Christmas/Holiday Cheer: This Year’s Missing

Last year I won “Whamageddon,” the game whose only rule is to avoid hearing the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” during the month of December (there won’t be a repeat victory for me this year). I’ve been listening to plenty of Christmas music in the car these last couple of weeks, generally tuned in to SiriusXM’s Holly. Like so many SiriusXM stations, the playlist is far too short, and any number of songs get played every four hours or so (the surprisingly bland “Christmas Tree Farm” has been notable in this regard). But I’m also noticing what I’m not hearing so far. Yes, this is only one person listening to one station at selected moments, but I am wondering if most of the following songs are not on Holly‘s 2019 playlist (not that I’m complaining in some instances):

Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Christmas Canon” and “Wizards of Winter”
Biggest surprise on this list–these seemed inescapable just a year ago. In addition, I’ve only heard Mannheim Steamroller once.

Percy Faith, “We Need a Little Christmas”
Greg Lake, “Father Christmas”

Holly doesn’t just focus on stuff released from the last quarter-century–I’ve heard Ray Conniff, Dean Martin, and Nat ‘King’ Cole, among others–but these two older pieces haven’t hit my ears yet.

Bob Seger, “Little Drummer Boy”
Eurythmics, “Winter Wonderland”
Barenaked Ladies/Sarah McLachlan, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings”
Rod Stewart, “My Favorite Things”
Wilson Phillips, “Hey Santa”

Gloria Estefan, “Christmas Through Your Eyes”
On the other hand, I think that maybe there is a generation gap opening in a number of cases…

Kelly Clarkson, “Underneath the Tree” and “My Grownup Christmas List”
This could just be bad luck on my part, as Holly is playing other Clarkson tunes. But the first of these is one I wouldn’t mind hearing.

Whitney Houston, “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
A couple of points about this one: 1) My wife has observed that Holly doesn’t play all that many religious Christmas songs; 2) I actually have heard it once this year. Last Friday night I happened upon the end of a rebroadcast of the Casey-hosted American Top 10: The Top 60 Christmas Songs, from 2005. I was plenty surprised to hear Houston at #2, but it also underscored to me how tastes can shift suddenly–has Whitney’s untimely death meant she is already going down the memory hole a bit?

I’m going out for what I hope is a final round of shopping today. I think I’ll put up with the ten-minute long commercial breaks and switch over to the Lexington station that’s been playing holiday favorites since November 1. I’m guessing I’ll run into a few of the above there; perhaps there’ll be an update…

Christmas Day update: Spent time since this was posted listening to stations from Lexington (in the car) and Madison, WI (streaming at home). Heard “Christmas Canon” and a few other T-SO pieces, “Father Christmas,” the Barenaked Ladies/McLachlan, and “Underneath the Tree.” Those last three were about the only ones I wanted for Christmas, anyway…

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: The Roches, We Three Kings

Today it’s a Christmas CD that came along for the ride when Martha and I got together. The Roches released We Three Kings in 90, on the not very long-lived Paradox subsidiary of MCA Records (I think the only other Paradox release in our collection is Marshall Crenshaw’s Life’s Too Short). It’s got a robust twenty-four tracks, though several clock in at under two minutes. We Three Kings is very much in our house; we haven’t broken it out yet this year, but I’m thinking that’s about to change.

Maggie, Suzzy, and Terre offer up a choice mix of religious and secular tunes. The arrangements are consistently creative and often fun; the harmonies are as exquisite as you’d expect. One of my favorite stories about Ben involves the title track. Here are four others I like a bunch. The haunting “Star of Wonder” is one of two original songs on the disk.

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Stan Freberg, “Green Chri$tma$”

I’ve noted before that my dad was a big fan of Stan Freberg’s comedy recordings: the compilation album A Child’s Garden of Freberg was a formative part of my childhood, and certainly helped cement the bond between father and son. I confess I was less interested in Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Volume One: The Early Years, though I still know a couple of the biggest gags on it. I purchased Tip of the Freberg, a 4-CD retrospective, likely as a Christmas gift twenty years ago, so that Dad didn’t have to dip into his vinyl collection when he wanted a good laugh. I’ve kept all of the above.

Anyway, today’s a day on which I’m thinking of my father, so in honor of him and a performer that he really enjoyed, I offer up “Green Chri$tma$,” a piece that the sales departments of many radio stations definitely did not want their DJs to play after it came out at the end of 1958. Ironically, Freberg soon moved into the advertising business, and was incredibly successful at it.

