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Listening

An Unholy Christmas Soundtrack

The rigidity of Christmas tradition is most evident in the ubiquity of its music. As unsavory as I find so many other aspects of the season—the false sentiment, the terrible TV programming, the hyper-commoditization—it’s the music that has become truly inescapable. It begins a week or two before Thanksgiving, with all the hall-decking and jingle-belling and of-a-white-Christmas-dreaming. Whether or not I would like these songs out of context, after the thousandth obligatory listen they grate. As a result, I’ve made every effort to undermine the mainstream holiday music by finding my own soundtrack for the season.

At the TMN holiday party last week, Elizabeth Kiem recommended the traditional music known as parang, which she discovered while visiting Trinidad and Tobago. Parang’s origins are as old as the islands’ Spanish colonization, but centuries of Caribbean influence have given it a calypso sound that, to American listeners, is completely disassociated from Yuletide tradition. One of the most popular parang musicians is Scrunter, whose “De Parang Now Start” bursts with jubilant energy. His other featured work, “Piece Ah Pork,” relates the singer’s sympathetic holiday wish for just that, a big piece of pork.

» Listen to “De Parang Now Start”
» Listen to “Piece Ah Pork”

The discovery of parang prompted me to seek out other holiday music from foreign shores. Whereas Scrunter’s works are originals, the breadth of the Christian tradition is illustrated by the essential differences of mood and instrumentation in the following adaptations of recognizable Christmas classics. Barbados’s Banks Soundtech Steel Orchestra’s rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is a reggae-styled steel drum performance. “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” as performed by Steve Schuch and the Night Heron Consort, is probably closer to the song’s original sound, incorporating Celtic violin and drums.

» Listen to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”
» Listen to “Here We Come A-Wassailing”

Going in a completely opposite direction thematically, but still grounded firmly in the seasonal expectations and the Celtic music tradition, the Pogues wrote a cherished song about a miserable Christmas Eve spent reminiscing in a New York City drunk tank that still manages, 20 years later, to evoke controversy. If, like me, you’re sick of the saccharine gloss on what can be a morose time of year for many, I’m willing to bet that “Fairytale of New York,” and John Denver’s exceedingly depressing “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas),” will knock the dancing sugar-plum visions right out of your sweet little heads.

» Listen to “Fairytale of New York”
» Listen to “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)” at 100bells

Wandering further down the path of holiday irreverence, we find sexualized Christmas tales from artists new and old. Neko Case’s take on Tom Waits’s warts-and-all “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” manages to soften his madcap growl, and even through the sometimes-gritty lyrics, Case’s voice is like honey to my ears. Conversely, Clarence Carter’s popular, albeit non-canonical, “Back Door Santa” is a funky, sleazy shout-out to bad girls everywhere, and while it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the holiday, I do believe he means it to be taken exactly the way you think he does.

» Listen to “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” at Aquarium Drunkard
» Listen to “Back Door Santa”

Even further from the norm, there are one-off Christmas song performers such as multi-instrumentalist, composer, and rock legend John Cale, who, though I can’t understand almost any of the lyrics, takes the title of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” from a Dylan Thomas short story. Similarities to both end at the title pun for Game Theory’s “A Child’s Christmas Saving the Whales.” More of a radio play, it focuses on a bratty child forced to care about those less fortunate by politically correct parents, and manages to squeeze in two Game Theory songs, one more typical of the group, the other a spot-on parody of Sting singing “Whales are cool, whales are nice.” Guaranteed to be redonkulous.

» Listen to “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”
» Listen to “A Child’s Christmas Saving the Whales”

And if you thought that was something, take this awful performance of one of Christmas’s most cherished songs, “O Holy Night.” Featured in last year’s Holiday Survival Guide for Slackers by Matthew Baldwin, this anonymous entry still manages to bring levity to my holidays as I roll on the floor laughing at its abominable singing. Difficult to ascertain its level of earnestness, the song keeps getting worse and worse until the final overextended breath. It’s anything but holy, but always manages to warm the humbug out of my heart. God bless us, everyone!

» Listen to “O Holy Night”

biopic

TMN Editor Erik Bryan is living the dream. He grew up in Florida, but he’s from all over. He likes playing chess, making cocktails, smarting off, and not freezing to death in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. More by Erik Bryan

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