Thursday, December 30, 2010

10 FAVORITES (17) - Holidays PART IV: Religious Christmas Carols

Joy to the World! As the Holiday Season comes to an end with the New Year, I want to finish up my Holidays Edition of 10 FAVORITES. As promised, this will be the best Christmas Carols that derive from religious traditions. Now, having been raised Catholic, most of these Carols are songs I heard every Christmas in church growing up. One thing I have noticed about most of these carols is that a lot of them are very difficult to sing well. Sure, you could sing some these carols slightly off-key and still be quite adequate, but the real test of these carols is if you can nail every note (which is why I tried to find the best versions of the songs on the web). So here they are:


What Child Is This? (Or really, Greensleeves)
A beautiful song with the poetic imagery of the manger scene set to the music of the famous "Greensleeves."

We Three Kings (Of Orient Are)
This song was always fun to sing because of the "Star of Wonder" refrain and it was a good way for the kids in church to learn the story of the Magi.

The First Noel
This song was always on the stereo for me growing up. My cousin's middle name is "Noelle" (because she was born a few days after Christmas) and so every time they got to the "Noel" chorus, I always thought they were singing about her! (Sometimes kids think anything!!!)

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
This is such a fun song, especially when you get to the "Comfort and Joy" line. I've heard different arrangements and the one below (by the dynamic Annie Lennox) is one of the best.

The Little Drummer Boy
I used to call this song the "Rum Pum Pum" song. I love the way it builds and builds in its melody and then goes back down (just like a little boy's emotions and excitement). Below, I just HAD to use the famous duet between the disparate Bing Crosby and David Bowie (I believe everyone has seen this duet!)

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
The best versions of this song are when choruses of people are singing it (much like at the end of It's a Wonderful Life).

Silent Night
Quite possibly the most famous and most enduring Christmas Carol of all-time, but it is NOT #1. It still is a good song, but it is also quite deceptive. Some people think it is an extremely easy to sing, when actually it is an intricate melody that is very hard to get just right (believe me, it was difficult to find a really good version of the song and I figured I couldn't go wrong with Beyonce!).

Do You Hear What I Hear?
Like "The Little Drummer Boy," this song rises and rises and as it rises, the subject of each verse gets grander and grander. It goes from a lamb to a shepherd boy to a king to the people. And it is really good when the song is belted (like below by Whitney Houston, back when she was the Whitney we loved!).

Angels We Have Heard On High
Songs about angels, as I said earlier, are best when sung by large groups of people. Don't get me wrong, there are good solo versions of this song. But the "Gloria" chorus is really served best when multiple voices and octaves wash over the melody.

O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fidelis)
When I was young, I first heard the english version of this song (which is the one almost everyone knows). But, growing up Catholic, I just HAD to hear the latin version as well. And that version is really quite beautiful (especially when sung by voices like the Three Tenors!).

O Holy Night
This carol almost rivals "The Christmas Song" as my favorite carol of all-time. It is yet another song that builds until a glorious climax. Because of the range of the song, it is also notoriously difficult to sing. It is best when handled by the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Placido Domingo, Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand and (below) Josh Goban.

There you have it: THE 10 BEST RELIGIOUS CHRISTMAS CAROLS. Hope one of your favorites is on here. Next week, to celebrate the New Year, I will cover the most important Pop Culture moments of 2010. Until then:


Thursday, December 23, 2010

10 FAVORITES (16) - Holidays PART III: Traditional Christmas Carols

Christmas time is here! And to follow my favorite Christmas films and my favorite Christmas TV specials, I feel it is time to devote 10 FAVORITES to the best Christmas Carols. Now, it being Christmas, there are a lot of religious overtones that seep into the holiday traditions. So, rather than run from the religious part of the holiday, I shall embrace it for next week's list. I will devote two week's worth of 10 FAVORITES to Christmas Carols: next week will be religious themed ones, while this week I will focus on traditional ones (that may or may not have a Christian background). Of the latter, there are several which come to mind as potential favorites. But, alas, I had to whittle the list down to ten (sort of!). Here they are:


A TRIPLE TIE - Frosty the Snowman AND Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer AND Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
These three songs do go together for me as they also share their titles with the successful Rankin & Bass animation specials from the late 1960's (of which I spoke about last week!). I loved hearing these songs growing up because they reminded me of the specials I adored.

