I heard my first holiday song of the year a few days ago. It was Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Charles Brown’s chestnut “Merry Christmas, Baby” (using Otis Redding’s soulful 1968 arrangement). Back when Springsteen released the song, he tucked it away as the flip side to his “War” single, from late 1986. Since it didn’t appear on any album, it was a holiday gift of sorts.
That was how they rolled out holiday tunes back in the day. You got one song per artist; two if you were lucky. Back then, it was sort of an unspoken code among artists that you didn’t get too commercial for the holidays. Sure, you could maybe cut a song as a present to your fans or donate a track to a charity collection like “A Very Special Christmas.” But whole albums were considered uncool Yule. They were throwbacks to your mom and pop’s era. “The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album” was understandable; “A Huey Lewis Christmas” would have been laughable.
These days, it seems, almost every artist has a seasonal CD — whether they’re suited to the genre or not. This year, we get Sheryl Crow blowing her rocker cred with a Hallmark collection and “American Idol”-er Elliott Yamin capitalizing on his cover of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” with a CD two years later. Sixpence None the Richer were inactive for years, but they’re back with the seasonal “Dawn of Grace.”
How the New Kids stole Xmas
At the risk of coming off like Scrooge, it’s hard not to say “bah, humbug” to all of this. In the past few years we’ve been asked to spend the holidays with everyone from singer-songwriter Aimee Mann (who should know better) to ex-punk rocker Billy Idol to aging heavy metalers Twisted Sister. Dealing with the glut of it can feel like when mom insists you try the pumpkin pie after you’ve filled up on turkey — too much of a good thing.
I’m not the only one feeling holiday music overload. Reuters reports sales of holiday albums are way down this year. What caused pop music to get overstuffed with too much holiday fare? Look to five former adolescent heartthrobs from Boston for the answer.
It was New Kids on the Block that changed everything when they put out “Merry, Merry Christmas” as a full album at the end of 1989. Sure, the single “This One’s For the Children” was catchy (at least the first thousand times), but the rest of the disc was padded out with lame songs like “Funky, Funky Xmas.” Still, it moved units and showed people under retirement age would buy holiday albums.
Soon cash registers were jingling and quality was plummeting. Mariah Carey, Luther Vandross, Toby Keith, Hanson and scads of others put out questionable holiday releases. It got worse when Christina Aguilera courted unintentional self-parody on her hyper-emotive “My Kind of Christmas” in 2000. A new nadir was reached this year when actress and Christian singer Kristin Chenoweth got religious on “A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas,” after she got nude for Allure and posed for FHM. Did she think we forgot?
Some of these albums get black marks because a lot of pop stars don’t have voices that work with syrupy orchestral backdrops. Others deserve lumps of coal because the kitschy “modern” carols are simply awful. Seasonal releases from the past few years have been so dismal that you’re in for some rough sledding unless you’re tuned to eccentric online stations like Soma FM’s Xmas in Frisko or Play Radio UK’s Play Xmas.
Joy to the world?
Overt commercialism isn’t the only problem, though. The trouble is these albums lack the fun that characterized the singles of old. And the inspiration.
In Christmases past, Elton John, Slade, Madonna and Wham! cut holiday tracks that sent up their own styles. John Lennon, the Kinks and the Pretenders used the holiday single to make personal or political statements. The one song per artist rule also allowed artists to indulge in quirkiness. Some of the best of these included the Waitresses’ cutesy, romantic “Christmas Rapping,” Prince’s wistful “Another Lonely Christmas” (a 1984 b-side), and Keith Richards’ rocking take on Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run.”
It’s telling that the most celebrated recent seasonal tune — Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” — was not part of a holiday CD.
The indie world seems to be pioneering a return to single holiday songs and multi-artist sets. The Killers put out an annual holiday song; the Raveonettes have an EP and free download; and Elizabeth & the Catapult offer a Jewish perspective with their new song. This year, there are also two various artist benefit collections, “Peace on Earth: A Charity Holiday Album Vol. II,” and “I’ll Stay 'Til After Christmas,” and a free download album, “XO for the Holidays.”
On the commercial front, Hollywood Records put out “All Wrapped Up!” with contributions from the Jonas Brother and Miley Cyrus. It’s no masterpiece, but the artists at least sound like they’re having a good time. The Jonases combine their fascination with religion and guitars on a medley of “Joy to the World” and “We Three Kings.” The Plain White T’s tweak their sappy image with “Christmas Won’t Be the Same Without You.” Demi Lovato and Jordan Pruitt also chime in with the kind of unselfconscious performances that can only come from doing a one-off project.
Collections like these put you in better spirits than the single-artist CDs that are decked out with garish arrangements. More artists should take their cues from the Jonas Brothers and Miley. Wait, what am I saying? Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. The holidays must have put me in a charitable mood!