Sunday, December 25, 2005

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Why, it's Christmas music! All the time! Everywhere! And (in the hopes that this will somehow pass as fulfilling the I confess meme I was tagged with by Daled Amos) I confess that I have a weak spot for it. No, not the `barump ba bum bum, yay Jesus!' variety of Christmas music, but the less overtly religious, more innocuous "Winter Wonderland", "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" type Christmas music (well, ok, and "Silent Night")- the kind that is not only marked by fine musicianship and songwriting, but which genuinely makes you feel good.

I wish it were great Chanukah songs I heard everywhere this time of year. But guess what? There are none. But so many of the most successful recording artists of all time have been Jewish, you protest! Bob Dylan? Nothing. Barbra Streisand? Neil Diamond? Barry Manilow? Harry Connick Jr.? We have Christmas albums from each, but nary a note on Chanukah. Two of the great songwriters of our time, Paul Simon and Carole King have recorded Christmas songs as well.

And they are in good company. It was a Jew, Irving Berlin, after all, who wrote "White Christmas," perhaps the most well-known of all modern-day Christmas songs. Jews also wrote "Let It Snow" (Sammy Cahn) and "Santa Baby" (Joan Javits), among other songs considered holiday classics.

It is not as if we have been completely bereft of Chanukah songs: Kenny G, paradigm of all that is bland, found no room for a Chanukah track on his 2002 holiday album Wishes, but he did include "The Chanukah Song" on his 1994 holiday album Miracles, and another, "Eternal Light (A Chanukah Song)" on his 1999 otherwise all-Christmas CD, Faith. Just between you and me, though, how do we know these are really Chanukah songs? They are instrumentals...

I was so excited when the Chanukah compilation Festival Of Lights came out a number of years back, only to find the biggest featured names to be Jane Siberry and Marc Cohn (who I always thought was not Jewish (thanks to Stacey for the correction!) - the latter contributing a great version of "Maoz Tsur/Rock Of Ages") - with the added highlight of famed cantor Yosele Rosenblatt singing kiddush backed by a Balinese dance beat. Festival Of Lights 2, from 1999, upped the ante, featuring They Might Be Giants singing the original "Feast Of Lights".

On the parody side, the makers of South Park offered the offensive but funny "A Lonely Jew On Christmas" and "Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel" on Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics album, joined this year by Sarah Silverman's "Give The Jew Girl Toys", and the truly embarrassing "Chanukah's Da Bomb"by Chutzpah. And of course, there is the one Chanukah song radio will play, now in three versions, Adam Sandler's "The Hanukkah Song", which cleverly rhymes funnaka, marijuanica and gin and tonnica with hannukah. Not exactly poetry. I'm not convinced it's actually even music, either. Sure, it was fun the first time I heard it, but now...

The Barenaked Ladies, of "One Week" fame, offered three Chanukah songs on their Barenaked for the Holidays CD - "Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah", "I Have A Little Dreidel" and the original "Hanukkah Blessings". None are particularly good, but if you want them, they have been repackaged as the stand-alone three track EP, Barenaked for Hanukka, available on I-Tunes.

The OC, the TV show which introduced the world to Chrismukkah, has released a holiday album called A Very Merry Chrismukkah, which is oddly made up of all Christmas songs save for Ben Kweller's tepid version of "Rock Of Ages".

Aside from one-offs by under the radar indie bands like Another Man Down's "The Dreidel Song" and Shudder To Think's "Al HaNisim" on different holiday compilations and oddities such as Peter Paul & Mary's "Hayo Haya", an ode to the Maccabees, that's pretty much all there has been on the Chanukah front.

What's a "Winter Wonderland", "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town", "Father Chritsmas", "Jingle Bell Rock" loving Jewish boy to do?

Fortunately, a change is in the air. With Matisyahu singing about HaShem appearing on MTV right after Madonna's video for "Hung Up", his album Live At Stubbs at 126 on the album charts and climbing, and his single "King Without A Crown" just 10 chart positions from entering the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart (it has already reached #14 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart), I would say the time is ripe for Jewish artists to embrace Chanukah on record.

Do you hear what I hear?

Why, it's the LeeVees! Fronted by members of Guster and the Zambonis - not exactly household names, but both are up-and-coming - the LeeVees offer a full-length Chanukah album, Hanukkah Rocks. And the good news is it does rock, with not a single dud among the tracks. With a style that comes across as the love child of Aimee Mann and They Might Be Giants, all of the tracks are fun, tongue-in-cheek guitar-laden odes to the holiday Jewish musicians seem to have forgotten.