The Chipmunk Song
Sure, this song can be extremely annoying, especially if you don't like the high-pitched voices of the titular characters. But this song does have remarkable staying power. We always remember that the Chipmunks, like any other child, want Christmas to happen then and now. And, of course, Alvin is more concerned with his want of a Hula Hoop!

I'll Be Home For Christmas
Some christmas carols are elaborately labored on with intricate melodies and poetic lyrics. Then there are those that are very simple and seem to be written from the words inside a Hallmark card. Usually, I don't like the latter kind. But with this song, it just gives me that warm Christmas feeling we all yearn for around the holiday season.

The Twelve Days of Christmas
I believe this is every child's favorite Christmas Carol, or at least it was when I was young. The gifts which the true love gives to the singer (which mostly consists of birds and entertainers) are so fun for the children to say (and imagine!). The carol has made way for several parodies and several good versions (the best being below with the late John Denver and the Muppets, ba dum bum bum!)

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Written by Tin Pan Alley writers Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine for the Hollywood musical diva Judy Garland (in the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis), this song is (to me) the power ballad of the Christmas season. Of course Garland's version is the definitive, but several artists (ranging from Frank Sinatra to Rod Stewart) have covered the song with decent results.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Yet another simple song to appear on the list. It also can be a very annoying song. But I cannot deny the reluctant charm this song has. Plus, I've always wondered what "figgy pudding" is.

White Christmas
I love most of the songs by the great Broadway (and Film!) composer Irving Berlin. This one has become his most famous and his most enduring (ironic, considering that Irving Berlin was Jewish!). Below, is the finale of the 1954 film White Christmas (which was on my Christmas films list) featuring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney.

The Carol of the Bells
I love the lush melody of this song. The song can be fully orchestrated (like by John Williams in 1990's Home Alone) or be played by nothing but the titular instruments (see the Claymation Chistmas!). The song is beautiful as an instrumental or with its lyrics (especially when sung by a great choir, like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir below).

Deck the Halls
What would Christmas be like without a little Fa La La La La La La La La La? That's all that needs to be said!

Silver Bells
This Christmas Carol's placement may surprise a lot of people. It is a little known ditty these days (yet it was extremely popular when I was growing up). I think what I love most about this song is that the imagery in it is very urban ("City sidewaks," "People passing," etc.). And (as a metro area-raised guy) it just appeals to me on that level.

The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire)
Written by jazz/pop singer-songwriter Mel Torme, and famously recorded by the legend that was Nat King Cole (quite frankly the definitive version!), this song completely embodies the imagery and emotional quotient of the season. It is my absolute favorite Christmas Carol and, for me, it just is not Christmas unless I hear this gorgeous tune.

So, there you have it: THE 10 BEST TRADITIONAL CHRISTMAS CAROLS. Next week, I will list my favorite religious ones. As we go into December 25th, please keep the lessons of these songs in your hearts as you gather with your friends and families.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

10 FAVORITES (15) - Holidays PART II: Christmas Specials

'Tis the Season to be Jolly! This week's Holidays Edition of 10 FAVORITES is devoted to the television specials we all grew up adoring. Now, I am not talking specifically about the many many many variety shows and music specials devoted to Christmas. That is another list all to itself (maybe next year!). The TV specials listed below were either animated or marketed towards children (and their families). There are many different animated/children's programs that deal with the Holidays. Some are good. Some are bad. Some are just average. And some are just horrendously awful. But there are those that even transcend goodness into absolutely enjoyable and made my Christmases just a little bit brighter growing up. These are the ones that I believe are the best of the bunch.


Mickey's Christmas Carol AND Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol
I already talked a little bit about Charles Dickens' classic story when I discussed by favorite Christmas films. And so of course there are many brilliant TV adaptations of the tale (both made-for-TV movies and various spoofs of the tale). These two always seem to go together for me because I saw them around the same time (even though Mr. Magoo's pre-dated Mickey's by about 15 years or so). I saw Mickey's first and absolutely loved how the House of Mouse team managed to cast each character perfectly (i.e. Mickey as Bob Cratchitt, Donald Duck as Nephew Fred and Goofy as Jacob Marley). In Magoo's, I love the irascible and frustratingly blind character as Ebeneezer Scrooge mainly because of his voice actor, the great Jim Backus (known to us all as Thurston Howell III from Gilligan's Island), was so right for the role.

