There are two groups of people who are already tired of Christmas music before most of us have even started our shopping: Anyone who works in retail, and…. DJs.
Personally, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with holiday music for years. As a young radio announcer, I would watch with a sinking feeling as the program director hauled a scarred cardboard box into the studio with the word “XMAS” scrawled on the side in faded block letters. This sight signaled four endless weeks of format-busting tedium, as even the most contemporary station’s playlist suddenly sprouted Perry Como, Bing Crosby and the Boston Pops. For a young DJ who prided himself on being on music’s cutting edge…. pure torture.
Had you asked me in those days, I would have told you the only Christmas song worth the vinyl on which it was pressed was Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” As time passed, a few other tunes made my “tolerable” list: Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s “Little Drummer Boy,” Santa Baby” (Eartha Kitt’s original, not Madonna’s horrifying remake), and the Russian and Chinese Dances from the Nutcracker (although that may have been due more to Disney’s “Fantasia”).
But in 1984 a record arrived that changed how I, and millions of others, perceived Christmas music forever.
It was by a little-known Midwestern group whose music combined the forms of classical music with the rhythms of rock & roll.Up to this point, the major market for their albums had been to audiophiles and the occasional stereo store, who used their high-quality vinyl pressings to demo stereo speakers.
I’m speaking, of course, of Mannheim Steamroller. Chip Davis began writing what would become his Fresh Aire series when he was a junior high music teacher. Adding some drums and electrics helped his students relate to the classical structures he was trying to teach them. Later, as the leader of the “Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant Band,” backup group for 70s star C.W. McCall, Davis parlayed some particularly savvy instrumental work on the novelty hit “Convoy,” into a Grammy award for best Country Instrumental and subsequently a chance to record his own unique music.
But classically-inspired rock wasn’t easy to pigeon-hole, and Mannheim Steamroller’s Fresh Aire might have remained just a musical footnote (or perhaps, grace note), had Davis not turned his attention to Christmas music.
For my money, the release of "Christmas" is one of the major musical landmarks of the last thirty years, because it completely rejuvenated the holiday music industry. It not only made people take holiday music more seriously, it paved the way for other artists to get their Christmas music heard, even if it didn’t fit into the usual pop milieu.
Certainly, Mannheim Steamroller changed the way I thought about Christmas music. I was captivated not only by the fresh spin Davis put on familiar tunes, but also the obvious passion and love he had for this music. It made me listen to other Christmas music with a different perspective. Gradually, I began to hear that same passion in other, more conventional arrangements. The velvet-smoothness of Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song,” Bing Crosby’s heartbreaking wistfulness in “White Christmas.” Even Whitney Houston, then a pop icon, now a self-parody, returned to her gospel roots in a soaring “Do You Hear What I Hear” that still stands up well today.
When I got to Jazz 88.3, I didn’t know what to expect when Gordon Paulsen pulled out the boxes with the Christmas CDs (aluminum instead of cardboard, it was the Nineties, after all). Would Christmas jazz meet my new “it’s OK if they’re serious about the quality” test or be the jazz equivalent of the Beach Boys “Little Saint Nick?”
I was pleasantly surprised. Instead of changing KCCK’s sound, our Christmas music enhanced it, as every tune was good jazz, just jazz that happened to feature holiday melodies. Now, Christmas on 88.3 is one of my favorite times to listen, as I get to hear all-time jazz greats from Miles Davis to Oscar Peterson to Harry Connick Jr. make the music of the holidays their own.
So what makes good Christmas music? I suggest that a great Christmas song needs to embody the same qualities of an artist’s entire body of work. The song needs to stand on its own, regardless of whether it’s a Christmas song or not.
Springsteen’s “Santa Claus” works because it’s a good Springsteen tune. Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and of course Chip Davis bring the same artistry to their Christmas music they sought to achieve with their “regular” recordings.
Good Christmas music? Yes. But good music first.