Thursday, December 14, 2017

On the Homefront: December is My Comfortainment

We love lists. We argue over lists. We spend too much time dissecting who is on a list and where they are placed on the list. Or whether a person or thing was snubbed from the list.
This time of year is no different as from as early as Nov. 1, we are bombarded with Christmas music on multiple stations and a variety of holiday movies on numerous channels. And there never fails to be a list generated by someone somewhere ranking the best songs or movies of the season.
I think it's time for me to do that now. So consider this the first part of a two part column. I'll list the best Christmas (and Hanukkah) songs that I know of, and in the next day or so I'll make a list of movies. Each list will NOT include numbers because I'm a coward and am taking the easy way out. However, each list will only include 10 items apiece, listed randomly, so that if you're so inclined to wonder why a certain song or movie didn't make my personal top ten, you'd be arguing about no. 11, and I'm okay with that.

Today, let's dive into the music that makes this time of year either enjoyable or grating depending on the time of day. What follows are the ten best songs of the season, according to me, and a brief reason as to why. Order them as you see fit, or replace them with tunes you feel were left out.
White Christmas
I think most of us, if not all of us, can agree that there are Christmas classics, and then there is Bing Crosby crooning White Christmas. If ever there were a song to mark the beginning of the season in style, it's this classic. A quick bit of research online reveals that the song debuted in the movie Holiday Inn in 1942. A quick bit of math and you need to wish White Christmas a Happy 75th Birthday! It's a true timeless classic.
Also, if you really want to create a conspiracy theory, try this one on for size: I think my favorite lyrics of White Christmas - "...where the treetops glisten/and children listen/to hear sleighbells in the snow..." -
just might have inspired part of Tommy, by The Who. On the track titled, "Christmas" it begins "Did you ever see the faces of the children/they get so excited/waking up on Christmas morning/hours before the winter sun's ignited..." Now, can you honestly say there isn't a similarity? I bet you'll never listen to those songs the same way again.
(Also, I have now successfully paired Bing Crosby and The Who. That's a win!)
Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree
This song has been covered (like almost every other one on this list) many times over. For this list, the Brenda Lee version makes the cut. Released when Lee was only a teenager, it has proven to be one of her best-selling singles and is normally a staple at any seasonal get-together where music is played. It's a cheery tune that talks about every Christmas staple of modern times: mistletoe, caroling, pumpkin pie (a derivative of the now annual tradition of pumpkin everything after Labor Day). Put simply, this song rocks in both new and old-fashioned ways.
The Hanukkah Song
Yes, I'm putting an Adam Sandler song on this list. This is a list about songs of the season, after all. And, remember, I'm a member of Happy Gilmore's tribe.
I distinctly recall watching one of the first airings of Sandler singing the Hanukkah Song on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update segment. It may have actually be just a few weeks after he had introduced it to the world. I was visiting family for the holidays and my brother and cousins and I were watching TV and sure enough, Sandler was introduced to sing, and the song was such a refreshing change of pace from all of the other traditional songs that I might have sung in Sunday School. Plus, any time you can sing along with a song that references the Three Stooges, Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk, Han Solo (as Harrison Ford), The Fonz, and OJ, well, something like that belongs on any list of great seasonal songs.
The Christmas Song
Nat King Cole was great for many reasons, and this is just one of them. That said, I've never roasted chestnuts, and despite what the movies show, I haven't once seen my kids spy to see if reindeer know how to fly. My wife and I come from the "Santa only shows up if you're asleep" school of thought, so even though our kids may be all aglow, they also rarely find it hard to sleep...on any given night.
Further adding to the appeal of this tune is it's simplicity. It speaks to the magic of the season and how it brings out the child in all of us, from one to 92. (This song is also the first tune heard in the annual Disney special "Prep & Landing" which is, in my opinion, the best Christmas TV special since Charlie Brown bought a bad tree and The Grinch's heart grew three sizes.)
Frosty the Snowman
This song is sung best by the guy whose own nose was much, much bigger than a button. Yes, I'm talking about Jimmy Durante.
Now, perhaps it's my affinity for the Rocky movies, but listening to Jimmy Durante sing/speak Frosty the Snowman either on the radio or during the annual airing of the animated special is similar to listening to Burgess Meredith's Mickey give the Italian Stallion a pep talk. It's refreshing and it's real.
Plus, unlike the other songs on this list, Frosty tells a full story. As a writer, any time you can sum something up as succinctly as in this song, you try to do so. Others have recorded Frosty the Snowman, but this song (and the story it tells) are classic and my favorite version is done by Durante. And I bet if you are honest with yourself, you nose I am right.
Mr. Grinch
Another song that people tend to associate with a TV special is this one, which brings together two pop culture icons: Dr. Seuss and Frankenstein. Of course, a quick bit of digging corrected me on this, and told me that the former was merely the narrator of the special and song was recorded by Thurl Ravenscroft. The Internet is a wonderful place.
Anyway, most of us grew up with Dr. Seuss in our lives. His stories are timeless and helped most of us learn to read. So to see the Grinch come to life is always a treat, and the song within the special has some phenomenal lyrics. For instance: "You're a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich, with arsenic sauce!"
Easily the best song in a special narrated by Boris Karloff and all a part of a major redemption story, the Grinch song makes my list.
Holly Jolly Christmas
We've almost all seen the claymation Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Therefore, we've almost all heard the voice of Burl Ives. This upbeat song, which is easily the most positive of the entire Christmas classic, is my choice from the special. Plus, not unlike a Christmas song list that must include a guy named "Bing," I feel somewhat obliged to include a guy named "Burl."
All kidding aside, I love the fact that when we hear this song on the radio and it is Burl Ives doing the singing, there are a good number of us who can see the narrating snowman singing to us. A sweet reminder that this is the best time of the year, and that we should all have a cup of cheer whether there is snow or not.
Dominic the Donkey
Probably the most divisive entry on my list, but this is my list. And if I want a song that champions "the Italian Christmas Donkey" then I will have that song. And this is it. I am certain there will be many of you who disagree with this choice.
But who doesn't like the idea of Santa Claus being helped out in his annual gift-giving trek by a bilingual donkey who never kicks. Plus, Dominic dresses for the season, wearing jingling bells.
Twelve Days of Christmas medley
This is a bit of a cheat, but again, this is my list. The song I am referring to for this entry is the Straight No Chaser version we can hear this time of year on any radio station playing Christmas music 24/7. It starts with the Twelve Days of Christmas, then for good measure throws in some classic rock, adds a verse of Dreidl, Dreidl, and sprinkles in a dose of a few other Christmas tunes. The cool part is how the performance is all acapella, making it all the more aca-awsome.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
There is only one version of this song worth listening to, and it's the one performed by Judy Garland. Taken from the musical "Meet Me in St. Louis," this tune speaks to the hope and happiness that comes with this time of year.
"Next year all our troubles will be miles away" can be taken to mean that with a new year comes great optimism for things to come. "Faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more" can signify how we welcome the changing of the calendar with the people we know and love the most.
And in the grand scheme of things, isn't that what this time of year is all about?

So have yourself a merry little Christmas...or Happy Hanukkah...or whatever else you celebrate. And a Happy New Year, too.
Howie Balaban loves the Holiday Season even if he forgets about the Bing Crosby/David Bowie duet in his list.