Friday, December 24, 2010

Songs 3 - 1

And the final three.  Enjoy.

Song #3: Stevie Wonder - What Christmas Means to Me

Song #2: Elton John - Step Into Christmas

Song #1: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - Santa Claus is Coming To Town

No video, unfortunately.  But this has been one of my favorite Christmas songs since I was a little kid.  You can find plenty of other versions on YouTube.

Thanks for checking out the lists over the past month.  I hope you enjoyed reading them, I sure enjoyed writing them.

Merry Christmas.

Songs 7 - 4

Since it is Christmas Eve, it is time to unveil the final seven on the list.

I'll save the talk and just let you enjoy these seven great songs over the next two days.

Song #7: The Drifters - White Christmas

Song #6: Bing Crosby - I'll Be Home for Christmas

Song #5: Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song

Song #4: Otis Redding - White Christmas

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Movies 6 - 1

No time to waste, Christmas is getting close.  This edition is going to be shorter than most.

Movie #6: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Leave it to Tim Burton to make one of the most original Christmas movies out there.  Jack Skellington, Oogie Boogie, and the ghost dog Zero are all great characters.  The combination of Halloween and Christmas traditions works great.  Remember Jack's first encounter with Christmas town?

This is an absolute holiday must-see, and it bothers me that it has been a few years since I have watched it.

Movie #5: Die Hard

Not only is this one of the best Christmas movies ever made, it is arguably the best action movie ever made.  Set in a nearly empty office building on Christmas Eve--save for the Christmas party on the top floor--John McClane has to save his ex-wife and a building full of her co-workers from villain, Hans Gruber.  Alan Rickman puts together a flawless performance and Gruber who is every bit the equal of Bruce Willis as McClane.  

Movie #4: Home Alone

The movie that made me wish my parents would forget me on their next vacation, and also the launching point that sent Macauley Culkin down the very dark and dangerous path known as child stardom, Home Alone is still wildly entertaining to this day.  For as screwed up as he would become later in life Culkin was great as Kevin McCallister, the foil for the Wet Bandits, Harry and Marv (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern).  The movie is hilarious, touching, and has aged incredibly well.

Movie #3: It's A Wonderful Life

This one is an old sentimental favorite of mine.  It's a Wonderful Life has been somewhat of a Christmas tradition for me for many years.  It is a sweet story and Jimmy Stewart is one of the few actors who could pull off the wide swing of emotions that George Bailey goes through during the course of the film.

The ending of this movie might be so well known now as to be cliched, but after watching the whole movie, it still brings a tear to your eye to see George running down the street, kissing his family, then getting all that help from the rest of the town.  Some movies never go out of style.

Movie #2: A Christmas Story

It has been a few years since I have watched the whole movie (the wonders of cable television mean that I only end up watching the last 45 minutes of almost every movie I see these days) but there is little doubt that this movie deserves such a high spot on this list.

One thing I do have one lasting memory of the movie:

Movie #1: Christmas Vacation

Could it have been anything else?

Christmas Vacation is hands down my favorite Christmas movie, and probably the funniest of the bunch.  It was tough to come up with most of these rankings, but I knew from the very beginning that this would be first.  I didn't come across one movie that changed my mind.


Stay tuned tomorrow for the last installment of songs.

TV Specials 2 - 1

Only a few days left until Christmas, so these lists will be wrapping up over the next couple of days.

TV Special #2: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

Few TV specials have become the cultural phenomenon that the cartoon adaptation of Dr/ Suess's How the Grinch Stole Christmas has over the last forty-four years.  Suess first wrote the story of the Grinch in 1957, and nine years later it was adapted into an animated special.

From there, How the Grinch Stole Christmas has become one of the most recognizable Christmas stories, it has spawned numerous parodies and remakes, all while the word Grinch has overtaken scrooge as the ubiquitous term for someone who isn't in the Christmas spirit.

On top of all that there aren't many people out there who couldn't sing along to at least a few lines of You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch.

