Some of my co-workers and I have been sharing some of our favorite music, rating them, reviewing them and sharing those reviews with one another. I thought I’d share my thoughts on their suggestions (and their thoughts on mine) with you here.
I’m finally getting around to sharing a Christmas album, but first, here’s how I rate things. If I give something one star, it means I don’t think it qualifies as music. Five stars mean I wish I wrote the thing. Most music for me is a three.
John Denver & The Muppets – A Christmas Together (1979)
Oh, Beeker. It’s sad when you’re the highlight of The Twelve Days of Christmas. I’ve said it before, I really hate that song.
I’ve never watched this Christmas special, and I don’t really care to. But I grew up listening to this album. And The Muppets hold a special place in my heart. Kermit taught me how to play the banjo. Or at least inspired me to learn.
Even though I grew up listening to this album, I only love about half of it. And almost none of that includes John Denver’s singing. Or his some of the original songs, like A Baby Just Like You or the medley (which I know isn’t all him, but still). And there are some songs which I know I’ve heard other places, like The Peace Carol, but I can’t think of any notable version to make me like it.
Rowlf the Dog, though. I could listen to him all night. I think it’s a little silly, but he is one of my keyboard influences. And he doesn’t even actually play.
And not all of the original songs were bad. When the River meets the Sea was written for a different Muppet holiday special, except the lyrics aren’t really holiday-themed. It might be my favorite on this album. Silent Night is great, of course. I also really like The Christmas Wish, musically and lyrically, although I’m not really sure what the background is. I think it might be an original tune. Anyway, it’s still a great tune.
And while it’s not an original tune (I wouldn’t say it’s a classic Christmas song either), I do like Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem’s cover of Little Saint Nick more than the Beach Boys’ original.
It’s a classic from my childhood, mostly because of the humor The Muppets bring – evident in the closing number, We Wish You a Merry Christmas. 3/5
Sufjan Stevens – Joy: Songs for Christmas, Vol. IV (2005)
Every year (except for 2004 – I don’t know what happened there), Sufjan Stevens makes a Christmas EP for his family. Every five years or so he boxes them together and releases them to the public. The first of these complied EPs from 2001-2006 (so I guess he’s done it twice).
Altogether, this box sets tops off at just more than 2 hours. I’m going to listen to and review the whole box set, but I’m going to start with 2005’s EP, titled Joy, since that’s what my coworker Chris actually suggested I listen to.
I’ve never been a huge fan of The Little Drummer Boy (unlike my coworker Tim, who really hates it), and this version doesn’t make me love it more. It’s just an indie rock song that happens to have the same melody and words as the Christmas song. Although I can’t say I expected anything different. Away in a Manger felt better. Until the bridge. I never loved the banjo. It was too loud in the mix and was kinda distracting. But once he got to the bridge, the whole song got kinda weird. It could have been half as long and been better. His arrangement of The First Noel was sweet, but the choice of instruments was kinda weird. I really liked what he did with Joy to the World, especially the original melodic idea he introduced, which feels kind of like the song the Who’s in Whoville sing at the end of the Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! cartoon.
The original songs were better, I think because they were written around Stevens’ originality, instead of having it forced into Christmas classics. Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time! was a little bi-polar and it was great. It had the folky-ness which you’d anticipate, plus some distorted electric guitars. And the lyrics/melody felt like a tribute to the carols you know without actually being one. I think it’s the highlight of this EP. Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day (Well, You Deserved It!) is a melancholy, folky Christmas song that sounds just like you’d expect and The Incarnation sounded more like a sonic experiment in mood than an actual song.
Now on to the other EPs on his first Christmas boxed set, starting with the first EP, Noel.
His arrangements of the more traditional carols are pretty good. I guess most of what I’ve heard from him is his original stuff. I don’t think he gets much credit for arranging others’ music. I’m not sure I’ve heard words to Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming. I know they’re not his, but I just usually hear it as an instrumental.
We’re Goin’ to the Country! was … kinda forgettable. But not bad. It’s Christmas! Let’s be Glad! was much better. Weird, but not bad. And it was memorable. I’d totally listen to that again. And not just at Christmastime. Same with Holy, Holy, etc.
The best song on this EP was probably Amazing Grace, which isn’t really a Christmas song, but his folky style really does this song justice.
Again, his skills at arranging are showcased. Angels We Have Heard on High was a great (albeit short) way to open the start the EP. I Saw Three Ships has never been a go-to Christmas carol for me, but I can’t think of a version I don’t like. Once in David’s Royal City however doesn’t feel right with banjo and drums. The horns he got to play sounded ok, but I think it sounds best on a church organ.
I didn’t really love What Child is This Anyway? It was either boring or a little too interesting. I’ve never really understood Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella. It’s a pretty song. And I literally understand what’s going on in the lyrics. I just don’t understand why the French wrote it. And I don’t really like Sufjan’s old-timey radio broadcast version.
The highlight of the album was (again) a non-Christmas, christian song. I had never heard Come Thou Font before about five or six years ago. And then it was everywhere. Ok, not really, but I felt like it was. I didn’t really like it at first (because I felt like it was being overused), but now I like it. And I really like this version.
