Awhile back I had a notion of writing an article for Cracked. They like this list format, and I had just the idea. Unfortunately I soon realized that this was more of an opinion list, and wouldn’t make the cut. So I made a few tweaks to the wording and now share it with the world. The little bracketed asides are supposed to go with appropriate stock photos, just like Cracked articles have.
Christmas is right around the corner, and in some parts of the US, local radio stations started playing holiday music as early as November 1, even though most people recognize Black Friday as the official start of the season. Traditionally, Christmas music doesn’t have to be about Christmas at all. It can be about other holidays, although as Adam Sandler noted there aren’t many Hanukkah songs and most of those are his. It can also be about winter stuff, snow and sleigh rides and all that good stuff. For the non-religious crowd, songs about Santa or his reindeer work too. As long as it’s lighthearted and fun and it gets us into the holiday spirit, almost anything goes.
Of course, a few songs that end up on the radio fall short of the mark.
#7: Jewel – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Jewel’s style as a singer is certainly unique. Her songs range from melancholy ballads to quirky bluesy poetry to everyday ordinary upbeat pop. Some love her, some hate her, and some aren’t quite sure what to think of her, but at least she’s distinctive. Like any distinctive artist and many indistinct ones, a time comes in their career to record a Christmas CD. Hers came in 1999.
One of the classic songs Jewel recorded in her own special, jaunty way was “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, a tune and story so beloved that a stop-motion animated special based on the same has become indelibly etched into American culture. It’s a fun song, and what’s more fun than playing around with it and singing it in a bubbly and whimsical way that fits the artist?
Why It Needs To Go
Unfortunately for Jewel, her special brand of capricious rhythm didn’t translate at all onto a cover that practically every other artist in musical history has slam-dunked.
[Yes, even William Hung.]
What happened instead was a sort of stop-and-go effect with the words that is not unlike navigating a traffic jam, except that it’s slightly more annoying. The song struggles to keep a tempo, but when it finally gets going at a snail’s pace something doesn’t sound quite right. That’s because in trying to be playful with the song, Jewel chose to do it with another part singing harmony. The way each word is clipped completely ruins whatever the harmony is supposed to have going for it, making it sound like Jewel can’t tell a quarter note from a half rest and her duet partner is just badly off-key.
Jewel’s real achievement with the song was taking a timeless tune that is only irritating on the basis of getting stuck in your head for hours, and making it irritating on its own merits. Thanks, Jewel!
For some bizarre reason, she also did a Christmas version of her song “Hands”, which is exactly as stupid as it sounds. The song has no bearing whatsoever on Christmas. They play that on the radio too sometimes, which is too stupid to put into words.
#6: Elton John & Rosie O’Donnell – White Christmas
In 1999, Rosie O’Donnell had a popular talk show that was going strong. The success of her show could perhaps have been credited partly to the fact it kept her from appearing in many movies anymore. As a charitable venture, she released a Christmas album, featuring duets between herself and many notable singers.
When most people think of Rosie O’Donnell, the first thing that comes to mind is not her glamorous singing voice. It’s the radical ups and downs of her personality, from her charming persona on her talk show to the “queen of mean” period to her mercifully short-lived stint on the View.
[Not that I ever watch the View.]
But supposedly she can sing a little, and who doesn’t like a good Christmas album with celebrity duets? It seemed only natural that she would pair up with some stars and see what they could do together.
Why It Needs To Go
I can’t speak for the rest of the CD, but the version of White Christmas that Rosie recorded with Sir Elton John was a train wreck.
Elton John’s parts in the song are a harbinger of the horror to come. It’s not that he sings the song badly, but the way he sings just doesn’t fit the song, in exactly the same way Bing Crosby never would have sung “Crocodile Rock”. His style grafted onto an Irving Berlin song just doesn’t work, like putting chocolate and pickles together if you’re not pregnant. But oh well, it wouldn’t be the first Christmas song to have that problem.
