Thursday, December 4, 2008

Just Say Noël: The Next Phase of Christmas / Seasonal Music?

Just say Noël not only capitalizes on the preexisting chic of contemporary or Rock & Roll oriented Christmas / Seasonal Music but also the core values of this season of giving; Christmas music but not as we know it?

By: Vanessa Uy

Released back in 1996 primarily as a humanitarian campaign / fundraiser for Peter Gabriel’s Witness (visit them at, Just Say Noël – like what it said on the album cover – really made the song fresh for years to come. Plus the guarantee of the holiday spirit and the music remaining in your heart long after the tannenbaum has gone brown – or gets composted into organic fertilizer. Whether this is proof of David Geffen’s late 20th Century marketing savvy is anybody’s guess. But twelve years after the fact, the songs on this album still has the power to compel, even to the under 18 crowd.

Other than the very first Special Olympics benefit album – A Very Special Christmas – which was released back in 1987, an overwhelming majority of “contemporary” Christmas / Holiday Season albums seem to be found wanting when compared to old perennial Christmas Morning war horses like Handel’s Messiah. And other Classical oriented pieces like the Christmas in Vienna series of concerts, An English Ladymass by the Anonymous 4, Sergei Rachmaninov’s The Liturgy of St. John. Which unless the under 18 kids in question are “hyper-sapient”, won’t easily find Classical Music oriented Yuletide music as being to their liking.

But Just Say Noël is not your typical run-of-the-mill contemporary Rock & Roll oriented Christmas / Holiday Season album. With circa 1996 artists as diverse as Beck with his “Little Drum Machine Boy” sounding a cross between an electronica-heavy hip-hop and a test and burn-in CD – with the emphasis on the burn-in. As in that horrible chainsaw-like nose designed to break-in / burn-in – i.e. make them sound better - your new audio gear way faster than Marilyn Manson’s first two albums.

The Aimee Mann with Michael Penn track “Christmastime” is probably one of those really good songs just begging to be used in some TV or movie soundtrack. The “humor” behind Sonic Youth’s “Santa Doesn’t Cop Out on Dope” wasn’t lost on me. Most Americans – like then President Clinton – were really having fun at the disdain of the extreme right. One of my favorite track here is The Posies’ “Christmas”, which with the help of Velocity Girl (probably the only band who kept the record label Sub Pop afloat after Nirvana) vocalist Sarah Shannon.

You might be surprised to know that there are a countless number of rap / hip-hop oriented Christmas songs out there. The reason radio stations aren’t flooded by them or your mom and pop listening to them, is that 99.9999999% of them are very, very bad. With the exception of Run-DMC ’s “Christmas in Hollis”, The Roots’ “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” is probably one of the very few rap / hip-hop Christmas / Seasonal songs that pass muster to me at least. The funky lo-fi aesthetics of this recording really epitomized the artistic side of what makes a good rap / hip-hop song, old school or not.

Southern Culture on the Skids’ version of “Merry Christmas Baby” is - to me at least – a bit better than the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band version on the “A Very Special Christmas” album. SCOTS “Merry Christmas Baby” is my second favorite song on this record.

Before he sang for the title soundtrack of the Superman based TV series Smallville, Remy Zero wrote a quirky Christmas song for the Just Say Noël album simply titled “Christmas”. This could be my favorite song in this album, if it had not kept reminding me of being caught in the middle of the pouring rain many miles away from the nearest shelter. Elastica’s “Gloria” is probably an “Alternative-Britpop” fave for bass-heads, a bass-heavy song which –to me – that’s were this particular song’s charm ends. But still way, way better that the majority of today’s / 2008 Billboard Top 40 offerings.

Wild Colonials’ “Christmas is Quiet” despite being domestic abuse and misogyny, is my favorite track on this album. Not only on the songwriting and musicianship aspect, but also it is so well recorded it even rivals some well-known “Audiophile Label” offerings. Or will put some of them to shame.

XTC ‘s “Thanks for Christmas” is well – XTC. Given the scant number of their songs I manage to hear on our local FM dial, this is probably an archetypal XTC song – to me at least. The Musical Cast of Toys Featuring Wendy and Lisa made a soundtrack for the movie Toys back in 1990 called the “Closing of the Year”. This is probably one of the few times that Robin Williams gets away with being “dramatic”.

Ted Hawkins’ rendition of “Amazing Grace” - to me – is simply to die for, despite the relatively mediocre recording (freak occurrence?). His musicianship nevertheless, saves the day. Amazing Grace is a very relevant inclusion here because the music represents the Santa-friendly stance of American Anglo-Saxon Protestantism – which the rest of the West attributes as the “conventional” birthplace of Santa Claus.


Danica said...

Even when compared to perennial pop and rock-based Christmas Music warhorses like the first ever A Very Special Christmas of 1987 - a benefit album for the Special Olympics Foundation - Just Say Noël can safely hold its own as one of the best ever contemporary Christmas music compilation albums ever. Besides given the Bush Administration's "Foreign Policy Debacle", Peter Gabriels' Witness deserve all the help that it needs. Aren't they - Witness I mean - the ones who exposed the abuses at Abu Ghraib back in April 2004 by the way?
P.S. Just Say Noël rocks!

Vanessa said...

I'm glad that you're luck enough to have acquired a CD / download of the Just Say Noël album. Given that it is relatively rare and only "pirate FM stations" in our area is the only FM station to play the album in it's entirety.
When it comes to Peter Gabriel's WITNESS ( they seem to be somewhat too secretive when it comes to crediting their members who managed to provide "incriminating" footage of human rights abuses like the Abu Ghraib prison debacle. A form of "witness protection" perhaps? Although their Websitesite is ready to accept your donation and support.