“Silent Night” by Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr

This song is a special case…it’s the only Christmas hymn that routinely gets included on non-Christmas albums, to the point where Barbra Streisand’s A Happening In Central Park live album, which was recorded in June, contains a rendition of it. This is particular impressive given how massively overexposed all the famous Christmas songs are…it’s basically people saying “Not only didn’t we get sick of this song at Christmas, we’re so not sick of it we’re going to trot it out in Midsummer”.

It’s hard to say why this song has such special status, but it might be because it offers such a great opportunity to the performer. When warbled out by a generic band of carolers, it’s actually not nearly as effective a showcase for that kind of singing as “Oh Holy Night” or “Angels We Have Heard On High”, but give it to a talented solo singer or an extremely well-trained choir who can really create a mood of hushed peace, and you’ve got magic on your hands.

Verdict: Good.

“Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney

As you might have picked up on from my entries this holiday season, I have little patience for most Christmas-themed novelty music. This, however, in spite of being as inane as anything else in the genre, is an enormous cut above most of its peers in overall quality. Why? Because even on throwaway musical trifles like this, Sir Paul’s work drips melody almost automatically, the way Irving Berlin used to do. As a result, this song has probably the best melody in the history of Christmas novelty music…hell, many of the Christmas hymns don’t have melodies this good…and that goes a long, long way toward making its repetitive shallowness palatable.

Verdict: A very minor item in the Paul McCartney canon, but still about as good as you’re ever going to get from a holiday novelty song.

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie

This song is a special kind of awful, even by shitty Christmas novelty song standards. The tune is one of the genre’s most annoying, ultra-simplistic, infuriatingly perky and a brainslug-level earworm, but there’s a deeper problem with the song besides its surface obnoxiousness.

Despite being heard far too often in media ostensibly intended for adults such as mainstream radio stations and shopping establishments, this is for the most part a children’s song, and it instills in children one of the worst messages you could teach them. Essentially, it’s saying, “Be good, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because life will magically reward you for your goodness”. I’ll grant you that mindset is an inherent problem with the Santa Claus mythos in general, but rarely is it spelled out as baldly as it is in this song.

This may seem harmless, except that a surprising number of people grow up without ever growing out of this mindset…you’ll notice that there are several major branches of organized religion that essentially promise the same thing using the exact same incentives. So if you think about it, a lot of the most serious problems of the modern world could conceivably be traced back to childhood exposure to this particular song. I think that in itself is enough to seal the deal on a negative verdict.

Verdict: This song is garbage.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland

Hugh Martin and (possibly) Ralph Blane (the record has become somewhat unclear regarding Blaine’s contribution to the songs by this supposed songwriting team) may have written this immortal holiday classic for the movie Meet Me in St. Louis, but Judy Garland pretty much saved it from the scrap heap, and not just because she contributed its definitive rendition.

The melody strikes a perfect note of bittersweetness, but the original lyrics were plot-specific and much more overt in their depressing content than the current ones…not only were they embarrassingly ‘lugubrious’, to use Garland’s description, but to sing them to a young child (which is what is happening in the film at this point) would be unspeakably cruel.

Thanks to Garland insisting on the necessary lyrical changes, the version heard today is mournfully optimistic, and you have to pay fairly close attention to realize just how depressing the sentiments being expressed really are. This sets it apart from both the holiday standards of its time, which tended to be idyllic and joyful, and from most of the later downbeat Holiday-themed standards like “Blue Christmas” that generally display their sadder elements much more openly. In fact, in all the length and breadth of the Christmas music genre, there’s really no other song like it, which is something to treasure in what is otherwise one of the most generic fields of music in existence.

Verdict: One of the few ubiquitous Christmas standards that I will unreservedly stick up for.

