Friday 23 December 2011

News, Views and Music Issue 126 (Top Five): Christmas Carols

You know how things happen over the Christmas season, dear reader, so that you get interrupted in the middle of something else and end up doing some jobs twice and others you forget about entirely? I was sure I’d written this top five before on one of our other Christmas newsletters but for the life of me I can’t find it, so I presume it was just an ‘idea’ I had before coming up with something else. Anyway, bear with me if you’re having slight deja vu with this week’s newsletter...this is the top five Christmas Carols as voted for by the viewing public, err no hang on, by yours truly! And, surprise suprise, they’re hardly the obvious ones to choose (as you’ve probably gathered by now given the rest of this site!) And I doubt any of you will be able to put your hands on all five easily without being Christmas Connousiers (or having a really big record collection...) Note too that we’ve already covered several latter-day Christmas songs written or made famous by our AAA musicians on our past newsletters (nos 16, 17, 50, 84 and 85) so there’s no ‘Happy Xmas (War IS Over)’ or ‘Little Saint Nick’s on this list to avoid going over old ground (although Monkees favourite ‘Riu Chiu’ did creep back on this list because hardly anybody knows it!)

5) Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (definitive version: The Muppets and ohn Denver, ‘A Christmas Together’, 1979):

There aren’t many high points in Judy Garland movies (and I say that with quite a lot of affection for her as a person, seeing as astrologically speaking she’s the only fellow Cancerian Dog I know), but the sheer treaclyness and cloying schmaltz of ‘Meet Me In St Louis’ suddenly makes perfect sense when this gloriously un-sentimental carol comes in. The song, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for the 1944 MGM film and fully fits the briefing of being the centrepiece of the film and a song that exists outside it, a real struggling over obstacles song that’s realistic without being depressing and  sadly seems to have fallen out of favour the past couple of decades in favour of lesser, more bouncy Christmas carols that say less per verse than this one does per line. Garland, for once given some material with depth to work with, gives the performance of her career in the film but for my purposes the greatest version is still the one with a country singer and a canine dog, voiced by Jim Henson at his most moving. Incidentally, I much prefer the original version of the song, not the ‘tidied up’ version Frank Sinatra insisted on (and copied forevermore) – the key difference is changing the line ‘we’ll just have to struggle on somehow’ to ‘hang a shining star upon the highest bough’, thus replacing the best line of the song with the worst. Singers eh? This song definitely deserves a comeback some festive season soon, not least because it seems to go in cycles of popularity every time we have a depression on...

4) Silent Night (definitive version: Simon and Garfunkel, ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’, 1967):

An obvious choice I know, but the pioneering use of harmonics on this piece makes it the earliest sounding piece that I know of that wouldn’t seem out of place on a 1960s LP. In fact, exactly that happened when Simon and Garfunkel added their own version of the song to my favourite of their albums (see review no 7), offering peace and hope and harmony in the right speaker while a news anchor gives out gloom and pessimism in the left. It’s the perfect trick of juxtaposing what could and be and what is – yet even without that intrusion this carol sounds pretty much perfect without it,  with a melody so perfect it sounds like one of Paul McCartney’s (perhaps it was an ancestor?!) Actually, this carol is a comparatively modern one, dating back to Salzburg, Austria, 1818, when musician Franz Gruber finally set to music a piece the local priest Father Mohr had written two years before to music. Unfortunately it’s not our music – its believed to be a jazzier piece played fast in 7/8 time, although the original manuscript is missing (legend has it the carol was forgotten until an organ repairman found a copy of the manuscript stuffed down the back of the instrument and brought it back into active service – the rumour too is that the piece was only written as a simpler alternative to the church’s normal carols when the organ broke and the service had to be conducted with as guitar, demanding much simpler chords). Whatever the story of it’s inception, this is a glorious piece, one that we’ve heard so many times it’s hard to appreciate but is nevertheless a key text for curious AAA readers who want to know where they’re favourite music was born, just as integral as anything by Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley or Buddy Holly.

3) Riu Chiu (definitive version: The Monkees, ‘Missing Links II’, 1997):

