As artificial a time-keeper as the calendar is, its greatest claim to purpose is perhaps its capacity to make us look back on a segment – a month, a year, a decade – and size up its impact on culture, civilization and ourselves. The end of 2009 is all the more monumental a hallmark because it also wraps up the first decade of a new century, and what better way to greet the blank slate that is before us than with Lennon’s iconic anthem to hope and peace?
The irony, of course, is that we’ve come a long way – culturally, technologically, industrially – since Imagine was written 40 years ago. Just in the past decade, we discovered water on Mars, dreamt up augmented reality, elected Obama, and sequenced 99% of the human genome project with 99% accuracy. Yet despite all this incredible evolution, we’ve practically devolved on the peace front, kicking Lennon’s vision to the curb and spitting on it a little bit before moving on to more exciting things. Litigation, digitization, flashturbation. But what about imagination? Our human capacity to imagine – despite the pageantry fluff of it – a better world instead of a better gadget, a better airplane or a better party drug?
Imagine has struck so many chords in its timeless genius – from a major airport named after it to being quoted in the United States Supreme Court – precisely because it bespeaks our incredible collective capacity for change, for betterment, for imagination.
May 2010 be the year in which we really begin to Imagine.
Back in the mid seventies Barry White (aka the Walrus of Love) ruled the Juke Boxes in every late night, smoke filled bar. Everyone could relate to the honest, matter of fact, in your face message he moaned.
"You’re the First, the Last, My Everything" was #1 R&B, #2 Pop in 1974.
Ever noticed how the best songs come with smells attached? For me, California Girls always kicks up soda stream concentrate. All Sisters of Mercy tracks smell of dry ice and snakebite. This song (The Waters of March) smells of all kinds of stuff from from my childhood to now. Most of all, it smells of pine cones, sticky vinyl seats, hot tarmac and burning brakes from a family caravan holiday in the Alps in the 70s.
A good Christmas track should get you relaxed, smiling and feeling grateful for whatever you have - regardless of any belief in Santa. This is it, the ultimate feel-good life-affirmer.
In 1988 the Beatles sued Nike for £7.5million for unauthorised use of ‘Revolution’ in an ad. In 2008 Sony/ATV (who control the Beatles catalogue) decided for the first time ever to allow Beatles music for use in ads. However, the tracks must be re-recorded by other artists.
Last Christmas (I gave you my heart) and Lowe London stopped me in my tracks with a choir (surely the original ‘crowd-sourcing’?) and piano providing the soundtrack to ‘Clues’, a spot about choosing the right present. I kept singing the words over and over, I’m sure I know this song. A day later, it clicked.
'From Me To You' is considered the Beatles first hit, and surprisingly 2008's John Lewis (the UK department store) Christmas spot was the first EVER Beatles song to be used in a British advertising campaign. What's magical about the ad is that it's by the people behind the brand. It’s not Tracy at B&Q in Croydon or Maureen at Asda. The song was re-recorded by the John Lewis Music Society (as started by Mr. John Spedan Lewis in 1925), a classical choir who perform choral repertoire concerts in London.
To give the track a more intimate feel it features the vocals of Matt Skinner (no, not Mike Skinner of The Streets), but a member of John Lewis’ IT department. The charm about the track is that it’s slightly amateur, like a school recital, complete with the sound of a triangle being struck. However, this delicate slowed down version cuts through with the beautiful melody and poignant words that give it some festive MAGIC that wasn’t even in the original.
Of course, soon as the YouTube hits reached 100,000 it was time to release the track in its unedited glory of two minutes and eight seconds (the original track is 1:56). In response, John Lewis allowed free downloads of the track (whilst encouraging donations to the Wallace & Gromit’s Children’s Foundation, its registered charity of the year). I’ve been playing it as a closing track at Christmas parties, ‘who’s this by?’ they’ll ask. ‘REALLY?!’
This year’s John Lewis festive spot use the nu-folk cover version of Guns N’ Roses Sweet Child O’ Mine by Taken by Trees. It’s good, but please, bring back the choir.
