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Thoughts About Christmas Music

XKCD had a funny comic a couple weeks ago, and I’m finally finding time to blog about it before Christmas is over and it’s completely irrelevant.

Baby Boomer Christmas Songs

There are two interesting things about music and Christmas that I like to reflect on every December. The first thing is that the radio and the TV and the mall and pretty much everybody starts playing these songs with lyrics straight out of the BIble sung by musicians who may not even believe in it, and pretty much everyone in America seems OK with it. We can hear the Barenaked Ladies singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” when they would probably never sing “The Wonderful Cross” – even though both songs have to do with the same Biblical narrative. The culture of Christmas makes the former song acceptable in a way it would never be otherwise. It’s like, somehow, despite all of the commercialization and controversy of the Christmas season, we’ve still managed to trick Americans into voluntarily thinking, talking, and singing about Jesus Christ of Nazareth for a few weeks! How brilliant is that?

But that’s just the first thing. Traditional Christmas carols are only one of the two kinds of music that get played around Christmastime. Every December I also think about how interesting it is that American culture suddenly becomes enamored with big-band/jazz/swing music for about a month and then just as suddenly switches back to pop and hip-hop or whatever. That sort of style is so associated with Christmas in my American experience that whenever I hear a swing or jazz kind of song that’s not about Christmas I usually subconsciously start singing “Winter Wonderland” or “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” or something (yeah, I know, that just proves I’m so uncultured).

It was an oddity, but I always viewed it as an oddity across genres. This fascinating XKCD chart has enlightened me to speculating that it’s actually an oddity across time. Big band stuff was popular in the 40’s and 50’s. It’s not so much that everyone seems to suddenly enjoy listening to Christmas music of a particular genre. No, they suddenly enjoy listening to Christmas music of a particular time – and the styles we hear just happen to be the styles that were popular at that time. How much all of this has to do with Baby Boomer demographics and whatnot I really don’t know, but it’s all quite fun to think about.

Of course there are a few caveats to the chart. I took a gander to the XKCD forums and learned, among other things, about the probable source of the chart, which concerns songs under ASCAP copyrights and thus automatically excludes all those traditional public domain songs from “Angels We Have Heard on High” to “Silent Night”. Still, even if the distant past is under-represented, it’s quite clear that all the copyrighted material of the recent past is not, and that’s what I find the most fascinating. Apparently none of the Christmas songs written in the last three decades have done much to displace the decades prior. (If this doesn’t seem astonishing to you, think of the equivalence of this being true for the overall music culture; it would be like “Rock Around the Clock” or “Heartbreak Hotel” being the most-played songs on the radio today!)

Why has this happened to Christmas music when it hasn’t happened to anything else? It’s can’t just be the Christmas part of it, either – it’s not like the most-played Christmas TV specials are from the 40’s and 50’s. Of course, it’s not that the old recordings are still popular; it’s just that a lot of modern artists keep covering them. I’m not going to tread into unprovable theories about traditions and Baby Boomer demographics and whatnot, but it is all quite fun to think about. I wonder what that chart would look like for this decade, or the one to come after that… But let’s not get silly. Who’s still going to be listening to the radio in twenty years?

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My 10 Favorite Killer Opening Tracks

The other day “Image of the Invisible” by Thrice came up in my shuffle, and I started thinking about what a great album opener it is. With its anthemic lyrics and big sound and energy, it perfectly pumps you up and gets you going. I started thinking about what I like about that style of opening track. I’m not talking about the opening teaser intro track. I’m not even talking about a great track that happens to be #1 on the album order. I’m talking about an opening track that’s dripping with energy and saying, “Get pumped up, let’s go, because this is gonna be an awesome ride!”

You wouldn’t want a whole album that sounds like that, and you might even get tired of that song if you listen to it too much, but it’s a fantastic way to roar out of the gate. So I decided to come up with a list of the my 10 favorite killer opening tracks. This is a playlist for getting pumped up if I ever saw one, especially the last three… oh yeah!

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The Only Thing I Miss About MySpace

Now that I have a slightly longer commute I’ve been listening to more radio to pass the time, flipping between St. Louis’s college radio, talk radio, oldies, soft rock, Christian, pop, alternative, and variety stations. As a consumer of music there are a plethora of observations I could make on any given day, such as Michael Jackson’s influence on Christian 80’s pop, or the strange growing convergence between modern country and modern CCM, or the turnover of last decade’s hits into this decade’s variety playlists. These are all things I thought about during my driving today, but the one I want to blog about has to do with MySpace.

