Sorting through the thrift-store vinyl bins, you will, regardless of season, find several dozen half-rotting, creased-cover Christmas albums, most of them boasting contributions from The Mormon Tabernacle Choir or Doris Day. The songs range from overplayed classics ("Twelve Days of Christmas") to unheard contemporaries ("Little Christmas Stocking with the Hole In the Toe"), but every song will have the word "Christmas" in the title and will be accompanied by an arrangement of harps, organs, lutes, really intense horn ensembles, bells, chimes, a single overzealous man clashing a cymbal, and a children's choir. Millions of these albums were created between 1955 and 1973, and the three-fourths that haven't been lost to landfills can be found neglected in second-hand shops ubiquitously.
As December rolls around, shop volunteers nationwide pull the Christmas albums to the front of the store, mingling them with displays of stuffed Santa dolls and chipped coffee mugs in the shape of Christmas trees, thinking that maybe if they catch you in the holiday mood they'll finally get rid of the voluminous shit. Of course, they never do. As usual, we pass over these albums without a second thought, because for the most part, they're just too fucking cheesy to waste a quarter on. Unless of course, they're gonna' cut you a deal. When Hospice Thrift made an offer at 10 for $1, I couldn't say no, despite the fact I only had 97Â¢.
The Great Orchestral Music of Christmas by The Hollywood Bowl Symphonic Orchestra
(Capital Records; ???)
To start with a generalization, Christmas music is very dramatic. It always seems to instill in you a sense of urgency that something magnificent is happening. Christmas is not something you just wake up to one day, like Easter or Veteran's Day. Our culture and economy fully revolve around it, preparing for it months beforehand, or sometimes year-round, and it seems that many holiday orchestral groups borrow from that excitement and send it right back so as to work you up and overwhelm you with celebratory spirit. The aptly named Great Orchestral Music of Christmas as performed by The Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra does just that.
As the needle fell and the first chords were struck up, I felt they immediately invaded my personal space. It's instantly overkill, but the inside flap states that all songs are simply "played in the sumptuous spirit of Christmastide... enriching the hearts of listeners with the wonder of this greatest of great events." So, maybe that's what it was doing.
The double LP contains a selection of tried and true holiday classics, from Handel's spiritual "The Messiah" and M. Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" to renditions of more secular carols like "Deck The Hall" and "Joy To The World." Originally released as two separate LPs, entitled The Music of Christmas and Hallelujah respectively, it feels like something a cartoon caper animated short would be set to, where snow is personified as a grumpy and bitter old man with cold breath, or like the score to an old movie with a good family moral.
As distasteful as the music is to me at this moment of critique, it does boast the most bizarrely impressive artwork of any thrift-store Christmas album I've ever seen -- an eerie animated collage of vacant-eyed, expressionless children clutching toys. Just left of center, a lounging angel sits in Santa's lap, the old man's gloved hand wrapped firmly around the cherub's thigh. The angel appears pleased yet sleepy, with Santa looking pensive and frowning every so slightly. In the bottom right-hand corner is a grinning cat that looks as surprised as I was to find him grinding a music box full of clothed, dancing mice. The inside cover depicts a pen and ink of Santa joyously whipping his reindeer through the sky. It's a 10 out of fucking 10.
In The Ken Griffin Style: Christmas Organ by Charles Rand
(Premier Albums; circa 1958)
I don't know if it's because I associate the organ with Doors-era psychedelia or if the sparsely accompanied renditions kick ass sans association, but In The Ken Griffin Style: Christmas Organ as performed by Charles Rand is actually an enjoyable listen. Half-tribute to a great organ player from the days of yore, half-celebration of the holidays, Christmas Organ is a goldmine of simple and unaccompanied tunes that are otherwise only encountered on a 2 AM WFMU "found sound" radio show. The back of the album cover sheds some light on "the Griffin organ style," stating that the "recently deceased Griffin" (at the time of publication, which would have to put it around 1958) played the organ in pre-talkie, West Coast movie houses before serenading an America of nightclubs and theaters. His hit, “You Cant Be True Dear,” (1948) garnered him nationwide recognition and sold more than three million copies.
The copy I parted with a dime for is in terrible condition, but the cellophane crackle coming through the speakers lends it a certain amount of character that I wouldn't want to forego. The highlight of the album is at the end of Side B with the Griffin rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," the echoing organ coming through the static hiss to sound more like an impending plot-twist than a soundtrack to the holiday gala.
Great Songs of Christmas Volume 9
(issued for Goodyear by Columbia Records; 1969)
You don't have to listen long to realize that Great Songs of Christmas really isn't what it claims to be. I know -- how can an all-star cast the likes of Bing Crosby, Lawrence Welk, Joan Sutherland, and Lena Horne be wrong? Well, its first mistake is Bing Crosby, the second Lawrence Welk, then Joan Sutherland, Lena Horne, and so on. At an outrageous 20 tracks long, it holds such gilded originals as Petula Clark's "The Happiest Christmas." I also wasn't aware that Joan Sutherland was a raging soprano. I didn't think she could sing "Twelve Days of Christmas" any higher or faster until I cranked that baby up to 45 rpm, and the result just about blew my speakers (on the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: a brand new stereo). To tell the truth, I didn't get past track three of side one, and to imagine listening to all 10 volumes is immensely depressing.
Christmas in California
(created for Bank of America by RCA; 1968
After a very long afternoon of Christmas albums, I was excited to put on something I'd been saving for last -- Christmas in California. The cover is a lovely winterscape of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, and the tracklist brags contributions by Harry Belafonte, Arthur Fiedler & The Boston Pops, and Leontyne Price and his Choir of Men and Boys of St. Thomas' Episcopal Church. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered the album inside to be Lawrence Welk's POLKAS! POLKAS! POLKAS!, which I must say is considerably better than his rendition of "Good King Wenceslas" on Great Songs of Christmas.
The tracks are short and blend well (one can't quite tell where one smashing polka ends and the next begins) and includes such polka classics as "The Kit Kat Polka," "Tic Tock Polka," "Hot Foot Polka," "Hoop Dee Doo Polka," and "The American Patrol Polka." That last one's a doozey.
So that's it. Do I have thoughts in conclusion? Not really, just a reinforced brooding over our fragile and insignificant mortality. As I went through these albums, I couldn't help but see how temporary fame and popularity really are, how these songs that were once golden hits to be heard in every American home now cost more to throw away than they do to pawn off on other people at 10Â¢ a pop. So what is lasting if not rock stars and their rock ‘n' roll? Memories with friends, the time we spend with family, our good deeds? Maybe Bing had it right...
"It's not the glow you feel, when snow appears/ It's not the Christmas card, you've sent for years/ Not the joyful sound, when sleigh bells ring/ Or the merry songs, children sing
Yeah the little gift you send, on Christmas day/ Will not bring back the friend, you turned away/ So may I suggest, the secret of Christmas/ It's not the things you do, at Christmas time/ But the Christmas things you do all year through."