TV Special #1: A Charlie Brown Christmas

It amazes me sometimes just how popular Charlie Brown comics and TV specials are with children.  There are such distinctly dark undertones to most of Schulz's work that it seems like it would drive some away.  Where as most childrens comics rely on over the top humor and ridiculous situations, the universe of Charlie Brown is always mostly grounded in reality.  What else would you expect a Charlie Brown Christmas special to focus on if not commercialism and pulling off a children's nativity reenactment.  Along the way there are plenty of laughs, be it jokes told by the perfectly cast child voice actors, or slapstick bits of physical comedy, but the laughs only serve to keep the mood light enough to focus on the real task at hand.

The dark mood of this special works--with the help of a few well-timed laughs--for the very reason that most of us probably feel the same way from time to time.  Christmas is a time of year that is supposed to have a lot of meaning, but that ultimately gets lost in all the little things we get caught up in.  Sure, the season is about family and love (and if you are Christian, about Christ) but standing behind thirty people in line at Best Buy or traveling home at one of the busiest times of the year can obscure that.

Charlie Brown understands how you are feeling.  He spends the whole special searching for something real on Christmas and coming up with nothing.  His dog wants to win money from a house decorating contest, his friends want to dance and play around rather than focus on the Christmas pageant, the one real, live Christmas tree he picks isn't flashy enough, and nobody takes the time to send him a Christmas card.  Things aren't good for Charlie Brown, but they rarely are.  All he can do is sigh and make the most of the situation.

Just when things look there darkest, when everyone has seemingly given up on Charlie Brown, Linus recites a gospel verse that puts everything back in perspective.
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. 12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men."
With that, Charlie Brown picks up his sad little tree and goes home to celebrate away from all the bad influences of the season.  What he gets instead is the true spirit of Christmas.  His friends all realize they have been too hard on him, they follow him, and decorate his abandoned tree.  When he comes outside to see what all the commotion is, all of his friends are waiting for him.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Songs 16 - 8

More snow in the south.  I woke last week to two inches of snow on the ground with more still falling.  The snow eventually gave way to rain later in the afternoon (making me thankful I don't have to drive anywhere tonight.  Everything was slush when I went out for groceries earlier in the day).  From what I heard most of the schools were closed and everyone stayed off the roads.  Contrast this to Michigan where this much snow doesn't even change people's driving habits.

I saw one kid going door to door offering to shovel snow.  He had a garden hoe.  Obviously these people are completely confused by winter weather.

Since I fell behind late last week, Today's is a jam packed edition of the nice list.  Trying my best to catch up.

Song #16: Run DMC - Christmas in Hollis

Rap is one of those genres of music that doesn't often delve into the Christmas tradition.  Outside of Snoop Dogg's take on The Night Before Christmas and De La Soul's excellent Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa (which could have easily made this list had I considered it) I really can't think of too much Christmas inspired rap.

Thankfully the boys from Run DMC did their part and came out with a superb Christmas infused hip-hop song.  Sampling heavily from a song that was already featured on this list (Clarence Carter's Backdoor Santa) as well as Christmas staples such as Frosty and Jingle Bells, Run DMC throw together an excellent and soulful back beat just dripping with jingle bells and chimes.  This song perfectly exemplifies the beauty of the Christmas tradition as an inspiration for popular music.  If you use just enough Christmas imagery and a few traditional elements properly, you can produce some truly inspired and original Christmas music.

Song #15: John Lennon - Happy Christmas (War is Over)

This is my father's favorite Christmas song, and it is a great one to choose for that honor.  Lennon's Christmas classic throws out most of the traditional imagery we associate with the holiday season and instead focuses on the idea behind the season.  Making things better for those around us.

Of course this isn't a surprising twist from a man who sang Imagine and spent two weeks in bed for peace (Maybe I should dedicate all the time I spend on the couch to a higher calling).  Lennon knows how to write a pop song, and his use of a children's choir is spot on.  This song may not delve as deep into the kinds of Christmas tropes we are used to, but it is a poignant and touching reminder of the deeper meaning of Christmas.