O Tannenbaum”/”O Christmas Tree” by Ernst Anschütz

This song occupies a space somewhere between the traditional Christmas hymns and the manufactured novelty crap that has dominated the genre for the last hundred years or so. It worked well enough in its original form as a booming, boisterous quasi-Drinking Song, but its banal melody is not well served by the American tendency to perform it as a sentimental ballad, and that combined with the inevitable overexposure any Christmas standard receives has made most American listeners cringe when they hear it.

Verdict: Decent in the German original, but straight-up bad in most American versions.

“What Child Is This” by William Chatterton Dix

Like all famous Christmas music, this song has been overexposed to a ridiculous degree, but it’s actually one of the better Christmas hymns, although much of that is due to its obviously borrowed music. True, it co-opts a tune that had been famous for centuries, but it’s actually a significant improvement on any vocal version of “Greensleeves” itself. There’s a reason that tune is usually heard in instrumental versions…as indelible as the melody is, the lyrics have definitely not aged well. Not only are they embarrassingly maudlin and banal by modern standards, but they project a mindset that is rather poorly thought of today…essentially, “I was nice to you, therefore you should be obligated to”…well, the singer uses the words ‘love me’, but I think we all known what he means. Granted, the lyrics to “What Child Is This” are basically pastiches of Bible verse, but they’re a pretty convincing imitation of the style, and it has a very dramatic, almost eerie quality that gives it a refreshing element of darkness for a Christmas song.

Verdict: Good

“Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms vs. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee

In the Fifties, during the heyday of early Rock’N’Roll, there were two disastrous attempts to create new Holiday-themed standards in that newfangled music style all the kids seemed to be listening to. And, to my immense confusion, it actually worked, as both are still staples of bad Christmas-season store Muzak to this day. Both are among the genre’s greatest annoyances, but “Jingle Bell Rock” is actually the more tolerable of the two. The song’s combination of the cliche songwriting model of Fifties Rock with a melody suggestive of sleigh bells is almost kind of clever if you think about it, and it certainly has a better melody than the original “Jingle Bells”, not that that’s saying much. That said, this is some of the softest, wimpiest “Rock” music ever composed, and even I as a respecter of Soft Rock as a genre agree that this song’s invoking of the word “Rock” in the first place is dubious at best. Also, the singer, Bobby Helms, bears an unfortunate vocal resemblance to a later, more notorious holiday novelty performer, Elmo Shropshire (of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” fame).

Still, at least Helms was a one-hit novelty act who’s now basically known solely for this one song; our other attempt at Fifties Christmas Rock was recorded by a genuine living legend of the Country Music genre, Brenda Lee, who had released tons of great music and certainly didn’t need to resort to novelty Christmas tracks (although it did become her biggest hit, depressingly enough). “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is generally classified as Rockabilly, but that term meant several things depending on the music being discussed. Elvis was Rockabilly as it’s understood now…a very early Country-Rock hybrid…but some Rockabilly was just standard-issue Country Music, only trashier. This song came from well before either the polished elegance of the Nashville sound or the gritty honesty of the Outlaw Country movement were thought up, so it has exactly the sound that people who hate Country music used to think all Country Music sounded like. This is the kind of cheap, lazy trash that automatically conjures up images of a seedy, chincy hotel lobby with a tiny, pathetic Christmas tree set out for show, decorated with a little cheap gold tinsel and maybe one cord of electric bulbs, half of which don’t even work properly, with a lopsided plastic star barely managing to stay more or less on top. Say what you will about “Deck the Halls” or “Oh Christmas Tree”, but at least they conjure up reasonably pleasant imagery for the holiday season.

Verdict: Bad and Worse, respectively.

