Judging By The Cover: ‘Wonderful Christmastime’

I have mixed feelings about Christmas songs. I don’t celebrate the holiday, so I don’t have any sentimental or spiritual reasons for listening to these songs. And it’s easy to get inundated with holiday music playing at every place you turn from basically October until New Years. But despite all that, I do tend to enjoy the music for music’s sake, when it’s not too overplayed. I’m sure I’m not alone on that. Typically my favorite Christmas songs tend to be those that invoke a bit of melancholy, introspection, or even subversion, rather than being sugary sweet. Newer songs like Low’s “Just Like Christmas” or Sam Phillips’ “It Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas” or many of Sufjan Stevens’ new songs on his two massive box sets have been excellent additions that find that right tone.

But I’ll admit, sometimes I just want to hear a big burst of joy.

One of my favorite songs from this time of year is Paul McCartney’s 1979 hit “Wonderful Christmastime,” known for that distinctive synth riff from a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. McCartney did a pretty delightful version to end Saturday Night Live this past weekend, and it got me thinking about how much I like this song.

“Wonderful Christmastime” is a song that I think many view as treacly and overly sentimental McCartney pop, the way a lot of his post-Beatles music is viewed. Sure, it has got no teeth. This ain’t “Helter Skelter” — let alone “Jet.” But to me, this song, and especially the chorus “Simply having a wonderful Christmastime” is impossibly catchy and actually fun. And as part of a mix of newer holiday fare, it’s a nice addition to the canon.

Still, “Wonderful Christmastime” has been pretty popular, inspiring its fair share of reinterpretations — from Barenaked Ladies and Hilary Duff to Jars Of Clay. None of them have been particularly good. But just this year, I’ve heard two new covers of this song and both are fairly solid offerings.

The first, by The Shins, on a new Starbucks-produced compilation album called Holidays Rule*, is a more-or-less straight-up indie pop recreation. It’s a perfectly fine and serviceable rendition, but doesn’t quite add enough of James Mercer’s flavor. But it also certainly doesn’t detract at all from McCartney’s original. Sometimes a new artist playing a song as you want to hear it is enough.

*As far as new Christmas comps go, Holidays Rule has some decent selections played by many artists I really love: Rufus Wainwright and Sharon Van Etten, The Civil Wars, Eleanor Friedberger, Y La Bamba, Andrew Bird, and even McCartney himself. It’s definitely worth checking out.

The other cover of “Wonderful Christmastime” that I’ve heard is by a brand new baby band Ex Cops. The Brooklyn band’s upcoming 2013 debut True Hallucinations is already a favorite new discovery of mine, so it’s cool to hear them play those synthy chords and then give the chorus an energetic boost of crunchy guitar distortion and throttling drumming.

Admiring The Art Design Of Broken Bells

Last year’s album from Broken Bells — a collaboration between Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) and The Shins’ James Mercer — was among my favorite records of the year. It was such a great mix of psychedelic pop instrumentation, Spaghetti Western soundtracks and electronic experimentation, but done in a way that was still very approachable. The record was definitely a grower though, as it took time to listen and dig in to all the layers going on under Mercer’s voice.

One of the other things I have loved about Broken Bells is the visual aesthetic of their record cover art. The cover art for the band’s full-length debut — as well as for the singles “The High Road” and “The Ghost Inside” — was designed by Atlanta-based artist Jacob Escobedo, who has also done work for Gnarls Barkley and the Dark Night of the Soul album.

All the images have a cohesive design and color palette, clean typography and a worn-in feel that makes each cover look like an old waterlogged record discovered in a forgotten bin down in the basement. As I said in my round up of the best album art of 2010, “the imagery is both cosmically alien and antiquated, as if it’s what we imagined the future to look like in 1973.”

The band just announced a new EP, Meyrin Fields, that continues this trend and works just beautifully. You can hear a track from the EP over on the All Songs Considered blog at NPR Music.