December in the RNZ Music department has always been met with protests and groans from the people who schedule the music we play on air.
They know it’s time to play Christmas music. It can’t be avoided. The people demand it... Or do they? Kirsten Johnstone risks her sanity and credibility to find out.
RNZ Music has over 700 Christmas songs in its database, ready to spread the cheer, but there are some grinches in our midst. They neglect the carols and Christmas standards until just a few days before Santa arrives, and even then, they’ll only play 'Snoopy’s Christmas', or 'Fairytale of New York' begrudgingly.
Is it because most Christmas songs aren't relevant to the Southern Hemisphere rituals of beaches and BBQs, Pohutukawa and pavlova? Or is it perhaps that the relentless cheer and schmaltz doesn’t feel right when you look at the news stories about kids whose families don’t have enough money for presents, or people who don’t have homes to go to this Christmas?
Who knows. But maybe - in the face of homelessness, bigotry, global warming and mean people in power, we should embrace this seasonal music?
After 9/11, radio stations in the U.S upped the amount of Christmas music they played, and it turned out to be a popular move. Now over 500 stations devote their entire 24/7 playlist to holiday music - and it bumps their ratings by up to 500% on Christmas eve.
These songs are obviously connections to comfort and childhood, a portal to the magic of Christmases past.
There are a few Christmas standards that take me there. 'Fairytale of New York' is, of course, right there at the top of the list. I was 8 when Wham’s ‘Last Chrismas’ came out, and I still remember feeling for George Michael’s given away heart.
Joni Mitchell’s 'River' brings me close to tears every time, but it’s not exactly the one you’d put on while your kids are ripping open presents.
It can be a lucrative business for musicians, if they write the right christmassy number. Every year there are at least a dozen new offerings in the Christmas Canon - and 2017 brings the usual crop of past idol winners, past-it boy bands, classical crossovers and reissues.
I’ve risked my sanity and credibility, to bring you four of the most tolerable of those releases.
Sia - Everyday is Christmas
Sia and co-writer/producer Greg Kurstin wrote ten original songs - an anomaly for a christmas album - in just two weeks, and some of these songs, as Pitchfork pointed out, do feel a little underwritten. It has all the usual christmas characters, elves, santa, reindeers, and mistletoe, along with a clumsy but sweet song called ‘Puppies are Forever’ about how getting a puppy for xmas is actually a really big commitment, and another about ‘losing your legs’ on bourbon, whiskey and rum for Christmas. Plenty of secular numbers for those of us that celebrate Christmas without any religious ties.
Sol3 Mio - A Very Merry Christmas
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Christmas in the vines has been a fixture in Sol3 Mio’s calendar for the last 3 years and they’ll be playing this year too, as well as half a dozen other christmas shows around the country.
They’ve brought a beautiful pacific flavour - ukulele strums and slack key guitar aplenty- to traditional songs like O Christmas Tree, and little Drummer Boy. There are cameos from Bic Runga - who sings the Kirsty McColl part on Fairytale Of New York (and note they’ve censored the insults so it’s safe for your grandma and toddlers) and Hollie Smith joins them for a soaring version of John Lennon’s Happy Christmas War Is Over.
They have such beautiful voices and harmonies, it’s hard to dislike. And they hold back on the operatic belting for something that sounds a lot more like home to me. Perfect soundtrack for the multi-generational christmas dinner.
Sam Sparro Christmas In Blue EP
Sam Sparro is an Australian son of a gospel minister, so grew up singing in church, and has an impressive voice.
For this four track EP he’s written one original and done covers in a hotel lobby jazz croon band style. A really nice hotel, I mean. A classy one. And the Wham! cover just feels right, given that Sparro is gay, and ‘Last Christmas’ was written at a time when it really wasn’t an option for George Michael to come out. It’s also a fitting tribute for him because he died on Christmas day last year.
This super talented American singer-songwriter has recorded over 100 xmas songs - two huge compilations that include a mix of classics, biblical hymns and originals done in true Sufjan style.
Song: Ho Ho Ho
Album: Everyday Is Christmas
Label: Atlantic / Monkey Puzzle
Artist: Sole Mio
Song: Mele Kalikimaka
Album: A Very M3rry Christmas
Label: Universal Music
Artist: Sam Sparro
Song: Last Christmas
Album: Christmas in Blue - EP
Label: Sparro, Inc.
Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Song: That Was the Worst Christmas Ever
Album: Songs for Christmas
Label: Asthmatic Kitty