Christmas movie ever made. I’m not wrong in thinking the reason why the protagonist in “”Fairytale” got so violently drunk was because he saw parts of this Hallmark special.

No, wait: I must be wrong. Because if he’d just seen that show, he would quite simply have drunk himself straight into the grave and wouldn’t have survived to sing the song.

Check that. Sorry, wrong again: there isn’t enough alcohol to scrub away the stain left behind by “The Christmas Shoes.”

(Later, my sweeties…later.)

I’m not sure that most fans of “Fairytale” really get this song, due to the peculiar romanticism associated with a literate inebriate. Like the old man at the pub who’s wrapped in wool and sitting by the fire, making his stately way through a whiskey bottle, and telling you about lost loves, pages not yet written, opportunities lost, making it through to live another day and drink another night, et cetera.

Ah, but you see, the next morning, you’ll be at work, or with your family and friends, thinking about what a pleasant time you had listening to the man’s lyrical wisdom. At that same moment, the old man is still drunk somewhere, or he’s setting into motion the chain of events necessary for him to get drunk again. Maybe he’s even even planning a setlist of the stories he’ll tell at the tonight’s bar, to charm someone else into buying him a grade of alcohol that he hasn’t been able to afford since the days when he had a job and a family and friends.

“Fairytale Of New York” is a charming song. It becomes a powerful song when you really focus on the lyrics. Which isn’t easy, I admit. Shane McGowan has selfishly chosen to sing them in his natural voice. That’s fine for the Irish and the English, but isn’t it about time the needs of Americans were met, just once?

I urge you to head on over to the Pogues’ site and read the words. There is no joy in Poguesville; Mighty Casey has passed out. This isn’t a case of a man who spends a Christmas Eve in the drunk tank, thinking about failed relationships and missed opportunities, convinced that this is the last one he’ll spend aboveground.

No, clearly, this is a man who spends every Christmas Eve this way. Maybe even every day. He’s locked in a cycle and will never break out of it. His life is a series of wounds that have scarred over themselves so thickly that he’s barely even aware of that he keeps cutting himself in the exact same places day after day.

But that’s not us.

I hope that’s not us.

If it’s us, I hope we get some help.

When you don’t focus on the lyrics, you wind up dismissing “Fairytale Of New York” as merely a charming Irish song that serves as an edgy counterpoint to the vacuous jingle bells being rung at every mall. That denies the Pogues their due. “Fairytale” is a satisfying essay which presents a series of basic observations, while having enough respect for the listener to leave the final lessons unsaid.

And just like the drunken old man in the pub, the lyrics are…well, lyrical. I call your attention to the ending:

He: I could have been someone

She: Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you

He: 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

I wonder what became of that girlfriend. Is she spending that same Christmas Eve in another drunk tank somewhere? Is she dead? Or did she have a transformative moment of shocking self-awareness that set her free?

Hmm. See, the trouble goes beyond a simple lack of self-awareness. It’s important to be able to observe yourself and your choices dispassionately but I’m certain that most drunks are perfectly aware of what their drinking has cost them. The missing factor is usually Hope…an utterly irrational but critically-important belief that things can get better.

Which is why I rather enjoy Act Three of the Advent Calendar.

Hope is generally a bear market, both in its practice and its promotion. It’s quite a relief to be able to spend a few weeks talking about peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind without having to follow it up with a YouTube of some skateboarder getting hit in the nuts by a parking meter, just to make sure people don’t think you’re all sappy.

Even in the Holiday season, I’m not such a sap that I won’t encourage you to buy this track via Amazon MP3, which will put a few pennies in my pocket:

Amazon MP3: Fairytale Of New York

And yet I still offer you the iTunes Store link as an alternative. I guess I really am just an old softie at heart.

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 20: “Sleigh Ride (The Ventures)”

Sleigh Ride

The Ventures

The Ventures Christmas Album

Genre: Holiday

Amazon MP3: Sleigh Ride

Standards and covers. I love ’em. I love the idea of throwing the exact same piece of music at several different artists and seeing so many different solutions emerge.

It’s particularly keen with a tune like “Sleigh Ride.” You’d think that the world had heard enough of this song, but nope…singers and bands keep finding new things to do with it every year.

Not all bands, of course. Some groups will just crank out a cover without putting their own stamp on it. Result: the song sinks without a trace, like a spoonful of  Minute Rice on top of a bowl of Uncle Ben’s.

But others use this as an opportunity to answer the question “As an artist, who are you, and what brought you here?”

“The Ventures” is a band record nothing but instrumentals. And no wonder. Why would you allow vocals to cover up this kind of guitar playing? They’re synonymous with virtuosity. They’ve reached that stage of technical perfection where they can make their instruments do exactly what they want it to do at any given time. You never get the sense that they would have liked to have put in a fill riff that goes bing-bing-TWANNNG-twang-thummmmm right there, if only they knew how.

The only spots in a Ventures track when they’re playing in a simple and direct manner are when the band thought “We need a slower passage right here, to set up the next run that’s coming” or possibly “I can use these forty seconds to plunge my right hand in a bucket of ice water and get some relief from this excruciating muscle and joint pain.”

