Rare, Alternative and New Christmas Music: Sufjan Stevens, “Christmas in the Room”

December 22, 2017

Sufjan Stevens lists 100 of his Christmas song performances, 100 to 1; “Christmas in the Room” is #1.

Stevens’ catalog of Christmas is so large it’s a wonder any list can be made without some of his performances on it, and a major piece of work to run a radio station’s Christmas play list without several of Stevens’ recordings included (but somehow they pull that off).

Interesting artist, interesting work.

The Verge lists all 100 of the songs, and explains Stevens’ work on the seasonal stuff.

He’s the kind of guy who would record an album of songs for every state in the union. And yes, he did set out to do that (but slowed down after a few releases, and it is an uncomplete project).

Hey, confess: How much have you listened to Sufjan Stevens’s work?

You may benefit from Stevens’s other songs:

Sufjan Stevens released a 5 EP set of Christmas songs in 2006.

Sufjan Stevens released a 5 EP set of Christmas songs in 2006.

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Rare, Alternative and New Christmas music: Pogues, “Fairytale of New York”

December 19, 2017

Cover for a version of The Pogues,

Cover for a version of The Pogues, “Fairytale of New York. Wikipedia image

If you think Joni Mitchell’s “River” represents a turn to blue for Christmas songs, what does “Fairytale of New York” show?

I must admit, this is one I was not familiar with — I’d heard it before, but not paid much attention. Surprised to learn it was written and rewritten 1985 to 1987, with a first recording by the Pogues in 1987. Judging by its popularity in the UK, it’s a song we all should be familiar with.

Fairytale of New York” is a song written by Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan and first released as a single on 23 November 1987[1] by their band The Pogues, featuring singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl on vocals. The song was written as a duet, with the Pogues’ singer MacGowan taking the role of the male character and MacColl the female character. It is an Irish folk-style ballad, and featured on The Pogues’ 1988 album If I Should Fall from Grace with God.

Originally begun in 1985, the song had a troubled two year development history, undergoing rewrites and aborted attempts at recording, and losing its original female vocalist along the way, before finally being completed in summer 1987. Although the single never reached the coveted UK Christmas number one, being kept at number two on its original release in 1987 by the Pet Shop Boyscover version of “Always on My Mind“, it has proved enduringly popular with both music critics and the public: to date the song has reached the UK Top 20 on fourteen separate occasions since its original release in 1987, including every year since 2005, and was certified platinum in the UK in 2013.[2] The song has sold 1.18 million copies in the UK as of November 2015.[3] In the UK it is the most-played Christmas song of the 21st century.[4] “Fairytale of New York” has been cited as the best Christmas song of all time in various television, radio and magazine related polls in the UK and Ireland.[5]

Is it a downer of a song? Voices in the lyric do not appear happy, but rather angry with each other for imagined slights that put each of them where they did not wish to be, when they met years ago.

But still the bells ring out on Christmas Day. (Remember that, if I get around to posting the Chieftans’ recording I have in mind for this series.)

I found the song this year on Twitter, improbably, in something called the World Cup of Christmas Songs, sponsored by UK radio guy Richard Osman (@RichardOsman). It’s not a serious competition, and it excluded most Christmas music we all know, which tips the scales a bit, it seems to me. But here it is, and the vox populi rings out.

More:

 


Scrooge’s 2017 Christmas gift: Trump policy reduced to three words

December 18, 2017

Oh, why bother with this BEFORE Christmas? It’s more salient now, looking at the new year, and wondering what is the fate of man and men, in the new year.

Roberto Innocenti, Scrooge on a dark staircase

Ebenezer Scrooge, up a dark staircase; “Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” Illustration by Roberto Innocenti, via Pinterest.

It’s a Quote of the Moment (an encore post for the season, with a bit of context thrown in later), Trump’s platform, and life, edited down to just three words, in green:

Darkness is cheap,
and Scrooge liked it.

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 1

Isn’t that the entire GOP platform in three words? “Darkness is cheap.” Substitute “Trump” for “Scrooge,” you’ve got the picture.

I think of that line of Dickens’s often when  I read of the celebrations of calumny that pass as discourse in Republican politics these days. Although, with the 2008 renewing of Limbaugh’s contract, it may no longer be true that his particular brand of darkness is cheap. With the advent of Donald Trump’s insult politics, offending America’s allies and all American ethnic groups possible, with un-ironic calls to drop nuclear weapons, GOP politics is even darker than ever.

Cheap or not, darkness remains dark.

John Leach, Scrooge meets Ignorance and Want

Scrooge meets Ignorance and Want, the products of his stinginess (drawing by John Leech, 1809-1870)

 

Here is the sentence Dickens put before the quote, to add a little context; Scrooge was climbing a very large, very dark staircase.

