My annual PSA about bad christmas music

Or perhaps one should just say “Christmas music,” given that the badness is pretty much baked into most of it and so goes without saying.

Anyway, as I first said lo these many years ago, gird yourself for bad Christmas music:

It’s only November 29 and I’m already sick to death of “Jingle Bell Rock” and Burle Ives and “White Christmas” and the Ray Conniff Singers (”let’s all sing in unison everybody!”). Hasn’t anyone realized that there are only so many ways to rearrange “Silent Night” and “We Three Kings” before the songs collapse under their own threadbare weight? The state of Christmas music - Christian and secular - is atrocious.

There’s a lot contributing to the dismal repetition of the same handful of exhausted melodies, which passes for Christmas music. First and foremost, the limited shelf life of Christmas projects disincentivizes artists and labels from investing heavily in good, original holiday music. Second, the hyper-commercialization of Christmas relies in large part on the sentimentality and faux nostalgia of traditional Christmas favorites softening the rapacious spending frenzy that’s at the root of most Christmas celebrations (”hey, we’re singing “Deck the Halls” while we elbow our way through Super Walmart, so this must mean Christmas isn’t an obscene orgy of getting and spending”).

And since you’ve got only at most a couple of months of serious selling time and airplay for Christmas merchandise (in music), the best way to cash in on the Christmas cash-cow is to play to the saps who can’t get enough of “Rudolph” and “Little Drummer Boy” and Alvin & The Chipmunks. This kind of pandering leaves no air and shelf space for original, unproven tunes (and in turn, of course, recycling the same tripe season after season only reinforces the tendency to repeat “old favorites” next year, which is why, I assume, my local soft rock radio station has been taken over by schlocky Christmas crap).

There are fine Christmas projects out there (B.B. King’s, Michael Buble’s,Linda Eder’s and, ridicule me though you may, Mariah Carey’s), but the profit-imperative behind the Bing-Crosby cliché Christmas (a complete fantasy, mind you) keeps these projects at the back of the rack. And there is original Christmas music being written out there, but it doesn’t get much airplay and little promotion because either it can’t compete with “Holly Jolly Christmas” or it’s a religious tune that’s too explicitly sectarian for pop Christmas radio.The situation in sg is not much better. Though original Christmas music fairs slightly better in Christian markets than others, that’s mainly because churches drive the creation of new Christmas musicals and other church music. Look at your average sg Christmas project and you’ll see the same forces at work here that thwart good Christmas music in secular markets: dashed off recordings geared toward holiday sales more than musical excellence. The few original tunes that may be included on these are often hastily assembled, kitchy affairs that are difficult to take seriously (for instance, EHSSQ’s “A Quartet Christmas”).

It kinda surprises me that this trend has persisted so long, since pretty clearly goodholiday music - both Christian and secular - is in high demand when it manages to break through the Christmas-music barricade. Linda Eder’s recording of “Bells of St. Paul” became an instant classic when it came out a few years back, as is Kenny Loggin’s fine “Celebrate Me Home” (and Mariah Carey’s recording of “Miss You Most” is outstanding, though it doesn’t get as much play as Eder and Loggins). And it took only a matter of years for the wonderful “Mary Did You Know” to become sickeningly overdone - evidence, I think, that there is a demand for good, original Christmas music even if labels and vendors prefer to peddle holiday pap for easy profits. Aside from labels and artists investing in solidly built and performed Christmas music (which I don’t expect to see happen any time soon), perhaps partthe problem is that the relatively small number of good, original Christmas tunes are too dispersed across and buried in a host of otherwise forgettable individual projects.

The full thing is here. As always, feel free to leave suggestions for any trend-defyingly good Christmas music.

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  1. Janet B wrote:

    Ah, it’s that time of year again…time for Doug’s Bah Humbug moment. ;-)

    But for very rare exceptions, I don’t listen to the radio during the Christmas season. I get too frustrated with the lack of imagination in the construction of playlists. There IS a lot of beautiful, inspiring, original, & enjoyable Christmas music available…it just seems to get lost in the schmaltz. So, I listen to my collection, instead - and therefore avoid the grumpies. :)

    Steven Curtis Chapman’s brand new Christmas cd, Joy, is fantastic. From reimagined classics to inspired originals, every song is a delight & a treasure. No one does Christmas quite like SCC…and this collection is particularly poignant, given his family’s recent tragedy. The songs point to the (rediscovered) joy, magic, & fun of the Christmas season…and most importantly, to the message that matters most: God is with us.
    My favorites are What Child Is This & We Three Kings…and an SCC original, Christmas in Kentucky - which is not what you’d expect from its title.

