“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.

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