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Royal Guardsmen, “Snoopy’s Christmas”

A treasured favorite from my youth. We didn’t often listen to the Royal Guardsmen’s Snoopy and His Friends in December, but the message of “Snoopy’s Christmas” seems like a great one for this (or any) time of year.

And yes, I still have the poster that came with the album (we detached it from the back way back in the 70s and keep it in the sleeve):


Merry Christmas, my friends!

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Alfred Burt

We’ve sung a lot of different pieces over the years for our choir Christmas programs at church; it’s been a joy to gain familiarity with some of the very fine composers of such music. One of the more interesting is Alfred Burt, introduced to me close to twenty years ago by our long-time director John Heaton.

Burt’s story is tragically brief. He grew up in Michigan, was a music major at Ann Arbor, and served in an Army band during WWII as a trumpeter. He continued performing and composing after being discharged, but died in early 1954 at the age of 33, of lung cancer.

He’s known to us now because of the music he provided for fifteen carols. Burt’s father, an Episcopal priest, began composing his own carols for inclusion in Christmas cards when Alfred was very young. Burt took over writing the music for his father’s words around the time he finished college. The elder Burt died in 1948, but Alfred continued the tradition, asking Wihla Hutson, the organist at his father’s church, to take over as lyricist.

The first recordings of the carols, originally meant only for family and friends, came soon after Alfred Burt’s death (twelve of them appeared on a late 1954 Columbia collection entitled The Christmas Mood). Over the following years, a few wound up being recorded by well-known artists; the one you’re most likely to hear these days is Nat King Cole’s version of “Caroling, Caroling.” Several years ago, we bought This Is Christmas, an a cappella 1963 recording of all fifteen carols by The Voices of Jimmy Joyce. I can’t say I listen to it every year (though I did play it this morning), but a few of these songs bring back very pleasant memories of Christmas choir performances past: “This Is Christmas,” “Some Children See Him,” The Star Carol,” Jesu Parvale,” and especially “We’ll Dress the House.” I’d love to sing them again sometime soon.

In 1968 Simon and Garfunkel did “The Star Carol,” a song Burt completed just days before he died.


And here’s a nice medley of “Caroling, Caroling” and “We’ll Dress the House,” by the Salt Lake Vocal Artists. I’ve always loved the chords toward the end of each verse in the latter.

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Christmas Dreams”

Last night the family went to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert at Rupp Arena. Ben had gone with a friend to see T-SO in Cincinnati a couple of years ago and returned quite impressed. When I mentioned the possibility of scoring tickets for this year’s tour, he was enthusiastic. So, even though it would be during finals week for me and on a weeknight when Ben’s frequently been having piles of homework, we made our plans.

To be honest, I knew little going in outside of the five or so songs you hear on the radio regularly this time of year, so I learned a lot seeing them play (and doing a bit of online looking upon our return home). The group on stage last night consisted of two guitarists, bassist, drummer, two keyboardists, electric violinist, ten vocalists (five male, five female), and seven local orchestral musicians (they hire locals to fill out the sound at each show).

Rather than do a blow-by-blow, I’ll hit highlights, bullet-style:
–The experience was more hard rock/80s hair metal than I expected going in, but that’s due solely to my ignorance. I now know about the connections between T-SO and the 80s/90s metal band Savatage (who slipped under my radar back in the day);
–That said, the musicianship was rock-solid and all the vocalists were very good;
–There were stretches that I really enjoyed, but others that didn’t grab me all that much. I think that’s all about stylistic preferences (metal’s never been my thing). It seemed to be more Ben’s scene than mine or Martha’s overall;
–I ran into a couple of college friends and their son just as we walked in—we hadn’t seen one another in a long time, but from FB I know they’re big T-SO fans. Bonnie posted afterward that this was the best she’d seen of them;
–The light/laser show was effectively deployed throughout the night, and the band worked hard on engaging the audience;
–Our seats were on the aisle, to the right side of the stage as you face it. People were traipsing up and down the stairs all night long, blocking our view more than we’d have liked (it was really bad at the beginning, as latecomers kept pouring in). Fairly frustrating, but we know where not to sit next time!
–The strings were far, far down in the mix. It was essentially a guitar/bass/keyboard/drum affair all night long. I think I might have enjoyed a more “orchestral” experience;
–There are actually two touring T-SOs. Last night, the other one was in St. Louis. Tonight, the bunch we saw will be playing two shows in Greenville, SC, while the others will be in Knoxville.