Strictly speaking this is a ‘villancico’, the Spanish equivalent of a carol – but you try coming up with four other villancico’s for a top five list! AAA fans know this as a Monkees song, perhaps the definitive recording featuring all four Monkees in harmony, heard in one version in the soundtrack of series two episode ‘The Monkees’ Christmas Show’ and in a second on the excellent rarities compilation ‘Missing Links II’. Many a fan has marvelled at the song – and pitied poor Micky Dolenz for having to learn all those Spanish words phonetically – without knowing what this carol actually means. Here, in an AAA educational moment, is a close translation (bearing in mind that ‘riu chiu itself is a nonsense phrase meant to sound like the chirp of a nightingale, a Winter bird): “Tweet, tweet, the river guards her, God kept the wolf away from our lamb, tweet tweet the raging wolf sought to bite her, but God Almighty knew how to defend her, tweet tweet he chose to make her so that she could not sin, tweet tweet this one that is born is the Great King, Christ the Patriach clothed in flesh, tweet tweet he redeemed himself when he made himself small”. OK, so the translation actually adds nothing to the Carol, but that doesn’t disguise how beautiful it is, how much room there is for improvised harmonies or explain why so few people outside Monkees (and King’s Singers – I knew this carol from their ‘Deck The Halls’ album first) fans know of it’s existence. While most sources list the author as ‘anonymous’, the writer is thought to be Mateo Flecha The Elder, a composer from Catalonia, and was written in the first half of the 16th century, although the earliest existing reference we have to it today is in a Venecian library dated 1556, simply listed as no 40 in a collection of villancicos. Like many madrigals from the period, it deserves to be far better known (our 20th and 21st century music has far more in common with 16th century madrigals than it does with renaissance and romantic era composers, with the same delightful interplay between vocalists and counterpoint harmonies based on melody rather than mathematics). 

2) In The Bleak Midwinter (definitive version: still waiting!):

One day I’m going to hear a definitive version of a Christmas Carol that should be played slowly with yearning, not at a hundred miles per hour with fancy bits stuck inside it like most arrangers keep adding! There are at least three versions of this carol, adapted from a Christina Rosetti poem submitted to a wonderfully titled periodical called ‘Scribbler’s Magazine’, though the most popular and by far the best of the ones I know is by our old friend Gustav Holst. You can read more about my Holst fixation on news and views 93 – suffice to say he’s the only classical composer I consider on a par with the geniuses we cover on this site and in his own sweet way paved the way for most of them with his experimental but deliciously listenable music. Many people know ‘The Planets’ but have a listen to some of his other works – ‘The Perfect Fool’, in particular, is as sublime as music gets, and I’ve written 237 articles for this site now so I should know sublime music when I hear it. Like many a carol, this song is there at Jesus’ birth and follows the travels and thoughts of all those who are there before putting the narrator him or herself in the action as part of the scene. Stirring, moving and full of the minor key experiments that became Holst’s key method of writing this is a clever, simple, heartbreaking piece of writing in both lyrics and melody. Now somebody please write an arrangement that gets rid of all those tootling flutes and chirpy piccolos and I’ll be happy...

1)    I Wonder As I Wander (definitive version; The King’s Singers, ‘A Little Christmas Music’, 1989):

This is another strangely modern carol, dating back only to 1933 when folk music collector John Jacob Niles adapted a fragment of music that dates back centuries earlier. The story goes that Niles was attending a meeting held at an Evangelical Church in North Carolina when a branch of refugees, ordered out of town on Christmas Eve, walked in for shelter and added their own fragments of music to the festivities. Niles looked on in wonder when the smallest, dirtiest, raggedest girl there opened her mouth, sang this song and her beauty shone out round the church (something similar to what happens to Roger Daltrey in the rising sun in the Woodstock film we reckon). Why this glorious tune and simple but moving idea was never adapted into a fullblown work (maybe even a prog rock concept album or three) earlier is beyond me, because its among the most beautiful, haunting music ever made. There aren’t actually that ma ny versions of this carol around and it seems to be somewhat out of favour with the public at large these days, but seek out the King’s Singers version (79p on Amazon, buy it through this site – just a plug folks!) and you won’t be disappointed (I hope!) The words are everything Christmas should be but so rarely is: full of peace, harmony, awe and delight in being alive and it features a lovely sighing tune that suits its sentiments well. Sadly, as ever, the story has an unhappy ending, with Niles taking part in an early music settlement court case to ‘prove’ that he had sufficiently re-written the traditional song to receive a proper credit and payment for it (all null and void now, of course, that this carol is out of copyright – some versions list Niles as the author, some just have him listed as ‘anonymous’. Anonymous is one of my favourite writers you know, he seemed to live an awfully long time and wrote in every style going...)
So then, reader, do you agree with our choices, think we’ve left something out, think we’ve gone slightly barmy because you’ve not heard of any of our choices or gone ‘bah, humbug!’ to the lot of them?! Let us know and drop us a line! Join us next week for yet more musical deliberations when we bid farewell to 2011 with our top purchases of the year...Till then, a very happy Christmas from everyone here at Alan’s Album Archives (including Max The Singing Carols Dog with mistletoe in his hat, Android ZX-34 whose about to be re-booted in time for next year’s April Fool’s edition and Philosophy Phil, whose worn out coming up with thoughts for Christmas cards) and a very music-filled new year!         

