“Ruby” or not, come rain or come shine, Christmas is practically just around the corner. And along with the familiar sight of the parol and Christmas lights all over the country, one sure sign that there is no stopping Christmas is the almost omnipresent sound of Christmas carols from a myriad of storage devices and streaming media.
Here are my top 10 Christmas tracks or if you will, songs my family and I can’t do without come December. Thankfully, most, if not all of them have not been accorded the overplays that tend to make some songs grate on your ears after some time. Check out how they stack up compared to your list.
1. “Gabriel’s Message” (Sting) Notwithstanding his declaration that he now eschews all types of organized religion (including the Judaeo-Christian tradition in which he was raised) – choosing instead to believe in a higher being – Sting’s inspired rendition of this 1892 classic by Charles Bordes and Sabine Baring-Gould makes you feel like you’re actually eavesdropping on how Gabriel must have spoken to Mary complete with the flapping of wings in the backdrop. The ethereal counterpoint is its key highlight.
2. “7 O’Clock/Silent Night” (Simon & Garfunkel) Recorded in 1966 as part of the album “Parley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” this song features the signature harmonies of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel against the backdrop of depressing headlines read by newscaster Charlie O’Donnell during an imagined 7 O’Clock evening news. This version of “Silent Night” is unparalleled in communicating the continuing relevance of the carpenter’s son for fleshing out the meaning of love for 33 years in a world that continues to be in dire need of it. It was so in 1966. It is so in 2014.
3. “Hands” [Christmas Version] (Jewel) Composed by Jewel Kilcher and Patrick Leonard in 1998, this song reminds me of the philantrophic mindset which, I suspect, grounds how Warren Buffet, Bill and Melinda Gates have chosen to regard their vast wealth and resources. The same might as well be said about humanity’s less celebrated unsung heroes who have chosen to devote their lives to serving the poor and the marginalized. “In the end,” Jewel would remind us, “only kindness matters.” And the Christmas season is the best time to realize that each of us has been blessed with a pair of hands precisely to explore the varied ways we could show such kindness.
4. “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” (Amy Grant) The ominous-sounding introduction of this song is almost cinematic in paving the way for appreciating the burden Mary must have felt as she conceived the Son of God. “I have traveled many moonless nights. Cold and weary, with a babe inside.” The song takes flight as Mary chooses to humbly ask for the grace of God to handle “the load I bear.” In this regard, it naturally offers itself as a fitting continuum and an apt response to Sting’s “Gabriel’s Message.’
5. “Christmas Lights” (Coldplay) What Coldplay describes as a “mid-tempo number” was actually released in 2010. In any case, a careful reading of its lyrics would seem to suggest its motif would have made it feel at home with the tracks that comprise the 2014 “Ghost Stories” album. Like most of the Coldplay songs we’ve grown to love, this song is melancholic both with respect to its melody and its lyrics. Its soaring and thankfully, hopeful chorus is a valiant musical attempt to get over heartbreak and move on: “May all your troubles soon be gone. Oh Christmas Lights, keep shining on.”
6. “The Rebel Jesus” (Jackson Browne) In the event that Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has lost its edge to unsettle you due to repeated overplays, check out this little-known Christmas song guaranteed 101% to disturb your merry-making and make you aware that Christmas should not be reduced to “noche buena” and “aguinaldo.” It’s also supposed to make you ask why some of us enjoy the best of the season with style while some of our fellow Filipinos make do with “pagpag” over candle light in a room that, as it is, is already too small to fit 2 but is nonetheless occupied by 10.
7. “A Christmas Song” (Dave Matthews Band) This song which first appeared as a surprise track in “Remember Two Things,” the debut album of DMB back in 1993 offers an unconventional and, therefore, fresh retelling of the life of Christ from His Nativity to His Crucifixion. In fact, the first time I heard it, I thought Matthews was narrating the story of a boyfriend and a girlfriend until the part where he cites the wise men who came to visit the bouncing, baby boy. Makes you realize that indeed, “Emmanuel” means God with us.
8. “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (Sarah Mclachlan) Written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1971, this song was the culmination of more than 2 years of peace activism mounted by the couple against the Vietnam war. It was given a new lease on life when Sarah Mclachlan recreated it as the carrier single of her Christmas album entitled “Wintersong” in 2006. This along with “Rebel Jesus” offer themselves as powerful wake-up calls to counter the siren call of consumerism which is at its peak during this season and bring back, as the cliché goes, Christ to Christmas. Hence, Lennon and now, Mclachlan’s conscienticizing: “And so it is Christmas, and what have you done?”
9. “The Answer” (Corrinne May) This is the only original track in Corrinne May’s Christmas album aptly entitled “The Gift.” It is also the most personal as it is actually a prayer penned by May herself, a devout Catholic who completed her studies at the Berklee College of Music. “Give me strength when I am weary; give me hope when I can’t see; Through the crosses I must carry, Lord, bind my heart to Thee.” Interestingly, its melody is based on “Jupiter” which was part of the “Planets Suite” composed by classical music composer and conductor Gustav Holst (1874-1934.)
10. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (James Taylor and Natalie Cole) For some reason, James Taylor and Natalie Cole’s 2006 cover of this 1944 classic brings to mind the witty one-liner exchanges between Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in the 80s hit “dramedy” series “Moonlighting.” Penned by Frank Loesser, this song has been recorded by over 25 pairs of musicians from the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr and Carmen McRae to Idina Menzel and Michael Buble. It is quite possibly the most romantic Christmas song.
Have a Blessed and Meaningful Christmas celebration!