Sunday, December 20, 2009

Jingling the bells

This time of year it's a bit difficult to escape Xmas music when one is out in public. That it's playing in shops is to be expected, of course; it serves as an advertisement for the holiday shopping season by reminding us of the excitement we felt as children, listening to these traditional songs over and over while parents decorated the house and we waited to see what Santa would bring us (unless we were Jewish, or Muslim, or our parents were Jehovah's Witnesses...).

Even with the ubiquity of this music out there I still spent two full hours one night this week downloading Xmas tracks; my wife wanted to increase our holiday music selections, so I set about the task of making her happy. However, it soon started taking me down my own Santa Claus Lane.

Despite having Bing Crosby drilled into my ears for decades—actually, because of having had Bing Crosby drilled into my ears for decades—I stilled downloaded he and the Andrews Sisters version of "Jingle Bells." As these songs go, you really can't go wrong with Bing. The man is Christmas, music-wise. I mean, when I pause to think about it, I cannot think of a single Crosby song that is not holiday-related. I'm sure the man had a lucrative singing career beyond just that, and I imagine I must have heard at least song he did outside that genre, but his association with this time of year has utterly washed away whatever my mind may have been able to retain about the rest of his oeuvre.

This year, with eMusic's mid-year acquisition of the Sony catalog, the site had the "real" version of "Jingle Bells" (the one that gets played on the radio) rather than some poor-sounding re-creation (which was all they had last year at this time). That's the thing about these songs: There's specific recordings that were the ones we heard on the radio, over and over, and those are the ones that we want to keep hearing. It's fine and well if some newer artist recorded his or her take on the song, but when it comes to Bing we only want that particular one with the Sisters backing him up. All other versions that may have been put on tape with him singing may as well be destroyed; as far as this works in our mind they're as worthless as a three-dollar bill.

(Last year, when searching the site, the only Bing Crosby available was some live recording that had an eerie echo quality that sounded like it had been recorded in an empty mansion. Before this year's mission my wife made a point of noting that when I went to download this year that she didn't want any "spooky" versions.)

The main song she sought, the one she noted as her favorite holiday song, was one she had to hum. "You know, ding-ding-da-ding, ding-ding-da-ding, ding-ding-da-ding…"

"You mean 'Chorus of the Bells'?" I said. (Of course, by that I meant "Carol of the Bells." Hey, at least I was close.)

Searching the eMusic site for that track name rendered hundreds of hits. None included the New Age rock version of Mannheim Steamroller, but I did find an actual orchestral recording of Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. (I also learned that it was originally known as the Ukrainian Bell Carol, composed by a Ukrainian composer named Leontovych.)  And I found another version performed in Caribbean style, and another done a cappella, and another with merely harps, and a funky rendition by Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra.

Sampling merely a tiny fraction of all those versions is part of what took so long, and that's a big part of the joy and pain of seeking out Xmas tunes: There's so many of them.

Digging in to the plethora of Xmas music revealed that all the songs one hears over and over on the radio and in stores, etc., are merely the tip of a proverbial holiday iceberg. You may think you know that every artist and his brother has recorded a Xmas album, but until you see how much is out there you have no idea. After a while I started to wonder, as someone who'd heard these songs growing up, if I was contractually obligated to record an album myself. Then I worried that if I kept searching I'd discover that I already had.

There's a reason why places like Starbucks have CDs featuring a sampler of popular Xmas songs next to the register. (Well, there's a reason beyond the obvious, that they know it will sell.) It may not include every favorite tune one remembers but acquiring it with mere moments of effort (presumably glancing at the package while waiting for one's coffee) is the ideal amount of time one should spend getting some Xmas tracks for one's collection in order to maintain that "holiday spirit." To explore the depths of all that's out there (or even all that's on a single music website) runs the risk of being crushed under an avalanche of carols.


Perhaps it would be different with some glasses of "holiday cheer" before embarking on such a task. In this case, maybe friends only let friends drink and download.

Ah, holiday traditions of the future.

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