Song #14: Jackson 5 - I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

While John Mellencamp did an admirable version of this song that rocks just as well as any Christmas song out there, the definitive version remains the Jackson Five recording.  Michael Jackson may have been a lot of things, but first and foremost he was an entertainer, and his ability to elevate a song shines through on this recording.  The RnB arrangement suits the song perfectly, and Michael's youthful vocals and spoken arguments with his brothers toward the end of the track fit perfectly with the childlike tone of the song.

Song #13: Alvin and the Chipmunks - The Chipmunk Song (Please Christmas Don't Be Late)

When it comes to slightly gimmicky Christmas songs, The Chipmunk Song has to take the cake.  It is a great mix of childish Christmas concerns, humor, and of course non-traditional vocals.  Where songs like Hippopotamus and Gettin Nuttin for Christmas are sung by actual children, The Chipmunk Song uses the time honored tradition of speeding up a vocal track.  When I was young, well before I developed a real interest in vinyl records, I used to play them and speed the 33's up to 45 speed and laugh like an idiot--you  know what they say about simple minds.  The Chipmunks may be campy and childish, but if this song is good enough to lead off the movie Almost Famous, it is good enough for this countdown.

Song #12: Mariah Carey - All I Want for Christmas Is You

I'll be honest, I am a sucker for pop music, and that extends to this particular Mariah Carey track as well.  Some songs just call for bombast and showmanship, and nobody delivers that quite as well as Carey, the woman who never met a vocal run she couldn't make, a note she couldn't hit or a lull that she couldn't embellish with probably another vocal run.  While less is often more, Carey proves on this one that more can sometimes be just right.  The bass pulsates underneath, driving the song along with the rattle of jingle bells and one of the strangest piano tracks I have ever heard (literally jamming on the same note over and over again for  two bars at a time).

Carey's tendency to get too into herself and her talent may hurt her in some cases (cough, her acting career), but in this song she is right at home, and there might not be another female vocalist out there who could have done more with less.

Song #11:  Paul McCartney - Wonderful Christmastime

I suppose in the grand scheme of things, this song should have been right next to Lennon's Happy Christmas.  The two songs perfectly illustrate the differences between the dueling creative forces of The Beatles.  Lennon's Christmas song is rock and roll with a heart.  McCartney's Christmas song is pop flare.  Both remain geniuses as song writers, but as a fan of both the Beatles and each artist's solo career, it still feels weird to separate the two.

Song #10: Charles Brown - Please Come Home For Christmas

Yet another song that can't help but show up on this list twice, Please Come Home for Christmas is the kind of blues meets Christmas standard that keep holiday music from swinging too far in the direction of sappy pop and blatant commercialism.  Where the Eagles play their version of this song with more rock and roll swagger, Brown does with straight blues--something he does very, very well.  It isn't the kind of song you are likely to hear at the mall or on the radio much around the holidays, but it's the kind of song you might hang around the store a few extra minutes to finish if you did.

Song #9: Frank Sinatra - Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

There isn't much to say about this song and it's place in the top ten that isn't readily apparent from just one listen.  Sinatra, ever the showman, hits every note impeccably and wrings every bit of emotion that he can from this old holiday standard.  Of all the versions of this song that have been recorded, this might be the most widely known, and for good reason.  It is almost certainly the best.

Song #8: James Brown - Merry Christmas, Baby

Sometimes an artist and song come together so perfectly that it is a wonder they weren't made for each other.      When it comes to the old R&B Christmas standard Merry Christmas, Baby, absolutely nobody does it quite as well as the Godfather of soul himself.

Brown is somewhat uncharacteristically reserved for most of this track.  His voice is soft with an almost whisper-like quality.  For a man who made his living pushing his voice to the absolute limits, Brown shows just how adaptable a singer he is, squeezing as much energy and passion out of these words as he can.  By the end of the song he finally breaks out a few yells for added impact, and they fit perfectly with the music that has built up for three minutes.  All of this is backed by an impeccable score utilizing horns, strings, and a beautiful electric guitar over top of a simple blues rhythm section to provide a slowly building R&B track.  Part of the reason Brown's vocals are so effective is the way he plays them off of the music.  The horns pack a punch and the strings build the tension allowing Browns voice to float underneath until the end of the song.

