Did you know? (Holiday-style)

“In fact, not since Mariah Carey’s 1994 composition All I Want for Christmas Is You (written with Walter Afanasieff) has a new holiday hit entered the Christmas canon.”

The Washingon Post‘s J. Freedom du Lac discusses the state of the holiday music catalog. My personal opinion? It’s not so hot. This Mariah factoid means there’s only been one hit holiday record (hers) since I entered high school. Turn on Christmas radio formats and you’ll hear song after song from previous generations. So much for creating memories of our own, you know? (And The Christmas Shoes doesn’t count.)

Did the previous generations have things the same way? When Gene Autry’s Rudolph arrived in 1949, was everyone stuck listening to Merry Christmas, Everyone (Except for the Kaiser)? The song would’ve only been 30 years old then. Had the song existed.

But consider if it had. Thirty years old. This month, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers put out a list of the 25 most-performed holiday songs from the 21st century. Let’s add some writing years (by publication date) to the list.

1. The Christmas Song. 1946.
2. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. 1934.
3. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. 1943.
4. Winter Wonderland. 1934.
5. White Christmas. 1942.
6. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! 1945.
7. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. 1939.
8. Jingle Bell Rock. 1957.
9. I’ll Be Home For Christmas. 1943.
10. Little Drummer Boy. 1941.
11. Sleigh Ride. 1948.
12. It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. 1963.
13. Silver Bells. 1950.
14. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree. 1958.
15. Feliz Navidad. 1970.
16. Blue Christmas.1948.
17. Frosty The Snowman. 1950.
18. A Holly Jolly Christmas. 1962.
19. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. 1952
20. Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane). 1946.
21. It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas. 1951.
22. (There’s No Place Like) Home For The Holidays. 1954.
23. Carol Of The Bells. 1936.
24. Santa Baby. 1953.
25. Wonderful Christmastime. 1979.

That’s four from the ’30s, nine from the ’40s, eight from the ’50s, two from the ’60s, and two from the ’70s. Obviously this survey of the list does beyond radio and deep into holiday performances, commercials and mall music, so you expect the boomers to have their consumer influence. And — big disclaimer — I love just about all of these songs. I’m not anti-classic-carol by any means. Every year after the extend family goes Christmas tree hunting, we end the day singing carols.

But the writing! Not one song since 1979? An essay at the “Hymns and Carols of Christmas” site argues for the influence of Bing Crosby’s Holiday Inn carolfest and a historically cyclical pattern of carol creation. As much may be true, but it’s surprising that decades of speedy musical evolution haven’t done much. Insert an essay on modernism and the holiday celebration here, maybe. Or blame boomer power, maybe. I just wonder what we’re gonna be hearing when we’re the age the boomers are now. If it’s The Christmas Shoes, I retract this whole thing. Bring on the Kaiser.

Bonus content
Compare the new ASCAP list of 21st century performances to the 1998 ASCAP list on the “Hymns and Carols” site. The ’98 list counts 85 years back, to when ASCAP was founded and apparently began collecting data.

Highlights include White Christmas dropping from No. 1 on the earlier list to No. 5 now, The Christmas Song jumping from No. 3 to No. 1, and a variety of additions and departures.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, Santa Baby, Wonderful Christmastime join the list. The Andy Williams’ song rockets to No. 7, and I bet the Staples back-to-school commercial had some influence. We Need a Little Christmas, The Christmas Waltz, and The Chipmunk Song depart.

Even more bonus content
If you still believe in The Chipmunk Song and aren’t one of the masses who’ve apparently moved onto Kanye for their creatively sped musical effects, I’d again recommend the Shalitas’ Christmas Single. That merch page lists the second track as The Christmas Song, the one with the chestnuts, and it’s not. It’s the Shalitas the Chipmunks and Marah’s Dave Bielanko as … Dave. The single’s other track, Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight), is my favorite, but the Chipmunk homage also brings me action and satisfaction.

Also worth buying, of course, is Marah’s Christmas Kind of Town. Turn it on in the car and turn off The Christmas Shoes. Please.

Darlene Love’s All Alone at Christmas.

Related past posts
-Dec. 10, 2004: Music plays all night in Little Italy
-Dec. 25, 2004: Christmas with Hemingway
-Nov. 25, 2004: Springsteen Christmas story
-Dec. 29, 2002: Figure eights in the parking lot
-Dec. 24, 2002: Christmas Eve in Atlanta
-March 4, 2002: My coat

The return of the Shalitas

Marah cohorts and a great playground/soul girl group in their own right, the Shalitas are back in action. Their site’s revived and kicking. They’ll be on the Bielankos’ Christmas tour this month and will likely figure big (on the Marah scale).

Why? Because the girls seem to love the holidays as much as the boys. On last year’s Christmas Single, the Shalitas’ Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight Tonight) Ramones cover is the best new holiday song I’ve heard in years. (There’s finally a clip on the Shalitas’ MySpace, but it doesn’t do the song justice.) This year they’ve contributed to many of the tracks on Marah’s A Christmas Kind of Town.

They also promise T-shirts.

Music plays all night in Little Italy

Was at the Container Store the other day and heard Darlene Love’s All Alone on Christmas playing on the speakers. The song’s got a great E Street Band sound to it, contributed to a good deal by the E Street Band actually playing on the record. Little Steven wrote the song for the Home Alone 2 soundtrack; Steve, Clarence, Max, Danny, and Garry did the instruments.

Every time I hear it, the sound makes me wonder about the nature of the band and its production. Some avid Springsteen fans complain about Bruce not varying the music enough in recent years, saying he should take more chances and not aim for a career-spanning “narrative.” That’s a key word with Springsteen, and one he raises repeatedly while putting together his Greatest Hits album in ’95. As shown in the Blood Brothers documentary, he dumps a more orchestral version of Secret Garden for a sparser one — a lesser one according to other people in the studio. He takes a vote, then tosses the result. “Distracts from the narrative,” he says. Choices Springsteen has made since — for one, closing nearly every show with the message-laden Land of Hope and Dreams — suggest he’s still making many of his decisions with the long view in mind. If you think that’s the wrong approach, and I do to some extent, then the lack of true departures in his sound is a more-than-momentary issue.

But I also think All Alone on Christmas is relevant in that discussion. Put on the Christmas on E Street CD, the song fits in right with the rest. If you give the same band to someone else and he produces the same sound, does the result suggest it’s the band and not the Boss? Sure, Little Steven has been close with Springsteen and played with him for decades. And they like many of the same types of music. And they both love the Spector Wall of Sound. But you’ve got to think a set of blocks can only be arranged together in so many ways. The musical challenge, as usual, lies in combining the blocks when you can’t see the edges.

How a song is written

The obituary of Donald Yetter Gardner tells how.

He wrote the song in 1947 while filling in for his wife as teacher of a grade-school class in Smithtown, N.Y., during the holiday season. He asked the class what they wanted for Christmas, and when they hissed and lisped their answers, he noticed that almost all of them had at least one front tooth missing.

Gardner then wrote All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, a song that once drove my extended family bonkers at the annual Christmas tree cutting — long story involved a poorly drawn awl — but has gained popularity nonetheless.

The song has been recorded dozens of times by artists as diverse as Spike Jones, George Strait and Mariah Carey. Mr. Gardner’s favorite version was recorded by Nat King Cole.

Gardner died earlier this month at age 91.

In addition to reprinting the famous song’s lyrics, the Los Angeles Times noted that he was 31 years old when he wrote the song. His local paper, the Wellesley Townsman, noted his sons’ memories of him and how he once made a hole-in-one.