Silent Night-please

An agnostic sifts through tons of bad holiday music to find a few aural Xmas treats

Christmas offers things to look forwardto, even if you're a crabby agnostic like me. In fact, there are some albums I can't wait to play again because, being Christmas albums, they're best heard during that time.

Then there's all the other Christmas music, which needs to die.

Somewhere, well-meaning people doubtless think that complaining about most Christmas music being bloated, obnoxious and otherwise too irritating to deal with is like complaining about Christmas itself in the same way--an obvious "yeah, we know" cop-out that allows us to indulge our inner Grinch. Regardless of the virtues of the holiday and how it's celebrated, however, let's make something clear right now--a lot of Christmas music flat-out sucks.

I'm not talking per se about the carols and standards that the 21st century has inherited from previous ones, though I'm sure we have our own hated examples, or at least one song that for all the charming sentiment or religious meaning is simply unlistenable now. I'm certainly not talking about the occasional originals that cut through the mire (and often, like movies and books, the best of such Christmas songs are ones that, instead of celebrating the holiday, have it as part of the setting, a background for something else to play out on-the Pogues' brilliant "Fairytale of New York" being a perfect example, with an old couple reduced to bickering insults while "the bells were ringing out on Christmas Day"). No, the horrors go deeper--I'm talking about the glop. The endless glop.

A lot of it is anonymous, and rightly so--20 Seasonal Favorites! performed by a tone-deaf choir and the Lower Slobovian Orchestra, available for $3 at Wal-Mart. But it's the theoretically famous and supposedly popular stuff that gets me, especially if it was a one-off recorded at the height of a performer's fame that now is but a laughable monument to folly. Seeing these discs pop up each December at local stores is an example of the dregs of the collapsing CD market--the New Kids on the Block Christmas album was joke enough. Hanson's? Good Lord. Meanwhile, I fully blame Mariah Carey's Christmas successes for all the bad American Idol-style female singers in her wake, who turn things like "The Christmas Song" into breathy annoyances that end up being played at places where you're just trying to eat a taco in peace, thanks.

Perhaps the best example, though--and certainly the most appropriate for Orange County and its overdressed, overdecorated malls this time of year--is the triumphant belch of holiday irritation foisted on us via Mannheim Steamroller. The stroke of evil genius that led Chip Davis, mastermind of a sweetly dull take on new-age instrumental rock, to record the original MS Christmas album in 1984 and several awful sequels since has resulted in something that's now its own tradition, one that always prompts a heavy sigh whenever I encounter it. The bright chirpiness of their take of "Deck the Halls" is a shoppers' anthem in excelsis: a fartily pompous synth playing the main melody, sparkling strings that bespeak oodles of tinsel, and an overall arrangement that sounds like it should be introducing a local newscast's Martha Stewart knockoff feature on how to make ye olde Christmas chocotinis. It's practically inviting you into Sears to purchase 8,000 gifts and to further make you feel guilty when you forget someone on your list, even while you dodge complaining people in the South Coast Plaza parking lot feeling annoyed that you dared get in the way of their SUVs.

But there is salvation. For example, Vince Guaraldi's piano-jazz-trio soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas: I honestly think not liking this means you're somehow wrong in the head; John Fahey's elegant, deservedly famous pair of acoustic-guitar interpretations of Christmas standards; and the Lothars' own pair of carol-themed CD-Rs, only done with Theremins and keyboards and turning merry tunes into devolved but still beautiful wonders. Then there's the insane compilation A John Waters Christmas, on which Baltimore's finest presents a collection of 12 obscure holiday soul stompers and white-bread horrors.

These are the exceptions. So, what to do? Some people say the answer is to gather around and sing carols and feel an ineffable joy, but I'll leave that for the historical reenactors. I myself shall blast the utterly brilliant Christmas album by Seattle legends the Squirrels instead, where every carol is mangled into something far more entertaining. Happy holidays-and stop feeling so damned soppy!

 
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