Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash Vol. XLIII: Christmas in Haiti, and an essential Christmas music playlist

Radio stations play the same Christmas songs over and over. What songs would you play if you could choose? – Phyllis J.

When radio stations begin playing Christmas music in earnest shortly after Easter in an effort to turn us from chastened, recession-bleary penny pinchers back into lusty little consumers, it becomes a veritable holly-jolly assault on both our ears and good taste. Nothing says “convert to atheism” quite like the 435th play of “Ring Christmas Bells,” or even the first play of Manheim Steamroller’s version of “Deck the Halls.” So if I was Christmas’s programming director, here’s how it would look, complete with YouTube videos. Improve your holiday season. Make this your playlist:

1. Best secular Christmas classic: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” This 1944 song, first introduced in the film Meet Me in St. Louis, is so well-crafted, it’s hard to butcher, though many have tried. As with most standards he sings, it’s hard to beat Frank Sinatra’s version:

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Though if you prefer one sans the distracting background singers, try James Taylor’s cover:

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2. Best religious Christmas classic: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Almost any version does the trick. But in order to preserve the mystical eeriness, it should be sung by an echoing unaccompanied choir, as evidenced by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers:

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3.  “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” by Tom Waits.  The only mention of Christmas in this song is in the title, though since it’s the best song title of all time, in addition to being one of my favorite Tom Waits tunes, it bears inclusion:

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4.  For many, Christmas is a time for spiraling depression. And there’s no way to wallow in it quite as satisfyingly as Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” the soundtrack for that most famous of depressives, Charlie Brown, in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”:

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  • killtruck

    Thanks for the perspective. I’ve been dealing with stress-y stuff lately and found myself thinking back to your Haiti piece, and saying, “Your house isn’t a tarp in Haiti. Suck it up you brat.” It doesn’t work because I’m a jerk, but I’m super-aware of it now.

    Diner is awesome. Mickey Rourke before he was Mickey Rourke.

    Blind Boys of Alabama – Go Tell it on the Mountain.

    And lastly, let’s never speak of your yule log again.

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  • deadonred

    Sorry, but any version of ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas that replaces “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough” — as Sinatra’s does — simply ruins the song for me.

    Judy Garland’s 1944 version was popular with our WWII troops because it reflected the realities of the times — many old friends would not be around for Christmas as they were overseas. The reality being faced was that “the fates” would not allow many of them to return from battle. It is good to remember that, for some, the Christmas celebration is tempered by the absence of soldier-loved ones. This is as true now as it was in 1944.

    Sinatra had the line changed in the 50s, but, thankfully, JT gets it right. His has the appropriate tone and tempo as well.

    • deadonred

      The list is great, though.

  • Ranger

    Matt – How could you leave out Fairy Tale of New York by the Pogues and the late Kristy MacColl?