Half-a-dozen gas-lamps out of the street wouldn’t have lighted the entry too well, so you may suppose that it was pretty dark with Scrooge’s dip.

Up Scrooge went, not caring a button for that. Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.

Speaking of darkness, a longer excerpt from a bit later in Dickens’s story, when the Ghost of Christmas Present ushers Scrooge to glimpse what is in the present, but what will be the future if Scrooge does not repent:

‘Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, ‘but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?’

‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

‘Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!’ exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

‘Spirit! are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.

‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!’

‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.

‘Are there no prisons?’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?’ The bell struck twelve.

Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.

A Christmas Carol, Stave 3

Think of 2014, 2015, and 2016, children abused in Central America and in the Middle East, fleeing as best they can, only to die, off the shores of Greece, on the southern deserts of the U.S., or be cast into incarceration after having achieved a nation whose very name promised them refuge, the United States. “Two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable,” Dickens described. Whose children? “Man’s.” Yours, and mine.

Christmas is a festival to celebrate light, what many Christians call “the light of the world?” If so, let us work to stamp out the darkness which the unrepentant Scrooge so dearly loved.

Darkness may be cheap, but it is not good.  Light a candle, and run into the darkness, spreading light. We need more light.

Hope you had a merry Christmas in 2016. Let us remember, as Tom and the late Ray Magliozzi always reminded us, the cheapskate pays more in the end, and usually along the way. Is Darkness cheap? Let us then eschew it as too costly for a moral nation, too costly for a moral people.

Is Donald Trump as smart as Ebenezer Scrooge? Is his heart as good as Scrooge’s heart?

More:

Yes, this is an encore post, mostly. Fighting ignorance is taking a lot longer than anyone thought.

Yes, this is an encore post, mostly. Fighting ignorance is taking a lot longer than anyone thought.

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Rare/Alternative Christmas music: Macy Gray’s call for social justice

December 14, 2017

 

Cover sleeve for Macy Gray's

Cover sleeve for Macy Gray’s “All I Want for Christmas.” Amazon image

This one speaks for itself, I think. From experience, I can tell you that playing this song can weed out the Trump supporters in your party attendance rather quickly.

Oddly, I think, it also brings out the dangerous elements of American society to complain about it, judging by comments at the site (go see; there are a lot more):

Grotesque comments at YouTube on Macy Gray's Christmas wishes.

Grotesque comments at YouTube on Macy Gray’s Christmas wishes.

Those thought zombies walk among us. Our cross to bear.

Gray didn’t include it on any album I’ve found.

More:

 


Rare, new and alternative Christmas songs: Joni Mitchell’s “River”

December 9, 2017

Joni Mitchell skating away on a river. Photo by Joel Bernstein.

Joni Mitchell skating away on a river. Photo by Joel Bernstein.

Washington Post picked up on it: A lot of musicians make great performances of non-standard Christmas tunes.

Joni Mitchell’s “River” has picked up covers by quite a few artists as a Christmas tune.

Does it just mention Christmas, or is it really a song of the season?

For example, Sam Smith:

In a discussion of Joni Mitchell back in April, here on Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub (with Paul Sunstone), I noted how people appreciate Joni Mitchell as a songwriter more as time goes on, including the use of “River” in Christmas collections:

Joni Mitchell’s fans are superappreciative, including such people as Judy Collins, who covers Mitchell on several songs.

But generally, yes, I think she’s not considered a great composer by those who compile lists of great composers, and she’s not considered a great singer by those who compile lists of great singers.

Part of the issue is that Mitchell came out of Canada as folk-rock took off. When I first bought her albums they were in the folk section; later they moved to the “pop” section (go figure). Her later albums stayed in rock or pop, even as her love of Mingus and Jazz pushed her work solidly into jazz. I’ve never seen her work listed as jazz in any recording sales store.

So she’s tough to categorize. Is she as strong or influential in folk as Joan Baez or Bob Dylan? Is she as strong in Rock as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (at least half of whom she had affairs with)? Is she as good at jazz as Ella [Fitzgerald] or Tony Bennett? Is she as good a poet as Leonard Cohen?

I think one can make a solid case that Joni Mitchell’s work is as poetic as Paul Simon’s, deserving as much attention for that reason as his. Simon won the Gershwin Award from the Kennedy Center; has Mitchell ever been considered? Is she less deserving than Billy Joel?

One of my criteria: I think every party I attended as an undergraduate, someone put on the album “Blue.” In graduate school, in a hotter climate, Maria Muldaur made a run (time to get away when “Midnight at the Oasis” came on); but “Blue” has stayed a turntable hit for decades. When our oldest son was at the University of Dallas, on one visit I was struck that “Blue” played out of three different apartments in his complex, at least 40 years after its release. It’s not Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” but I think it lasts longer on the play list of people who play them both.

