Is it possible that Christmas albums subvert that which they seek to reinforce, and Anti-Christmas albums capitulate to what they assail? Both are awfully fun. Often awful, often fun; but what are these weird musical objects, what they might mean, and what do you find out when you go make one?
While people have celebrated Christmas with carols for hundreds of years, secular Christmas music bloomed in the twentieth century. Popular compositions captured the imagination of writers, composers, performers and listeners who gathered around collections of songs we have come to know as the Christmas album. (or for Americans, the ‘Holiday Album’)
Mainstream Christmas traditions in Australia tend to resemble the British and American celebrations. Despite the celebration falling in high summer, and an increasing cultural diversity there’s still an abundance of winter imagery, and the constant reminders of the European/American ‘white‘ Christmas also reflect the dominant Caucasian, Christian population of a nation for whom a racist immigration policy (The White Australia Policy) was entwined with federation. White Christmas indeed.
Like many other western societies the season is obviously a peak time for traders to the extent that the Christmas trading period is considered a barometer for the wider economic health of a nation. In a nation of this geographical size travel is often very common at this time of year, whether associated with holidays or family gatherings. The statistical peak in suicide rates over the Christmas period turns out to be apocryphal, but volunteerism can up to triple in the season, which may point to a heightened awareness of family stress and societal ills at this time of goodwill.
The temple of the post-modern Christmas may or may not be a den of thieves, but one thing is clear: Christmas means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and this ambiguity dynamises all sorts of things, including music making.
Though the concept of the ‘album’ is dead for many consumers who stream and re-curate playlists, or buy individual tracks, if they pay for music at all, the Christmas album survives. The phenomenon unites what used to be called the mainstream and the alternative. A cynic might say the perception is that at this time of year something happens to people’s powers of discernment and taste, so they’ll buy almost anything on a Christmas impulse.
The corollary is that the makers of these products can make almost anything, as long as it’s christmassy enough, and available at the right time of year. This implies a reduction in artistic quality, and it is certainly true that there’s a trashy, low-quality feel to many Christmas albums – the sense that they’re rushed out to catch consumer demand, rather than carefully composed and released as a serious part of an artist’s body of work. One music blogger suggests that to release a Christmas album risks ‘tarnish(ing) your reputation’, but then goes on to offer tips as to how to do it.
Stars at the top of the tree: Music and Muzak
Christmas albums are bestsellers. Saxophonist Kenny G’s Miracles:The Holiday Album (1994) an instrumental mix of Christmas songs, traditional songs and originals was the first of five he released. Another instrumental sales behemoth is Mannheim Steamroller’s glittering, synthesised all-covers ‘Christmas’ (1984). Acapella yuletide music made by American vocal confectioners Pentatonix is a steaming, fresh entry into the market.
What’s also clear at this level of sales is that one Christmas album is not enough. The music is re-compiled, or new albums are subsequently produced to capitalise on the success of the first.
Despite their popularity many listeners would consider these albums to be in poor taste musically, with descriptors like schmaltz, kitsch, cheesy, cloying and saccharine settling all-too-easily as musical descriptors. It’s easy to be mean about music like this. Even a small sample of this music makes me recoil and gasp, but it’s clearly a successful commercial exercise, and people genuinely love it.
At best, these sounds seem offensively inoffensive, a bit like Muzak, which most of us associate with the music you might hear in a lift or shopping centre. Alexander Goehr summarises muzak as an approach to composition, like ‘composing backwards’, a ‘process in which you start with an intended effect and work backwards from that to the musical materials and organization through which that might be achieved’. This muzak is in opposition to ‘music, where you work forwards from the combination of musical materials to aesthetic effects that perhaps could not otherwise have been envisaged.’ (1997 in Delige 2006:15)
Christmas albums often turn music into muzak, and in doing so, subvert that which they mean to reinforce. ‘Christmas is great’ they say, but the tacky way they say it makes it impossible to believe they actually mean what they say. Be they music or muzak, Christmas songs are rarely ‘pure’ in intention or execution. They are never solely shiny happy funtimes OR po-faced spiritual meditations. Any Christmas album is far from homogenous. Scratch at the sticky schmaltz, brush away the artificial snow and you’ll find darker layers.
Holiday Heartache and the Anti-Christmas
Even the top-selling Christmas song and album of all time have their controversies and undercurrents. Elvis’s Christmas Album contains Christmas songs, gospel songs and a couple of new songs especially for the album, with party at the front and gospelly business on side B. On hearing Elvis’s 1957 version of White Christmas (1940) done in the style of The Drifters, its writer Irving Berlin said it was a “profane parody of his cherished yuletide standard” and attempted to have its radio play curtailed.
