Christmas music got you down?

Local musicians' seasonal favorites

Staff writerDecember 15, 2009 

If there really is a war on Christmas, music is one of the primary battlegrounds. Christmas music is inescapable this time of year, taking over just about every public place - including large swaths of radio airwaves and even nightclub stages. For example, there's tonight's annual "Christmas at the Cradle" shindig, during which some of the coolest bands from the area will hold forth Christmas-style at the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro.

That got us to wondering: What exactly is Christmas music, and why does it inspire such passion, con as well as pro? Is it the old spirituals like "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"? Seasonal winter chestnuts such as "Baby, It's Cold Outside"? Or "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" and other odes to gift-giving?

We decided to canvass a cross section of folks in the local music scene for their thoughts on Christmas music. Yay or nay?

"When it comes to Christmas music, I always act as if it's annoying, just so I can appear cool somehow. But truth be told, I love it. The music is as evocative as the blurry Super 8 films I have of me and my brothers opening presents from decades ago, as our forever-young parents watch wearily and joyfully. I love watching our audiences during the Holiday Pops tour. The comfort of familiarity is what brings the most happiness. Every Christmas is at least partly about every Christmas that went before, and music is so evocative of those emotions."

- Bruce Ridge, N.C. Symphony double bassist

"I'm sort of passively a fan of Christmas music. We do sometimes play it - we're recording a version of 'I Saw Three Ships' for a Christmas thing our label is doing. And we used to have this tradition of taking a random Johnny Mathis or Bing Crosby Christmas album, running it through Pro Tools and adding lots of guitar solos and unnecessary harmonies. We'd give those out to friends as Christmas presents."

- Brad Cook, Megafaun

"I have come to associate Christmas music with shopping malls. When I hear 'Jingle Bells' or 'Silent Night,' my mind conjures up bins of shirts or boxes of slippers in a department store. What I find that I play the most are two startlingly different albums: 'James Brown's Funky Christmas' and 'On Yoolis Night' by the Anonymous 4. When I tire of those, I play an album by Irish flute player Paddy Carty, whose instrumentals have not a thing to do with Christmas but are so beautiful and wistful that they remind me of winter solstice."

- Wayne Martin, N.C. Arts Council senior program director of folklife

"I like Christmas music. The songs are great, but some of the productions people have done with them are just horrible. So I love the old versions. But whenever those are mixed in with early-'90s versions - ugh!"

- Ari Picker, Lost in the Trees

"In my casual listening, I listen to a lot of what you'd call the Christmas standards. But I'm always curious to hear how people reinvent and reimagine the same old tunes. One good thing about Christmas music is everybody loves it. So as long as you don't do anything too crazy, you've got an audience. I even like Alvin and the Chipmunks. But that might be because I've got a 3-year-old son."

- John Brown, Duke University jazz program director

"I went to Crabtree Mall the other day, and I was thinking that I need to write a song about how lonely the mall makes me feel at Christmastime. When you're looking for a parking space and trying to find that perfect gift for your uncle-in-law, you just wish you could stay home and listen to Christmas records instead. We recorded 'I'll Be Home For Christmas' [on 2002's 'A Very Special Acoustic Christmas'], and it's one of my all-time favorites. We based it on this old gospel version from a record, and it felt kind of different - really organic and not forcefully tingly the way Christmas music can sometimes be. It's sentimental stuff, but you can't be totally Grinchy about it. Just break out the Elvis Christmas carols, and you'll totally feel better about the whole thing."

- Tift Merritt

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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