These boys attack their guitars as though they caught it in the backseat of a Chevrolet with their sisters. Surely this took a physical toll on their knuckles.

Of the overall remarkability of their version of “Sleigh Ride” I can only state that they have won an amendment to Ihnatko House Resolution 28.281.R, which states that “All approved recordings of ‘Sleigh Ride’ must contain a simulacrum of a whip-crack at the end of the line ‘Giddyup, giddyup, giddyup let’s go’.”

All the same, they knew not to press their luck: sleigh bells are indeed jingling rhythmically throughout. Though I reckon that this track is sufficiently awesome that if they’d “forgotten” to put it in, the DA would be encouraged to find some technicality, and decline to prosecute.

Why yes…the track is available from Amazon MP3, as an unlocked, high-bitrate MP3! And well, if you insist on my embedding my Amazon Associates link, well, who am I to deny your request? Here you go, hon:

Amazon MP3: Sleigh Ride

iTunes appears to have it as well. You can purchase it from the aforementioned store via this link.

But will that fill that gnawing void you’ve been feeling for the past eleven years? Will it?

It’s time to put away such things and move on. There’s only one thing that will help to spackle that emotional gulf. You know it and I know it. You must face the golden, unfolding down and promise to only purchase your music in such a way that it puts me closer to getting a free lens for my camera or something else cool.

Really. I’m a doctor and everything. I just don’t like to flash around my Harvard medical degree like some insecure physicians I could mention, who don’t feel like they’ve accomplished anything unless they have an office and a medical practice and a medical degree that isn’t largely hypothetical.

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 18: “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer

The Reverend Horton Heat

We Three Kings

Genre: Holiday

Amazon MP3: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

My BFF John has really screwed himself. Truly.

At one point or another, many of us have spontaneously decided to put together a Christmas mix tape and make a dozen copies and send them out to our friends. Maybe we even did it again a year or two later. But pretty much it’s a one-and-done proposition.

John does it annually. Which was a big enough blunder, but then he compounded it by turning out nothing but awesome compilations. Year after year, every track is pure Tabasco. So much so that sometime in November I start sleeping out by the mailbox until I’m rewarded with the delivery of a padded mailer from New York.

And lo…the Holiday season begins.

So you see John’s problem: he’s been at this for well over fifteen years now and at this point, the only excuse that his friends and family will accept for not coming through with these two dozen tracks is The Sweet, Cold Kiss Of The Grave.

(Even so: is that really an excuse, John? Would it be that hard to make up a few of these collections for post-mortem release, just to give us all ample time to line up a new supplier? We’re really sorry about the speeding bicycle courier knocking you into that open manhole while a crowd of laughing and jeering onlookers did nothing to aid you while you floundered and drowned in sewage — I’m guessing; but you work in New York City, so it’s not all that unlikely. All the same I’m sure that you would want us to move on with our lives at some point.)

This year’s anthology (“ALTER-NATIVITY IV”) is up to his usual high standard and contains 25 tracks of awesome.

I could save myself a lot of trouble by just posting one of John’s tracks every day, for the duration of the Advent Calendar.

But no, I couldn’t. I have this unfailing moral compass, you see. Also, I just came up with that idea now, eighteen days too late.

The delivery media has changed over the years. The first ones were cassettes. I’d rip open John’s mailer right in the front seat of the car and presto, that was my holiday soundtrack during every drive for the next few weeks. Then John moved to CDs. Those were still fine because I had my Discman in the car.

Now I have to rip it into MP3s. Which is kind of cool because John’s holiday mixtape is the only playlist on my iPhone whose songs are labeled only as “Track 01…Track 02…Track 03…” Which means that I don’t know that I’m about to hear The O.C. Supertones’ edition of “Joy To The World” until I’m hearing it.

The online music revolution has added a new wrinkle: now, if I like a certain song, I can quickly hit the iTunes store or Amazon and check out the whole rest of the album. And so I have come to own “We Three Kings,” the Reverend Horton Heat’s holiday album. On principle, I can’t recommend the track that John included in this year’s compilation (“Frosty The Snowman”), but in the universe of made-up Holiday characters, Rudolph has always been Batman to Frosty’s Superman.

(Wait, Frosty’s hat is magical. And magic is Superman’s sole weakness other than Kryptonite. But Rudoph’s backstory — a childhood during which he learned that the world is a cruel place where only the strong endure — is a better fit for Batman, isn’t it? Maybe Frosty is Bizarro-Superman, who is only vulnerable when the magic is removed?)

(I might be overthinking this.)

(Or unintentionally writing a “Big Bang Theory” spec script.)

(Continuing.)

I love the Good Reverend. And this is the sort of Christmas cover song that I like: the musicians seem to be  envisioning a day when they’ll be playing this tune for their own kids. So there’s no need for clumsy, self-conscious “edginess,” adding lyrics about how Santa is going to butcher Rudolph into stew meat for the elves if he doesn’t drag his ass into harness and pull the damned sleigh.

