Let’s make one thing clear: I love Christmas music.
I start playing it sometime after Thanksgiving, and it continues clear through Christmas Day when a massive, 160-song holiday playlist of my own making plays over the stereo as my family and I open our presents.
I believe my love for Christmas music is largely genetic. If you start my father’s car right now, you would likely be deafened by the Bing Crosby CD blaring over the stereo at decibel levels usually reserved for Megadeth or Pantera.
But when I attempt to analyze my almost instinctive, undying love for holiday music, I am left somewhat puzzled because, for the most part, the themes and lyrics contained in most Christmas songs are such that I would never, and frankly don’t, tolerate in other areas of my musical life.
For a few years now, this dichotomy in my tastes confused me until recently when I figured out this music’s hold on me and others: Christmas music is beloved for many of the same reasons that people still dine at faux neighborhood grills and pubs.
It’s safe, bordering on unremarkable, predictable and familiar. And that’s just what we want at Christmas.
I can think of no other holiday where we are more resistant to change or anything new than at Christmas.
The holiday traditions practiced annually in our households are likely rooted in those of our parents and our parents’ parents.
I know that anyone who attempts to change, alter or otherwise defy our decades-old Christmas traditions is seen as a sniveling Philistine and is accused, only half-jokingly, of betraying our family.
This same unflinching devotion to tradition and more-of-the-same is certainly at play when it comes to Christmas music, which I’ve come to lovingly view as the musical version of a sizzling skillet of pre-packaged, factory farm chicken.
No one has ever mentioned “White Christmas” or “The Christmas Song” as being among the greatest songs of all-time, just like a Fuddruckers’ line cook has never been nominated for a James Beard award.
But it’s all about context.
Do I want to hear “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” in April? Not a chance, but I begin craving that song in early December.
Do I prefer to eat freezer-burned mozzarella sticks? Absolutely not, but if I’m in a strange place and craving something familiar, I can think of nothing better.
Christmas music isn’t going to challenge the way we see the world or inform our experience like other music, but it will fill us with a sense of nostalgia and of a comforting, simpler time and place.
Always. Every time.
This is precisely the reason we don’t want our holiday music fussed with and find most modern takes on Christmas classics abhorrent.
I know I certainly had that reaction upon hearing Jason Mraz’s utterly dreadful cover of “Winter Wonderland” on a recently released Christmas compilation.
Some classics should stay classics, but every once in a while, a new original Christmas song or particularly well-done Christmas cover is released that pushes the envelope and fills me with hope.
These songs are the gastro pubs to the Bennigan’s of Christmas music.
This week’s playlist is dedicated to those music and artists who are boldly helping move Christmas music forward. Clearly, not all Christmas music is created equally.
• Hurricane Bells, “Christmas Don’t Be Late” — A quiet, stripped-down cover of the Alvin & Chipmunks classic that is thankfully low on Dave screaming like a maniac. Seriously, that guy should seek counseling.
• She & Him, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — Get it, Zooey Deschanel is singing the Dean Martin part? Kind of grating but pleasant enough and worlds better than any previous attempts to cover this song.
• Sufjan Stevens, “Lumberjack Christmas/No One Can Save You from Christmases Past” — No modern artist has done more for Christmas music than Sufjan Stevens. Some of it is really odd. Some of it, like this song, is brilliant.
• fun., “Sleigh Ride” — Nothing not to love here. A song that is at once faithful to the original and distinct to the artist.
• The Shins, “Wonderful Christmastime” — What it would sound like if this song had been written by The Beach Boys. Awesome.
• Emmy the Great & Tim Wheeler, “Marshmallow World” — As underrated a Christmas song as there’s ever been.
• AgesandAges, “We Need a Little Christmas” — A little slower and less Broadway than the original but enjoyable regardless.
• Cee-Lo Green, “What Christmas Means to Me” — Not sure what took Cee-Lo Green so long to make a Christmas album but let’s be glad he did.