They did play the songs I already knew, and that was fun. “Wizards in Winter” is probably my favorite of their works, and it didn’t disappoint. I especially enjoyed the rocked-up take on “Christmas Canon,” with four of the female singers out in front, and their closing “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” was mighty fine. But I figured maybe I’d feature one of the pieces that was new to me instead. The rock/metal influences of years gone by are prominent, but the melody and chord progressions strongly resonate. Were this a rock song of the late 80s instead of a holiday-themed tune, I daresay it would’ve been a favorite. Here’s “Christmas Dreams.”

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Aimee Mann, “Calling On Mary”

Aimee Mann has long been one of my go-to artists. I was on the ‘Til Tuesday bandwagon enough back in the 80s–I ripped their first two albums onto cassette pretty early in grad school and would listen to that tape on trips back and forth to KY (that’s how I came to fall utterly in love with “Coming Up Close”). But it was her first few solo albums that really put her front and center in my listening; Whatever and I’m With Stupid are both way good, and Bachelor No. 2 remains close to the top of my “favorite albums of the last quarter century” list.

So it was a pretty easy call to buy One More Drifter in the Snow, her Christmas album, soon after its release in 2006. It’s not particularly long: 10 songs, 33 minutes. Several cuts are standard choices for such an affair, including “The Christmas Song,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” I’d call the overall feel of the album both retro (think 50s and 60s) and fairly subdued (things kick off with Jimmy Webb’s “Whatever Happened to Christmas”–she doesn’t seem to be doing this to pep us up!). The duet with Grant Lee Phillips on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is perhaps the closest thing to a fun piece on the disk.

There are a couple of originals, too.  One, “Christmastime,” was written by Mann’s husband, Michael Penn (I could definitely envision him doing a version of it). The other is one she co-wrote, the closing track “Calling On Mary.” It’s just what you’d expect from Mann–a meditation on lost love and loneliness at the holidays–and it’s a perfect bookend to the Webb piece–“‘Cause comfort’s not possible when/You look past the joy to the end.”

In spite of the lack of cheeriness, I make sure to listen to One More Drifter each year; it’s a good antidote to crass commercialization and hyper-peppy Christmas music.

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Straight No Chaser, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

One of the upper-level undergraduate math courses I’ve taught regularly over the years is abstract algebra (my school offers it in even falls, so it’s part of my load this semester). In the class, we look closely at the some of the basic properties encountered pretty early on in mathematics (associativity, inverses, and the like) and investigate other sets/structures called groups that have those properties. One tool we use to examine groups with only a few elements is called a Cayley table, which summarizes how elements are combined. (An aside: I’ve used cayleytable as a moniker to comment in various online fora over the years).

We always discuss in my class that there are only two different group structures with set size four–that is, there are only two distinct ways to fill out a Cayley table for sets with four elements. One of these is called the Klein four-group. You can imagine my ears perked up a decade or more ago when I learned at a math conference about a men’s a cappella group called The Klein Four. Turned out they were five (?) math grad students at Northwestern University, and they wrote and performed math-themed songs. Their best-known work, such as it is, is the love song “Finite Simple Group (of Order Two);” the lyrics bring smiles to faces of mathematicians everywhere, trust me. I plan to show the video to my class next week.

All of this is lengthy introduction to where I really want to go today. When I first watched “Finite Simple Group (of Order Two)” on YouTube back in 2006 or whenever, one of the recommended videos in the sidebar was Klein Four’s take on “Twelve Days of Christmas.” When I clicked on it, I discovered a version like no other I’d ever heard, with snippets of other holiday tunes thrown in, including “Deck the Halls,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “I Have a Little Dreidel.” In the lower right corner at the beginning and end of the vid, there’s arrangement credit to Straight No Chaser; at the time that meant nothing to me. Within in a few years, though, SNC’s even more amazing version, the song that launched their recording career, came across my screen. It gets plenty of play on radio stations at this time of year now.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” was their first encore at the show last Thursday, and they mixed things up a little bit with it–they were having Hanukkah in Africa this time.