The song ‘White Christmas’ itself is soaked in yearning. There’s the desire for a past long gone, as well as the idea that the Christmas wishes are coming from (or directed at) someone far away, heightened by the popularity of the song at a time when wartime enforced separation. While Berlin himself offered little commentary on the tune’s creation, his biography reveals that his baby son died on Christmas day twelve years prior to writing the song.
The closer you look at Christmas albums, the more you can see that songwriters, performers and producers, in exploring the concepts and ideologies that orbit around the season, have wittingly (or unwittingly) created artworks that contribute to our awareness that all sorts of dark contradictions lurk just beneath the gaudy surfaces that Christmas offers. Tracey Thorn, who made her own lovely Christmas album, makes compelling case that they’re just sad.
Sometimes writers set out to make their own contribution to the Christmas canon. Sometimes these originals are just royalty-bearing filler jammed amongst all the cover songs. Sometimes these tunes catch on in a very big way, like Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas is You’. Sometimes they’re lovely.
Christmas tunes are covered, referenced and quoted. Sometimes artists even feel the need to quote themselves, paying tribute to their own hits and distinctive sound through the conduit of Christmas covers. My favourite instances of this are on the Christmas album made by surf-guitar gods The Ventures.
Sometimes singular songs nestling on otherwise mainstream recordings draw on Christmas themes, and in turn are drawn into popular repertoire of Christmas songs. Jon Mitchell’s ‘River’, The Pretenders’ 2000 Miles and many others (Pogue’s Fairytale of New York) draw on holiday heartache: the irony of the individual’s experience of Christmas being far from joyful.
The conglomeration of songs which comprise Christmas albums unwittingly juxtapose the sacred and profane, a nestling which generates its own kind of uncomfortable satire. Other artists go out of their way to create anti-Christmas albums that deliberately set out to cash in on our suspicion that Christmas is inherently problematic – musical digs that satirise the season with cynicism and irony that ranges from vicious to clever to the blunt, dumb and angry or the simply absurd, the throwaway or the simply sad.
Most of these noel nay-sayers satirise the trashy, cashy commercialisation of Christmas by creating a musical product available for sale at Christmas. In this way the artist capitulates to what they assail.
These glossy messes of religious or traditional songs, modern season-themed holiday classics, parodies, novelty songs or new compositions that usually comprise a Christmas album (or Anti-Christmas album) make them strange beasts full of contradictions. In this way I propose that any Christmas album is potentially an anti-Christmas album, and vice-versa.
They are cheap yet shiny, seemingly homogenous yet always lumpy in consistency, served up as treasured throwaways.
You could listen to Christmas and Anti-Christmas music for the rest of your life and still not get to the bottom of the phenomenon. For a long time I have wanted to write and record one, to get inside the process to find out more. Now (with my collaborator Samuel Vincent) We’ve done it.
Heartful Irony: The problem of the Christmas Album
The project started as an anti-Christmas album, but gradually shifted towards something less easily classifiable. In composing, performing and recording the record I had several parameters in mind. It would be performed by double bass and ukulele duo Tyrone and Lesley. It would be all original compositions, which excludes the ‘cute covers’ and ‘takes on classics’ that comprise the bulk of many Christmas albums. There would be no expletives or content that would be gratuitously offensive for a family audience. Christmas themes would be central, rather than incidental to the writing, though it’d be kept secular.
True to the tradition of the Christmas song, I’d relax quality control on the songwriting side of things and simply see what emerged. This was partly inspired by American musician Sufjan Steven’s massive omnibus of Christmas recordings, which range from annoyingly playful jests to sweet acoustic renderings of traditional carols to desperately sad and delicately composed songs of family deprivation.
Christmas music, and Christmas itself doesn’t necessarily require much more satire, because it already satirizes itself. Further to this I resolved not to create anything that was unnecessarily mean or cynical, because there’s plenty of that in the world already.
Much artistic satire seems to rely for its existence on the very thing it satirizes – without this oppositional dynamic it will simply vanish – and I wanted whatever music we created to have its own life.
We wrote the songs over five years, releasing early versions of some as free downloads or as crowdfunding rewards to our valued supporters. Sometimes we asked fans for song titles and wrote tunes in response.
Before long the premise of an exclusively ‘anti-Christmas’ record closed off creative options – I was starting with a pre-determined end-effect, which shut down interesting possibilities. I wanted the songs to stand on their own – to be music (sometimes tacky, silly music, sure) rather than muzak. Untroubled by popularity, commercial imperatives, or a ‘reputation to tarnish’ I became more interested in exploring the topic with absurd humour and a kind of heartful irony, and seeing where the music took us.
In 2014 we played a collection of the songs at a charity concert we put together at a local venue to raise funds for children at risk – this process entailed the transformation of the songs from the recorded domain to the live, and focused the arrangements onto the two key instruments of ukulele and double bass.
