"Christmas music is hip, Dad. These tunes have changes."
I'll admit my son's words, uttered while he was home from college for Thanksgiving break, caught me off guard. Not because I disagreed with their sentiment – classic holiday tunes often marry indelible melodies to sophisticated chord changes. That's why so many jazz musicians have had so much fun with them over the years. I suppose what surprised me was the context in which this exchange went down. I was griping about the onslaught of holiday tunes tied to television commercials, Black Friday sales, and the like. It's not that I'm a Scrooge. I just don’t enjoy the marriage of capitalism and Christmas.
But Declan's words reminded me how wonderful so much of this seasonal music is, even if you've heard it a million times, or it's being employed to urge you to buy stuff. I mean, Pete Townshend's "Let My Love Open the Door" still moves me, even though it's now a Walmart commercial. Sometimes the message transcends the medium.
So what is it about holiday music that makes it resonate with listeners and musicians alike? Quite likely, the feelings we experience when this music moves us involve nostalgia for our youth. As a kid, this time of year struck me as wholly magical, and that feeling will forever be tied to hearing my parents playing Handel's "Messiah" and Harry Belafonte's "To Wish You a Merry Christmas" around the house. Later, I added Frank Sinatra, James Brown and a lengthy list of seminal jazz artists interpreting Christmas tunes to my yearly playlists. Always, the mental image summoned by the music would be the view through the window of our family room out over a snow-covered back yard framed by white-capped Berkshire Mountains. This is total Hallmark Movie Channel stuff, I realize, but it's no less real for that fact.
There's something about the desire to summon our better, more kind and charitable selves that connects so well with the killer melodies and astute chord changes in great holiday tunes. When it works, you feel it, and the nostalgia kicks in to make the emotional picture complete. Bad Christmas music – trite melodies, novelty tunes, modern pop productions that assume they are adding to the discussion simply by marrying cloying romantic melodrama to Christmas tropes – is a complete buzz-kill, no matter how aggressively you've spiked the eggnog. That's why so much of the seasonal music we love was likely composed well before the digital age.
“The standards of writing back then were so different," songwriter and producer Greg Kurstin told the Washington Post in 2014. "When you write a modern Christmas song, it’s very different. The chords have been simplified over the years. You have to find those memorable, complex melodies and chord changes.”
Agreed. And when you do find them, you're reminded once again that "Christmas music is hip, Dad."
Here's my playlist for this year. I'm grateful to Cheap Trick, whose new "Christmas Christmas" album is an instant classic and gives my road-worn list a bit of a face lift.
Cheap Trick, "Merry Christmas Darlings"
The melody is magical, and the band rocks.
The Flaming Lips, "A Change at Christmas"
Are you sure that was rum you put in the eggnog? Absolutely sure?
Nat King Cole, "The Christmas Song"
My favorite version of the classic. It just can't be topped.
Louis Armstrong & the Benny Carter Orchestra, "Christmas in New Orleans"
Tidings of comfort and joy that swing like crazy.
Harry Belafonte, "Jehova the Lord Will Provide"
Belafonte just absolutely owns this gorgeous melody, and Laurindo Almeida's guitar playing is beautiful.
Run DMC, "Christmas in Hollis"
This is the coolest hip-hop Christmas tune ever. Includes a deserving nod to James Brown.
Dio with Tony Iommi, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"
Can something sound at once joyful and totally evil? Yes.
Big Star, "Jesus Christ"
The melody is sublime. Was Alex Chilton being serious with these lyrics, or just snarky? Who knows? Who cares?
Ahmad Jamal Trio, "Snowfall"
Here's a great example of how the best jazz musicians approach holiday classics – with a blend of reverence and fiery creativity.
Chris Cornell, "Ave Maria"
There no words to adequately describe this one. Just listen.