Robbie the Reindeer: Hooves of Fire
From the masters at Aardman Animation Studios (the people behind Wallace and Gromit) and the BBC, this clever tale about Rudolph's son joining the Reindeer team at Santa's Workshop is witty and heartwarming. In this (the first of three specials), Robbie is new to the Workshop and is immediately disliked by Blitzen (deliciously voiced by Steve Coogan). Blitzen challenges him to a race in a sort of Reindeer Olympics and Robbie has to prove himself worthy of replacing the legacy of his famous father.

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
The animation of this special (and others like it) used to creep me out but now I look at this show with respect for what the team at Rankin and Bass Animation were able to do with stop-motion animation. The movements are very choppy and static but for the time when this special was made (1970), it becomes more fascinating and, therefore, more marvelous. The story is about how Santa Claus came to be Santa Claus, with the fabulous greedy villain of Herr Bergermeister. The voices, which include Mickey Rooney as the titular hero and Fred Astaire as our narrator (and singer of the title tune!), are so heartwarming and pleasantly delightful.

Will Vinton's Claymation Christmas Special
Claymation seemed to be all the rage in the 1980's and the early 1990's. So it was bound to happen that master Claymation artist Will Vinton (the man behind The California Raisins) would try his hand at making a few specials, including this enjoyable Christmas one. Because there was no specific Claymation series on at the time (just various specials), this show took the form of series of music videos (this is the early MTV generation after all) introduced by two dinosaur critics (that vaguely spoofed Siskel & Ebert). Some of the best sequences include a doo-wop style rendition of "We Three Kings" and a cleverly done "Carol of the Bells" featuring an orchestra of Claymation bells (led by Quasimodo, who else?!?!)!

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street
I have previously discussed my love for Sesame Street when I listed my favorite songs from the seminal children's program. By the early 1980's, the show had been on for over a decade and, it being the 1980's, marketing was coming into play and the powers that be at PBS decided to create this delightful Christmas special. The story revolves around how Big Bird wants to stay up on the rooftop to wait for Santa, because Oscar the Grouch told him Santa does not exist. It is filled with memorable songs and moments including an opening sequence where full-bodied versions of Ernie, Bert, the Count and Cookie Monster are Ice Skating!

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Yet another classic Rankin and Bass stop-motion animation special. This one is more fascinating because of the story (which was based on the classic song and 1939 poem) includes a journey to the Isle of Misfit Toys and escaping an Abominable Snow Monster. The characters including Rudolph, Hermey the Elf, the greedy and befuddled prospector Yukon Cornelius and, of course, narrator Sam the Snowman (voiced by the great Burl Ives) are all delightful and bring a smile to everyone each year it airs.

A Garfield Christmas
Garfield was one of the most famous comic strip characters and his lazy, lasagna-loving style was brought to television in the 1980's. The various specials (including a Halloween one and a Thanksgiving one) were so successful that they led the cartoon cat to getting his own Saturday morning cartoon series in the early 1990's, Garfield and Friends. The Christmas one was the first one and was one of their best mainly because we got to meet Jon Arbuckle's hokey and silly family, including Jon's Grandma (who was such a delight that she was brought back for the Thanksgiving special).

Frosty the Snowman
This 1969 Rankin and Bass Christmas special (based on another great holiday tune!) was not stop-motion (like the Rudolph and Santa Claus ones were later), but yet whole-heartedly enjoyable. Jimmy Durante took the role of narrator this time around and comedian Jackie Vernon voiced the titular Snowman who greeted everyone with "Happy Birthday!" The story is of how Frosty came to be with the help of the magical top hat of a selfish, greedy magician (voiced by the comic character actor Billy de Wolfe). The comedy is so hilarious (sometimes unintentionally so) and the characters are really delightful, especially de Wolfe's mean and childish magician.

A Muppet Family Christmas
Who doesn't love Muppets?!?! And what is better than the Muppets? MORE MUPPETS!!!! In this phenomenal special, the Muppets we love from The Muppet Show, Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock came together to make this Christmas one to remember. It was great that Jim Henson was able to gather his family together one more time before his untimely death in 1990. Highlights from this special include the opening (where the Muppets sing "We Need a Little Christmas" from the Broadway musical Mame), the Electric Mayhem's take on "Jingle Bell Rock," Kermit and Robin meeting the Fraggles of Fraggle Rock, and the grand finale where the entire Muppet family takes part in a medley of Christmas Carols.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
When it comes to TV Christmas specials, there are really only two that we can consider THE ULTIMATE ones. This one is the first of those two (take a guess at number 1 people!). Dr. Seuss' brilliant creation of the mean Grinch who lives atop the mountain in Whoville and despises the noise of Christmas is a true classic. Everything from Boris Karloff's narration and characterization of the Grinch to the songs (which include the delightful "Welcome Christmas!" and the delicious "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch") make this one of the best Holiday specials in TV history (and FAR better than the disappointing 2000 film version featuring Jim Carrey).

