On All-Christmas-Song Stations, Little Is Sacred

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 25, 2005

By today, we are more than ready to usher Burl Ives and Andy Williams back into the celestial vault where they await the start of each season of Christmas music.

In stores, in the car and at work, the songs of the holiday seem a jarring intrusion when they first appear, minutes after the kids finish trick-or-treating. By now, we cannot wait for our Christmas favorites to be silenced. But in between, Christmas, whether Holly Jolly or White or Happy or Merry Little, washes over us and, at least according to the radio industry, we are glad of it.

With each passing year, more and more stations drop their regular formats to go all-Christmas music, all the time, from about Halloween till New Year's. The ratings often reward such decisions with higher numbers than those stations win the rest of the year.

And what we're listening for in the way of holiday music is happy, sweet numbers that shy away from the religious. An analysis of the most-heard Christmas songs played on 50 all-Christmas stations across the country, compiled by the research firm Media Monitors, shows that the most popular tunes were Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song," Ives's "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas," Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," and Bing Crosby's "White Christmas."

Not a single carol or traditional religious song appeared in the Christmas Top 10. Instead, the tunes that really get us in the holiday mood (or out to the stores) are classic pop and rock numbers by the Carpenters ("Merry Christmas, Darling"), Johnny Mathis ("It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas") and John Lennon and Yoko Ono ("Happy Xmas [War Is Over]").

Lennon's 1971 hit is the most recent recording in the Christmas Top 10; we like our holiday songs time-tested. Eight of the Top 10 are from the 1940s through the '60s.

The Media Monitors study finds that although stations are wary of sacred songs, they do get some airplay. The most frequently spun traditional songs were "Do You Hear What I Hear?" in the Whitney Houston version, and "O Holy Night," as interpreted variously by Josh Groban, Celine Dion and Michael Crawford.

But as much as we cling to Frank Sinatra, the Ray Conniff Singers and good old Bing at this time of year, there's enough variety in the holiday music biz that the two satellite radio companies, XM and Sirius, offer multiple channels of Christmas music. Sirius has holiday classics on one channel and Christmas country tunes on another, while XM does the holiday big time, with five all-Christmas streams: holiday hits, traditional songs, country, classical and a channel called Special Xmas, which programs more holiday exotica than you ever dreamed existed.

Lou Brutus, a former rock deejay at the late WHFS who now toils as XM's punkmeister, presiding over its channel called Fungus, has been collecting Christmas novelty records since he was 10. His collection of more than 10,000 CDs contains many hundreds of weird and wacky holiday tunes that stretch far beyond the obvious gimmicks from the Chipmunks; the barking, caroling dogs; and the song stylings of Cheech and Chong.

"People like to hear the good favorites like John Lennon's 'Happy Christmas,' but they are also a little tired of hearing a lot of bad Christmas music," Brutus says. "They need to hear the nasty stuff." We're talking "Father Christmas" by the Kinks; a bracingly bizarre piece of proto-rap by the actor/comedian Art Carney, doing a jazz-inspired recitation of " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" accompanied only by a drum; a dance remix of Crosby's "Happy Holidays"; and the always strange Leon Redbone vamping through "Baby It's Cold Outside."

Every year, Brutus wins the everlasting loyalty of his friends by producing a Christmas CD of the oddest of his oddities. The disc includes some of the raunchiest and most foul-mouthed holiday recordings, such as a 45-second masterpiece from the band Fear (the title cannot be printed in a family publication but consists of an imperative to do to Christmas what Vice President Cheney once told a senator to do to himself).

Brutus, perhaps running contrary to the spirit of Special Xmas, is a sappy Christmas obsessive. "We do three trees in my house," he says. In that house, the holiday tunes you're most likely to hear are the Vince Guaraldi jazz combo pieces recorded for the "Charlie Brown" TV Christmas special, songs by guitarist Steve Vai, Redbone's "Christmas Island" album, and the Beatles' novelty "Christmas Time Is Here Again."

Christmas somehow brings out the corny and the crazy in many artists, providing Brutus with a wealth of material such as Woody Phillips's album of holiday tunes played on power tools, the cult legend Del Rubio Triplets and their saccharine renditions of the favorites, and of course Weird Al Yankovic, who once produced a song that you will never again hear on the radio. It was called "Christmas at Ground Zero," and was recorded long before 9/11, though it did have to do with a nuclear attack on Christmas Day. Still, the title renders it unplayable, which Brutus laments, "because it's a great song."

"If the radiation level's okay," Weird Al sings, "I'll go out with you and see the all new mutations on New Year's Day."

The worst holiday recording of all time, Brutus contends, is Elmo and Patsy's "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

"Anyone who plays that song should have boiling eggnog poured into their ears," he says. "I will personally come to their homes and drive a stake of holly through their brain."

If by this stage of the season you require haute tastelessness, Brutus has just the recipe for you: "For true family holiday horror, you can't go wrong with the Brady Bunch or Partridge Family Christmas releases."

Be good, for goodness' sake.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company