    So, there’s my suggestion. Merry Christmas.

  2. pj wrote:

    Have you heard “One Wintry Night” by David Phelps? … especially the title song, “One Wintry Night” and “The Singer” and “Hallelujah” … and the rest? Worth a listen. Also like his version of “Blue Christmas”.

  3. Janet B wrote:

    pj - Anything by David is worth listening to. :)
    My fave from One Wintry Night is One King (duet with Sonya Issacs). Gorgeous.
    Do you have David’s first Christmas project - Joy, Joy? Top to bottom, simply delicious. His Do You Hear What I Hear? is the best version ever. (Apologies to Robert Goulet, but he’s been outdone.)
    Also, check out Christmas with David Phelps…Angel Lullaby & To Make a King are noteworthy, along with Ave Maria.

  4. CVH wrote:

    I can’t believe I’ve been reading Doug’s Christmas Epistle for eight years! Pretty soon it will hold a place in Christmas literature like ‘The Night Before Christmas’ and every good southern gospel daddy will read it to his children by the glow of candlelight on Christmas Eve. “Daddy, read it again!”

    What’s sad is, eight years after he first wrote the piece the situation has not improved. There have been a handful of standout songs but most of it is lackluster pap. Even Lari Goss hasn’t been able to pull a few of them out of the fire. As a well-known writer and performer told me many years ago, “You can’t polish a turd.”

    The reasons why most Christmas records suck hasn’t changed either. Limited shelf life equals limited budget. Old and familiar songs (read ‘free’ since most of them are PD) vs. new and unproven? If you already write for your group and have a strong bond with your audience you can probably get away with penning a couple of originals for your project. But most ‘new’ tunes are forgettable and don’t inspire sales or radio airplay.

    Speaking of radio, playing Christmas music nonstop from the end of October or November on through New Year’s may drive some people crazy but the revenue it can generate is huge. The interesting thing is it does nothing for your ratings after the holidays - no bump, no increase in new listeners, nada. And the problem remains that many secular songs, while not lyrically offensive and well-produced, won’t get play on Christian radio because they’re done by secular artists. The same is true for most secular soft rock and AC formats - they might touch a Michael W. Smith or Amy Grant or possibly a Casting Crowns or Third Day but most Christian music is not embraced by secular radio, it’s held at arm’s length.

    My personal exceptions to the rule? SONG: Mariah Carey from her most recent Christmas record, “One Child”. Beautiful lyric, her vocals are flawless and the orchestration is gorgeous. She co-wrote it with producer/composer Marc Shaiman. RECORD: “Everything Christmas” that Greater Vision released a couple of seasons ago. You can debate some of the song selections but there’s no doubt they intended it to be a standout record and IMHO it is.

    If your taste runs out of the mainstream of Christian and secular slop, you can always find some nice instrumentals and occasionally original compositions by many smooth jazz artists; TSO does some notable work if you’re into the rock-orchestra style. I thought Lady Antebellum’s new record had some nice cuts on it. If you enjoy the Irish-flavored stuff, Celtic Woman has a new project as well. Nothing groundbreaking but nice for background.

    And God help us, Rod Stewart has released his first Christmas record - ever. And one of the cuts is a duet with Michael Buble. How many ways can you say ‘train wreck’? Why? Why, dear God, why?

  5. Tom G. wrote:

    First off, we often try too hard to feel “Christmasy” and it will always elude us. Let’s get away from all the inner-directed reflective nonsense. Turn on Bpb Dylan’s jaunty Christmas CD -or else go back to the 60s/70s and start spinning the Chuck Wagon Gang, Jimmie Davis, and Slim Whitman Christmas LPs -each of these artists had two Christmas discs -some of which have been reissued on CD. Hank Snow, Jim Reeves, and the Louvin Brothers also had good Christmas releases back then too. None of these were self-conscious, overproduced Yuletide monstrosities - but simple, (sometimes a little sentimental, but always) honest in a true and unforced way.

  6. Tommy Jones wrote:

    If you don’t like the music, don’t listen, then. If you do, enjoy it.

  7. pj wrote:

    Janet B — I do have David’s first Christmas project … Joy, Joy … also a favorite! And I have Christmas with DP and O Holy Night. In fact, I was at the taping for the two of them.