“Jingle Bells” by James Lord Pierpont

I’m mystified by this song’s ridiculous popularity; I’m fairly certain that nobody (or at least nobody past the age of seven) actually likes it, yet it’s become the quintessential Christmas standard, even being routinely recorded by legit musical artists on their Christmas albums. Part of this, I suppose, can be attributed to its simplicity…it’s so easy to pick out on the piano that it makes “Chopsticks” look like Franz Liszt, and almost no-one is so tone-deaf that they can’t sing it more or less correctly. But this is exactly what makes the song so unbearable—this is one of the most banal, simplistic melodies in existence, and that, combined with the gratingly cutesy lyrics, makes it a fairly strong contender for the most annoying song of all time. And given the ridiculous levels of overplay this song receives, even by the standards of overexposed Christmas chestnuts, I secretly suspect we could cut down heavily on the specter of seasonal depression just by banning this one song.

Verdict: This would be one of the worst popular songs of all time on a first listen, so you can imagine how bad it is when you’ve been hearing it 200 times a year since you were an infant.

“Cowboy” by Kid Rock

Well, superannuated former Country-Rock sensation Kid Rock is making a first-class ass of himself in the public eye lately, so I thought I’d do what I always do when a musician is topical for all the wrong reasons…call attention to one of their worst efforts. Now, I actually rather enjoy Kid Rock’s later, more straightforwardly Country material, and I’ve even defended one of his later hits, “All Summer Long”, on this very site. But his early work, the material on which he actually “made his name”, is almost indescribably bad. We may be horrified nowadays by ill-advised Country-Rap hybrids like Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” and bizarre invocations of auto-tune like Tim McGraw’s “Lookin’ for That Girl”. But that’s partly because the general listening public has almost forgotten about this freakish hybrid of Rap-Metal and proto-Bro-Country that sounds like someone put Limp Bizkit and Billy Ray Cyrus in a blender. Going back and listening to it, it sounds even worse than it was acknowledged to be in its day, and completely explains why, despite his reasonably decent work later in his career, Kid Rock still has a reputation as a human punchline that goes beyond his execrable behavior in his public life.

Verdict: What in God’s name did I just listen to?!

“Balance of Power” by The Electric Light Orchestra

This wound up being the last album by the original incarnation of one of the most popular bands of the Progressive Rock era, the Electric Light Orchestra, familiarly known as ‘ELO’. Now, ELO have their detractors in general, largely because they represented the same alternative to the more ‘legitimate’ Prog-Rock bands such as Pink Floyd and Yes that Duran Duran represented to New Order or Depeche Mode, or that Jewel represented to the likes of Tori Amos…the ‘safe’, accessible, commercialized version of what had originally been a fairly esoteric genre. That said, there is one important element to ELO’s relationship to its more ambitious counterparts that does not apply in the other cases I mentioned…Prog-Rock’s unfortunate tendency to, forgive my bluntless, disappear up its own ass in terms of over-elaborate concepts and excessive self-indulgence. ELO’S lack of pretention in many ways constituted an advantage over their peers, and their frontman and primary auteur, Jeff Lynne, not only had a real gift for writing catchy melodies but was perhaps the greatest music producer and arranger in the history of Rock.

However, as much as I am inclined to defend the band’s oeuvre as a whole, I did not really come to praise them with this particular review. Now, Balance of Power is not the band’s absolute worst effort…certainly not as bad as their appalling second album, which I’ve seen make appearances on “Worst Albums of All Time” lists. Indeed, all of their first three records, where they were trying to make Avant-Garde music and were mostly just making unpleasant noises, were quite a bit worse than this. But after a long string of successful albums that even at their weakest (e.g. the widely-mocked Discovery) were almost always significantly better than this, Balance of Power made for a distinctly sad and disappointing farewell to one of Prog-Rock’s most beloved bands.

The primary problem with this album is simple and pervasive—it is, quite simply, the most pathetic and trivial excuse for a ‘Breakdown Album’ ever put out by a well-known music act. Usually the great Breakdown Albums have real impetus behind them: Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear were written in the wake of devastating romantic heartbreak, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band was written after the dissolution of an entire cultural movement, Michael Jackson’s HIStory came in the wake of Jackson’s first accusations of child abuse, etc.. This album, on the other hand, is basically song after song of Jeff Lynne whining that he doesn’t want to be saddled with the rest of the band anymore. I’m not saying this is an unreasonable grievances on a private level, but it doesn’t even come close to justifying the amount of melodrama slathered onto this album. Even The Who By Numbers wasn’t as solipsistic and self-pitying as this.

