Song 359: “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (1990)

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Like most people my age, I saw Home Alone too many times as a child. It came out around my 11th birthday, and my dad bravely took me and a group of my friends to see it. It was, of course, ridiculous in every way, but I always liked it for the family Christmas stuff, and for none of the silly burglar stuff. I actually think it’s a pretty good movie without Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern mugging for the camera.

I was also obsessed with the Home Alone soundtrack, which remains surprisingly good. The score, with its theme “Somewhere In My Memory,” is much better than a movie like Home Alone requires (how director Chris Columbus convinced John Williams to compose the score, I’d love to know). The album became one of the things I’d listen to constantly at Christmas, and one of the reasons is Mel Tormé’s version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” which, to me, is the only version there is.

I actually know nothing about Mel Tormé, other than his best-in-the-business nickname (the goddamn Velvet Fog) and his indelible appearance on Seinfield. But I love his smooth and subtle approach to this song, because “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is best sung with subtlety. Sure, it gets a little lofty by the time you hang a shining star upon the highest bough, but its power is generally in its sense of peace and quiet.

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” first appeared in another movie: Meet Me In St. Louis. The movie’s star, Judy Garland, didn’t like some of songwriter Hugh Martin’s lyrics—specifically, the big bummer “Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past / Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Pop that champagne cork / Next year we may all be living in New York.” He wisely listened to Garland’s criticism and came up with some more lyrics that don’t refer to your possible imminent demise. (On second thought, maybe Garland was the wise one here.)

Despite there being so dang many of them, Christmas songs are hard to get right. For the traditional kind, you need to be heartwarming and sweet without being overly saccharine. I think “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” balances those two extremes perfectly. It’s so good, and so appropriate for every occasion, that it closes a movie about a pre-pubescent foiling two burglars with household objects. That’s pretty amazing.


Song 358: Dean Martin, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” (1959)

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Dean Martin’s ring-a-ding-ding style, often forced to the point of self-parody, takes some getting used to. I have a hard time listening to him sing serious songs, because no matter the setting, he sounds like he’s goofing around with a drink in his hand.

But what better time to goof around with a drink in your hand than Christmas? That’s why his Christmas collection, Christmas With Dino, is such a delight. Unlike his buddy Frank’s record, which has sanctimonious takes on “Adeste Fidelis” and “The First Noel,” Dino is warm and boozy, like a cup of cocoa with a shot of brandy. Martin sings “Silent Night,” but otherwise the record is a cocktail party soundtrack: “Winter Wonderland,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the perennially creepy “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

I’ve always had a soft spot for “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” and I think it’s a perfect fit for Dean Martin. The song is so damn jovial in anybody’s hands, but with Martin’s good-times delivery, it’s downright comforting. The arrangement’s a little insipid, but it largely works: the strings hum along and the horns pop in for a word or two. It’s as light and fluffy as the snow coming down outside Martin’s window.  I’m allergic to overly cheery holiday songs, and in terms of jolliness, this one’s just about perfect. Now where’s my drink?


Song 357: MGMT, “Time to Pretend” (2007)

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I considered writing about a deeper cut from Oracular Spectacular, but who am I kidding? “Time to Pretend”—giant, warm, and funny—was massively popular for a reason. Seven years and a bajillion  plays after I first heard it, I turn it up every time it comes on the radio. Because it is absolutely delightful.

MGMT has gone to great lengths to distance themselves from their debut, and I can understand why; no band actually wants to play their hits for the next 30 years. But I continue to find the record fascinating, from this song to “Kids” and “Electric Feel.” It sounds like a transmission from another planet, a fun world where pop music is laced with lasers and kooky alien hand gestures. I’ve clearly spent too much time thinking about this.

“Time to Pretend” is impeccably arranged. First of all, how great is that main synth line? It really does sound like some alien transmission, and its high pitch provides such a great counterpoint to those warm, booming notes underneath. Then you’ve got those punchy drums in between, which provide another counterpoint; they’re the treble clicking along in front of the bass.

This song is tongue-in-cheek about the excesses of fame, but the fact that it still works as an aspirational anthem—with its dreams of divorcing models and fatally choking on vomit—says a lot about our ridiculous starstruck culture. The song’s insane irresistibility is itself a comment on all of us.


Song 356: Maurice Ravel, String Quartet in F, 1st Movement (1904)

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Classical music is largely about repetition, isn’t it? I know this shouldn’t be a revelation or anything, especially since all music is about repetition. But until recently, I hadn’t thought about how my favorite classical music takes a theme and repeats it in different contexts, with layers building upon and changing each other.

The main theme in the first movement of Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F—the “Trés doux,” or the “sweet” or “soft” section—contains such repetitions. I love how the movement’s theme is introduced gently, like a cup of warm milk, only to be followed by many mutations; some variations are angry, some are sad, some are serene. But they’re all based on those handful of notes. In between those variations, of course, are interludes and, well other stuff. Ravel sure fits a lot of emotions into eight minutes, and I think it all holds together remarkably well.

Critics were apparently not keen on this early work, and Ravel wasn’t either. Luckily, his friend Claude Debussy cheered him up: “In the name of the gods of music and in my own,” wrote Claude to Maurice, “do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet.” I’m glad he didn’t.