The real problem comes when Rosie starts in. If she can sing, it wasn’t in evidence the day she recorded that song. Her voice sounds so heavily modulated that it seems to have been run through Auto-Tune about a dozen times trying to make anything work. Either that, or she literally did sing like a robot. Emotion and inflection are absent. A gulf of technical ability separates her portions of the song with Elton’s, since his parts don’t have that Velveeta thing going on. Because of the difference in quality, it doesn’t even sound like they were in the same room when this was recorded.
Had either of them sung the song completely on their own, the result still would have been a failure. Together, it’s like the Voltron of fail. I know Voltron had five pieces and this is only two; that’s how badly they failed.
#5: The Pretenders – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Ever since Judy Garland sang it in Meet Me In St. Louis, this song has been a perennial staple of Christmas Americana. And why not? It’s a nice song with a nice message. The song is about enjoying the holidays and holding your loved ones close even if you’re in the midst of hardship, or in the characters’ case facing a move from St. Louis to New York. The only real problem with the song is that the lyrics are so mutable that in spite of having literally thousands of covers (I’m pretty sure), no one has ever sung it the same way twice.
[Just like snowflakes.]
In 1987 the Pretenders decided to take their turn at polishing this old chestnut. What could go wrong? After all, they’re a distinguished group fronted by Chrissie Hynde, a talented performer of great acclaim. So they recorded their take on the song…
Why It Needs To Go
…if it had been sung by Elmer Fudd.
I’m not sure what went wrong that day in the studio, but The Pretenders’ version of the song is notable for two things that are both Chrissie’s fault: The irregular, stuttering meter, and the frequent but hilarious absence of the letter R.
From the beginning we’re told that “Fum now on ouw tubbles will be out of sight.” Thank goodness for that. Ouw tubbles wewe intewwupting ouw sewene sweep in which we dweamed of hunting wabbits. But even when the R’s are present, the tempo of the words sways erratically. The title of the song is delivered as “Have yo-sef… a… meh-ry… lit-tle… Christmas”, each word landing with a “thunk” like a bowling ball making its way down a flight of stairs. It’s pretty much impossible to hear this without picturing a drunken karaoke performer trying to stay on his legs—while wearing a plaid cap and holding a 12-gauge.
Was the group just trying to put a unique stamp on the song with the unusual rhythm, like Jewel did when she recorded “Rudolph”? If so, mission freaking accomplished. But what happened to the pronunciation? The Pretenders are considered an English-American rock band but Hynde herself is from Akron, Ohio, a place not known for a non-rhotic accent. I’d like to be able to say Chrissie was channeling the spirit of beloved voice artist Mel Blanc, but he didn’t pass away for another two years. Besides, a deliberately Fudd-styled rendition would have been awesome. Vewwy, vewwy awesome. Huhuhuhuh.
#4: Various Artists – My Favorite Things (from The Sound of Music)
No one wants to bash Julie Andrews and her beloved musicals. Most of us grew up with The Sound of Music and its heartwarming, albeit historically inaccurate, tale of a nun-in-training becoming a second mother to seven children and a second wife to their hyper-militarized, super-strict father whose personality traits made his opposition to the Nazis incredibly ironic. To this day it’s still a great story and the music will have a special place in our hearts forever. And because this movie version of the musical has often been aired on American television during the holidays, it’s come to be associated with Christmas.
One of the most memorable songs from the musical is “My Favorite Things”, an ode to how remembering the good things in life makes us feel better during the bad times.
Why It Needs To Go
One problem: It has absolutely zilch to do with Christmas or anything that would qualify it as a Christmas song. It’s not even about any holiday. It’s not even about winter. It’s about looking away from sadness and scary thunderstorms and thinking about the things that make you happy.
At some point, someone apparently got the idea that because the song was about liking things and briefly mentioned “brown paper packages tied up with string”, it must be about gifts and therefore about Christmas. It’s not only crassly commercial and materialist to a point even Lucy Van Pelt would disapprove of, it’s completely wrong. Who even gives presents out in plain brown paper? What is this, the Depression?
[Oh, wait. How’s that real estate working out for you, Lucy?]
It seems there are enough things in the song having to do with winter—snowflakes, mittens, whatever—that someone thought it could be sort of counted as a winter song and therefore shoehorned into a Christmas mix. Once one person got the ball rolling, it didn’t take long for the song to be put on everyone else’s new Christmas albums as well. It’s not just that the song is on the radio, but actual performers are putting it on their actual Christmas albums as if it were an actual Christmas song. Good grief!