A Charlie Brown Christmas
Does this one really surprise anyone? There is no kind of animated special like the kind by the Peanuts gang. Charles Schulz created some of the most beloved characters including Charlie Brown, his sister Sally, his best friend Linus, Linus' sister Lucy and Charlie Brown's dog Snoopy (who became the virtual mascot of my childhood!). And for Christmas (back in 1965), they did everything right. The writing was so clever (mimicking Schulz' style so well) and the story was so completely Charlie Brown. Everybody always felt, at one point in their life, like Charlie Brown: a boy who truly believed he couldn't do anything right. His small tree is so endearing and sweet that we just want to root for him. And who could forget Vince Guaraldi's jazzy and nostalgic piano score?!?!

So there you have it: THE 10 BEST CHILDREN'S TV CHRISTMAS SPECIALS. Each one is a treat for anyone trying to get into the Christmas mood. Is it really a surprise that Charlie Brown and the Grinch would top the list? If it is, and one of your favorite specials wasn't mentioned, don't hesitate to let me know. Next week, I will discuss my favorite Christmas Carols and there are plenty to choose from.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

10 FAVORITES (14) - Holidays PART I: Christmas Films

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas! And in honor of the season, I am devoting the entire month's 10 FAVORITES lists to the Holidays (Christmas, New Year's, etc.). Everything from Movies to TV Specials to Songs to Traditions will be covered this month. Today, we will look at the best Christmas movies. Now, these are movies that the Holidays just wouldn't be the same without them. As I discussed earlier when I talked about my 100 FAVORITE FILMS of all-time, It's a Wonderful Life was listed at #38. To many, myself included, this is the ultimate Christmas movie. So therefore, today's list WILL NOT include an Honorable Mention, since It's a Wonderful Life would most assuredly be #1 (but I already discussed it, so there is no need to rehash that). Today's list will be a TOP 10, but just move everything down one when you add the Frank Capra-Jimmy Stewart classic.


Prancer (1989)
This would be the Honorable Mention spot with It's a Wonderful Life on the list. It has been a long time since I have seen this movie, so I don't remember everything about it, but I do remember really loving it. It's a hokey story about Santa's titular reindeer who gets injured and a bunch of young kids have to protect him and help him make his way to the North Pole. In a way, I guess it is like a Christmas version of E. T., which is another of my Favorite movies. I also remember charming performances from Sam Elliott and the great Cloris Leachman, both of whom make the very worst movies better.

While You Were Sleeping (1995)
I know this film does not immediately come to mind when one thinks of Christmas movies, but this formulaic 1990's rom-com (one of the better ones of the genre) does use Christmas (and New Year's) as a good backdrop to the simple story. Sandra Bullock, who at the time was becoming the ultimate "Girl Next Door," gives a very charming and lovely performance as Lucy. Lucy is a lonely subway booth worker who (through various misunderstandings!) becomes part of a family at a time when she needs it most and (of course!) falls in love in the process.

White Christmas (1954)
For those screaming "WHY?!?" about now, this one we can blame on my mother and grandmother. They really liked this film and, therefore, I grew to like it. Although it is not the strongest story (it is, after all, a film built around the popularity of the great Irving Berlin song), it has fantastic Irving Berlin musical numbers and charming performances from the leads (especially Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, who was a favorite of my mother). But even the simplistic and formulaic story (the ol' "Let's put on a show!" game) has a way of making me smile and becomes quite enjoyable after yearly viewings.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Charles Dickens' brilliant and classic novella is one of the most frequently adapted stories in media history. And there ARE several film versions to choose from when compiling a list like this (I chose two, the other one is in a bit). When looking at Christmas Carol adaptations, I have great respect for the filmmakers who do their best to stick to the world Dickens himself lived in. Check out the 1951 film Scrooge starring Alastair Sim or the 1984 TV film version starring George C. Scott for the best straight Dickensian adaptations. But this one adds an element that I absolutely love (and anyone who knows me, understands): MUPPETS!!! Michael Caine brilliantly plays Scrooge surrounded by Kermit and company inhabiting several classic Dickens characters. This film also means something as it was the first Muppet project worked on after the death of their ingenious founder Jim Henson (and it was directed by his son, Brian).

