Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Christmas Rock Canon (2011 Playlist)

The days of the mixed tape are gone. The days of the mix CD are waning. The age of the iPod/MP3 mix is here. I fondly pine for the days of the mix tape and CD though. There was something special about sharing some of your freshly discovered music with your best friend, girlfriend, or boyfriend. One can share iPod playlists and such, but somehow it’s just not the same. While progress might be leaving the shared music experience of the mix tape/CD in the past, the internet age has allowed for a different kind of music sharing. I’m not referring to illegal downloading. I’m referring to music blogging. Since Rolling Stone hasn’t decided to give me a call and ask me to share my brilliant musical insights with their readership…yet…I’ve taken to spreading my musical revelations via this blog…

…and while I’m not sharing this particular playlist with anyone in particular, I am sharing it with anyone who stumbles across this humble music blog. It seems that, as I’ve grown older, I mostly end up making music playlists around the holidays. Christmas time, for audiophiles, is just not Christmas time without Christmas music. For us alt-rock (yes, I still use that term as clichéd and dated as it is), rock, and all-around more discerning music fans, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, and its many imposters, just doesn’t cut it anymore. Many of us Gen X types do have fond memories of the annual spinning of these LP’s (that’s long play, as in vinyl, for all you Millennials out there) by our parents while they pitter-pattered around the house putting up holiday decorations, playing Santa Claus, and generally doing other holiday-ish things. As we grew up though, many of us, who actually acknowledge the holiday season (it went way out of vogue there for a while with us) turned to alternative (again forgive the clichéd words) holiday music. This music, like much of the other music of our generation has, is now entering the mainstream and actually catching on with holiday music fans of all ages. Yes, my mother likes Tran-Siberian Orchestra almost as much as I and my similarly aged friends…and I don’t have a problem with that. Something I do have a problem with though is that there is a very large and growing catalogue of holiday/winter themed music being made by some of the alt-rock and adult-alt-rock artists that many of us still respect and still listen to. It’s a great problem to have, but it is hard to enjoy all this music over the course of the holiday season since at this stage in our lives, my peers and I no longer have the luxury of having the time to lay on the floor while pouring over the album art and notes to our favorite music while listening to an entire album of our favorite artists’ music. Enter the Christmas Rock Canon Playlist (2011 version).

This year’s Christmas Rock Canon Playlist includes many of my favorite artists and some who I don’t particularly listen to on a regular basis. It includes some covers of traditional songs, as well as a decent helping of original compositions, and unique combinations of traditional carols. I’ve been listening to it for most of the holiday season this year. It’s really kept me in a mood much more festive than I usually am in by this point of the holiday season.

Although the punk tinged swing movement is a thing of the now distant past, the Brian Setzer Orchestra has transcended this flash in the pan genre, mostly because Setzer, his music, and his gifted orchestral arrangements transcend the genre, and are now pretty much timeless anecdotes that reference (and powerfully meld) both rockabilly guitar and Benny Goodman-like swing.  The BSO’s best Christmas carol re-imagining is Setzer’s version of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The BSO mixes everything into the song from rockabilly guitar solos, to horns, to a full on choir. The song swings easily from a focus on each genre without sounding over the top or excessive. Along the similar musical lines, “Gettin’ In The Mood (for Christmas) mixes the original song, “In The Mood,” with some really inspired riffing and some cool Daddy swing-punk Christmas lyrics. The BSO’s percussion section really gets the chance to shine on this track. To round out The BSO’s Christmas selection for this year’s playlist, I included their cover of “Jingle Bells.” Setzer himself really cuts loose on this track throwing all he’s got into his guitar work. His version of “Jingle Bells” is the perfect musical example of his brilliant melding of orchestra and rockabilly/punk guitar music. Not only is it one of the most swingin’/rockin’ Christmas covers ever, it’s the perfect idealization of Setzer’s punk/swing musical vision. If you want to truly “rock around the Christmas tree,” then The BSO is the way to go.