"Latke Clan" is a classic-in-the making. Other tracks include: "Applesauce vs. Sour Cream", "Goyim Friends", "At The Timeshare", "How Do You Spell Channukkahh?", "Kugel", "Jewish Girls (At The Matzoh Ball)", "Gelt Melts" and "Nun Gimmel Shin Heh".

You can hear the entire album for free here . Just click past all the Christmas CDs until you get to Hanukkah Rocks. Then turn off your radio stations playing Christmas songs all day long, sit back, and enjoy....not up to par with "Winter Wonderland"? Maybe not, but it's a good start....

Chanukah Sameach!

33 comments:

Stacey said...

What? Marc Cohn is not Jewish? You've got to be kidding (please say you are). Maoz Tsur is my favorite Chanukah song and Marc Cohn's version is awesome. So soulful!!

I have to say it has always irked me that Babs, Barry and Neil have done Christmas albums...but nothing for Chanukah.

I have Paul Zim's "Lots of Latkes" in my mind right now. Mmm, and I can't wait to have yummy latkes in my tummy tomorrow night.

Have a great Chanukah, MC.

Eshet Chayil said...

Give the jew girl toys was just scary...and as for matisyahu, I have to admit, he really annoys me.

I really had no idea so many jews sang christmas songs...how weird...

Eshet Chayil said...

p.s. chanukkah's the bomb finally loaded, and I think that guy should be shot.

Jack's Shack said...

I enjoyed Give the Jewgirl toys, but Matisyahu really does it for me. I think that it is just cool to see/listen to someone sing about Hashem and moshiach on mainstream television.

Jack's Shack said...

P.S. Chanukah Sameach.

'laizer said...

Mmmm, grumble.

The whole conflation of Chanukkah with Christmas irritates me. It is in total a product of marketing and American equal-treatment handwringing.

Why aren't you upset because there are no rockin' Passover songs? Because Christians don't give gifts on Easter. If they had given gifts on Easter, the marketing machine would have comercialized it out the wazoo, repleat with a moving soundtrack from the stars, the equal-treatment boffs would have shoehorned Passover in there, people would end up wishing each other a 'very special springtime non-denominational holiday period' and thrust into this garish light, good old Pesach would begin to look downright paltry next to showbizglitzed Easter. Soon people would wonder..."Where are all the rockin' Pesach songs."

Anyway, all that aside (and speaking from the land where I wouldn't know it was Christmas if I didn't turn on my computer) A Freilichin Channukah!!

;)

MC Aryeh said...

Stacey - I love the Marc Cohn version of Maoz Tsur, but he is not Jewish...enjoy the latkes. I am sure you make great ones!

Eshet - What annoys you about Matisyahu? Shooting's kind of harsh, but maybe if they agreed never to record anything again that would be alright?

Jack - I'm with you. It's great to see Orthdox Judaism represented in popular culture...

'laizer - I AM upset there are no rockin' Pesach songs!!! I loved your rant (especially the 'very special springtime non-denominational holiday period' and `showbizglitzed Easter'), and you are right - were I not bombarded and oppressed by Christmas songs this week and were Easter songs more prevalent, I might very well be calling for the rockin' Pesach songs instead, but as it is I will start with Chanukah...

Just for the record, though, Chanukah is one of my favorite chagim, good music or no. Christmas has nothing on it.

Sarah said...

Your knowledge of music is truly astounding to me.

Have a very happy Chanukah! Don't drink and drive-ookah! Light your candelabrukah!'Cuz it's happy happy Chanukah!

tafka PP said...

I'm getting bashed for a similar post. I am heartened to see that even if I'd have professed knowledge of Channukah songs (all of which are unfamiliar to me) someone somewhere would still have had issues with me enjoying the more innocuous, Jew-penned, yuletide tunes.

Channukah Sameach.

yitz said...

Gotta agree with 'Laizer on this one. Besides which, if you people were into AUTHENTIC REAL Jewish Negina, instead of the crass stuff that's "out there", you wouldn't have such problems!

Better still, McAryeh you seem to have a feel for music, perhaps it's time to start composing your own songs...

Chanuka Sameach from G-d's Holy City of Yerushalayim!

Shoshana said...

Thanks for the link! Very cool Chanukah music - I am enjoying! Happy Chanukah!