The album does at least boast a decent lead single, its only hit, “Calling America”. It isn’t really as compelling as many of the band’s earlier hits, even from their declining later period, but at least it has nothing to with the rest of the album’s dubious ‘Concept’. It tells a rather depressing story about a British man whose girlfriend moves to America and essentially dumps him by giving him a fake contact number, but it tells it in music catchy and forceful enough to make this the band’s last real hit single.

The only other really worthy item is the intriguing oddity “Endless Lies”. Originally an outtake from the original double-album format planned for their previous release, Secret Messages, they apparently liked it enough to salvage it here. Its distinctive sound instantly marks it as part of that earlier record and makes it sound quite out of place here, but as it was intended for another album, it too has no involvement with the weak concept on display in the rest of the songs.

Apart from those two songs, though, there’s not really much of interest here. “Getting to the Point” is at least a fairly pretty ballad, and the album’s second single, “So Serious”, is catchy, but its cheerfully inane music doesn’t seem to match its self-consciously worried lyrics. Now, lyrical dissonance (upbeat music matched to downbeat lyrics, or vice versa) can certainly be harnessed as a deliberate dramatic device for ironic effect, but when not done correctly it can seem to represent more of a complete disconnect between music and lyrics. This was actually one of ELO’s perennial problems even in their heyday, and this is one of the most severe cases of it.

Even worse, and possibly due to his endlessly-stated disinterest in continuing the band, Jeff Lynne just seems to have stopped trying here. Lynne is, as I said, a genius-level arranger, the man George Harrison himself used as his go-to production guy, but these songs are far less distinctive than not only the Orchestral Classical-Rock Fusion of the band’s early years, but even the ambitious Synth-Prog of their last two releases, Time and Secret Messages. For the most part, this album sounds like it could have been made by any run-of-the-mill, anonymous Synth-Pop band.

And please remember…the above-mentioned tracks are the good ones on this album. By contrast, “Sorrow About to Fall” is one of the most unconvincing attempts to summon dramatic force I’ve ever heard in a Rock song. Even more pathetic is “Without Someone”, which initially sounds like a sad love song but ultimately proves to be just more of Lynne’s whining about the band. The extremely simplistic, almost dada-ist “Is It Alright?” just comes off as bizarre, and the strange, ugly, almost Country-esque album closer “Send It” not only sounds absolutely awful, but makes almost offensively reductive use of “the dream is gone” rhetoric to overdramatize Jeff Lynne’s paltry artistic crisis.

I don’t mean to insult Jeff Lynne…lyrics were never really his strong point to begin with, and maybe if he could have better articulated his issues in words, the result would have seemed more sympathetic and better justified this album’s dramatic content. But as it is, it seems like a lot of bluster and self-dramatization over ultimately very little substance, and when you combine that with the mediocre music, the result comes off as a gigantic disappointment, especially given the band’s legacy. Balance of Power isn’t unlistenable, for the most part, which does put it ahead of the band’s first three albums, as I said before. But as a final swan song for a once-great band, it’s a pretty dismal way to end things. Of course, Jeff Lynne “reunited” ELO a couple of decades later (actually, he recruited a new backup band and gave it the same name, but since Lynne was the band’s central auteur to begin with, the result was more authentic than it sounds), and recorded a much better ‘final’ album by the band called Zoom. So perhaps that album should be regarded as their real last hurrah. Certainly, as with the question of whether Let It Be or Abby Road was the Beatles’ ‘real’ last album, one of the two possible answers is much more satisfying and comforting than the other, so in this ambiguous situation, I suppose we can all make our own choice about what was ELO’s ‘real’ final album…the frankly excellent Zoom, or the lukewarm disappointment on review here.