Speaking of unique yet rockin’ arrangements, The Trans-Siberian Orchestra is perhaps the only group to ever completely meld electric guitar and classical music, and create something unlike anything that has ever been heard. I spoke at length about TSO in a recent post, so I’m not going to delve into them too deeply here, but their “Christmas Canon Rock” and expanded version of “What Child Is This” are perennial Christmas classics that will forever end up on Christmas music “Best of” lists until the human race stops celebrating some form of holiday centered around the Winter Solstice, or goes completely deaf. “Christmas Canon Rock” is simply the most intricately and powerfully arranged Christmas song ever. Period.

Something that I have always admired about Christmas music in general is the longevity of it. Some of the most well known carols that we experience anew every year are actually hundreds of years old. Some artists make use of the unique history of these songs and revisit them in a postmodern sense. They do so in a way that stays true to the original arrangements, but utilize instruments and a style that emulates the sounds of the distant past. Loreena McKennit and Sting are masters of this unique type of music. McKennit’s “Good King Weceslas” and Sting’s “Soul Cake” and “I Saw Three Ships” are perfect examples of these low key, yet sublimely beautiful, reinterpretations of some Christmas classics. They are perfect songs for sitting by the fire with your loved one and enjoying some hot cocoa, preferably while the snow drifts silently down outside your nearest window.

Moving from traditional carols to original Christmas compositions, something that is pretty rare these days, “The Christmas Song” and “Come on Santa” by The Raveonettes and “Christmastime” by The Smashing Pumpkins are two songs that you might never hear sung at a Christmas recital or on your doorstep, but are nevertheless entering into the perennially timeless realm of the greatest Christmas songs ever recorded. The Raveonettes’ brand of indie-rock/shoe gaze might make them unlikely candidates to write a timeless Christmas song, but by toning down the muddled shoe-gaze guitar in favor of clear and clean notes, mixed with some drumming that would make The Little Drummer Boy himself proud, some jingling bells, and a healthy dose of that easy, breezy, Swede-y breathlessness that they have a controlling interest in, The Raveonettes pull it off spectacularly. Billy Corgan is undoubtedly one of the most prolific alt-rock songwriters of this generation, so it is not nearly as surprising that he could come up with a timeless Christmas classic. Like The Raveonettes did on their Christmas songs, Corgan eschews what makes his band alt-rock Titans (namely his signature “grunge-in-furs” guitar sound) for synths, strings, piano, and the requisite jingle bells. The alt-rocker who screamed, “Despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage,” delicately sings about his remembrances of Christmases past and the joys of looking on as “the little ones” he loves are creating their own holiday memories around the Christmas tree. It’s a shockingly touching ode to Christmases past and ones yet to come.

Finally, a couple of heavenly sounding (and sexy) sirens round out this year’s Christmas Rock Canon playlist. Sarah McLachlan, whose voice is nothing short of angelic (and alluring) has an entire album of Christmas music, but two of her standouts, one a cover of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and her melding of two traditional carols in “The First Noel/Mary Mary” are the standouts. While her cover of Lennon’s classic is pretty straightforward, albeit beautiful, her version of “The First Noel/Mary Mary” is not only beautiful as well, but has a Middle Eastern flair to it that melds the sounds of The Holy Land with The New World and creates something new. Sheryl Crow, a crooner whose voice is more sensual than sublime, covers “Blue Christmas” with a mix of temptation and tearfulness in her superb voice that even The King couldn’t resist, or muster a response to. Bringing out the blues in “Blue Christmas” also turns the now silly sounding original composition into a sultry classic.

With such a great selection of songs chosen this year to be placed in heavy rotation, I wonder if I can come up with another Christmas playlist next year to compete with this one. There’s plenty more from the artists included this year, and more and more alt-rock/rock artists get into the holiday spirit each year, so somehow I doubt I’ll have a hard time compiling a new X-mix CD next year. Merry Christmas to all and to all a Good Ear…  

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