This afternoon 106.5 The Arch played “Bad Day” by Daniel Powter. Now even this singular song could lead my wandering brain along any number of memory lanes, from high school to American Idol to the rise of the digital single to the economics of one hit wonders. But on this particular day the song reminded me of the good old glory days of MySpace and the Profile Song.

Long, long ago in the forgotten age of 2006, cool bands had MySpace pages where you could legally stream four whole song, and cool people had MySpace pages where they could pick one of those band’s streaming songs to start playing automatically when a friend visited their page.

It was an incredible way to share, promote, and discover new music, because instead of saying “hey click here to listen to this awesome new song” you could literally force them to at least listen to the intro – it was opt-out instead of opt-in. But it wasn’t spammy or annoying because the person visiting your page was probably your friend and had chosen to visit your profile to communicate with you – the encompassing structure was still opt-in.

At one time one of my friends had “Bad Day” as her profile song and I remember visiting her page sometimes
as a sort-of pump-up song while I was getting ready for work. Another of my friends told me that he bought a song off iTunes once because he had heard it on a friend’s page so many times that he grew to like it. I remember the days of heavy strategizing over my profile song choice depending on what song I wanted to expose to “the masses” and what songs my favorite bands had available.

Well, MySpace lost the cool factor to Facebook and nothing’s been the same since, because everything else is double opt-in – you have to choose to visit the page that promotes the music (say, my Facebook page, or this blog) and then you have to choose to listen to whatever music is being promoted. Maybe that amount of choice is really better for consumers, but I still miss the days when I could force anyone who chose to visit my social networking profile page to hear my latest favorite song.

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When Do Sad Songs Become Too Sad?

Music is a medium for expressing emotions. We can all think of songs that embody seething anger, exuberant joy, or aching despair. Lately I’ve been thinking about the sadder side of things. There’s a place for letting out the true emotions of your heart, but just because all emotions exist doesn’t mean all of them are healthy to revel in. When does a sad song cross the line into self-pity and simply become too sad?

It all started with Anberlin and the moodier songs from their new album, Dark Is The Way, Light Is A Place. Stephen Christian’s never been the happiest songwriter around, but when he sang, “Because of you I’ll never write another love song,” that was just too much for me, and I began to think about the difference between sad songs I like and sad songs I can’t stand.

I don’t like songs that portray no hope, because there is always hope. But what if you don’t feel hope? Songs that have a cheesy “don’t worry, Jesus saves” ending can take away from the legitimacy of the feeling of hopelessness.

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Parallel Rhythms: What Hymns and Metal Have In Common

Or, How To Be A Better Band

Musicians in a good band do more than simply play the same chord progressions at the same tempo. Bands that set themselves apart also pay attention to the rhythms that connect the notes with the tempo. When different instruments share a confident, matching rhythm, the power of the music is released stronger and farther than any of the individual pieces could reach on their own. While this idea of parallel rhythms can be found in old hymns and undoubtedly in classical music and farther back, I first truly noticed it in my introduction to modern metalcore band As I Lay Dying.

Metal consists of the drummer hitting a lot of constant double-bass while the guitars either wail a lot of solos or chug a lot of power chords. On “Nothing Left,” the first full track of As I Lay Dying’s An Ocean Between Us, we hear an opening teaser that quickly dissolves into this rapid-fire attack like a barrage of bullets from a machine gun (around 0:10-0:40).

du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du….

It’s powerful enough as far as metal goes, but As I Lay Dying knows how to squeeze the most out of their style. The instruments pause as Tim Lambesis comes in with the screaming vocals, and the instruments come back with a decidedly different rhythm:

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Variable Pricing on iTunes

Today is the day Apple ends its long-standing practice of $.99 for every song on iTunes. There are now three tiers, with the old price joined by $1.29 for some popular tracks and $.69 for some forgotten ones. They’re basically hoping that demand for online singles is inelastic (or, for those of you who haven’t taken Basic Economics, that a 30% increase in price will lead to less than a 30% decrease in units sold, and vice versa for the $.69 tracks).

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