The beautiful performance below is by the Hagen Quartett.


Song 355: Loretta Lynn, “Portland, Oregon” (2004)

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I’m not proud to admit that I don’t know much about Loretta Lynn. But I know that I love Van Lear Rose, the incredible record that Lynn made with Jack White. The combination of Lynn’s country songs and White’s garage-rock make for an adventurous and unique album, one that seamlessly marries the two styles to create something new.

What, exactly, is that something? You could argue that despite the differences between the two sounds, Van Lear Rose simply sounds like American music. You can hear many bands and singers in “Portland, Oregon,” which sounds like the Allman Brothers Band playing at the Grand Ole Opry. And Lynn, of course, sounds fantastic, as if she’s been liberated by the crack band behind her.

And speaking of that crack band, how great do they sound? The overall feel of “Portland, Oregon” is that of tightly wound freedom. The song sounds like it would fly away at a moment’s notice if not for those massive chords that White pounds out. Those chords—fat, loud, and substantial—provide ballast as the song sways in the wind. Lynn’s beautiful, featherweight voice gives “Portland” its high end, propelling it higher and higher like helium.


Song 354: Tracey Thorn, “Joy” (2012)

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You could argue that this song is kind of a bummer, that Tracey Thorn is the Debbie Downer at the Christmas party. It’s true, “Joy” isn’t all hot cocoa and snowflakes: “When someone very dear,” she sings, “calls you with the words ‘Everything’s all clear’/That’s what you want to hear/But you know it might be different a new year.” Merry Christmas.

But the next line is what makes the song more than a stocking full of coal: “That’s why we hang the lights so high.” Thorn isn’t saying we don’t, or shouldn’t, celebrate like we do, she’s pointing out why Christmas is so important. We’ve all experienced loss, despair and loneliness, and those things make the good times great. Without darkness, we wouldn’t even know the light was there.

I think it’s interesting that Thorn chose a Christmas song for these themes, which could readily apply to any time of year. I wonder if Thorn wanted to provide an antidote to all the goddamn cheeriness in most Christmas songs, or if she couldn’t resist the imagery of candles, snow-covered trees, and carols that make you cry.

I love Tracey Thorn’s voice, which recalls Linda Thompson’s in its weight and sturdiness. It works especially well for songs like “Joy,” in which weight and sturdiness play significant roles. That low voice is counterbalanced by the gentle jingle bells and high piano, which reflects the light and dark of the song’s lyrics. It’s all of a piece, and everything goes where it should.


Song 353: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, “The Nutcracker Suite: Trépak” (Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski cond.) (1892/1940)

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Alright, let’s get real. Kids, let’s talk. Yes, if you must know, it’s true: When I was young, I used to pretend to conduct classical music in my bedroom. Using a pencil as a baton, I’d lead an imaginary orchestra through a piece of my choosing. I would have been mortified if anybody found out about this when I was 11, but hey, this is what blogs are for, right? Guys?

The program in my tiny Symphony Hall was usually Beethoven’s “Pastoral” or something from the “Nutcracker” suite. This may make me sound like I was some kind of classical music expert as a child, but I was actually just obsessed with something else entirely, which leads me to another confession: from the ages of 10 through 14 or so, I was a Disney fanatic. I loved the movies, the music, and the American myth of Disney himself, pulling himself up by the artistic bootstraps to change culture, pop and otherwise. I wasn’t the only 11-year-old in my school walking around with a cassette tape of the Little Mermaid soundtrack—my friend Alex did the same—but it was as unique as it sounds. Miraculously, neither of us were mocked, as far as I can remember.

So what does this have to do with pretending to be a conductor? This: Fantasia. When the film was re-released in 1990, I don’t think I saw it in the theater, but I watched it many times on VHS, and I listened to the soundtrack endlessly. Now that I know (slightly) more about classical music, I can see that Disney and conductor Leopold Stokowski chose perfect pieces for Fantasia. As a kid, the “Pastoral” symphony and Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” sounded like catchy pop songs, and they still do. They made classical music sound simply like music, and even though I have (proudly) spent most of my years in the pop-rock wilderness, I feel lucky to have had such an early exposure to Beethoven and Mussorgsky.

I was also lucky that my parents encouraged my sister and me to explore our interests. I can’t remember if we saw the Boston Ballet’s “Nutcracker” before or after Fantasia found me, but either way, I’m thankful that we made the semi-annual trek to the Wang Center, dressed up in our Christmas best in the Big City. I’ve loved the “Nutcracker Suite” ever since, and in my Li’l Leonard Bernstein days, “Trépak” was my jam. The “Russian Dance” is short, invigorating, and has none of that annoying seriousness that bogged down pieces “Thé” and “Café” (the Chinese and Arab dances, respectively) to a pre-adolescent.

Back in 1991, some kids rebelled by listening to 2 Live Crew or Nirvana, but I was furiously waving my arms to the sound of some guys dancing like this. I cringe when I picture this scene, but I stand proudly by my love for “The Nutcracker” and Fantasia, two artistic triumphs seemingly designed to get kids into classical music. I’m glad they worked on me.