Sure the entire list is subjective and, of all the artists who appear here The Band would be my favorite, but my personal prejudices don’t distract from the fact that this is a stunning song. The song was buried halfway into the pretty lousy Band swansong Islands, a contractual obligation album thrown together after The Last Waltz, but it’s got all of the hallmarks of The Band at their best. Garth Hudson’s swirling keyboard underpins a rootsy modern folk song about the birth of Christ written from the perspective of an awe-struck shepherd abiding his flock by night. Rick Danko, with help from Levon Helm and Richard Manuel, brings a high level of pathos and yearning to the vocals. “Fear not, come rejoice/It’s the end of the beginning/praise the new born King” sings Danko in his vulnerable high tenor, and it’s clear that Robbie Robertson has written not merely a great Christmas rock song, but a great Christmas carol. This is the last great song by The Band, and one of the most beautiful Christmas songs ever recorded.
By the time the album Third/Sister Lovers came out, Big Star was a band in name only. This was Alex Chilton’s baby, and the album is a swirling, difficult listen. There’s great beauty on it, and also real darkness. But buried on the album was this little slice of pop music perfection; a strangely discordant intro, a chorus that sinks its hooks deep into you, a saxophone fade out, and a lyric that straightforwardly tells the story of the Nativity. “Angels from the realms of glory/Stars shone bright above/Royal David’s city/Was bathed in light of love/Jesus Christ was born today” Chilton sings in one of the most sincere vocals ever recorded. “The wrong shall fail/And the right prevail.” It’s entirely possible that this was written for former Big Star guitarist/songwriter Chris Bell, a Born Again Christian, explaining the final line “We’re gonna get born”, but regardless of the inspiration the marriage of beautiful pop music and a completely non-ironic telling of the story of Christ’s birth puts this song on the list.
Another entry from the Very Special Christmas series, this one is by alternative rock superstars Smashing Pumpkins. Billy Corgan and company perfectly evokes the wonder of Christmas morning by looking at it from the perspective of parents watching their children and thinking back to their own childhoods. “Now the word is given/It’s time to peek inside/It’s time to let the toys out/So anxious for your look of joy and delight.” It’s almost impossible to believe that a lyric this tender and charming came from the same guy who wrote “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, “Zero”, and the suicidal ruminations of “Today” but there was always so much more to Corgan than darkness and anger. He rarely gets the credit he deserves as a great songwriter but this song, which deserves to be a Christmas standard, should prove that there was a lot more to alternative rock than rage and angst.
A lot of people wrote off The Pretenders after half the band died at the peak of their popularity, victims of their own addictions. But to everyone’s surprise they came back with a third album that was as good or better than their best work. It was also their last truly great album. It’s a standard rock album, circa 1983, but the final track was a gorgeous ballad called “2000 Miles”, a song written for the late ace guitarist James Honeyman-Scott. The lyric is steeped in loneliness, but it’s the fact that the sadness occurs at Christmastime that gets this song on the list. “I miss you/I can hear people singing/It must be Christmas time,” sings Chrissie Hynde. Though written for a deceased friend, it can be easily understood by anyone who is alone or separated from someone they love as the holidays arrive.
One of the most awful Christmas traditions is the novelty song. Songs like “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”, the Chipmunks, or that atrocious version of “Jingle Bells” as performed by barking dogs are a blight on the Holidays and an insult to the Savior wrapped in swaddling clothes. But Chuck Berry’s jokey ode to Santa’s foul-weather friend Rudolph works. Yes it’s a novelty song, as was the original “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (both songs were written by Johnny Marks), but even though the lyrics are filled with humor it’s not a joke. Also, Chuck Berry gave Marks’s tune one of his standard guitar riffs, blending a bit of “Johnny B. Goode” with the melody of “Little Queenie”, which means that it is as rock and roll as any song released in the past 60 years. There’s also a terrific version by Keith Richards, which he released as a one-off single in 1978. So this one’s a two-fer. The Chuck Berry version fits in beautifully with the best of Berry, and the Richards version ramps everything up and produces an absolutely glorious mess.
Released under the pseudonym “The Three Wise Men”, this was actually XTC at their Beatle-y best. The band had put aside their herky-jerky New Wave beginnings and their misguided attempts at funk and started concentrating on the lessons they’d learned from their forefathers in the 1960s. Aside from some brilliant conventional work, they also produced this perfect little pop gem that revels in all things Christmas.
Hard, soft, and pop perfection.
