Tuesday, 13 December 2016
Greatest Christmas Music
Christmas Needle Drop
So it’s that time of the year again when seasonal shoppers trample peace and good will into their fellow consumers, as they hastily clamber over their fallen bodies to snatch up the best bargains they can in the name of completing that long list of Christmas shopping requirements. Thankfully, it’s also the time of year when a fair few people get an extended holiday away from work and so the anticipation of this annual absence from the drudgery of the real world (for the most part) suffuses most of our hearts with a feeling of peace, well being and joy... blocking out thoughts of the gazillions of people who die in Christmas shopping traffic or those expiring from hypothermia as the winter bites down hard.
One of the things I always look forward to each year is the start of December because that’s when I feel I can legitimately start playing all my Christmas themed music without getting too many funny looks. So this year, I thought I’d do something new, for my blog, which is pull out and highlight my all time favourite Christmas sonorities for you all to consider listening to at this most festive time of the year. To make things more easier and less agonizing in deciding what’s what, I’ve put my eleven favourite Christmas albums, in reverse order of course, first and then made a second list for absolutely unmissable, stand alone Christmas themed tracks which aren’t on any of those albums listed. Before I start though, a few caveats...
You won’t find Johnny Williams’ two, almost certainly excellent, Home Alone scores on here. Why not? Well simply because I’ve never heard the scores or even seen the movies (and I still have no desire to see Macauly Caulkin do an impression of a work by Edvard Munch, thanks very much). I’m sure these are very good, Christmassy albums but, honestly, I can’t personally recommend them without having heard them.
Also, you won’t find Danny Elfman’s score to Edward Scissorhands on here. Yes, I know it’s been used in a gazillion seasonal adverts and has become almost synonymous with the yuletide season (and dodgy perfume) over the years and... it is a great score... there just wasn’t enough of a Christmas link for me to be able to justify extending my list to twelve, as far as I’m concerned. Elfman’s score for The Nightmare Before Christmas is similarly missing in action but for a simpler reason... I think it’s a bit rubbish and you can hear another, much more interesting musical's influences coming through from the temp track... at least I think I can. Either way, it’s just not for me. However, Elfman fans can relax because one of his Christmas scores did make it in here, so make like a snowflake and chill when it comes to that particular composer.
Okay so first up we have...
The Top Ten Coolest Christmas Albums
11. Everly by Bear McCreary
If you love the music of composer Bear McCreary as much as me, especially his amazing stuff for the last incarnation of the Battlestar Galactica TV show, then you’ll no doubt love the score to this Christmas set shoot ‘em up featuring a machine gun toting Salma Hayek. The icing on the cake is a bunch of Christmas songs with vocals performed by Brendan McCreary and Bear’s wife Raya Yarborough (seriously, her version of Silent Night is well worth the price of the CD). This album is quite new to me but it’s going to be spinning every year in December for me from now on.
10. Die Hard by Michael Kamen
This much loved Christmas action movie has a sequel which also takes place at Christmas. However, Kamen’s music for this first film is much more seasonal as, asides from quoting musical source material like Beethoven’s Ninth and Singin’ In The Rain, he also weaves in some festive tunes which mesh perfectly with the underscore and are manipulated in a similar way to how Kamen manipulates the audience’s emotions. There’s a wonderfully sinister interpolation of phrases from Winter Wonderland in here which will change the way you receive the spirit of the music.
9. Scrooged by Danny Elfman
Danny Elfman’s take on the classic Bill Murray update on Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol uses a lot of Christmas melodies and is a perfect summation of Elfman’s ‘Yuletide stylings’. My one complaint would be that the four note melody from Ronald Stein’s score to Roger Corman's ‘Lovecraft masquerading as Poe’ movie The Haunted Palace, so famously (and allegedly) stolen by Toto for the score to Dune, also seems to play a prominent role in this score. Still, a great listen and a fun album.
8. A Christmas Carol and A Child is Born by Bernard Herrmann
Double header from Kritzerland of two phenomenal Christmas scores, including songs, written by my all time favourite composer Bernard Herrmann. It’s a limited edition and probably out of print now but well worth grabbing if you can get hold of one.
7. Gremlins by Jerry Goldsmith
The late great Jerry Goldsmith’s famous score to Joe Dante’s ‘almost horror’ movie is a bit of a masterpiece. Again, the sequel to this was also set during Christmas but that score can’t hold a candle to this one. Asides from the Gremlins and Gizmo themes, of course, there’s some great seasonal tunes encoded into the DNA of this thing and it’s always going to be on my stereo throughout the season. The FSM expanded version of this score is a must-have.
6. Krampus by Douglas Pipes
What an incredible score to a newish Christmas movie. There’s some great, traditional tunes from the Xmas genre which are used to counterpoint and metamorphosise a horror film, and score, which is like a much grimmer version of Gremlins in tone. It’s kind of lazy to say that Pipes score is reminiscent of Elfman at his most Christmassy but he is and I honestly think he out Elfman’s Elfman in some passages. A grim and unsettling but ultimately fun and addictive listen.
5. It’s A Wonderful Life by Dimitri Tiomkin
Kritzerland finally gave us a limited edition of the music from this much loved, and rightly so, Christmas movie... blowing away all the pseudo compilation imitations on the market. It’s a great job they do on this score, considering the age of the master tapes... just put it on and find yourself transported back in time to a black and white Bedford Falls. How cool is it that we finally have this music released?
4. Doctor Who: The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe by Murray Gold
This Christmas special set in the 1940s is easily the most moving and emotional episode of Doctor Who ever and Gold’s music, presented by Silva Screen as a double header with music from the Christmas special The Snowmen, is absolutely heart rending. It doesn’t take many minutes of listening to this music before I’m a blubbery mess, crying into a handkerchief.