All in all this is one of the best examples of an artist taking a song and making it his own.  Brown sings it like no one else and provides one of the best R&B Christmas songs ever recorded.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

TV Specials 4 - 3

Let's get right down to business.

TV Special #4:  A Garfield Christmas

This one ties Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas as the youngest of the Christmas special offerings on this list, which should go a long way toward confirming that I am in my mid twenties and uninterested in anything that came out in the last 15 years (Maybe there are good Christmas specials that came out in the last 15 years, we don't know.  Frankly, we don't want to know.  It's a market we can do without).

I can't even explain how much I enjoy A Garfield Christmas.  Garfield and Odie, Jon and Doc Boy (don't call me Doc Boy), Grandma.  The songs are plentiful and absolutely perfect.  From the very beginning this special is great.  Remember Garfield's dream sequence of the perfect Christmas, followed by the Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme song?

"No time for small talk Garfield, it's Christmas morning, and you know what that means."
"Of course I do, Christmas means presents.  Lots and lots of presents."

After Can't Wait Til Christmas, the family sits down for dinner.  Next comes the trimming of the tree.  Garfield is tasked with putting the star on the top of the tree.  If this were anything but a cartoon disaster would follow.  Cats and Christmas trees do not mix--as we found out once when allowing my parents to cat sit our house's cat while we went to Chicago for New Years.

After singing songs and reading the boy's favorite Christmas story, we get one of my favorite moments of the special:  when Odie goes out to the barn to put together Garfield's present as Lou Rawl's You Can Never Find an Elf when you Need One, plays in the background.

I won't spoil the rest--in the hopes that you will watch the rest of the special for yourself.  Here is part three.  Enjoy.

TV Special #3: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

The sixty minute Rankin/Bass Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer just happens to be the oldest special on the list, but it certainly hasn't gone out of style over the last forty-six years.  It is currently the longest running Christmas special on TV, and its popularity is evident in just how well everyone knows the story, from the Abominable Snow Monster, to Yukon Cornelius, to the Island of Misfit Toys.

Instead of writing extensively about this special, I am just going to embed the whole thing from YouTube--mostly so I can watch it myself.

(Unfortunately, the person who uploaded these to YouTube left off the last couple minutes.)

Songs 20 - 17

Apparently I haven't moved far enough south. Yesterday morning I awoke to an inch of snow on the ground.  By the time I went out to do my Christmas shopping later in the afternoon the roads were clear but the ground was still covered in a thin blanket of white.  At that time there really wasn't anything to tell me I wasn't in Michigan still.

Song #20: Andy Williams - It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

This is another song that just oozes the holiday spirit.  The kind of song you expect to be playing over the PA system at the mall as you rush through crowds of people a few days before Christmas trying to finish up your holiday shopping.

It may be the most wonderful time of the year, but at the same time you can't help but read a little sarcasm into the titular lyrics.  There are many great things about Christmas:  being together with family, giving and receiving gifts, big meals, booze, but at the same time the level of stress goes through the roof.  Weather, shopping lists, and long  lines everywhere you go contribute to the overwhelming feeling of stress and anger that accompanies the holidays.  For all the great things about the holiday season, the journey to that perfect Christmas day is a perilous one.  Just think of all the preparation involved with the great things Williams sings about:  parties, caroling, visiting friends and family.  It's enough to give anyone a panic attack.

Song #19: Bing Crosby - White Christmas

This is another one of those songs that had to appear on this list more than once.  Bing Crosby's version is an absolute classic, and perhaps the best known version of White Christmas, but years later two other versions would come out that are both in the top ten of this countdown.  Until we get there, enjoy Bing, he doesn't do too bad with this song himself.

