There will always be the traditional Christmas songs: “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Joy to the World,” “O Holy Night” and the like. But what about those other Christmas songs that don’t have hymnals as relatives, and whose basis is not praising the overtly holy aspects of this holiday? Though Christmas has a history rich with religion it has become more worldly. What was once the baby Jesus in his manger crib has become an image of hands spread across space in an embrace of peace. One common thread among modern Christmas songs is love, and for good reason. One third of this world is Christian. Only one-third. The other two-thirds are divided into varying religions or personal beliefs. But Christmas is one of the most recognized holidays and one of the most celebrated, even in countries where Christianity is by far the least recognized faith. It has been through this divide that we have received some of the greatest holiday songs: “The Christmas Song,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” “Last Christmas,” and more. They are songs that speak to people on an intimate level, and not about faith and praising the Lord, but about the spiritual experiences between two people. Those moments are a drop in the ocean, but without them, there would be no ocean. With that said, I introduce my first Christmas song recommendation:
“Neverending Math Equation” by Sun Kil Moon. This is a cover of a Modest Mouse song, originally found on their album Building Nothing Out of Something. It, too, is worth checking out. However, Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) takes this song and makes it his own by revamping the original rock vibe into a very melodic song. A snare drum continuously punctuates the song while his guitar continues to wrap around the words. He overlaps vocals, guitar, and snare creating a softly driving force that does not overpower the lyrics, but manages to highlight the words.
“Where Have You Been?” by Manchester Orchestra. My favorite thing about this track is the drums. And then the lyrics. The percussion, however, creates a very specific sound. It almost adds a tension throughout the song. It is reminiscent of a heartbeat. The guitar overlaps, ticking like a clock. These sounds chant in the background of the vocals, as if haunting the singer. He sings, “I heard you’re coming back to life just for the fourth. I’ve been catching all your ghosts for every season, I pray to God you won’t come back here anymore. Do you pray with him, too?” (I also recommend purchasing full albums from Manchester Orchestra. They are phenomenal. This song is from I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child.)
“Walking the Dog” by fun. Take one part Format, one part Anathallo, and one part Steel Train, mix and you get fun. Nate Ruess, Andrew Dost, and Jack Antonoff (respectively) come together to create a vibrant and magical sound. The opening percussion gives the impression of walking (perfect considering the title). It’s moving forward towards a story, to which Nate happily obliges and he sings: “Walking along cuz the night is dead. Crossed my mind when I crossed the bridge. How you lost your mind, and your wrists got bruised, and you wanted better love, well it’s sleeping in your bedroom.” The song continues with questions on self-identity, self-awareness and moving on in relationships. More specifically, it seems that these thoughts are directed towards Nate and his ability to work through the emotions involving the break-up of the Format. (And yes, incase you were wondering, this is the Expedia commercial song.)
“The Chain” by Ingrid Michaelson. I first heard this song live in March 2008 during the Hotel Cafe tour (which also featured artists Joshua Radin, Meiko, Cary Brothers, and Dan Wilson). During the performance, I actually began crying. It was a powerful experience. She uses simple descriptions, but she can create the most effective image. She sings, “The sky looks pissed, the wind talks back, my bones are shifting in my skin, and you, my love, are gone. My room feels wrong, the bed won’t fit, I cannot seem to operate, and you, my love, are gone.” These words are sung softly over a lilting piano. As the song continues, a drum enters enhancing the words by offering a steady thrum, close to the sound of a beating heart. What is most effective in this song is the tri-vocals repeating the chorus in a round. A chaos of voices and instruments that ends with nothing but Ingrid singing “then I will take the chain from off the door.” (The live version is found on Be Ok.)
“Hey Ya” by Obadiah Parker. This is a cover of the well-known song “Hey Ya” by Outkast. Simple vocals over simple guitar and piano, and you have a brilliant folk rendition. This particular song inspired Sam Llyod’s (as Ted) version on Scrubs in the eighth season. If you love the original, you will definitely enjoy this cover. Listening to Mat Weddle (Obadiah Parker) softly illuminate the words, you begin to realize their importance.