It’s not clear who started this unfortunate trend, but it began pretty early. The earliest case I’ve found is Florence Henderson singing it on a 1967 album; it may have been done earlier, even before the movie. It was definitely before the movie became a TV tradition, at least.
The song isn’t about winter, snowmen, Santa Claus, holidays, the holiday season, or any of those things. It lists some wintery things in passing along with a whole bunch of other things that have nothing to do with it. Are we seriously so hard up for legitimate holiday music that anything that brushes past a Venn diagram will do? Why not throw in the whole soundtrack while we’re at it? “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” sort of talks about a birthday which is sort of a holiday, and Christmas is a birthday that’s also a holiday. “Edelweiss” is about a flower they call a blossom of snow. Of snow! “So Long, Farewell” could be about ringing out the year, and it even mentions champagne!
It’s only matter of time before “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” ends up playing in a mall some fateful December. At that exact moment, everyone in earshot will snap, and the resulting riots will bring down civilization as we know it.
#3: NewSong – The Christmas Shoes
The Internet has brought us many, many awful things. In 1996 every idiot and his mother and his grandparents’ whole retirement community was jumping into this newfangled “online” thing and sending around a flurry of e-mail. While the evil of spam was only just beginning to hatch, a flood of kids, old people, and gullible everyday folks resurrected the old fad of chain letters. They circulated stupid make-a-wish fluff, ridiculous urban myths, jokes older than the English language, and stories so sappy they make the stuff in Chicken Soup For the Insert Demographic Here look like something Frank Miller would write.
[Gritty, hard-nosed sentiment.]
One of those sappy stories is about a boy getting shoes for his dying mother just before Christmas, and a kindly stranger helping him buy the shoes on the assumption that the kid is not just a con artist in training. The story gets passed around, and eventually a member from a group called NewSong ends up with it. They spend four years working it into a song, which climbs the country and Billboard Top 100 charts. It’s a religious song, and it’s about Christmas and the meaning thereof. Hey, what could be more appropriate?
Why It Needs To Go
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that some people get depressed during the holidays. What does everyone want to hear about? A really tragic story that, at best, is made more bearable by the kindness of the gift. Oh no, wait, they want to hear about pine cones and holly berries. The widespread belief that suicide rates are dramatically higher during the holidays may be a myth, but NewSong is doing their best to make it come true.
The song is so incredibly bleak that anyone who’s feeling cheerful because of other holiday music they’ve been listening to up to that point is going to have that feeling totally wrecked, unless they change the station quickly and don’t dwell on it. As frequently as the song is played on most Christmas stations, it’s like having Debbie Downer randomly text dispiriting news to you about whatever you happen to be doing at the time.
[The viscotoxins in mistletoe will cause intestinal distress if you ingest any. Wuh-wuhhh.]
A year after NewSong unleashed their gloomy opus, the country group 3 of Hearts recorded a version that charted even higher, because apparently the original wasn’t dreary enough for hardcore country fans. It went on to become a TV movie as well, proving some people just can’t have too much of a bad thing to ruin a good mood. So now during the Christmas season when you want feel-good music and movies, you can expect to be sideswiped by a crushingly sad story out of the blue at any given moment. All because of an e-mail circulated on the Internet.
#2: Band Aid – Do They Know It’s Christmas?
The ’80s brought us many things, but one of the decade’s more dubious contributions to history was the so-called supergroup, mashing together a bunch of successful artists all on the same song, usually as some kind of charity thing. I’m not here to cast aspersions on good deeds, but a lot of these “___ Aid” performances didn’t really do much of anything except funnel money to corrupt governments since they were the ones who oversaw how that money reached its intended recipients. But still, the concept of raising money for people in need is a perfectly good one, so what I’m here to do instead is cast aspersions on the legacy these groups left us.
In 1984 the supergroup “Band Aid” was formed, releasing Do They Know It’s Christmas in an effort to ease Ethiopian famine and pointedly violate a well-known trademark in a highly ironic fashion.