Soccer Dad said...

I realize that it's not, strictly speaking, a Channukah song, but what about Don McClean's Dreidel? (I've heard that he has/had an Israeli wife which might account for his interest in things Jewish, if true.)

Stacey said...

...but what about Don McClean's Dreidel?

I have always wondered about this myself. Don McLean is one of my very faves and on my favorite CD of his (12 Legendary Songs) there is "Dreidel" and another song called "Jerusalem." Both are great. Hell, the whole CD is amazing.

BrownsvilleGirl said...

Don McLean's a yid?

'laizer said...

I found it.
The Chanukkah song.
Real, deep, honest, soulful.
It's halfway down my latest post.

Eshet Chayil said...

OK. We don't have to shoot him. And I think what annoys me about matisyahu is the feeling I get that he's selling out. OK. His music annoys me a little too. But hey, to each his/her own, no?

rabbi neil fleischmann said...

As I started reading your post one thought kept jumping into my mind: MUST TELL HIM ABOUT THE LEEVEES.

I've shared it with various people and it's gotten cold to luke to warm responses. But I must confess that I'm really having a good time with it. High level music. And given the givens of where they're coming from I am not offended but rather enjoy their take on things.

It took an extremely long time to find this in Tower records. But I knew it had to be there. Even though one kid after another working there did a twist on the same computer search and then told me they didn't have it. Finally one of them remembered that the spelling was "messed up." He asserted that they had it. But I still couldn't find it. Turns out there's a Chanukah section with about 4 albums in it. I also bought volume two of Festival of lights which is great in a different, more profoundly beautiful way than The LeeVees.

McA - Do you or anyone else recommend Guster? My hunch is that he's the more sensitive soul of the two.

MC Aryeh said...

Sarah- To most people it is either frightening or a source of endless entertainment. Is it ok if I pretend you didn't Sandlerize...

TAFKAP- Sorry you are getting bashed. If you are lucky, you might make it into cherem!

Yitz-Can't speak for all "us people" but I like good music, period. Unfortunatley, the Jewish variety - with the exception of Chassidic niggunim, Yosef Karduner and a few others - is just not up to par. My writing songs would not helpt the situation, on account of my sucking at it...

Shoshana- Glad you like it Shoshana! Enjoy!

David- Great song! Should have included it!

Stacey- One of my favorites too. Would love to hear the story behind those two songs, if anyone knows...

BVG- No. He calls him self a non-traditional Christian. He is married to a Jewish woman.

'laizer- Will check it out. If I were in Israel, I would not have this on my mind at all...

Eshet- I hear the selling out side, but on the flipside, he is a positive symbol of Orthodoxy out there where there is none. I would much rather he make the front pages than all the yids in handcuffs for embezzling or being horrible landlords who make up the usual frum presence in newspapers.

Neil- I couldn't find them in Barnes and Nobles either! I am shocked - and pleased - that you were able to find Festival of Lights 2. I think Guster is great. Very mellow. You can definitely hear strong elements of Guster in the LeeVees....

Soccer Dad said...

MC Aryeh,
I was thinking a little bit. Elie's Expositions did a bit on Christmas music that he liked. But I also recall that Simon and Garfunkel did a "Silent Night" on their Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme album. Actually it was less a carrol than an anti-violence statement.

houseofjoy said...

MCAryeh-
Is it Christmas? Huh... I hadn't noticed. That must be why I saw those pretty lights as I was driving toward Efrat (right before the turn at Bethlehem).
Last night at candlelighting time I heard a rocking ceremony on the radio. Then, I took my kids into a shop in Jerusalem and we watched all of the workers stand around and light the Chanukiah. Plus, when we drove past the old city, everyone in the car screamed Nes Gadol Hayah PO!

Incidentally, there is a book written by a Brandeis professor (I think Stven Whitmore) about the secularization of American culture by Jewish artists who could take a holiday about the birth of the "savior" and turn it into a holiday about snow.

westbankmama said...

In a word, HEBREW! There is nothing good out there because English just doesn't do it for the Jewish soul.

The Jewish music scene in Israel is very rich - but you have to understand the language.

TKSC said...

Thought you might like this :)

waiting for your visit....

us,ge,se,tt.

Barney's Night Before Christmas

http://www.moviesunlimited.com/musite/product.asp?sku=D16132

'laizer said...

WBM - are there decent Chanukkah songs in Hebrew, even?

