Love it or hate it (or maybe something in-between) Christmas music is a genre you can’t escape during the holiday season.
Christmas hymns and carols have been around since the Middle Ages, and the some of your favorite holiday tunes have been popular since the 1930s and ‘40s (looking at you “Winter Wonderland”). But each year, there are always new holiday songs and updated versions of classics, and even with an ongoing pandemic, 2021 is no exception.
“There’s this tremendous gravitational pull towards nostalgia and maybe even escaping to a time through music, pre-pandemic,” said JT Griffith, OPB’s own Christmas music connoisseur.
Griffith spent 11 years as a DJ on OPB Music, is the longtime curator of holiday music for the Oregon Zoo’s ZooLights, and has done holiday music takeovers on both OPB and KMHD. He says holidays tunes have a staying power that other genres just don’t.
“The proof is in the Christmas pudding, so to speak,” said Griffith. “The Billboard [Hot 100] Chart, has a holiday seasonal chart that’s 10 years old this year. And if you compare the two charts—10 years ago and today—eight of the 10 songs that were on the initial chart are on the chart again this year.”
Griffith joined OPB’s Crystal Ligori again this year to talk remakes and re-issues of your favorite Christmas classics, the ten-year anniversary of the biggest Christmas album to come out of Portland, and new holiday songs (including a pandemic-themed one that’s actually good!).
Here are the highlights:
Crystal Ligori: We’re now in our second pandemic Christmas, and I don’t think that anyone really expected it to last this long. And I heard you found a pandemic-themed Christmas song that’s actually good?
JT Griffith: Absolutely. You know, when I heard you just describe it, it made me think “That sounds kind of cringey”, but the song absolutely is not. It’s meant as kind of a joke, but with a lot of really meaningful spirit. So Jimmy Fallon released a song with Megan Thee Stallion and Ariana Grande that’s about a second year of a COVID Christmas. It’s about being boosted, being vaccinated, kissing relatives and seeing family... I think that the new variants put a little bit of a curveball on some of those plans, but it’s catchy, it sends up “Last Christmas” by Wham! and it’s just really fun. I don’t know how long it will stay with us, but it is absolutely my favorite song of this Christmas season.
Ligori: Listening through the playlist that you curated for OPB, I was thinking about Christmas music as a genre, but then there’s so many different artists coming at it from their own genres. I’m thinking specifically about country musicians.
Griffith: Christmas music is seasonal, but almost like a situational body of music that has jazz versions, rock versions, and classical versions. And over the years Willie Nelson’s had a Christmas record, Lucinda Williams just put out a new Christmas record that she recorded live in the pandemic [via] a live video webcast, but you also see a re-release and a Cut Chemist remix of a Blondie record. But in that country genre we have a full Christmas record from the Pistol Annies and singles from people like Brandi Carlisle and Amanda Shires who’s in the band The Highwomen with Brandi. It’s really interesting to hear their own stories but also their own takes on classics. And I think over time we’ll see a trend towards new voices coming up and kind of putting their own print on that genre, but also the Christmas genre.
Ligori: I also noticed some local music in the mix as well.
Griffith: Yeah, I think that’s important for our OPB audience, but also a great shoutout to an album that’s become a holiday standard on its own. And that is the first Christmas record by She & Him which is Zooey Deschanel and Matt Ward. They’ve re-released their album, celebrating its 10th anniversary with three or four new songs, including a cover of Madonna’s song “Holiday,” which is not necessarily a Christmas song, but why not? But they also do a version of “Last Christmas” by Wham! and the record worldwide has sold like 400,000 copies. It’s the most successful Christmas record from Portland of all time, and I think it’s worth us celebrating.
Ligori: We chatted a little bit before we started taping about some rediscovered Christmas music.
Griffith: One of the things I’m most excited to talk to you about is not just new releases from contemporary artists, but there’s a re-released album that I think was available on vinyl in the early seventies, maybe even 1969, called “Merry Ole Soul,” and it’s by the artist Duke Pearson. He’s not the most famous jazz artist, but he was the head of A&R and one of the head producers at Blue Note Records, the iconic jazz label in the late sixties and early seventies. As a solo artist, he put out a piano-driven Christmas record that’s been pretty obscure until this year. And Blue Note released it in some of their archival releases, which usually are mastered by Kevin Gray and beautiful audiophile quality, but super accessible. This is an incredible jazz Christmas record and it is 100% worth being in your annual rotation.
Ligori: What is it about holiday music that you feel like is so special for folks?
Griffith: I think it’s that that balance between the optimism of the future and kind of putting your own generation’ s imprint on classic music. It’s why people in general cover songs. It’s about bringing something personal and new to something traditional and so in the playlist we have the Seattle-based artist SYML doing “Jingle Bells.” There’s also Andrew Bird doing “Skating” from the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s Charlie Brown Christmas. And that’s interesting too, that that album is a surprisingly permanent fixture in our musical lives. The Charlie Brown Christmas album is actually the number two selling jazz record of all time, behind “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis. And it’s a beautiful and melancholy Christmas record and I think that says a lot about it too. These are hard times, this is a hard season, but it’s also one of beauty and of optimism.