[Apparently the name Adhesive Bandage was taken.]
As some pointed out even at the time, the song could be seen as cloyingly self-righteous and it didn’t actually do a thing to fix the underlying causes of the famine. But at least it did help treat the symptoms at the surface, hence the irony of the name.
Why It Needs To Go
There’s a reason you don’t hear We Are the World on radio stations now, even when they play a lot of ’80s music. It was a decent song in its day, and that day passed. It isn’t really the sort of song anyone goes out of their way to hear again, so they don’t. Nobody got the message with this song though, and its chart-topping success in 1984—and again when it was re-recorded in 1989—gave it an unfortunately indelible place in Christmas music history.
The weathering of time however has proven the song to be fairly lame when stripped of any benefit from its original good intentions, so now it’s just some tuneless verses presenting a greatly exaggerated picture of the entire continent of Africa, coupled with an extremely repetitive chorus, all dripping with sanctimony. All this maybe wouldn’t be so bad if the typical Christmas mix didn’t play it once an hour.
To make matters worse, a new supergroup called Band Aid 20 was formed in 2004 to record yet another cover of this song. Not surprisingly, it didn’t do as well. Also not surprisingly, Bono was involved. Again.
#1: Dan Fogelberg – Same Old Lang Syne
Contrary to the Baby Boomers’ sclerotic assertions, the 1970s were not the high-water mark of pop music. They were however the high-water mark of easy listening. Some of its brood escaped and even made its way into the early ’80s before being pushed out by synth-pop groups with a lack of color coordination, big-mullet bands and their rock ballads, and Rick Astley, all of whom also killed disco. We are all forever grateful.
[Thanks for never letting us down, Rick.]
In 1980 Dan Fogelberg released a song that would have been relegated to the comfortable isolation of “lite” radio stations except for two tragic facts: The song takes place at Christmastime and shares part of a title with a song traditionally associated with New Year’s celebrations. Eventually, in spite of the fact that the song otherwise has nothing to do with Christmas and is nothing like Christmas music, programming directors putting together song lists from literally thousands of bona fide holiday songs decided to throw this one in too.
Why It Needs To Go
The song’s actual lyrics are about a guy meeting up with his former girlfriend in the supermarket and having a tearful reunion, which already puts it three notches above anything else on this list on the Anne Murray scale of boredom. (Anne Murray’s songs didn’t make the list, strictly out of length concerns.) But it rapidly goes downhill as it describes in torturous depth how the couple checks out their items, looks for a bar to get drunk in, and failing that they crack open a six-pack in her car. So it’s not just boring, it’s depressing. To see how much worse it gets, take a look at the chorus.
We drank a toast to innocence
We drank a toast to now
And tried to reach beyond the emptiness
But neither one knew how.
How’s that for upbeat holiday music, huh? Just gets you in the mood for decorations and cookies and shopping and pumpkin pie.
[Try reaching beyond the emptiness to enjoy this.]
Okay, so somebody who forgot to burn their leisure suit really screwed up by putting this song in with Christmas music, when it’s really just a song about two former lovers getting drunk together in one of the crappiest possible ways and both being kind of sad about their choices in life. At least it doesn’t get any worse, right?
The beer was empty and our tongues were tired
And running out of things to say
She gave a kiss to me as I got out
And I watched her drive away.
Holy crap, she had three beers and drove off? Assuming she hasn’t gained a lot of weight since high school—the song says the years have been good to her, so let’s say she’s around 120-140 lbs.—three beers are easily enough to push her over the legal limit. In most states that was a generous .10, but even so she’d be pushing the edge of that. So with her head swimming full of old memories and regrets, and the equivalent of 2.5 standard drinks assuming it was a tame variety of beer, she drives off in crappy road conditions (snow turning to rain). With the kinds of choices she makes as a driver, it’s probably a given she was also reapplying her makeup after crying in the grocery store. If the modern cell phone had been around then I’m pretty sure she would have been texting someone too.
Dante probably would have had some choice ideas for how to deal with drunk drivers who kill someone on Christmas Eve, but maybe he should save some room for the people who put depressing reminiscence songs into a holiday music mix.