You can’t judge a book by its cover, which is exactly why I don’t work in a bookshop. “How to buy…” is an occasional new series dedicated to the secrets of the music buyer’s craft – evaluating records without actually listening to them. We’ll start with Holiday Music, partly because the wheat to chaff ratio is a bit grim, and partly because it would be really weird to do this in March.
Let’s be honest here: when we say “Holiday Music” we mean Christmas music. There are no good Kwanzaa albums. Hanukkah might be the basis of a proud musical tradition, but it doesn’t sell records. That simplifies things greatly.
The field of Christmas music is a classic long-tail business, which means that most people only care about the top end of market, and the rest is for crazy losers that spend too much time on the Internet. At the top, there are a few obviously amazing records that have become a part of our cultural definition of the season. These are the ones everybody wants, whether they know it or not. They are:
1) A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi. The best Christmas album ever made.
2) Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Accept no substitute.
3) A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra. Just add egg-nog.
4) Dean Martin’s My Kind of Christmas. Add considerably more egg-nog.
5) Arthur Fiedler’s Pops Christmas Party. Help Leroy Anderson’s grandchildren buy another yacht.
6) Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas. Everything but “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” which you can download as a single if Dean martin’s version doesn’t do it for you.
These all celebrate Christmas as a fun time of year that happens to coincide with a Christian festival, and they were all made a long time ago, before the market for well-performed festive music got so crowded that people started to think that maybe that wasn’t the right approach.
Additionally, there’s some classical repertoire that does well at Christmas. Sales tend to be fragmented over many recordings, but the ones people should buy are:
1) The Sixteen’s A Traditional Christmas Carol Collection, which uses the traditional Wilcox arrangements and comes with a full carol book for you to sing and play along. If you actually do this, then congratulations. You’re upper-middle class.
2) The complete Nutcracker performed by Valery Gerghiev & the Kirov orchestra, if you want the whole thing, or…
3) …the Nutcracker Suite performed by Rostropovich and the Berlin Phil if you just want the good bits.
4) Handel’s Messiah played loudly by the LSO, because you can buy a period instruments recording at Easter.
5) Christmas Tradition by the Canadian Brass, because while they will waste your money on Labatts, they are both better musicians and better drinkers than the Salvation Army.
Resist the temptation to purchase a recording of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. It’s the reason so many people get depressed at Christmas.
If a holiday album isn’t on this list, it’s probably not very good, but it’s no fun to dismiss the long tail without looking at it. The main contenders are:
1) People who only work at Christmas
Yes, Mannheim Steamroller, we’re talking about you. If you’re a pop artist, Christmas is the closest you’re going to get to classical music, where everybody plays the same thing, and there’s a certain expectation that you’ll do it really well. If you can’t release a decent album in July, this is not the time of year to compete. If what you do is really different but it only works at Christmas, it probably isn’t very good.
2) People who are more successful than they should be, regardless of the time of year
Did you know that Kenny G has recorded so many Christmas albums that he actually released a Christmas greatest hits? I’m not saying anything. I’m just saying.
3) People who didn’t want to put Christmas in the title
This is truly spineless, but it’s becoming increasingly popular. I think the idea is to create an album that sells well at Christmas, but also works at other times of year. It seems like a good plan in the marketing meeting, but in the studio it quickly becomes a compromise too far because to make it work you have to leave out any recognizably festive music. You can put snow (but not a snowman, Santa or reindeer) on the cover. Yo-Yo Ma’s Songs of Joy and Peace and Sting’s If On A Winter’s Night are typical recent examples.
4) Compilations with the name of a genre in the title
Everybody and their dog has put out a holiday album. If you’re not even famous enough to be the headline on your own record, it’s not going to happen. Avoid all these.
5) People who didn’t read their contract carefully
When Stalin decreed “no artist shall create bad works” he was talking about these guys. Either they didn’t realize that they’d have to make a Christmas album or, worse, they want out of a contract but owe their label another record, and they reckon making a Christmas album is the way to do it. Either way, it’s not going to be a good album.
Number six on the list should be novelty records, except that when you spend two months a year listening to a huge pile of 1-5, this is really the only light relief. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with two fabulous festive crossovers from years gone by.
Brian Setzer’s jazz arrangement of the Nutcracker makes a well-deserved appearance on the Elf soundtrack, but it’s nothing compared to Duke Ellington’s, which appears alongside a less festive jazzy Peer Gynt on Three Suites.
If that isn’t silly enough, I’d strongly recommend Shirim’s Klezmer Nutcracker, which does exactly what it says on the tin.
A very happy Christmas to you all.