Pragmatician said...

Fascinating post, I had no idea so many Jews recorder and wrote xmas songs. It has nothing to do with convictions anyway, xmas albums around the season are sure fire bestsellers, while Channukah albums...I’m not so sure.

Datingmaster, Jerusalem said...

never has life been so challenging and also so fulfilling

Elster said...

I try nt to listen to Christmas music but I agree with MC that part of the problem is as a whole, jewish music sucks.

Part of the problem is that the musicians don't put too much effort into it. You look up tanach, find a good quote, and you are done. Open up a gemara, find an Omar Rav... and you are done.

The background music tends to be some part-time musician on a keyboard and the production values are a joke.

For people who truly lobve music as opposed to those who just need something for the kids in the car, it is much more difficult to get "into" Shwecky or whomever.

As for "holiday" music, as i said, i try not to listen to it but I guess if I had to pick favorites it would be Springsteen's Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Lennon's So This Ss Christmas, White Christmas and a coulple of the older ones.

MC Aryeh said...

David-I seem to remember there being three Christmas or Christian themed songs on the Simon & Garfunkel 3-CD box set. All are beautiful, but I usually skip them when listening to the CDs.

Beth-As if I needed a reminder that I am not in Israel! 'Tis a beautiful thing that you are there. Id be all for a non-religious holiday for snow...

WestBankMama-My Hebrew is pretty darn good. I had the privilege of living in Eretz Yisrael for nearly four years...and don't recall any especially memorable songs in Hebrew from that time...except for Yosef Karduner...

TKSC-I do appreciate it!May have to get it for Barney...

'laizer- Yeah, are there? Maoz Tzur is always nice...but beyond that?

Prag-Welcome to America. Until not so long ago, assimilation was the goal for many Jews here...

DM- Hmmmm....

Elster- Well said. For anyone who grew up on secular music, it is very hard to settle for the mediocrity that is produced by the religious Jewish music world. That said, there are exceptions - Yosef Karduner, starting to like Matisyahu. And then there are the niggunim, which I liken more to classical music, but which do good by my ears and by my soul...

Eshet Chayil said...

Ahhh...matisyahu! I think even the name is begining to annoy me. Maybe because that kind of music isn't all that accepted where I'm from anyway. I'll use that as an excuse. I think another thing that bothers me, is the "being jewish is cool" thing. I mean, not that it's not cool. But I feel like it's gonna bring more bored americans into thinking black hats and beards are a fad. Kinda like Madonna is doing with Kabbalah. I think Americans not raised religious are constantly searching for something that grabs them. This week, I'm a born again christian. Next week, I'm a muslim. Hey, Let's be jews for Chanukkah. I think I just went into a whole 'nother post...sorry...lol

David_on_the_Lake said...

There's something about Christmas music that is reflected in all songs with a winter theme (including..Maoz Tzur). Comforting motifs and warming notes. It's a natural reaction to the darkness and cold.

Stacey said...

Ok, not to beat a dead horse but EVERYWHERE I've looked I keep reading that Marc Cohn is Jewish (even Wikipedia).

And not only that, he was born in CLEVELAND!!

MC Aryeh said...

Eshet- I think you are right about Americans grasping at spiritual straws. Another post for you to write about? I remember a few years ago when one designer presented his latest designs in Europe - inspired by Chassidic wear!

David- Yes! That's it! The comfort in the songs when it is cold and dark. I guess we get that from the lights themselves, though...

Stacey- I remember there being shock amongst my friends when the Festival Of Lights CD came out featuring Marc Cohn on Maoz Tzur - because he was not Jewish. I also just searched high and low on the internet - and though I found many interesting things about Marc Cohn (his parents died before he was a teenager; he graduated from Oberlin college in 1981; he is married to Elizabeth Vargas) - like you, I found no evidence that he is not Jewish. I am not sure why we were all so sure ten years ago that he was not a Jew. Maybe because of all the Christian references in his songs? Maybe only his father is Jewish? I do not know. But I am a bit embarrassed for being so sure about it, and I thank you for your correction, which I will note in the post forthwith. Thanks, Stacey!

Rachel said...

http://www.popmatters.com/music/best2005/cds1.shtml

link sent to me from haaretz

for you?

MC Aryeh said...

Thank you Rachel! I love year end lists like that - and there are a good number of artists I have never heard of on that list - so I am in heaven! More music to explore!