In the past three years I’ve been impressed at the appearance of her song “River” on Christmas song compilations. “I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” she and her covering artists sing. She captured a feeling of Christmas much as Irving Berlin did, with a more beautiful melody, if not quite as hummable. Has anyone ever compared her to Irving Berlin?

Long post required. I’m not musicologist enough to do it justice, I think.

See these:

“River” has become a movement!

This one is odd; I wonder if someone did a mashup of Charlie Brown and Joni Mitchell, or if the Schulz cartoon organization really did use Mitchell’s tune.

“River” is not ready for use in churches, I think. Still a good song for the time of year, if not the actual religious celebration.

Any other good versions of “River” you like? Any on Christmas albums? Tell about them.


Scrooge’s 2016 Christmas gift to Donald Trump: His platform reduced to three words

December 30, 2016

Oh, why bother with this BEFORE Christmas? It’s more salient now, looking at the new year, and wondering what is the fate of man and men, in the new year.

Roberto Innocenti, Scrooge on a dark staircase

Ebenezer Scrooge, up a dark staircase; “Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” Illustration by Roberto Innocenti, via Pinterest.

It’s a Quote of the Moment (an encore post for the season, with a bit of context thrown in later), Trump’s platform, and life, edited down to just three words, in green:

Darkness is cheap,
and Scrooge liked it.

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 1

Isn’t that the entire GOP platform in three words? “Darkness is cheap.”

I think of that line of Dickens’s often when  I read of the celebrations of calumny that pass as discourse in Republican politics these days. Although, with the 2008 renewing of Limbaugh’s contract, it may no longer be true that his particular brand of darkness is cheap. With the advent of Donald Trump’s insult politics, offending America’s allies and all American ethnic groups possible, with un-ironic calls to drop nuclear weapons, GOP politics is even darker than ever.

Cheap or not, darkness remains dark.

John Leach, Scrooge meets Ignorance and Want

Scrooge meets Ignorance and Want, the products of his stinginess (drawing by John Leech, 1809-1870)

 

Here is the sentence Dickens put before the quote, to add a little context; Scrooge was climbing a very large, very dark staircase.

Half-a-dozen gas-lamps out of the street wouldn’t have lighted the entry too well, so you may suppose that it was pretty dark with Scrooge’s dip.

Up Scrooge went, not caring a button for that. Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.

Speaking of darkness, a longer excerpt from a bit later in Dickens’s story, when the Ghost of Christmas Present ushers Scrooge to glimpse what is in the present, but what will be the future if Scrooge does not repent:

‘Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, ‘but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?’

‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

‘Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!’ exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

‘Spirit! are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.

‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!’

‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.

‘Are there no prisons?’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?’ The bell struck twelve.

Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.

A Christmas Carol, Stave 3

Think of 2014, 2015, and 2016, children abused in Central America and in the Middle East, fleeing as best they can, only to die, off the shores of Greece, on the southern deserts of the U.S., or be cast into incarceration after having achieved a nation whose very name promised them refuge, the United States. “Two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable,” Dickens described. Whose children? “Man’s.” Yours, and mine.

Christmas is a festival to celebrate light, what many Christians call “the light of the world?” If so, let us work to stamp out the darkness which the unrepentant Scrooge so dearly loved.

Darkness may be cheap, but it is not good.  Light a candle, and run into the darkness, spreading light. We need more light.

Hope you had a merry Christmas in 2016. Let us remember, as Tom and the late Ray Magliozzi always reminded us, the cheapskate pays more in the end, and usually along the way. Is Darkness cheap? Let us then eschew it as too costly for a moral nation, too costly for a moral people.

Is Donald Trump as smart as Ebenezer Scrooge? Is his heart as good as Scrooge’s heart?

More:

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

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Merry Christmas, 2016! Fly your flag today

December 25, 2016

“A Gift to a Nation” by painter of western scenes Tom Browning; Santa Claus puts together a flag for a family to fly on Christmas.

Christmas Day, December 25, is one of the holidays designated in the U.S. Flag Code for U.S. residents to fly the flag.

No, you don’t take the flag down for mere inclement weather; fly it through rain and snow. Remember to dry your flag before putting it away.

More:

  • Next dates to fly the flag: December 28, for Iowa statehood; December 29, for Texas statehood; New Years Day
  • Look around for other Christmas and Santa Claus posts
Ron Cogswell captured a flag displayed at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., in December 2015; Creative Commons license

Ron Cogswell captured a flag displayed at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., in December 2015; Creative Commons license

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