The bottom five: the five worst Christmas songs of all time

Wonderful Christmastime, by Paul McCartney

The opening synthesizer riff of “Wonderful Christmastime,” symbolic of the song’s late-‘70s production era in the same way air raid sirens are symbolic of World War II, serves as kind of an early warning signal: “change the station,” it calls out. “Change the station before Paul lets us know that ‘the moon is right.’” And we do. Yet radio keeps playing it and shopping malls slather us in its goo as if doing so isn’t just one more excuse to shop online.

Bumble

Pic unrelated

It would be shocking, really, to consider that the guy who gave us “Live and Let Die” and “Maybe I’m Amazed”—and who was at least 25 percent of The Beatles—managed to scribble out, record, and actually release a song containing such lyrical damage as “The choir of children sing their song / ding dong, ding dong / ding dong, ding / ohhhh / ohhhhhhh,” and the phrase “simply having a wonderful Christmastime” repeated 75 times. Until, of course, you realize that Paul McCartney is the evil genius behind “Let ‘Em In” and “Silly Love Songs.” He’s also the guy who stole Stevie Wonder’s mojo—an artistic assault with a deadly weapon from which the latter has yet to recover, three decades later.

Clearly, although Sir Paul is a Music Legend with a Ton of Talent, he’s not infallible. “Wonderful Christmastime” serves as an argument in favor of middle management, because someone expendable needs to be able to tell the cash cow, “No.”
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Buttercup

This is one of the things that got me interested in playing the ukulele. There, I admit it.

Danny Federici died this week

One of my favorite albums of all time is Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.” His first album–the one that would later produce a string of hits for Manfred Mann–hadn’t sold so well, and the band was reduced to making its next record in a way-off-the-beaten-path studio with a creaky piano.

It’s hard to describe, but the album has a…a sound. Springsteen was 24 when he made it, and it’s one of those rare recordings, kind of like the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul,” in which you can tell that the artist really hasn’t made up his mind what he’s going to end up sounding like yet.

The result is an album that contains hard pumping blues, goofy disco horn rock, and sappy, jazz-infused folk ballads. I love it. I spent a million hours as a teenager laying in my room with a pair of gigantic headphones on, listing to it by the glow of the stereo.

One of the keys to that album is Danny Federici. For much of his career, he was Springsteen’s “other” keyboard player, taking a back seat to Roy Bittan. But in the early days, his organ and accordion playing (yeah, that’s right–accordion) were a fundamental part of the band. He was never flashy, but he was always there, and it’s hard (okay, impossible) to imagine what songs like Sandy or Wild Billy’s Circus Story or Backstreets would have been without him.

For the last three years or so, Danny Federici had been fighting melanoma. In November of last year, he left the Springsteen tour to pursue treatment. On March 20, 2008, he made a brief, surprise return in Indianapolis, and played accordion on Sandy. On Thursday, he was gone.

“The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle” is part of what made me, me. Danny Federici was a big part of that. I’ll raise a glass in his honor and wish him well on his journey. He’ll be missed.

Music: The Hidden Gem of MySpace

Chicago once had a pretty high-quality collection of commercial radio stations. This may come as a bit of a surprise to anyone reared during the current state of affairs, but it’s true. There were news stations, classical stations, mainstream rock stations that did everything short of mud wrestling to win listeners, a varied supply of “urban” stations, and that once-shining light of rock radio, WXRT. Uncovering good new music was once as simple as turning on the radio and waiting for a few minutes.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 destroyed almost everything, resulting in a wave of consolidation across the broadcast industry. Many cities, Chicago included, now have radio markets dominated by just a few major corporations. What was once a vibrant and enthusiastic group of independent players has become a graveyard of ugly sameness. We’re down to one news, one classical, a couple of news/talks that delight in annoying the left side of the political spectrum, and a collection of popular music stations that play either the latest mindless pap pushed by what remains of the record labels, or classic rock. Yawn.

The effect on music (and I’m speaking predominantly of rock music, although I suspect it’s true of other styles as well) has been disappointing at best, catastrophic at worst. We can now choose between stations playing “piss off your parents” attitude rock, all-Led-Zepplin-all-the-time classic rock, and oldies. WXRT still exists, but only as a shadow of its free-form, pre-CBS former self. Trying to find decent songs that you haven’t heard hundreds of times is an exercise in frustration.

There are those who argue that this is no big deal: to hell with corporate radio, good new music is still out there on the Internet. In fact, new technologies were one of the arguments advanced in favor of adopting the Telecommunications Act a decade ago. However, even if we overlook the fact that I have yet to find a satisfactory way to surf the ‘Net while driving, the problem of tracking down good music remains. Sure it’s out there, but so is every warble recorded by Pantera wannabes banging out chords in the garage. Separating the wheat from the chaff becomes a significant obstacle when the field turns out to be 98% chaff. For better or worse, commercial radio in its heyday provided a vetting process that culled some of the more heinous sonic mistakes before they ever accosted the public.

Which brings me to MySpace. A few weeks ago, I was talked into signing up on that web site, upon which folks can post important information about themselves (like the fact that they like Camaros or have eight cats) for all the world to see. Theoretically, this allows Camaro fans and cat lovers to make contact with each other, resulting in whatever kinds of ecstasy such beings experience when they at long last unite.

MySpace also has the ability to host pages devoted specifically to musicians. These pages allow the musicians to upload their own music as kind of a promotional tool. MySpace users can not only listen to this music, but add it to their own profile. A song added in such a manner begins playing automatically when a profile is viewed, meaning that the truly lazy among us don’t even have to click the mouse to hear the song.

This then, provides some of the vetting process that is missing from much of the Internet. Since many people delight in finding offbeat, quality tunes and playing them for friends, skipping from profile to profile results in a pretty efficient musical education. I’ve already uncovered a number of acts that I am likely to track down again later. There is certainly some junk to be found, and there’s always the chance that tastes won’t align, but it’s a simple matter to just jump to another profile when something truly dastardly bursts from the speakers. I’ve even joined the other side of the game, and regularly update the song on my own profile in the hope that someone else may stumble across something they like.

Against all odds, I find myself excited about finding new music again.