It does provoke you to muse a bit about how well these various editions work. It’s said that despite your attempts to change or deny your tastes, they’re set pretty firmly by the time you get out high school. If you hate a certain movie, it’s at least partly because it’s nothing like a similar movie you enjoyed as a kid. Ditto for music, ditto for TV shows, comics…anything.

I associate most of these standard Christmas songs with childhood Christmas Eves at my grandparents’ house. So when I think “Frosty The Snowman” I think of music pumping out of a blondwood console stereo, either tuned into a 60-year-old couple’s favorite FM station, or spinning an old LP pulled out of a sliding compartment underneath the turntable.

But the kids today, with their flared trousers and their Spacepages and such! Will they define “Rudolph” by the modern versions? Or will all of these bedrock standards just die off completely in favor of songs recorded in the Eighties and Nineties?

Hmm.

Well, back to you, John. I’d like to see a rough cut of the 2009 edition by…shall we say January 20? That’ll give you plenty of time. And don’t even try making this one suck in an attempt to get out of doing this every year; I’ll see right through that trick.

Linky-linky, Amazon MP3, you please to buy now, thank you:

Amazon MP3: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

Purchasing the track from the iTunes Store remains an option. You’ll get it at puny 128K bitrate and it’ll be shackled in the unjust furious chains of DRM. And I won’t get those few coppers from my Amazon Associates link.

But yes: you can buy it from the iTunes Store. I didn’t figure you for being “that guy.” Well, it’s a free country.

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 08: “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year”

It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year (Album Version)

Andy Williams

The Andy Williams Christmas Album

Genre: Holiday

Amazon MP3: It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year (Album Version)

No Advent Calendar yesterday? Well, of course not. It was Sunday. That’s the Lord’s day.

(I’ll make it up later today.)

Okay. This series is like being  club DJ. You don’t want to hit the crowd with the theme stuff right away. People are still at home, putting another coat of Armor-All on their plastic pants and charging the induction batteries on the subdermal Kraftwerk logo they had implanted in their forehead last month. So you fill the first hour with regular great music.

Then the club has definitely started to fill up. You’re now free to hit ’em with “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.”

(If the night’s theme is “KRINGLE JAMS!!!! A Musical Advent Calendar” or somesuch, anyway.)

Yes, ladies and gents, here’s the first explicit Christmas song of the Calendar. Because the other rule of club DJing is that you don’t want your first song to weakly walk up and tap the bell. It should leap forward and RING the bell.

“It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” is a song that was pretty much designed to be screwed up. Was it Target that used the Johnny Mathis version to introduce and back up all of their holiday commercials a couple of years ago? Or did they contract a tactical orchestra from North Korea to weaponize the basic melody?

Well, there was definitely a Rogue Former Soviet Republic air about it, at minimum. I cringed the first time one of those commercials came on and I changed the channel every time it came on thereafter. Every bar of music was a BLAST! of trumpets and drum fills and the overall effect was like having eight elves pin down your arms and legs while Santa beats you about the head and chest with a toy sack filled with frozen oranges.

(Speaking of Santa: I also remember getting more and more angry with the Santa who wordlessly closed the commercial by winking playfully at the camera. The dude could not WINK. Was it a botox problem or something? Whatever, he’d just sort of smile and bob his head forward a little and squint his eyes shut for a quarter-second. And from far back in the mists of July, when the commercial was shot, you could hear the director screaming “CUT! Okay, you mother*****r!!!! We’re going to do JUST ONE MORE mother******g take, and if you CAN’T do a mother******g wink at the goddamn ******g camera, I AM GOING TO STAPLE YOUR ******G EYE closed and THAT’s how we’re going to get this ******g shot!!!!!! TAKE 72! GO, YOU MOTHER*****R, GO!!!!!!”)

(Ho! Ho! Ho!)

This is a tune with a clear freshness date. It gets recorded once and really, that’s all we need. It’s like having multiple versions of the Chipmunks Song. It’s a perfectly charming tune, performed perfectly well. But it isn’t like “Autumn Leaves,” a part of the Great American Songbook that every great singer must interpret and visit at least once during his or her career.

And I’m not denigrating Andy Williams here. It’s a great song and performance. I grow weary of post-modernism, irony, sarcasm. And alas, sarcasm is the Super Unleaded of blogs. Pick a random hunk of cheese, make fun of it, and complete that last final check before you click “Post.”

This Last Final Check is a careful read-through in which you make sure that it’s clear to your readers that you’re way too cool for a song from an Andy Williams special. They cannot be allowed to learn the truth: that every time you hear this recording in a store or in a commercial or at your grandparents’ house, you’re inexplicably transported back to every wonderful childhood holiday memory in your inventory, and you’re warm and happy for a solid fifteen minutes afterward.

So yes, I own this track and I enjoy this track. Buy it from the Amazon MP3 Store, which much in keeping with the spirit of the season, gives me a small kickback which I barely deserve:

Amazon MP3: It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year (Album Version)

It’s also available on iTunes. In keeping with the spirit of the season, the guy at Apple in charge of iTunes bitterly allows his personal assistant just a single day off to spend Christmas with his wife and his handicapped son, and get furious if he deigns to raise the temperature of his squalid, freezing-cold office by a single degree.