Follow this formula to find one man's opinion of the best Christmas music ever.
New York magazine runs a regular feature called the Approval Matrix. The four-sectioned matrix charts out the weekly zeitgeist — the people, books, movies, music and events shaping popular culture — by plotting them along X and Y axes that run from despicable to brilliant and highbrow to lowbrow.
Although it’s an exercise in subjectivity, the Approval Matrix is a useful vehicle for reaffirming tastes or provoking debate. What better model to use when writing about a subject that stirs great feelings this time of year. I speak, of course, of Christmas music.
For the Grinches among us, all holiday-inspired tunes would plop as if from birds upon the fields of despicable. Of crinkled brow and soured puss, these folks’ wails can be heard wherever the strains of holiday music come piping through speakers.
Then there are those for whom any song that sings the praise of holidays is a plum upon their merry souls. These people are the reason those dogs who bark along to Christmas carols were signed to a record deal. Yet for most — even those who don’t celebrate Christmas but can’t avoid its ubiquitous soundtrack — holiday music runs the gamut. There’s good and bad. Joyful and nauseating. Bing Crosby and Adam Sandler.
So in the spirit of subjectivity, I present to you my version of the Approval Matrix: the Noel Edition.
Because I like to end my columns on a positive note (just the fact that it’s over brings joy to many readers), I’ll start off in the upper, left-hand corner of the matrix, where highbrow ambitions meet despicable results.
For me, the worst thing to ever happen to Christmas music, far worse than Alvin and the Chipmunks, is Mannheim Steamroller. My one sentence review covers their entire oeuvre: “Antiseptic and soulless, Mannheim Steamroller’s mechanical reinterpretations of Christmas classics leaves the listener cold and stranded on the corner of 34th Street and the Disneyland Main Street Electrical Parade.”
Moving south to the lowbrow section of despicable, the matrix is littered with witless parodies of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” and fast food promotional collections (“It’s a Waffle House Christmas” “Christmas Day with Colonel Sanders”). But shameless commercialism sounds downright reverent compared to Elmo & Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.”
Sure, I may have gotten a chuckle the first time I heard this irreverent ode to Christmas and vehicular manslaughter, but the joke quickly wore thin, and all that remains is one of the most annoying singing voices of all time.
Equally low-brow, but brilliant, is the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.” It’s a song about a jailed drunkard on Christmas Eve as he flashes back to life in a new country and his tumultuous relationship with his now estranged wife. A duet peppered with insults and salty language, it’s not something you and the kids will sing along with as you hold hands around the tree. Yet, there’s a cheeriness to the traditional Irish folk chorus and a brief ray of hope when the two leads join to sing: “The boys of the NYPD choir/Still singing ‘Galway Bay’/And the bells are ringing out/For Christmas day.”
Also falling on the brilliant side of things is Aimee Mann’s beautiful album, “One More Drifter in the Snow.”
Mann neither harks nor heralds, and there’s nothing jolly about this collection of mostly standards, rendered sadly beautiful by her haunting voice. Yet after a long day of shopping or traversing treacherous roadways, it’s the perfect way to slip into the peaceful part of the season. Add a warm cup of cocoa or a glass of fine ale, and you’ll drift far away from the seasonal stress of the Christmas season.
But that’s just me. You might find Aimee Mann a downer and Elmo & Patsy a delight. And that’s perfectly fine. Just keep it down.