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- ’Tis the season to have a hungover holiday medley echoing in your aching head. (And, yes, this reindeer hates you, too.)
Some may consider this a positive thing, particularly those who willingly began listening to it before the fallout of Halloween’s spooky bacchanalia had even settled. Others — those shrinking, callous introverts — say it’s bad, having taken to social media without fail each year to complain about it being piped into public spaces like insidious totalitarian propaganda in the now 13-year-long war on Christmas.
Despite all this, no professional music journalist has ever been brave enough to appraise the musical merits of Christmas carols — until now, in this very special Boxing Day edition of Reverb.
We begin with a few compositions that were never meant to be associated with Christmas in the first place.
“Jingle Bells”: James Lord Pierpont’s tenacious earworm was originally published as “One Horse Open Sleigh” and written to be a Thanksgiving staple, yet continues to haunt us in its current form. As with The Beatles, a music writer cannot really expound much more on such a ubiquitous cultural presence, except to say that Dave Dudley’s rendition on the 2000 LP Christmas Truck Stop is exceptional. What else could a long-haul trucker possibly want to hear other than a rich baritone voice singing the titular phrase over and over and over?
“O Christmas Tree”: This holiday staple, based on the German folk piece “O Tannenbaum,” also has the distinction of not really being associated with Christmas in its original form. Instead it refers to the evergreen fir tree as a symbol for faithfulness.
Handel’s “Messiah”: George Frideric Handel’s oft-played oratorio, composed in the mid-18th century, was intended to be performed at Easter.
Echoes of holiday music continue to reverberate in our hearts, our souls and, if you listen to certain streaming radio stations, our ears. click to tweet“The Little Drummer Boy”: The narrator of “The Little Drummer Boy,” promises the infant Christ a kickin’ drum solo, yet none actually appears in the song. Nor has it been recorded by the likes of Vinnie Colaiuta, Bill Bruford or Neil Peart. (Though, curiously, Alex Lifeson). On the other hand, this song has the benefit of making grown adults sing the ridiculous onomatopoeic phrase “Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,” which is always funny. If you have a hipster friend who is really into Serge Gainsbourg, he’ll undoubtedly prefer the Burgundian carol “Patapan” and own the original 7" from 1720.
“Carol of the Bells”: This Ukrainian carol, composed in 1914 by Mykola Leontovych, is generally well-regarded, and it’s easy to see why. The rapid polyphony of the arrangement brings a bit of forward momentum and excitement lacking in most of the seasonal sap, while the minor-key setting is something of an anomaly in its field. Also, in most English arrangements, the text ends with the phrase, “Ding dong, ding dong ... bong,” which is timelessly hilarious for all middle- and high-school-aged choristers. This perennial favorite has been interpreted by artists ranging from the terminally unhip (Richard Carpenter, Trans-Siberian Orchestra) to the inarguably good (Al Di Meola, The Muppets).
“We Wish You a Merry Christmas”: With a compositional repetition sure to elicit a wry, anemic smile from fans of Philip Glass and Terry Riley, this traditional English carol, to this day, remains a favorite of those with a protracted longing for figgy pudding, who simply will not leave their neighbors’ houses until they’ve gotten some.
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