I prefer non-denominational, non-jingle-belled tunes, but my unshakable soft spot remains the Christmas specials from my childhood. I’m talking about A Charlie Brown Christmas, with the cruddy, spindly tree that helped kids understand the true meaning of the season, the stop-motion oddity of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Yukon Cornelius and the Abominable Snowman, ‘cmon man, are you kidding?), and of course, the Chuck Jones/Dr. Seuss mastery of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Although the entire Peanuts soundtrack is, as Rick Liebling puts it, “music with emotional resonance,” the Grinch certainly has the more iconic anthem (sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, aka Tony the Tiger, not narrator Boris Karloff as most people think).
From the first note, there’s a rush of nostalgic adrenaline that brings me right back to childhood. To this day, it’s the oddly effective blend of morality and commercialism in Seuss’ Grinch that makes me feel like it’s okay to love Christmas without being a total douche about it, and it’s the song that anchors that feeling.
Cardinal was a one off band/recording by ex-Moles, psychedelic protagonist Richard Davies and multi-instrumentalist Eric Matthews some time in the mid 90s. I picked it up on vinyl from Plastic Passion in Blenheim Crescent, W11. It’s a great, unsung LP, full of lilting Zombies/Left Banke melodies and a ‘Man Who Fell To Earth’ Bowie sensibility. This song - If You Believe In Christmas Trees - is the album’s opener. Hope you enjoy it.
"Peace at Least" is an extraordinary, uplifting and just plain funny Christmas track.
It’s one of thirteen tracks on the Christmas concept LP ‘Peace’, by Rotary Connection, the psychedelic soul band formed in Chicago in 1966, with the dazzling Minnie Riperton at the centre. I could wax on until next Christmas as to why Rotary Connection are one of the best bands of all time, about how unearthly Minnie Riperton’s five octave vocal range was, how flawlessly tight and complete Charles Stepney’s arrangements were, and how they influenced everyone from Earth, Wind & Fire to The Orb to hip hop. But I’ll stick to “Peace at Least” for now.
'Peace' was released at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968. This is tangible throughout the LP (never more than on “Christmas Love”), but you sense it clearly on “Peace at Least”. It mixes classic Rotary Connection big band sounds and swirling arrangements, with a story about Santa smoking 'mistletoe'.
Why does Santa come down the chimney?
If he were cool he would come through the door
But I know why, the kid is high
Look at him
He’s stoned, he’s stoned out of his mind
Oh he smokes mistletoe
… and so on. “Peace at Least” (often mistakenly labeled as “Peace at Last”) is unrestrained and full of mischief, but I also think it captures the idealism and love that was bubbling through parts of American culture in the late-60s as many Americans struggled to come to terms with what was happening in South East Asia. The LP was hugely controversial at the time, with many record stores refusing to stock it. And in fact the cover art became the basis for a famous issue of Billboard magazine in which a bloodied Santa was superimposed upon a Vietnam battlefield. It’s one of those LPs that works sensationally well as an LP listened to in its entirety, capturing the spirit of a very different America of 40 years ago.
For anyone interested in experimenting with Rotary Connection more fully, try the double LP (originally two separate LPs), Songs / Hey Love.
Growing up in Southern California, the holidays weren’t exactly a winter wonderland. Shorts and t-shirts, yes. Snow? Not so much. But every year I’d watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and while I loved the characters, the music is what I remember best. It was so different than what I was used to hearing. The piano stylings of California Jazz master Vince Guaraldi were magical. What made Peanuts, and the accompanying music, so great was that it treated children with respect. No silly sound effects, treacly covers of pop standards or too clever by half originals. Instead it was music with emotional resonance that sounds every bit as good today as when it was released in 1965. This particular song, Skating, brilliantly conjures the feel of falling snowflakes and the joy of gliding along on frozen water. For me, Skating is the joy of the holidays.