3. Star Wars Christmas Album - Christmas In The Stars
How can you not love an album of very strange songs sung by See Threepio, R2D2 and their alien friends to celebrate Christmas in a galaxy far, far away. It even has a young Bon Jovi on at least one track. Despite its absolutely infuriating lack of continuity with the rest of the Star Wars canon, something which my mind can’t even conceive, especially since the Christian faith surely wouldn’t exist in a universe with Jedi in it, it’s hard not to repeatedly play an album which has such cool songs as “What do you get a Wookie for Christmas when he already has a comb?” on it. I’m so glad this album is back in print and on CD.
2. A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi
Jazz legend Vince Guaraldi’s amazing Christmassy score to the very first Charlie Brown animated special is absolutely spellbinding and something I will always come back to every Christmas. His slightly downbeat version of O Tannenbaum is the most powerful performance of that particular seasonal standard and this is also the first Charlie Brown score to feature the less Christmassy but much loved and popular Linus And Lucy theme. This is an album everybody should have on in the background on the approach to Christmas.
1. Christmas With The Chipmunks by David Seville
There is simply never going to be a better Christmas album than this outstanding volume of Christmas with The Chipmunks (now known, on Amazon, as Christmas With The Chipmunks Volume 2, for some reason). I’ve been listening to this every Christmas since I was born in 1968, originally on the first pressing vinyl and then, from about the mid 1990s, on a CD my friend in America sent me one year. It’s absolutely unbeatable and make sure it’s this version of the album you get because it has the most moving, “there’s something in my eye” rendition by Seville of Silver Bells that you’re ever likely to hear.
Bonus Beats - more unmissable single tracks
9. The Christmas Wine by John Barrry from The Lion In Winter
A very traditional arrangement which is almost hymn like in its rendition but it’s a beautiful side of John Barry from his prime which a lot of listeners may not be familar with. I’ve never seen the film but this is a cool album and this is a great track.
8. A Christmas Song by John Barry from The Last Valley
Another lovely score from a Barry scored movie I’ve never seen... this one sung in a language I don’t even understand (perhaps Latin?). This is another, peaceful hymn and is a good companion piece for my previous pick.
7. December Will Be Magic Again by Kate Bush
The ultimate queen of modern popular music brought this song out very early in her career... which is cool because it’s become a Christmas standard and transports me straight back to the 1970s... even if I did only discover her music from the mid 1980s. This is classic, early Bush and should be played at least once at every Christmas party to make said party more bearable.
6. Birth Of A Penguin by Danny Elfman
Absolutely astonishing, jingly, snowy, Christmassy track which serves as a prologue (and pre-credits sequence) to Tim Burton’s Christmas set, second Batman movie. This fun track tells of two parents throwing away their newborn where he floats into the sewers in a basket before being raised by penguins. This leads into a dynamic version of the Batman theme and it’s a great album to get because it also features the gem of a musical piece that is used to accompany the ‘transformation’ of Selina Kyle into The Catwoman. The expanded La La Land edition is definitely the way to go here because the original release of the score was always sounding muddy and muted... the two La La Land editions don’t.
5. Dragnet Parts 1 and 2 by Stan Freberg
This double header of a Christmas sketch parody of the original Dragnet TV show by Stan Freberg trumps some of his other Christmas themed stuff and also features Miklos Rozsa’s four note theme from The Killers (Rozsa successfully sued the makers of the original Dragnet for nicking this part of his score). It’s a bit of a masterpiece and what more can one say about the inimitable Freberg other than... most people call them Green Onions but really they’re called scallions.
4. 7 O'clock News/ Silent Night by Simon and Garfunkel
The most chilling and depressing version of Silent Night you’re ever likely to find, from Simon and Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album. This cross-fades some horrendously chilling news stories such as a serial killer strangling and stabing student nurses and President Nixon’s response to the anti-Vietnam war protests against the classic hymn, with the grimness of the news broadcast getting louder and louder until the carol is almost fighting to be heard underneath. Jaw dropping stuff and a timely reminder that not everyone is having a great Christmas.
3. Troika from Lieutenant Kijé by Prokofiev
I first became aware of Prokofiev’s Troika as a pre-teen when it was used as the opening title music from Woody Allen’s masterpiece Love And Death. Since then, of course, I've noticed it’s also one of those “Christmas tunes to go to” when it comes to sampling a bit of the main melody and sticking it into your Christmas song. The original composition and orchestration is, however, a beautiful piece which will always conjure up the sound of sleigh bells in my mind.
2. Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown? by John Barry from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
I’ve never understood why more people don’t realise this but the John Barry song Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown? from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service isn’t just one of the greatest Christmas songs ever recorded, it’s also, without doubt, the greatest James Bond song ever released. Sure, Goldfinger, From Russia With Love and You Only Live Twice are great songs... but they pale in comparison with this masterpiece, sung here by Nina of Nina and Frederick fame (they did a cool version of Little Boxes too). On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is easily the greatest Bond movie by a country mile and, though it also has a more famous song sung by Louis Armstrong (of which I’m not a big fan), it also has the coolest Bond song ever... this one.
1. I Wanna Spend My Christmas With A Dalek by The Go Gos.
Oh wow. you can’t go wrong with this wonderful piece by the GoGo’s. You will hear all the love for a Dalek that you can get in this song, and even hear one join in on occasion, asking for Mince Pies and stuff. It’s a silly song but most Christmas songs are and this is one of the silliest... therefore the greatest and most entertaining Christmas song ever recorded. Why there aren’t a gazillion cover versions of this I’ll never know but, this one is just perfect so you can just play it on repeat for about 15 times before moving onto Christmas With The Chipmunks... a powerful combination, for sure.