The season of the loanshark is almost at its peak, so I thought I would share some of my favourite seasonally appropriate ways to lose hours in blissful solitude while all around you families eat too much and argue amongst themselves in between exchanging gifts that many of them took out loans with insanely high APRs to be able to afford. Starting with a few major selections that maybe have some actual merit, I then move on to the suffocatingly sugary depths of my most beloved Christmas trash.
Probably the only tradition I have at Yuletide is listening to this seasonal tribute to H.P. Lovecraft. From Lovecraftian rewrites of Christmas carols, terrifying pop songs done up in the Muzakified strains of a supermarket PA system, and eldritch corruptions of classical Christmas pieces such as The Messiah (featured in the link), the HPLHS has got you covered for arcane and indescribable sonic aberrations of a festive variety. It’s like listening to the mad orchestra that hangs around Azathoth in that black and white drawing, only in tones we can understand, which somehow makes it all the more frightening. Be warned, solstice ain’t for babies, unless you want to sacrifice them to a Great Old One.
Arnold Schoenberg’s charming chamber piece from 1921 is a brilliant collage of traditional Christmas carols and other seasonal music. It is written for two violins, cello, harmonium, and piano, and its dense polyphony reflects the composer’s devotion to the music of Johannes Brahms. Often Schoenberg is associated with the extremes of modernism, and his reputation leads many to ignore his love for the tradition that preceded him. In Schoenberg one finds a devotee of Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach, a brilliant melodist and contrapuntalist who was ultimately to seek new vistas beyond the German late romantic—which had effectively been exhausted by Mahler and Strauss (though he, for better or worse, never quite figured that out*) anyway. Weihnachtsmusik is a great introduction to this misunderstood master’s style, and along with his early work stands as an inarguable testament to his great talent, originality, and traditional outlook.
The best adaptation of any Charles Dickens story is made great no small thanks to its fantastic soundtrack. The charming themes and clever lyrics are for me indivisible from anything Christmas, and just listen to those gorgeous arrangements! If it’s Christmas Day and you aren’t watching Michael Caine dance goofily with a giant puppet down the streets of Muppet Victorian London, you suck.
Olivier Messiaen’s early organ epic, a series of meditations on the birth of Jesus Christ (you know, the legendary messianic figure the holiday was originally about), is one of many religious themed works in his impressive catalogue. A devout Catholic who split his musical life between composing his unique original works, teaching in such places as Darmstadt (where he had a profound influence on the avant garde) and the Paris Conservatoire, and serving as organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité, a position which he held from the early 1930s, when this piece was composed, until his death, Messiaen was deeply interested in the mysteries of God. Through his strong use of modes, extreme dynamics, and ritualistic yet complex rhythms, he attempted to address in his instrumental music the most profound mysteries and questions of his faith, while depicting in grand oratorio-like rituals Biblical stories and the lives of saints. His language builds on the neo-modal developments of Debussy while also drawing on traditional musics of the East such as raga and gagaku, but he eschews exoticism and makes his cribbings thoroughly his own. La Nativité is an early example of his rich and unique style, and is most identifiable as post-impressionist in the broadest sense.
But Dad, What’s Christmas Without Horrifying Commercial Garbage?
Haha, right you are, Little Timmy. At Christmastime, nothing brings me more joy than terrible pop singles about snow and presents and trees. Here are my picks for the best worst seasonal favourites for a rollicking good time a-rockin’ around the Christmas tree (that song is actually too shitty for this list though).
Bing Crosby – Frosty the Snowman — Christmas without Bing is hard to imagine. I don’t know what they did in the old days before this cracker was recorded, and frankly I don’t want to!
Chris Rea – Driving Home for Christmas — One of the most mawkish songs ever recorded, but my fellow Yorkshireman’s hoarse whisper of a voice is transformative of the sappy music and dumb lyrics.
The Mothers – Uncle Bernie’s Farm — Christmas don’t make it no more, Frankie. This might be the only remotely Christmas themed song in Zappa’s entire catalogue, and it’s a brilliantly bitter doozy.
Bruce Springsteen – Merry Christmas Baby — I got… MUSIC awwwwn the RAY DEE OH. What can I say about this diction?
Vaughn Monroe – Let It Snow! — There’s something vulgar about big band music that wasn’t recorded in the ’40s or earlier and is not riddled with the distortion that comes from poor recording tech and decades of tape wear, and that’s exactly what makes this version, from Die Hard, perfect for modern day Christmas celebrations.
Al Caiola & Riz Ortolani – Holiday on Skis — Probably best known for scoring the docsploitation classic Mondo Cane, Ortolani’s long career also spawned this hellish gee-tar pickin’ instrumental.
Adam Faith – Lonely Pup in a Christmas Shop — If Chris Rea recorded one of the most mawkish Christmas songs, Adam Faith recorded the paragon of all such seasonal delicacies. This vomit inducing atrocity is at once horrifying and irresistibly saccharine. Give it a spin, but don’t expect anyone to dance, they’ll be transfixed as if by arcane rites of hypnosis. And no, I don’t know what the fuck a Christmas shop is either.
Mud – Lonely This Christmas — Pups may be lonely in their Christmas shops, but spare a thought for the loneliest creature of all, the two-bit Elvis impersonator from Surrey.
Wizzard – I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day — Another institution from a British band no one seems to have heard of outside of their Christmas work. Its ubiquity makes it all the more bizarre. Featuring cut-budget Frank Zappa on the drums.
Johann Sebastian Bach – In dulci jubilo — It’s good to reflect on tradition in our hypercommercial times. This is also necessary context to establish for the neon barf that comes next.
Mike Oldfield — In dulci jubilo — There’s no doubting that Mike Oldfield is a talented musician, but he is also a product of his time.
NewSong – The Christmas Shoes — Written for a Hallmark-looking film I’ve never heard of, and sung by Kevin Spacey’s slightly less rapey trucker cousin, this might be the ugliest and stupidest Christmas song I’ve ever heard. And I say that as someone who once listened to over an hour of KISS’s Paul Stanley asking women to show him their breasts in between fits of random pained screaming. No, that isn’t Christmas related, but I was determined to shoehorn it in somehow.
Dean Martin – Let It Snow! — Yeah, that’s right, twice! And it’s important, because Die Hard is quintessential at Christmas, but Monroe’s enunciation is too clean. It ain’t right if you don’t bring you some corn for popp’n’, popping is not good enough!
Wham! – Last Christmas — No list of ugly Christmas dreck is complete without George Michael pretending to be straight at a ski lodge with that fucking hair.
Barry Manilow’s Christmas Sing-a-long Medley — “It’s tacky, it’s cheesy, and I love it!” Me too, Barry, me too. Like Christmas itself it’s the sheer halfheartedness of it and the way it peters out at the end that make it what it is.
Whatever you do this Christmas, stay safe, stay warm, and, if you’re with family, stay drunk to cope with the misery. Merry Christmas to all, and to all: a good night.