The Pet Shop Boys have a new version of All Over The World as part of Christmas, their latest EP, which was just released last week. It has an amazing beat and the song’s message is universal, just like the spirit of Christmas. And while we’re on the topic, you should take a look at the Seven Days of Christmas Advent Calendar from the Pet Shop Boys as well - I think it’s a nice bit of fun for the holiday season!
“If Carl Sagan had lived long enough to have owned an iPod, what would have been on it?”
In my quest for the perfect solstice song, I found myself channeling a dead astronomer, hoping for inspiration. I had learned - the hard way - that solstice music as a genre is dominated by the tenderizingly sweet sounds of New Age artists. Alas, I am Old Age and, apparently, diabetic. I briefly explored the limited but promising niche of hibernation songs. I thought about my friends who married on this day-of-longest-night many years ago - so brilliant. Back on track, I tried conjuring up Chinese astrologers, Egyptian priests, Aztec mathematicians and, of course, those henge-loving Druids. Surely they must have chanted or hummed or sang or drummed as they witnessed time writ cosmic in the swinging perfection of the planet’s seasonal pendulum? Sadly, nothing that has survived to rank on Amazon… Finally, I asked Imaginary Sagan. “Good Morning, Starshine?” he offered, apologizing for having come of age in the Hair-y Age of Aquarius.” H’mmm. Might work in the southern hemisphere, where it’s turning into summer, but it’s not festive enough.” “Let’s go to the pub,” he suggested. “You wouldn’t believe how many award-winning thoughts I used to have in pubs. Billions and billions of them.” And he was right. Sitting in the cozy glow, with laughter and live music and the cold Chicago winter on the other side of the door, I watched a parade of Imaginary Ancients troop in, grateful for a pint and some company. It’s a big, cold, lonely universe out there.
So it’s the last call of the night, the last call of the last season of the year. Close your eyes. You are in a pub somewhere in Scotland. You are surrounded by friends, feeling warm, rosy, loving and loved. Now, raise your glass and sway along to The Tannahill Weavers singing “Auld Lang Syne” in deliciously indecipherable Scottish. Here is to you, Robert Burns. Here is to you old friends, stars all.
Ruth Minnikin’s Angel at the Dawn is not a Christmas song, but one that feels as if it should be. Short, beautiful and full of joy, it’s a great reminder of what really matters before indigestion, familial spats and Wii injuries take their toll.
The Godfather of Soul isn’t known for quiet, gentle tracks but this tune sees James Brown’s rough-edged vocals sweetly backed by brushed drums, muted horns, piano and that most Christmassy of percussion: tubular bells. A great tune to wrap the pressies to, whether it’s Papa’s brand new bag or a nice shiny shotgun.
I love this song. It reminds me of watching proper Christmas films with my family. This one’s from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation as the family party plunges into chaos and Clark Griswold (played by the brilliant Chevy Chase) has a mini-breakdown. I nearly went for Vaughn Monroe "Let it Snow!" from the end of the first Die Hard. But this just nicked it.
Whenever anything Sigur Rós-related happens, I pay attention. Earlier this week I learned that the band’s lead singer, Jónsi Birgisson, has a solo album called “Go” coming out early next year; even better, string arrangements on the album are courtesy of contemporary classical wunderkind Nico Muhly (whose must-read blog contains brilliant and hilarious observations about music and pop culture, by the way). “Boy Lilikoi” is the first track available from the album, and in a gesture befitting the holidays it’s available for free download.
Liliko’i are yellow passion fruit, and while I don’t know if that’s what Birgisson had in mind when he wrote the song, he totally evokes their vivid, extraordinary beauty.
The Magnetic Fields are one of my favorite bands. I’ve picked ‘Busby Berkeley Dreams’ off the album ‘69 Love Songs’ because it’s one of my favorite songs. To me it reflects the spirit of the Christmas season because it conjures up the glamour of Christmas parties, events and shows - here in New York everyone is headed to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall - in a dreamy, wistful, romantic, melancholic way, which I think is also how a lot of people feel around Christmas!