- Lightning Bolt—Pearl Jam. Picking up where Backspacer left off, the tenth studio album from Seattle’s last survivors finds the band lacking energy. The album starts very strongly, delivering several high-octane rockers and one classic Pearl Jam ballad (“Sirens”), but somewhere around the 30-minute mark the songs suddenly start drifting. It’s almost as if the band was replaced with Pearl Jam soundalikes beginning with “Let The Records Play”, a stale rewrite of Vitalogy‘s furious “Spin The Black Circle”. There’s also a full-band version of one of Eddie Vedder’s solo ukulele songs, “Sleeping By Myself”, before the album closes with two somnolent ballads (“Yellow Moon” and “”Future Days”). What’s particularly noticeable about these tracks is how lethargic Vedder sounds. His vocal on “Yellow Moon” sounds like he’s just woken up. It’s surprising coming from one of rock greatest vocalists, but for much of the album Vedder simply sounds like he can’t be bothered. In contrast, Lightning Bolt features some of Mike McCready’s best guitar playing, especially on “Sirens” and the punky “Mind Your Manners”. McCready is an extraordinary guitar player who doesn’t get the credit he deserves; he’s capable of both shredding like the best heavy metal players and playing stunningly lyrical runs of great power and subtlety. Apparently Pearl Jam had begun recording the album and then stopped for a year while drummer Matt Cameron rejoined Soundgarden. This may be the reason the second half of the album sounds like it was recorded just to get it over. In 2006, Pearl Jam released what may be their best album, the intense, cathartic Pearl Jam, and followed it with Backspacer where the band sounded (for the first time) like they were just having some fun. Lightning Bolt, despite the strong first half, sounds like a band that’s running on fumes.
- Walking In The Green Corn—Grant-Lee Phillips. It’s getting harder to identify Grant-Lee Phillips as the guitarist/vocalist with the alternative rock cult band Grant Lee Buffalo. His old band played a beautiful mix of tender, acoustic ballads, modern folk, and bone-crushing rock. As a live act they could blow the roof off the venue. Grant-Lee Phillips was the undisputed leader of the band; he wrote the songs, played the guitar, and sang everything with a voice that alternated between a blazing bellow, a note-perfect tenor croon, and a sweeping falsetto. His guitar of choice, a 12-string acoustic, was run through enough distortion pedals to create a powerful electric sound the equal of any of their more popular alt-rock brethren. The band was loved and respected by their peers, and played huge stages with the likes of Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M. But Phillips’s solo career has been decidedly different. The Sturm und drang is gone, the distortion pedals locked away. What’s left is the quiet, tender stuff. That’s fine by itself, because Phillips writes and sings so beautifully. Walking In The Green Corn, a meditation on his Native American heritage, is full of lovely ballads. The instrumentation is very spare, and Phillips sings in a “don’t-wake-the-kids” voice throughout. It gives the album a quiet, dreamlike sound. It also makes the songs blend together. The album is a coherent whole, but the songs don’t stand out individually. Conversely, all ten of the songs are stunning but listening to all ten songs in a row is a bit boring. This was the problem that plagued Phillips’s last album Little Moon, which featured six straight ballads on side two. It makes the album difficult to review because the songs are so good, but the cumulative effect of them is a drowsy haze. As such, Walking In The Green Corn is a nearly perfect Autumn album to be playing in the background while enjoying the falling leaves and the first fires on cool nights, but it’s not something you’d play at a party or when you want an active listening experience. It’s a soundtrack, and a good one. But it’s not built for sitting by the stereo and listening.
- Nothing Can Hurt Me: Original Soundtrack—Big Star. They’re probably the greatest lost band of rock history, an act whose legend far outstrips their actual accomplishments. But even as legends, Big Star remains largely unknown. They sold very few albums. The original, best, lineup released only one LP. Their third, and final, album is a notoriously difficult listen swinging between the pop perfection of songs like “Thank You Friends” and the stark, harrowing “Holocaust”. Now comes Nothing Can Hurt Me, the soundtrack to a new documentary about Big Star, featuring demos, alternate mixes, and random ephemera. The audience for this release is the same audience for all Big Star releases: a tiny, obsessive group of fans that hangs on every note. The beauty of the soundtrack is that it hangs together like a real album, making it a great place for a new fan to start. With the exceptions of “Thank You Friends” and “Back Of A Car” all the major Big Star classics are here and sounding cleaner, crisper, and better than ever. In some cases, like “In The Street” (known to some in a bastardized form as the theme song to That ’70s Show), the difference in the mix is remarkable. The vocals are clearer and the music practically explodes out of the speakers. In most cases, the difference is more subtle. What it all means is that this release is not really necessary. The essential Big Star albums remain #1 Record, Radio City, and Third/Sister Lovers, and they remain crucial listening experiences for anyone who wonders what the Beatles might have sounded like if they’d continued into the 1970s. But while it’s not necessary, there’s also no denying that this soundtrack is a festival of delights. For the die-hard fan the different mixes are great fun (and the new mix of Chris Bell’s solo song “I Am The Cosmos” is considerably better than the muddy mix on the original CD release of Bell’s album); for the new fan who wouldn’t know the difference this is still an album that has one perfect pop song after another. Based on the music alone, this soundtrack delivers in spades.