Christmas music is long overdue for a makeover, but listeners seem complacent to hear the same sounds year after year. Maybe it's because the songs are shelved for 11 months and hearing them helps listeners connect to nostalgic memories of Christmases past. Or maybe it's because newer artists are unable to top the comforting sounds of Bing Crosby, Gene Autry and Elvis Presley.
Still, artists attempt to crack into the ostensibly impenetrable Christmas canon. Some of this year's more interesting fare includes former Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland's awkward Christmas album, and indie starlings She & Him's collection of old-school Christmas classics. But even reputable artists such as Bob Dylan and Sufjan Stevens, who both released Christmas albums in recent years, seem unable to dethrone the oldies.
Even Boise musicians continue to supplement the old repertoire with new tunes and retakes on classics. Americana singer-songwriter Matt Hopper is one of them.
Hopper's song "Merry Christmas (Get Back on Your Skis)" is an upbeat, original Christmas tune with lots of jingle bells, mandolin and lyrics meant to comfort the lonely. The song was released as part of the IdaHo Ho Ho with Moxie Java CD, a compilation of holiday songs from local artists.
"The song is about a woman who basically is struggling with mid-winter anxiety and depression," said Hopper. "The whole message is that if you start doing stuff for yourself like going outside and learning how to ski, you might be able to come back from your depression."
Local contemporary singer Leta Neustaedter's "This Year" touches on similar themes. It's a soft, jazzy piano number that's supposed to provide comfort for those facing the prospect of a lonely holiday.
"The song is about somebody who's alone at Christmas year after year, who's hoping that this year they might actually find love," said Neustaedter. "It's not a sad song, but it does acknowledge that Christmas can be very lonely if you're by yourself."
Though their music may tackle weighty emotions, both Hopper and Neustaedter are fond of the holiday season.
"You know how when you come home and put on a Christmas record, it puts you in a good mood?" asked Hopper. "The songs are celebratory and uplifting ... It's nice to listen to that kind of music to help you get in the mood and right mind set for enjoying the holidays."
Neustaedter expressed similar sentiments.
"Holidays are the time when our very fragmented society is on the same page for a little while," said Neustaedter. "It's the one time of year where we all get a little more in tune with each other and our energies are focused on the same things."
Singer-songwriter Dan Costello is another local musician who writes original holiday tunes, including a holiday folk tune he co-wrote with Bill Coffey titled, "Make the Season Bright."
"The lyrics are mostly imagery of the holiday spirit, like families and friends getting together for meals or gatherings, sitting around singing songs or telling stories, and seeing people you wouldn't otherwise see during the rest of the year," said Costello.
The song puts an emphasis on inclusion and tries to appeal to all types of holiday traditions--a trend that many modern musicians follow.
"Our approach was to try and make it more universal and less commercial," said Costello. "Not based on how many presents I'm going to get or something like that. Rather, our focus was to try and create the imagery of the people and the emotions of it, and some of the winter imagery, rather than some of the Christmas imagery specifically."
Boise hip-hop artist Alex "Customary" Post adds a bit of flavor to Christmas classics by mixing in beats and rhymes. His five-song EP, Customary Christmas, is available for free download at customarychristmas.com, and in the spirit of the season, all proceeds from donations go to charities. The album's choruses tend to sample traditional Christmas songs, but Post fills out the verses with humorous, original lines about the season.
"I thought it'd be fun to put a little twist on Christmas classics and give them a smooth hip-hop/jazz feel to it," said Post. "Music sets the mood and helps bring out a little joy and fun in the holidays. It kind of lightens things up a little bit."
Post follows a rich tradition of hip-hop artists who dabble in holiday music, dating all the way back to Kurtis Blow's 1980 hit "Christmas Rapping." There's also Eazy E's Christmas standard, "Merry Muthafuckin' Xmas," and Snoop Dogg's famous holiday staple, "Santa Claus Goes Straight To The Ghetto." Hip-hop Christmas songs occupy a special place in the holiday music catalog.
However, if you're looking to get on Santa's nice list, perhaps rhyming about ho ho ho's in the ghetto isn't the most practical way to get there. Hoping to stay in Kringle's good graces, the young composers at Boise Rock School took a different approach to their songwriting craft. The budding songwriters put together a track called "Christmas Break," a contribution to the IdaHo Ho Ho with Moxie Java compilation. It's a cheery punk-rock song that's heavy on mischief.
"We started talking to the kids and I asked them what they look most forward to Christmas for, and it was unanimous," said Boise Rock School co-founder Ryan Peck. "They all look forward to Christmas break and staying home from school more than anything else."
But Boise Rock School wasn't intimidated by the daunting task of writing an original Christmas song.
"It's easy to do Christmas songs because there's so much material everywhere," said Peck. "You can write about how you hate Christmas, how you love Christmas, talk about Santa, whatever. We even took the lyrics for one verse from the ingredients of a sugar cookie recipe."[ Video is no longer available. ]