Song #18: Brenda Lee - Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree

Rock and roll artists have been trying their hands at Christmas tunes almost as long as rock and roll has been around, but few have done it better than Brenda Lee's awesome version of Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree.  Released in 1958, this song has stood the test of time and remained in heavy rotation.

The song swings along like any 50's rock tune, and even features a saxophone solo in the middle.  Lee's vocal performance is perfect, distinctive yet in tune with the music.  The song works even better if played right after the next song on the countdown.

Song #17: Bobby Helms - Jingle Bell Rock

Released one year before Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, Bobby Helm's Christmas classic holds much the same place in Christmas music culture.  Another great example of a genre of music using Christmas imagery and tradition to inspire an original piece of music.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Songs 25 - 21

I may be late with this entry--two days late in fact--but from the weather reports back home I couldn't have timed things better.  From what I have heard the midwest got buried overnight.  Nothing like half a foot of snow to put everyone in a holiday mood.

Song #25: Bing Crosby - It's Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas

While the ground is still a sea of slowly dying grass and dry asphalt down here in Virgina, mother nature has taken the time to bless the midwest with the look of the holidays.  Of course that means driving has now become perilous and old men across the region are exacerbating their heart conditions while hunched over a snow shovel in the driveway.

Regardless of how much a healthy heaping of snow inconveniences most of us around the holiday season, it still brings out a bit of sentimentality in all of us.  So too does Crosby's It's Beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  There might not be a vocalist better suited for this song than Crosby with his distinctive baritone. The song begins with a quick nod to Jingle Bells before the orchestra brings the tempo down and Crosby works his way through the lyrics of songwriter Meredith Willson about some of the sights we most associate with the holiday season.  The song closes with a nod to the greatest sight of all, being home to see your own front door decorated for the holiday season.  For someone four states away from home, I can agree.

Song #24: Darlene Love - Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)

Earlier in the countdown I wrote about U2's take on this Christmas classic written by Phil Spector.  While the song lends itself well to straight rock and roll--something Bono excels at singing--there isn't another version out there that can compare with the original recording of Darlene Love singing over Phil Spector's wall of sound production.

Originally written for the Ronettes, lead singer Ronnie Spector wasn't able to sing the song with enough emotion so Love was called in to finish it.  What came out of that session was a holiday classic that is often imitated yet never replicated.  The song has since entrenched itself in popular culture as well.  Martin Scorsese included it in his mob masterpiece Goodfellas, and David Letterman loves the song so much that he has had Darlene Love on his show to perform the song on the last recorded episode before Christmas since 1986.  If it is good enough for Letterman, it's sure as hell good enough for me.

Accept no substitutes when it comes to Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).

Song #23: Perry Como - No Place Like Home for the Holidays

So good Como recorded it twice.  This holiday classic was recorded with two different musical arrangements.  One was slow and sentimental while the other was upbeat and backed by a big band.  While they are both good, I am giving my nod to the faster version.  Something about teh blasting horns and chorus of backup singers draws me in.  On top of that, any song about travel around the holidays really has to be fast paced.  Besides, "Gee the traffic is terrific" sounds much more sarcastic when sung by a choir.

Song #22: You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch

As I said a few entries ago, I did my best to keep crossover off of these lists.  There are plenty of songs from Christmas specials and movies that could have easily made this list, but the intent has always been to keep the song countdown in the realm of Christmas music.

However, if there is one song that has grown out of it's roots as part of a Christmas special, it is the theme from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  The song has been covered by multiple artists and has made it's way onto the radio.  If any song from a Christmas special deserves to make this list, it is this one.

Song #21: Elvis Presley - Blue Christmas

This song is a popular Christmas staple of country music recording artists, and plenty have tried their hand at recording a version, but few are as capable as Elvis Presley of really owning the song.  Presley may have been mostly flash and showmanship, but the man could sing the hell out of a sad song.  Blue Christmas, a tale of unrequited love around the holidays, is the perfect holiday song for Presley's deep, achy vocals.  A simple ballad sung by a man with a guitar, the song is an example of Elvis' ability to captivate an audience without his signature twists and shouts.