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Give a Listen: Some Off-Beat Christmas Musical Recommends

Something lighter for the season …

All things being equal, the Christmas time-of-year is my favorite stretch on the calendar — which is why around the Pauwels’ hearth Christmas tunes start turning up in the background around 1 November (actually a bit earlier this time around). I want to expand the run-up to the big day as long as possible. Just as I enjoy a nice slab of fruitcake with my cupful of delightfully cholesterol-choked eggnog anytime during the year’s waning two months, so I revel in Christmas music of all kinds – wistful standards, Victorian age classics. And some less traditional entrants in the Yuletide catalogue.

Not only generations-old perennials reliably play a role weaving Christmastide’s charming tapestry. More recent aural offerings occupy a place in my cherished, seasonal selections. So here, a few, possibly unfamiliar, suggestions which – in the spirit of Noel – I humbly recommend for spicing up your holiday’s musical punch:

1) “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth” (Bing Crosby/David Bowie): People who don’t remember glam-rocker Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” career phase can’t  appreciate sufficiently the surrealism of his teaming up with buttoned-up Crosby to interpret a Christmas staple about a young shepherd/percussionist performing for the new-born Savior. Veteran crooner Crosby, whose pipes were crafted to carry Christmas melodies, supplies a pleasant take on “Drummer Boy”, while Bowie overlays it with a counterpoint written precisely for their 1977 television duet.

Allegedly, the flamboyant Briton initially grumbled,”I hate this [“Drummer Boy”] song. Is there something else I could sing?” The imaginative solution? “Peace on Earth”. The result? Unaccountably enchanting.

2) Manly-men aren’t supposed to be caught humming anything by balladeer Dan Fogleberg, but I’m secure enough in my masculinity to claim “Same Old Lange Syne” as a personal favorite among December’s more unconventional musical crop. Contrary to its title’s suggestion, the piece’s narrative recounts faded dreams and heartache set on Christmas (not New Year’s) Eve.

The now-deceased Fogleberg wraps his tale around a melody as crushingly bittersweet as are its lyrics. Certainly not a feel-happy, candy-canes-and-reindeer composition, it nonetheless poignantly treats the kind of regrettably all-too-human situation that can pop-up unexpectedly, anytime — the night before Christmas not exempt.

I don’t endorse everything that unfolds in “Same Old” ‘s five minutes: A married women ought not sit in a parked car draining a six-pack with an “old lover”; nor use him as sounding board for her matrimonial disillusionment. Unwise would be an understatement. But the episode extends a holiday-themed, lump-in-the-throat reminder that life’s choices bear consequences. And to the heroine’s credit, at song’s wrap-up she apparently hustles home to her husband, presumably recognizing marriage vows mean that’s where she belongs Christmas morning – an agreeable one, we can hope.

3) While considering songs that affectingly marry Christmas cheer with real-world melancholy, allow me to boost ‘70’s supergroup Jethro Tull’s hypnotic “The First Snow on Brooklyn“. Another musical meditation on regrets over a broken relationship acknowledged too late, this wintry piece offers expressions of piercing poetry and an evocative tune punctuated, of course, by Ian Anderson’s luxurious vocals and undeniable flute work.

How can a heavy-hearted and lonely reflection make Christmas even more beguiling? I don’t know, but JTull manages it here.

4) More in the mood for Christmas cheer minus the melancholy? Let me tap one more ’70’s presence: Elton John and his piano-driven “Step into Christmas“. Stylistically, this jubilant, slightly raucous ditty reflects that era’s inescapably identifable EJ pop – and will set feet tapping whether you’re Mall shopping or present wrapping. Sure, it’s silly and lightweight – it’s also dizzyingly infectious and showcases the superstar’s laser-beam vocal chops at their height.

5) Roughly one decade later, a gaggle of other Brits released a Yuletide musical rally cry to remember Ethiopia’s perishing in “Do They Know It’s Christmas“. I understand it’s fashionable today to snigger at this one — but I like it and look forward to catching it on the 24/7 Christmas music stations which make their annual bow during the holidays. You might enjoy this piece as well if you choose to disregard the “sophisticated”, “ironic” set and give it a chance.

Present are nearly all the cream of 1980’s English rock-n-roll, including: Sting, Duran-Duran, Paul Young, and two Georges (“Boy” and Michael); and herein we’re reminded that, among that era’s egregious, over-synthesized dreck, ghastly haircuts and flat-out weirdos  there nestled some potent talents. All by themselves, a youthful Bono’s volcanic vocal blast coupled with the truly “reason-for-the -season” challenge to reach out to the downtrodden make “Do They Know” worth a listen.

6) Speaking of monster talent smuggled into a holiday tune: Elvis Presley’s “Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me” (1957) – lesser-known than his other Christmas “hit” “Blue Christmas” – is one that might bring a December smile; particularly if you’re a fan of “the King”. Again, I’ll concede it’s an utterly frivolous musical outing – did I mention Elton’ John’s “Step into Christmas” was “silly”? Well, in comparison, this one by Elvis makes the EJ song seem like Lord Byron by way of Beethoven.

Nonetheless – that voice! Playful, acrobatic, effortlessly expressive, it transforms this bit of rock-a-billy goofiness into a finger-drumming, holiday delight. People who say Elvis couldn’t sing? Clearly they’ve never sampled his mid-to-late 1950’s oeuvre which, bluntly, is vocally incomparable.

7) Finally, most tracks on any of Amy Grant’s Christmas entries (starting with ‘83’s A Christmas Album) will brighten this month’s celebrations. Undeniably talented, Ms. Grant nevertheless can’t boast anything approaching the greatest singing heft ever. However, she’s demonstrated an admirably unerring knack for settling on entertainingly listenable songs that highlight her vocals splendidly – confirmed by her trio of Christmas CDs.

She’s also pretty radical: Contributing to the holiday that commemorates the Savior’s birth? She unabashedly resounds that Savior’s birth. A lot.

Nowadays, that’s practically eye-bugging.

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Steve Pauwels

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.