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Produced by Tim Burton and directed by Henry Selick, the use of stop-motion animation is a technical wonder in and of itself. Burton used it again 10 years later on Corpse Bride and Selick used it fairly recently on Coraline (both of which were good, but not as good as this brilliant musical marvel). In this story, Holidays are separate villages that reside in hollow trees in a secluded wood. And in the town of Halloween, the Pumpkin King Jack Skellington is growing dissatisfied with his yearly scares and happens upon the village known as Christmas Town. He devises that he, too, can have this wondrous thing called Christmas and proceeds to take it over with the help of his Halloween pals. The film is quite enjoyable with plenty of frights and twists on the two different Holidays' traditions. And Danny Elfman's musical score is just as good as a traditional Broadway score (Elfman even provided the singing voice of Jack Skellington).

Home Alone (1990)
There are many reasons to dislike this film (the multiple sequels, the annoying catchphrases, Macaulay Culkin's rise to stardom, etc.), but this movie is a really fun film to watch (especially if you're a kid!). I mean, what kid doesn't want to be left at home for a day or two by themselves. It's a like a kid's wish come true. Culkin's role as Kevin McAllister is charming (even though irritating at times) and he fights off the burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) with pluck and ingenuity (a little too much for an 8-year-old in 1990, but it works). The heart of the film lies in the determined performance of the highly underrated Catherine O'Hara as Kevin's mother. When she realizes she has left her 8-year-old son at home alone, she does everything she can to make her way home to Chicago. And no one gets in between a determined mother and her child, not even terrorists!

Scrooged (1988)
This is the second Christmas Carol adaptation to make the list and this one represents the best of the modern adaptations (where they take Dickens' characters and transplant them into an updated setting). Here, Bill Murray plays TV executive Frank Drebin, a very Scrooge-like boss who goes on a wild adventure through his past, present and future. Murray is his usual comic delight but the supporting performances help make this film more enjoyable especially Alfre Woodard (as Murray's Cratchit-like assistant), Carol Kane (as the flighty and violent Ghost of Christmas Present) and Karen Allen (as Murray's do-good, former love-interest).

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
This film (the original and NOT the sappy 1994 remake starring Richard Attenborough) is the one that makes me want to believe in Santa Claus. It is another classic Christmas film, much in the same vein as It's a Wonderful Life. Kris Kringle (played to Oscar-winning delight by Edmund Gwenn) takes the Santa job at Macy's to help out during the Christmas rush. To the consternation of many who don't like the fact that he keeps telling people he is the real Santa, they want to put him on trial (OH NO, Santa Claus on trial!!!). It is a charming film with real heart and features great performances from Gwenn, Maureen O'Hara and a young Natalie Wood (as O'Hara's daughter).

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)
Ah, there is nothing like family at Christmastime! And there is no family quite like the Griswold family. Chevy Chase and ensemble make this chaotic Christmas so hilarious to watch that you might feel slightly better about seeing your own family around the holidays. Plus, its great to see Randy Quaid before he went all crazy-nuts (at least, I think it was before!).

A Christmas Story (1983)
This is just a great, great film. It has so many moments in it that are so enjoyable that I look forward to seeing them every year. Based on journalist Jean Shepherd's anecdotes about his childhood, young Ralphie (charmingly played by Peter Billingsley) is a typical kid in the Mid-West in the early 1940's and all he wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder beebee gun. The story follows Ralphie through his days (and daydreams!) leading up to Christmas as he yearns for that gun and begs his parents (played perfectly by Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin). If you have not seen it, it is a must-watch.

Now, many of you may be crying foul that I did not mention films like Elf or The Polar Express or The Santa Clause. And, to be perfectly honest, these were decent Christmas movies I just did not care for. But I do recognize that when it comes to the aforementioned films, I may be in the critical minority. Also, others may be offended that I failed to talk about Die Hard or Lethal Weapon, both of which are great action films that make good use of the Christmas backdrop. But, there is a reason. Action films and Christmas movies, for me, just don't automatically go together (which is probably why those films were able to use the backdrop so well), so they did not make MY list. I probably have mentioned enough films here for a rival blog (or one of my friends) to make a list of "Christmas Movies I SHOULD have on the list!" But I will leave that up to them. Next week, I will talk about my favorite Christmas TV specials. Enjoy and...