A NOW COMPLETE List Of Top Five/Top Ten/TOP TWENTY  Entries 2008-2019
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2) Songs For The Face Of Bo

3) Credit Crunch Songs

4) Songs For The Autumn

5) National Wombat Week

6) AAA Box Sets

7) Virus Songs

8) Worst AAA-Related DVDs

9) Self-Punctuating Superstar Classics

10) Ways To Know You Have Turned Into A Collector

11) Political Songs

12) Totally Bonkers Concept Albums

13) Celebrating 40 Years Of The Beatles' White Album

14) Still Celebrating 40 Years Of The Beatles' White Album

15) AAA Existential Questions

16) Releases Of The Year 2008

17) Top AAA Xmas Songs

18) Notable AAA Gigs

19) All things '20' related for our 20th issue

20) Romantic odes for Valentine's Day

21) Hollies B sides

22) 'Other' BBC Session Albums

23) Beach Boys Rarities Still Not Available On CD

24) Songs John, Paul and George wrote for Ringo's solo albums

25) 5 of the Best Rock 'n' Roll Tracks From The Pre-Beatles Era

26) AAA Autobiographies

27) Rolling Stones B-sides

28) Beatles B-Sides

29) The lllloooonnngggeesssttt AAA songs of all time

30) Kinks B-Sides

31) Abandoned CSNY projects 'wasted on the way'

32) Best AAA Rarities and Outtakes Sets

33) News We've Missed While We've Been Away

34) Birthday Songs for our 1st Anniversary

35) Brightest Album Covers

36) Biggest Recorded Arguments

37) Songs About Superheroes

38) AAA TV Networks That Should Exist

39) AAA Woodtsock Moments

40) Top Moments Of The Past Year As Voted For By Readers

41) Music Segues

42) AAA Foreign Language Songs

43) 'Other' Groups In Need Of Re-Mastering

44) The Kinks Preservation Rock Opera - Was It Really About The Forthcoming UK General Election?

45) Mono and Stereo Mixes - Biggest Differences

46) Weirdest Things To Do When A Band Member Leaves

47) Video Clips Exclusive To Youtube (#1)

48) Top AAA Releases Of 2009

49) Songs About Trains

50) Songs about Winter

51) Songs about astrology plus horoscopes for selected AAA members

52) The Worst Five Groups Ever!

53) The Most Over-Rated AAA Albums

54) Top AAA Rarities Exclusive To EPs

55) Random Recent Purchases (#1)

56) AAA Party Political Slogans

57) Songs To Celebrate 'Rock Sunday'

58) Strange But True (?) AAA Ghost Stories

59) AAA Artists In Song

60) Songs About Dogs

61) Sunshiney Songs

62) The AAA Staff Play Their Own Version Of Monoploy/Mornington Crescent!

63) What 'Other' British Invasion DVDs We'd Like To See

64) What We Want To Place In Our AAA Time Capsule

65) AAA Conspiracy Theroies

66) Weirdest Things To Do Before - And After - Becoming A Star

67) Songs To Tweet To

68) Greatest Ever AAA Solos

69) John Lennon Musical Tributes

70) Songs For Halloween

71) Earliest Examples Of Psychedelia

72) Purely Instrumental Albums

73) AAA Utopias

74) AAA Imaginary Bands

75) Unexpected AAA Cover Versions

76) Top Releases of 2010

77) Songs About Snow

78) Predictions For 2011

79) AAA Fugitives

80) AAA Home Towns

81) The Biggest Non-Musical Influences On The 1960s

82) AAA Groups Covering Other AAA Groups

83) Strange Censorship Decisions

84) AAA Albums Still Unreleased on CD

85) Random Recent Purchases (#2)

86) Top AAA Music Videos

87) 30 Day Facebook Music Challenge

88) AAA Documentaries

89) Unfinished and 'Lost' AAA Albums

90) Strangest AAA Album Covers

91) AAA Performers Live From Mars (!)

92) Songs Including The Number '100' for our 100th Issue

93) Most Songs Recorded In A Single Day

94) Most Revealing AAA Interviews

95) Top 10 Pre-Fame Recordings

96) The Shortest And Longest AAA Albums

97) The AAA Allstars Ultimate Band Line-Up

98) Top Songs About Sports

99) AAA Conversations With God

100) AAA Managers: The Good, The Bad and the Financially Ugly

101) Unexpected AAA Cameos

102) AAA Words You can Type Into A Caluclator

103) AAA Court Cases

104) Postmodern Songs About Songwriting

105) Biggest Stylistic Leaps Between Albums

106) 20 Reasons Why Cameron Should Go!

