Thursday, 5 December 2013

Dashing through the duds: picking definitive versions of classic Christmas songs

As most of my friends and family know, I have a bit of an addiction to and major listening habit when it comes to Christmas music.  I have difficulty restraining myself and waiting until the culturally acceptable 1st of December (or at the very least until after American Thanksgiving) to turn on the Christmas tunes and spend most of my spare time rocking around the Christmas tree.

I have literally hundreds of Christmas songs in my collection.  I have classic Christmas standards, secular hits, Christian classics, and a smattering of the overtly strange and rare.  And one thing that I have noticed during my extensive collecting and listening is that there are some songs that appear on pretty much every Christmas album ever made.  I'm talking about your "Silent Nights" and "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeers" and "Jingle Bells" that have been done to death by every single artist who pretty much ever recorded a Christmas album.

As such, I felt that it might be necessary to take stock of some of these overdone Christmas hits, and pick a definitive, or "best" version of the song as far as I've ever heard, as well as a worst version (because I'm a merciless cynic and being too positive makes me hurt inside.)
Thus, I present to you the best and worst of the season's music:

#1: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

Best Version: BURL IVES.  Actually Burl Ives has several especially wonderful Christmas albums out there, but Sam the Snowman's version of Rudolph is not only fabulous and whimsical, but also highly well known due to the stop-motion Christmas special.  This version of Rudolph is the one of our nostalgic childhoods, it's just simply great.

Honorable Mention: GENE AUTRY.  It's distinctly twangy, but overall a really good version of Rudolph that has sustained the test of time.  Go have a listen if you haven't heard this version in a while, it's worth tracking it down.

Worst Version: The one sung by those god-forsaken CHIPMUNKS.  It's probably not fair of me to pick their version as the worst, because their version of pretty much every song is the worst.  It's unbearable and cringe-inducing.  Don't believe me, go have a listen and tell me your jaw isn't wound tighter than curling ribbon by the end.

#2: White Christmas

Best version: BING CROSBY.  Duh.  I hate to give props to the child-beating crooner, but this is the version that everyone immediately thinks of, and there is a reason for it.  The reason being, it is the best-selling single of any song, ever.

Honorable Mention: BONEY M.  Their Christmas album is pretty much a mandatory listen, and their version of White Christmas gets points for its very original arrangement. 

Worst Version: It seemed the obvious choice to go with Twisted Sister here, but instead I'm giving the trophy to ELVIS PRESLEY.  It is just obscenely painful to listen to the King's version of this song. Especially the overly-twangy, choppy emphasis found in the line "just like the ones I used to know".  It's just simply awful.  But I do going around singing this version quite a bit... purely to mock it of course, but still...

#3: Jingle Bells

Best version: BING CROSBY AND THE ANDREWS SISTERS.  Also known as the crazy version of Jingle Bells, this one gets the trophy for being inventive and unique.  The jazzy backup job done by the Andrews Sisters is what makes this one.  Bing is not overly stellar, but the girls bring it and absolutely make this version.  This one has been used a lot in TV ads.

Honorable Mention: ELLA FITZGERALD, for the same reasons as the Andrews Sisters.  She takes an overly simplistic tune and jazzes it up and makes it truly entertaining.  A few lyric changes here and there didn't hurt it either.

Worst version: Oh there are so many. But the winner by a landslide is the stupid version where Jingle Bells is sung by ridiculous BARKING DOGS.  Just. Simply. Terrible.  Irrefutably so.

#4: Twelve Days of Christmas

Best version: THE MUPPETS.  I think this version of the song is found on the otherwise completely god-awful Muppets/John Denver Christmas CD (BTW, my hatred of John Denver will last through the ages and be remembered long after my death...).  This version not only has the requisite Muppet charm, but actually moves along at a decent pace, which is the fault of most versions of this tune.  Muppet banter (like "piggy pudding") is really what makes this one.  And the best part?  Almost no John Denver.

Honorable Mention: BURL IVES does a passable, a capella version of Twelve Days.  The pacing changes make it interesting.

Worst version: BOB AND DOUG MACKENZIE.  Yes I am aware that this is a parody version, but after you have heard it once, listening to it a second or third time is absolutely excruciating.

#5: Silent Night

Best version: MARIO LANZA.  Actually, his whole Christmas CD is probably my favorite of all-time.  It's absolute, unadulterated, operatic brilliance.  Not a dud on it.  His version of Silent Night is exactly what Silent Night should be.  It's sweet and tender but not boring and sleep-inducing.  His powerful voice is harnessed and applied with appropriate tenderness in all the right spots.  It is pretty much an ideal version of this song.

Honorable Mention: ANDREA BOCELLI.  For many of the same reasons as Mario Lanza, actually.  His powerful voice carries this song so well, and the song transitions from nearly a capella to a full, orchestra supported version by the end.  Excellent.

Worst Version: Very hard to pick, and I would expect some argument on this one, but I personally cannot stomach SIMON AND GARFUNKEL's version, titled "Silent Night/ 7:00 News".  I know the overdubbing is supposed to be chilling and moving and all that.  But it just irks me.  It tries too hard, and the whispery lyrics of these two otherwise fantastic singers just don't cut the mustard.  The listener struggles to hear details in either track, and eventually the lack of any kind of cadence puts you to sleep.

And so there you have it folks.  :)  20 days til the big day, you better get some tunes on...

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