12 (relatively) new songs for Christmas

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CeeLo Gree and The Muppets' 'All I Need is Love' is one of the catchier Christmas tunes done this century. CeeLo Green and The Muppets' 'All I Need is Love' is one of the catchier Christmas tunes done this century. The Yule Blog, Dec. 11:
14 days until Christmas

Christmas tunes released since 2000 that are worth a listen

Christmas music tends to be pretty conservative.

Think about it: When else are you likely to hear 60- or 70-year-old recordings in the mall and the café. Every year, songs that are decades or even hundreds of years old get a fresh airing. 

Of the few hundred Christmas songs we hear every year, most were written by 1960. “Silent Night,” rightfully considered a classic, dates from 1818, with music by an Austrian schoolteacher and church organist named Franz Xaver Gruber and words by Catholic priest Rev. Joseph Mohr. Many carols are much older.

Each December, these songs are pulled out and played on the radio, in homes and anywhere with a cash register. Many are beautiful, and most were sung by the great stars of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, or are reimagined versions from that canon by contemporary artists.

Those old songs have a lot of resilience, or else there is no way they could stand up to reworking by artists as disparate as Bob Dylan, She & Him and Bad Religion, who have each released albums of Christmas standards. “A Very She & Him Christmas (2011) wouldn’t have seemed at all out of place on a turntable in 1958.

It’s understandable, of course. Christmas is all about tradition, and these songs remind us of our childhood. Often, we want to share them with our own children. But aren’t there any new songs?

Not like John Lennon’s “Happy X-Mas (War is Over),” which is 40 years old, or Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas,” which is even older. Wham’s “Last Christmas” is getting close to 30 years old, and Dave Matthews’ lovely “Christmas Song” came out in the 1990s.

A recent Washington Post story argues that no one has broken in to the rarified Christmas classic club since Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” way back in 1994.

Is anything interesting happening this millennium?

Here are a few: 12 Christmas songs released since 2000 that are worth a listen, or maybe even a download for this year’s Christmas playlist. New covers of old songs don’t count, so, sorry Bright Eyes and Mary J. Blige, who both have new albums of Christmas standards this year.

Don’t worry, there will still be plenty of room left for Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Rosemary Clooney.

The Ragpicker’s Dream

Mark Knopfler spent the 1980s selling out stadiums and basically ruling MTV as the singer, guitarist and songwriter for Dire Straits. Since the band broke up, he has continued to tour and release albums steadily, collaborating with Emmylou Harris, James Taylor and plenty of others.

In September of 2002, he released “The Ragpicker’s Dream,” a collection of songs about hard times and hard work. In the title track two hobos hop a train south to escape the dropping temperatures.

Here, the vision of the perfect Christmas is seen from the outside, but a lovely melody keeps the rather dire ending from being too maudlin.

Christmas Morning

Loudon Wainwright III is one of those artists who have kept a small and dedicated following for decades. Over the years, he actually came out with a couple of Christmas songs. Then again, he has written songs about just about everything else as well.

“Christmas Morning,” which starts as an upbeat tour of closed businesses and works toward an exploration of seasonal morality, was included on the hyper-topical “Social Studies” in 2000. Most of the songs were written for NPR and explore then-timely topics such as Tonya Harding and the O.J. Simpson trial. If only the issues raised in “Christmas Morning” seemed as dated.

Only at Christmastime

Sufjan Stevens dug deep into the season in 2006, releasing a five-disc collection of Christmas songs, including originals and covers. The success of the project depends on your appetite for strummed banjo and droning vocals. Among several gems, my pick is “Only at Christmastime,” which slowly draws the listener into its moody, heraldic celebration of the Prince of Peace. If only he didn’t sound so depressed about it all …

Spotlight on Christmas

Rufus Wainwright, Loudon’s son with Kate McGarrigle, has a voice all his own, and a growing worldwide following. He also has a treat of a Christmas song, “Spotlight on Christmas,” released on “The McGarrigle Christmas Hour” in 2005. Sure, everybody loves the poor folks on Christmas, but what about the poor little rich kids whose hearts are still aching? It also includes the fantastic line about the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt: “And they were each one quite odd, a mench, a virgin and a god.”

Peace on Earth

Bono only mentions “Christmas” once at the end of the U2 song “Peace on Earth,” included in 2000’s “All That I Can’t Leave behind.” Then again, there is no specific mention of the holiday at all in “Frosty the Snowman” or in “Let it Snow, Let it Snow,” but we hear them every year, too.

Bono wrote the song in response to a 1998 bombing by an Irish republican splinter group opposed to the Good Friday accords, and his anger and disgust is palpable in the studio version. In it he calls on Jesus to “throw a drowning man a line,” and says the lives of those killed in conflict are worth more than any big idea.