107) The AAA Pun-Filled Cookbook

108) Classic Debut Releases

109) Five Uses Of Bird Sound Effects

110) AAA Classic Youtube Clips Part #1

111) Part #2

112) Part #3

113) AAA Facts You Might Not Know

114) The 20 Rarest AAA Records

115) AAA Instrumental Songs

116) Musical Tarot

117) Christmas Carols

118) Top AAA Releases Of 2011

119) AAA Bands In The Beano/The Dandy

120) Top 20 Guitarists #1

121) #2

122) 'Shorty' Nomination Award Questionairre

123) Top Best-Selling AAA Albums

124) AAA Songs Featuring Bagpipes

125) A (Hopefully) Complete List Of AAA Musicians On Twitter

126) Beatles Albums That Might Have Been 1970-74 and 1980

127) DVD/Computer Games We've Just Invented

128) The AAA Albums With The Most Weeks At #1 in the UK

129) The AAA Singles With The Most Weeks At #1 in the UK

130) Lyric Competition (Questions)

131) Top Crooning Classics

132) Funeral Songs

133) AAA Songs For When Your Phone Is On Hold

134) Random Recent Purchases (#3)

135) Lyric Competition (Answers)

136) Bee Gees Songs/AAA Goes Disco!

137) The Best AAA Sleevenotes (And Worst)

138) A Short Precise Of The Years 1962-70

139) More Wacky AAA-Related Films And Their Soundtracks

140) AAA Appearances On Desert Island Discs

141) Songs Exclusive To Live Albums

142) More AAA Songs About Armageddon

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160) The Greatest AAA Drum Solos (Or Near Solos!)

161) AAA Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame Acceptance Speeches

162) AAA Re-Recordings Of Past Songs

163) A Coalition Christmas (A Fairy Tale)

164) AAA Songs About Islands

165) The AAA Review Of The Year 2012

166) The Best AAA Concerts I Attended

167) Tributes To The 10 AAA Stars Who Died The Youngest

168) The First 10 AAA Songs Listed Alphabetically

171) The 10 Best Songs From The Psychedelia Box-Sets ‘Nuggets’ and ‘Nuggets Two’

172) The 20 Most Common Girl’s Names In AAA Song Titles (With Definitions) 

180) First Recordings By Future AAA Stars

185) A Tribute To Storm Thorgerson Via The Five AAA Bands He Worked With

188) Surprise! Celebrating 300 Album Reviews With The Biggest 'Surprises' Of The Past Five Years Of Alan's Album Archives!

190) Comparatively Obscure First Compositions By AAA Stars

193) Evolution Of A Band: Comparing First Lyric With Last Lyric:

200) The Monkees In Relation To Postmodernism (University Dissertation)

202) Carly Simon's 'You're So Vain': Was It About One Of The AAA Crew?

217) AAA 'Christmas Presents' we'd most like to have next year

221) Dr Who and the AAA (Five Musical Links)

222) Five Random Recent Purchases

223) AAA Grammy Nominees

224) Ten AAA songs that are better heard unedited and in full

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227) Top ten AAA drummers

228) Top Ten AAA Singles (In Terms of 'A' and 'B' Sides)

229) The Stories Behind Six AAA Logos

230) AAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!! The Best Ten AAA Screams

231) An AAA Pack Of Horses

232) AAA Granamas - Sorry, Anagrams!

233) AAA Surnames and Their Meanings

234) 20 Erroneous AAA Album Titles

235) The Best AAA Orchestral Arrangements

236) Top 30 Hilariously Misheard Album Titles/Lyrics

237) Ten controversial AAA sackings - and whether they were right

238) A Critique On Critiquing - In Response To Brian Wilson

239) The Ten MusicianS Who've Played On The Most AAA Albums

240) Thoughts on #CameronMustGo

241) Random Recent Purchases (Kinks/Grateful Dead/Nils Lofgren/Rolling Stones/Hollies) 

242) AAA Christmas Number Ones 

243) AAA Review Of The Year 2014 (Top Releases/Re-issues/Documentaries/DVDs/Books/Songs/ Articles  plus worst releases of the year)

244) Me/CFS Awareness Week 2015

245) Why The Tory 2015 Victory Seems A Little...Suspicious

246) A Plea For Peace and Tolerance After The Attacks on Paris - and Syria

247) AAA Review Of The Year 2015

248) The Fifty Most Read AAA Articles (as of December 31st 2015)

249) The Revised AAA Crossword!

251) Half-A-Dozen Berries Plus One (An AAA Tribute To Chuck Berry)

252) Guest Post: ‘The Skids – Joy’ (1981) by Kenny Brown

254) Guest Post: ‘Supertramp – Some Things Never Change’ by Kenny Brown

255) AAA Review Of The Year 2018

256) AAA Review Of The Year 2019 plus Review Of The Decade 2010-2019

257) Tiermaker

258) #Coronastock

259) #Coronadocstock