Music Monday: The Rise of the Christmas Album

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I’m a Christmas music traditionalist. Whereas I happily seek out new bands and explore new music throughout the year (and not just because it’s my job), around the holidays I become so conservative, so unyielding in my song choices — it’s Bing Crosby and Dean Martin or nothing — that the very mention of a contemporary Christmas album confuses and alarms me. Michael Bublé’s new Christmas record? Why don’t you just shave off Santa’s beard while you’re at it.

I just don’t approach Christmas songs the same way that I do regular ones. I’m not looking to broaden my musical horizons with a new rendition of “Jingle Bells.” I just want to listen to the same old songs (and watch the same old movies and drink the same old eggnog) that I always have. I’m probably doing it in a futile attempt to recapture some sense of childhood wonder. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Besides watching the A Christmas Story marathon on TV, that is.

(MORE: Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Christmas)

But this year marks the first time that I’ve fallen for a new Christmas collection: A Very She & Him Christmas. The album — which came out in October because bandmembers Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward have fallen prey to the diabolical “Christmas creep” marketing machine — is a compilation of classic Christmas tunes that have been stripped down and injected with just the right amount of contrived nostalgia to trick me into into thinking that I’ve been listening to it all my life. Their version of the Beach Boys’ “Little St. Nick” deserves to be a new holiday standard. I’ve finally entered the world of the annual Christmas album and what a big, scary world it is. I have a lot of catching up to do, so I might as well start at the beginning.

Christmas music as we know it today didn’t really get going until the Victorian era, when Queen Victoria married her German cousin, Prince Albert. Suddenly, England had an excuse to adopt all of Germany’s fun Christmas traditions, like that of the decorated tree laden with presents. The customs were also picked up by the United States, which had only recently invented the concept of Santa Claus. All of this newfound holiday cheer helped revive the practice of group caroling. Carols had existed for centuries, though their popularity waxed and waned as different governments and religious movements periodically declared them sinful. (I’m look at you, Puritans). But in the 1800s they finally had their heyday. Between 1840 and 1870, the following carols were written: “Good King Wenceslas,” “Jingle Bells,” “Up on the Housetop,” “Away in a Manger, and “We Three Kings.” Those are just the ones that have stuck around; there are plenty of others that have long been forgotten.

Back then, there weren’t hit songs, but hit sheet music. William Sandys’ 1833 collection Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern and Sir John Stainer’s similarly titled 1871 Christmas Carols New and Old revolutionized caroling by putting a number of classic songs such “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” to new arrangements. With that, modern Christmas music was off and running.

By the 1930s, secular Christmas was well underway — department store Santas, Coca-Cola Santas and Macy’s parade Santas became the holiday norm. Naturally, the songs followed. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Winter Wonderland” both date from this time period and, like many others, neither of them mention Jesus.

(MORE: A History of Santa Claus)

In 1942, Bing Crosby appeared in Holiday Inn, a Christmas film that featured his rendition of Irving Berlin’s 1940 composition “White Christmas.” The song was released as a single and was played frequently on Armed Forces Radio during World War II. It went on to sell over 50 million copies, making it the best-selling single of all time according to Guinness World Records. The song would reappear at the top of Billboard’s charts nearly every Christmas for the next 20 years. Crosby had hit on something big. He began releasing full albums such as Merry Christmas (1945), How Lovely Is Christmas (1957) and 12 Songs of Christmas (1964). Other popular artists — from Frank Sinatra to Dean Martin to Ella Fitzgerald — followed suit, recording some of the newer songs from the 30s and 40s and 50s, but also re-interpreting Victorian-era carols.

In 1957, the year of  “Jailhouse Rock,” Elvis Presley released Elvis’ Christmas Album to such overwhelming success that it’s still considered the top-selling U.S. Christmas album ever. Christmas albums were serious money makers for artists and their record labels, and soon everyone jumped on the holiday bandwagon (or sleigh). The Beatles released annual Christmas messages and songs to members of their official fan club, including 1967’s “Christmas Time (Is Here Again),” which is the only psychedelic holiday tune I’ve ever heard.

In recent decades, Boyz II Men, New Kids on the Block, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, ‘NSYNC — pretty much any pop act you can think of — have all released holiday music. Most are largely forgettable, but for some reason, ‘NSYNC’s 1998 Home For Christmas seems to make an appearance at every holiday party I attend. That’s probably just a generational thing, though. In 15 years, the same thing will happen to Justin Bieber’s Under the Mistletoe. Which is fine, just as long as his creepy, underage-flirting “All I Want for Christmas Is You” duet with Mariah Carey never overtakes the popularity of the original.

Strangely, Kenny G has proven to be a master of the holidays; his 1994 Miracles: The Holiday Album is one of the most popular Christmas releases ever. It has sold more than 7.5 million copies and his smooth jazz version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is still his biggest hit to date.

Then of course there’s Mannheim Steamroller, the synthesizer-happy symphony founded by Chip Davis whose 1984, 1988 and 1995 Christmas albums walk a fine line between being beloved and maligned. I come from a very pro-Mannheim Steamroller family, and as a result I have conflicted feelings about its overly dramatic renditions of classic songs (to wit: “Carol of the Bells”). To me, the group is sort of like that annoying cousin you always have to see over the holidays — you complain it every year, but then one year the cousin doesn’t show up and you’re surprised to find that you actually kind of miss them.

This year, Michael Bublé has delivered the biggest hit of the season. The cheeky crooner’s first full holiday album, Christmas, has been on top of the Billboard charts for the last few weeks for one simple reason: he has a voice from another generation. He’s the younger, geekier grandson of Frank and Bing. As a result, he is the perfect person to serve up new versions of holiday classics. But Christmas is a little overwrought and at times feels more like a cheesy Broadway recording. If you want to listen to someone sing like Bing Crosby, why not just listen to Bing Crosby? That’s why I prefer She & Him. I’d take Zooey Deschanel and a lone ukulele any day, Christmas or not.

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