Don’t Shoot Me, Santa

The Killers have released a steady stream of Christmas songs to benefit the Product Red campaign against Aids in Africa. For 2007, they offered “Don’t Shoot Me, Santa,” which runs like a Christmas version of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

What does Santa do when a kid is just too bad for a lump of coal? Well, in The Killers’ world, there’s a desert showdown coming on Christmas Eve.

Rudy

Canadian folkies The Be Good Tanyas offered a Christmas cautionary tale with “Rudy,” included on several Christmas compilations, including “A Winter’s Night,” released in 2005. Be warned, though. This is a sad one, about a homeless man in Georgetown, Rudy the red-nosed wino, panhandling among the busy Christmas shoppers.

Getting Ready for Christmas Day

On “So Beautiful or So What,” released in the spring of 2011, Paul Simon reaches into the past, not for the song but for samples of a sermon by the Rev. J.M. Gates from 1941, coming up with the inspiration and the hook for “Getting Ready for Christmas Day.” The working class narrator has money matters weighing him down, but knows that Santa Claus is coming to town.

In the Morning

Jack Johnson joined with John Cruz and Paula Fuga to record “In the Morning,” included in “Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday Vol. II,” released in 2011. This low key but joyful song indicates that the kids may be doing the unwrapping, but the parents get a gift they will keep forever. Johnson also presented some Christmas covers for Vol. I in 2008, including a popular version of “Rudolf, the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

The Season’s Upon Us

Massachusetts Celt-punkers the Dropkick Murphys invite listeners to their boozy, brawling family holiday with last year’s “Christmas is Upon Us.” There’s mischief and mayhem and songs to be sung, but once the singer starts introducing the family, it goes a little downhill, with a listing of dysfunction all around.

“Some families are messed up while others are fine, if you think yours is crazy, well you should see mine.”

Christmas at the Airport

Where country meets punk, when Americana comes to England, there’s Nick Lowe, now a beloved elder statesman of punk and new wave, probably best known for “Cruel to be Kind” in 1979. He also wrote “What’s so Funny ’Bout Peace Love and Understanding,” a big hit for Elvis Costello.

Lowe has told several interviewers that when his label spoke to him about doing a holiday album, he initially balked, in part because of the whiff of desperation. He eventually changed his mind, bringing out “Quality Street” this year, including a couple of originals and some standards, with a rockabilly and Tex-Mex flavor. One of Lowe’s originals, “Christmas at the Airport,” features a stranded holiday traveler who has the run of the place when the snow starts falling.

All I Need is Love

Finally, it’s time for the big man in the red suit to arrive, spreading joy where he goes. That’s right, CeeLo Green has a Christmas tune, with the Muppets no less! In the song, released last year, he tells listeners that friends don’t know what to get him, because all he needs is love. This one’s just plain fun, with a good beat, and the video is a blast. Man, that Kermit knows everybody.

So what did we miss? What are some of your favorites? Let us know in the comments below.

The Yule Blog is a day-to-day countdown to Christmas featuring a new story each day. Click the links below to read other stories in the series.

Nov. 29: Best shopping apps put you where the buys are.

Nov. 30: Small Business Saturday gives independent shops their turn to shine.

Dec. 1: Before there was 'Elf,' there was 'The Santaland Diaries.'

Dec. 2: Historic Smithville has plenty of old-fashioned Christmas spirit to go around

Dec. 3: Earth-friendly gifts help preserve the world's green assets.

Dec. 4: Great gift ideas for the cook

Dec. 5: Let Cape May kindle your Christmas spirit

Dec. 6: The worst and the weirdest Christmas films

Dec. 7: How to take the perfect holiday portrait

Dec. 8: Will South Jersey have a White Christmas in 2013?

Dec. 9: Don't risk a home fire this winter

Dec. 10: In the kitchen with grandma: How to make 6-layer Neapolitan cookies

Dec. 11: 12 (relatively) new songs for Christmas

Dec. 12: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 1

Dec. 13: Best all-time Christmas movies, Part 2

Dec. 14: How to make Razzleberry Dressing

Dec. 15: Last-minute make-it gift: Peppermint Patty Martini

Dec. 16: Dennisville Christmas House Tour connects past and present

Dec. 17: Snow day survival guide

Dec. 18: Best all-time Christmas songs

Dec. 19: 5 handy gifts for the home baker

Dec. 20: Cookie swaps sweeten the holidays if you can avoid the jams

Dec. 21: When will Santa get here? Track his flight Christmas Eve with NORAD

DEc. 22: Presents for pets - and pet lovers

Dec. 23: Best children's books get to the heart of Christmas

Dec. 24: Feast of the 7 Fishes is a Christmas Eve tradition for many Italians

Dec. 25: People all over the world celebrate the birth of Jesus

 


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