Put the Lights on the Tree was a little weird. It didn’t really do anything for me, because I know he has written other (better) original Christmas songs. Like Only at Christmas Time. It will never make it to the list of songs we sing on Christmas Eve, but it does pretty good at capturing the December solstice mood.
I feel like Ding! Dong! and Peace have more original material than the other three.
Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance! might be my favorite of his original material. Not just on this EP, but across all five. Frankly, it felt a little Barenaked Ladies-esque. Other originals, like That was the Worst Christmas Ever!, were musically interesting but not really Christmas songs. Good indie folk rock songs, but not so much Christmas. Also, the title track was … interesting. I don’t know if it’s because there’s a cardinal on the cover, but it reminded me of birdsong. And while it’s more authentic sounding birdsong, it’s a little less listenable (and frankly creative) than this:
The second of three versions of O Come, O Come Emmanuel was better than the first (which wasn’t bad either) and (along with the opening track) had such a different, somber mood. Especially when juxtaposed with Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!
I was really surprised how much I liked O Holy Night. I think it might be my favorite Christmas song, so I don’t know if that means I have a higher standard for those who choose to record a version or if I like almost any version just because it’s a good song. Anyway, Sufjan certainly added his own style, but still did the song justice.
I had never heard The Friendly Beasts before. I’m not sure how much of the weirdness was Sufjan and how much of it was the French, but I didn’t really care for that song.
With 11 song and a running time of 35 minutes, I have a hard time calling this an EP. And it’s pretty good.
Again, his arrangements are great. This time though, they seem just simple, which isn’t really something I think of when I think of Sufjan. It’s good. The third O Come, O Come Emmanuel might just be the best.
Get Behind Me, Santa! was a pleasant surprise. At least it was a surprise until the last minute or so.
This album (it’s not an EP, no matter what anyone else might say) is a great album with Christmas and other winter-type songs, but I wouldn’t call it a Christmas album. I could listen to Jupiter Winter or (if I’m in the mood) Sister Winter all year long.
I’ll give these 5 EPs a total just a little better than (which means this boxed set gets) a 3/5.
Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas (2005)
This is it. This is the only Christmas album I truly love. Part of it is this is the only one of those Christmas specials I really love.
And Vince Guaraldi? Most excellent.
Here’s what Tim had to say: “What can I say? This album is a classic. The music is great, but after a while many of the songs just start to mesh into one similar sound. I can only take this album in doses. I think what makes it great is the legacy and memories it always draws up. If I was to buy this album today, and not have the past experience, I would probably give it only 2-3 stars, as really only a 3 songs are really good and unique. But, as with many influential pieces, its nostalgia helps drive its appreciation.” 4/5 -Tim
I had enough use-it-or-lose-it paid time off that Dec. 22 was my last day of work for 2014. But not all of my coworkers were so lucky. So I shared a second album for them to listen to (and hopefully review) that last week of 2014:
Semisonic – Feeling Strangely Fine (1998)
To be honest, I would have shared this anyway, but it works out nicely that one of the highlights of this album (for me) is a New Year’s song, This Will Be My Year.
This whole album is full of late ‘90s Alt. Pop Rock goodness. It’s mostly pretty simple, musically. I mean, Closing Time is (except for the bridge) pretty much the same four chords. I feel like DND, Completely Pleased and California are especially typical of ‘90s musicians channeling their late ‘60s/early ‘70s influences. One of my other favorite songs (Gone to the Movies) is a little more involved in terms of playing technique, but it’s still simple in terms out sound and instrumentation. It’s just a single acoustic guitar for most of it, with the occasional ‘70s electric guitar doing some licks. In the studio they added a small string section to compliment the melancholy in Dan Wilson’s voice, but originally it was just the two guitars and Dan singing.
These guys were an influence on one of the first bands I was ever in. I can hear songs like Never You Mind and All Worked Out in the stuff we wrote. Although at the time we would have said our influences were bands like The Beatles, Queen, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin and Billy Joel, at the time bands like Semisonic and Cake were on the radio. So our sound was a blend of the old and the new.
I’m not one to glorify my high school days. I didn’t care to go to my 10 year reunion. I never bought a class ring or a letterman’s jacket. I think the only games I went to were ones I was playing. I don’t go back and visit. While I do have fond memories of those years, I enjoyed college much more. But I will always remember that Closing Time was chosen as the song to usher out my graduating class. I’m sure we aren’t the only ones to use it. And I’m sure whoever picked it (or maybe just approved it) didn’t realize it was about a bar closing. But the last line – “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” – is still great.
Here’s what my coworkers thought:
“Wow…this is like me sharing an album from Johnny Hates Jazz – totally irrelevant in any other time than the one or two years they were popular, but what a great ONE hit they did have. Totally a snapshot of a particular time.” -Phil
“I love Closing Time. It is one of my favorite “listen in the car and sing at the top of my lungs” songs. But I had never listened to one of their albums before. It was like the song was enough for me…it gave me closure and satisfaction by the time it ended, so the need wasn’t pressing to hear more. Having listened to the whole album I feel like it is a really good effort. I think it is a mistake to have Closing Time be number one on the album, it kind of wraps everything up before you even start. But, the music was enjoyable, and I will listen again. It just didn’t blow me away and make me want to buy the album, or listen to again on my way home. Lots of potential there…kind of wasted.” 3/5 -Tim