Like many Christmas albums, we roamed through genre. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally we came to incorporate a power-ballad, Hip-hop, rinky-dink novelty tunes and even a rhumba. Some lyrics demanded a more sincere treatment, resulting in the most straightforward song on the record, the celtic lullaby of Christmas Through Your Window.
By 2015 we had a collection of short songs large enough to constitute an ’album’ and decided to record them in a studio. Having initially named the collection ‘A Very Negative Christmas’, I re-named it ‘Tyrone and Lesley’s Baubles: a Ukulele Christmas’. The reasons for the retitling were to invite, rather than repel engagement from audiences for whom Christmas is a meaningful celebration, and to indicate the profile the key instrument of the ukulele has in the recording.
Finally, while there is a slant or flavor to the songs, they’re not all ‘negative’ and the label implied a singularly unsubtle satirical purpose, when in fact the songs sustain a range of styles and readings. Over time some songs had evolved towards the hopeful, if not always positive.
In the studio: Bells and sparkles
The album was recorded and mixed in 36 hours at QUT’s Gasworks Studios in Newstead, Brisbane. (album credits at the foot of this piece). The main instruments were ukulele and double bass, and the approach was acoustic, but these foundations were augmented by many other instruments, including drums, piano, guitar, electric bass and percussion. We wanted to give this recording a distinct character beyond our usual palette, and drew on some sonic tropes of the Christmas album as part of this process.
Sleigh bells had already featured on some of the demos and I was determined to use them in the studio recording.
Once apparently affixed to the harnesses of sleighs to alert pedestrians to the silent approach of a sleigh across the snow, modern times find the same sound alerting listeners to the approach of a Christmassy song .
In terms of tuned percussion, ‘chimes’ of various descriptions are often very present in the mix of Christmas albums. These sounds offer a sonic sense of the sparkly and new, alongside associations with sparkling snow and icicles. Christmas decorations themselves possess a cheap glisten, perhaps connoting the richness of kingly gifts, the bells calling the faithful to worship or the starry sky of a silent night.
To find this shine we incorporated glockenspiel (Why is Santa Everywhere?) Vibraphone (‘Artificial Snow’) orchestral chimes or tubular bells (Christmas Presence) There’s also a more general sense of melodic and harmonic ‘sparkle’, which we incorporated through descending ostinato, shiny harmonics and riffs. I love the use of celeste on vintage music, so we used this also.
Second is a kind of general audio bedazzling, a sonic sparkle which is relatively easy to generate using particular synth presets, but a little harder with the austere settings and acoustic instruments we favour. We used double-tracked ukulele and acoustic guitar on a range of tracks, as well as grand piano and 12-string guitar on the (battery) power-ballad (‘Christmas in the Air’)
Thirdly is the sense of a choir – which , given the time at our disposal, and the fact that we’re a two-man outfit was a little harder to incorporate- we’ve got moments of massed vocals in ‘Ukulele Christmas’ and ‘Christmas Through your Window’. If we’d have taken this further I’d have gone for a cheesy Ray Conniff Singers vibe.
Fourthly is the quoting of other musical works with a Christmas connotation. The song ‘Regifting’ itself ‘regifts’ several traditional, and copyright-free christmas carols using a lovely Hammond organ setting.
It’s Christmas, Let’s be Ambivalent!
The songs on every Christmas album in general seem to vacillate between soft, restful, stately ‘peaceful’ and reverent (even when not religious) to a kind of ‘playful’ joyful or mischievous flavour, and our collected songs swing between these poles as well. As a collection of original songs, written without much premeditation as a fun Christmas critique, it contains elements common to all Christmas (and anti-Christmas) albums: the trashy, the celebratory, the seasonal, the mythical, the stupid, the sad, sentimental, and the loose social criticism of the ‘alternative take’.
There aren’t any ‘Straight down the line, Christmas is fine’ songs on this recording, but I’d group these songs into three other thematic categories, key species common to the Anti-Christmas album: ‘Holiday Heartache’ ‘Xmas Exasperation’and ‘Christmas Consumerism’.
If you’re ambivalent about Christmas, and find all the yuletide a bit yuck, there’s plenty of music out there for you to enjoy. Played on ukulele and double bass, augmented with all sorts of bells and whistles, these 12 new Baubles may well put sparkle in your season, jingle your bells and cure your tinsellitis.
Recorded at Gasworks Studios October and November 2015, Performed by Tyrone and Lesley with David Megarrity ukulele, banjolele, acoustic guitar, vibraphone, keyboards, percussion Samuel Vincent double bass, electric bass, grand piano, glockenspiel, keyboards, percussion Will Eager Drums
Tracked by Mikaela Gedye and Josh Tuck, Engineered and mixed by James See