Oh, the Christmas album: that annual holiday tradition wherein an artist, regardless of race, creed, color or genre spends an abbreviated afternoon in the studio hammering out about thirty to forty minutes of commercial schlock in a blinkered attempt to cash in on the shopping season herd mentality. From the Monkees to Mariah Carey, every has-been comes crawling out of the woodwork once a year, sleigh bells jingling, in order to squeak out one final mote of relevance from an otherwise flatlined career. And for about a month straight, every shopping mall and grocery store and bait shop in America buys this garbage up wholesale, cramming it down our ear-holes in hopes it will trigger some latent sentimentality which will somehow translate into a few extra bucks of profit.
Just beneath the surface of the boilerplate holiday copycats however, there are hundreds of wonderful, artistic recordings unfairly lumped into the same category as the John Travolta Christmas Special. Consider for a moment the source material; a songbook consisting of a few dozen widely recognized standard tunes, the vast majority of which exist in the public domain (read: FREE TO USE). This may seem like a flocking point for the songwriting-deficient, but to a suitably creative arranger can present a unique challenge: how do you make something interesting out of material which has been re-recorded thousands of times? An arrangement with a few unexpected twists and turns can often reinvigorate a lowly carol, drawing the listener in with a clever mixture of familiarity and uniqueness.
In addition, the increased availability and accessibility of home recording technology has led to more and more artists releasing single tracks via Youtube and other channels during the holidays, often free of charge. As recently as ten years ago, this type of “instant gratification” release simply would not have been possible, but recent advances have given artists the ability to cut out the middle man in getting their music to the public, both in terms of ease of recording and ease of distribution through the rise of digital technology. This trend is just one advantage of social media’s increasing relevance; artists can now engage in shared experience and conversation with their audiences, and what better excuse for a shared experience than the holiday season which dominates popular culture at the end of every year?
This certainly isn’t to say that every Christmas album is going to be a shining gem of creativity (case in point, the John Travolta Christmas Special and… wait, why exactly are we as a society still letting John Travolta into a recording studio?). However, if an artist has earned our trust through the quality of their releases time and time again, there’s absolutely no reason we as a listening public should turn up our noses in disdain when that artist puts out a couple Christmas tracks. Even if deep down they really are doing it for the money, if we value their art there’s no reason to be strange with the change out of some “say no to Christmas consumerism” sentimentality; in fact, knowing some of the working musicians I know, it could even be considered charity.
I’ve included a few of my personal favorite Christmas tracks below to get you started.
Steve Vai – “Christmas Time is Here”
This track was first included on the 1997 Merry Axemas compilation, a series of instrumental guitar recordings organized by Vai and featuring a veritable who’s who of late 90’s shred phenoms. One of my favorite covers of the Vince Guaraldi classic, this sensitive rendition really breathes, and is surprisingly understated for the typically over-the-top Steve Vai.
Rush Coil – “Silent Night”
8 Bit Christmas was released in 2010, at the zenith of the 8 bit / circuit bending phenomenon in electronic music. Named after a sidekick from the Mega Man video game series, Rush Coil enjoyed breakout success with this album, featuring Christmas carols redone in the style of early 80’s video game console music. This reharmonized arrangement of “Silent Night” is one of the highlights of the release.
Rob Michael – “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”
From the Youtube account of the guitarist for jazz up-and comers the Atmos Trio comes this exercise in inter-genre dynamics. What starts out as a deceptively understated straight classical guitar arrangement quickly evolves into an electronic-jazz-surf-noir… thing consisting of layer upon layer of some of the coolest guitar work this side of the North Pole. Michael has an ear for the unexpected, and class is in session on this killer track.
Spinal Tap – “Christmas With the Devil”
Everyone needs a little Spinal Tap now and then, even during the holidays. The semi-fictitious group is doing what they do best with this tune – taking a friendly jab at heavy metal bands the world over. And in this case, their Christmas albums. If you’re a musician and you don’t get the joke… it’s probably on you.