  8. Aaron Swain wrote:

    Glad somebody beat me to mentioning Greater Vision’s “Everything Christmas.” I wish there were more groups that would do Christmas projects like that, if they’re going to do them at all.

  9. Tad Kirkland wrote:

    Can’t stand David’s first over brassed Christmas CD. I Just Want To See Santa Claus Tonight and a mixed group Capella song done on a live DVD of his were fantastic. You can hear the new Collingsworth Christmas disc on Spotify. It is great, as is Buble’s, but even the best stuff is becoming redundant.

  10. Janet B wrote:

    I just found the strangest Christmas cd ever…
    You ever go to Walmart or the grocery store - or even the gas station - and there’s a bin of $5 Christmas cds just sitting there, waiting to be perused? I can’t resist combing through it, looking for a gem. I strike out most of the time, but you never know…
    I picked this one up late last year - can’t remember where. I’m sorting through my cds today & took a good first look at this one. Oh my…
    It’s called Glorious Christmas (Sony, 2005); featuring Mario Lanza, Placido Domingo, The Vienna Boys Choir, Mahalia Jackson, and many more! (So says the cover.) One would expect a somewhat classical compilation, yes?
    Don’t really have a quibble with the song selection (although, since when is A Mighty Fortress a Christmas song?)…but the artists are…eclectic. In addition to the aforementioned singers, there’s Eileen Farrell, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Anna Moffo, George Beverly Shea…PLUS the Oak Ridge Boys…the Blackwood Brothers…and the Chuck Wagon Gang! Really? Well, that was just…unexpected!
    Either the person or persons putting this together didn’t have a clue what they were doing, or they’re closet SG fans trying to slip in a few “classics” of their choosing. :)
    See? You just never know…

  11. RF wrote:

    One thought. Satellite radio. Yep, I’m tired of Bobby Helms, Brenda Lee, and the Elvis on commercial radio. And yet, the greatest Christmas Cantada of the prior century, “The Animal’s Christmas,” has always gone unnoticed as well as “Whatever Happened to Christmas,” both penned by the great Jimmy Webb, son of a Baptist preacher. Just like P&W music, the rest is fluff. Just tune me to another channel on Sirius-XM.

  12. Saran c. wrote:

    @janet B. that isn’t Sonya issacs singing the diet with David phelps on “one king”…that would be his sister Sheri Proctor, who recently passed away from her battle with cancer. Just wanted to clarify.

  13. Saran c. wrote:

    I meant “duet” not “diet”…darn autocorrect

  14. sgfan wrote:

    For some “good” funky christmas music: Listen to James Brown’s last christmas album. Favorite track “Clean for Christmas” - even james wanted to be off the rock for this season

  15. NG wrote:

    Here’s a link to a blogger who prefers Christmas schmaltz to the “soft porn” music played the rest of the year.
    It’s the second item on the site. The first one is an interesting story about Gaither.

  16. Lenae wrote:

    Do fans want to hear their groups sing christmas music in the winter? Go to the new blog and voice your opinion.

  17. Janet B wrote:

    Saran C. - You are correct - and not. Sherri sang the duet with David on the dvd, but not on the studio cd. That was Sonya. (One Wintry Night is the studio cd; O Holy Night is the dvd/cd. Just wanted to clarify.)

  18. cynical one wrote:

    My 2 pet peeves on Christmas recordings:

    1. People who sing “Si-uh-lent Night”.

    2. People who sing the first verse to sacred carols twice, instead of the second or third verse.

    And that’s all I’m gonna say about that.

  19. yankeegospelgirl wrote:

    Animals’ Christmas featured the unlikely pairing of Art Garfunkel and Amy Grant. Good combination.

  20. Shirley wrote:

    I agree with your comments regarding the state of Christmas music on the radio. I desperately want them to play something else and then just get tired and turn it off and go back to my collection. The newest addition that is noteworthy to me is Karen Peck & New River’s “Georgia Mountain Christmas.” It’s incredible with mostly NEW Christmas songs that somehow still inspire that “feeling” that I seem to look for from a good Christmas song. There are a few famililar songs done incredibly well with interesting little tweaks. Worth checking out.

  21. Marty Funderburk wrote:

    I don’t know how I missed this post, but it’s always good to have one of my songs mentioned…even though it’s described here as a “hastily assembled, kitchy affair that [is] difficult to take seriously.” I have to admit - the description is fair. Sue Smith and I wrote “A Quartet Christmas” as a novelty song - fully intending it to be little more than a light-hearted breakaway from the standard Christmas fare on a project. I think we accomplished that goal.

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