I’ve chosen this song not just because of its sorta lyrically implicit Christmas theme (nativity story-ish), but because it’s a homage to Rod Temperton’s songwriting brilliance during his time with the Heatwave collective and, chiefly, gives you an inkling of the kind of inspiration he had in waiting before he wrote a shedload of Michael Jackson records (“Rock with You”, “Off the Wall”, “Burn This Disco Out”, “Baby Be Mine”, “The Lady in My Life”, “Thriller”). This season draws an end to the year in which the King of Pop has died (yet no re-releases from the Jackson 5 Christmas Album?!), and if like me you wish to remember him musically for those Quincy Jones days, then you’ll love the winter warming production and soothing strings in this.
So this is my little tribute to the hidden genius behind the greatest artist of all time.
How could anyone not love Dean Martin’s It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas? Few voices are so evocative of a feeling and a time of year. From the glazed ham to the bacon-basted turkey to the chinking of the ice cubes against a glass as we sway our way through Christmas sing-a-longs, Dean Martin captures that fireside, wooly-sweatered, laden-tabled feeling of Christmas. The very fact that he doesn’t rush the lyrics but rather wanders through each of the notes captures that rare time of year in which we can all linger a little bit longer at the family table or in front of a fire rather than rush headlong to the next ‘To Do’ that, like seconds on a clock, mark the rests of our year.
Dean also evokes what is, perhaps, a now lost time of Christmas when the world was, consciously or not, a little more naïve, a little less transparent, a little less fearful of harsh realities. It was an ideal time, or at least idealized, but still safer in the way that Christmas makes us feel safe.
The rich texture of his voice captures the ornate experience that is the Christmas ceremony. His inimitable style speaks of classy affairs and his ever-present wink reminds us that, ultimately, Christmas is always just about good times with friends, family and people we love.
To me, this song epitomizes that familiar, comfortable and lazy haze that overwhelms us all after a great meal, a drink or two and the company of family spending meaningful time together.
A beautiful and strange little song about the awkwardness of Christmas. I don’t speak French, but the lyrics seem to be about waiting for your lover while seeking comfort in a piece of cheese and a coffee and watching busy people carry heaps of gifts under their arms. Perfect scenario for Saturday the 6th of December! The album can be downloaded for free at Jamendo
It is inevitable to think about what the future holds around this time of the year. Many of us return to that familiar place and fall into a slump of regret remembering all of the things we dreamed of doing the year before. This year, make some ‘big jumps’.
the priestess and the fool - fairytale of new york
Today’s track is curated by Brian Ibbott, producer of the Coverville podcast
For me, there are two fantastic holiday tunes that are the music equivalent of “It’s A Wonderful Life”. That is to say, if they come up in shuffle any time of year, I’ll still listen all the way through - even if it’s in the heat of summer. Those two songs are “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, and “Fairytale Of New York”. And not only was I trying to decide between the two songs, I was trying to decide which version to include. While I love the honey-sweet vocals of Zooey Deschanel on her and Leon Redbone’s cover of “Baby…”, I decided to go with a cover of “Fairytale…” that infuses enough of the original with an even more Irish feel, this version by The Priestess and The Fool from their 2008 Holiday EP, Ride On, Santa.
Shivers by The Boys Next Door, a pre-Birthday Party Nick Cave band. A bit of a counter-intuitive Christmas tune. It’s my favourite ever love song, partly because it opens with the line: “I’ve been contemplating suicide…”. We used to play it in an ’80s band I used to be in and I first heard it at Christmas in Australia when I was 19. So there you go.
Today’s track is curated by Mel Exon, co-founder of BBH Labs
A wonderful collaboration between the composer Ennio Morricone and singer songwriter Joan Baez, this song features on the album Sacco e Vanzetti, written for Giuliano Montaldo’s 1971 film of the same name.
It’s a very special, all-too-short track: from its quiet beginning, the music builds in pure, uplifting celebration as Baez’s rousing lyrics repeat. It is also a poignant tribute to a pair of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, which somehow appeals to me.
Perfect for the holidays, play it as loudly as your family and friends can bear.