Christmas Countdown, Christmas Is Here!

Day 27

OK Go right to it. One of my favorite bands for oh so many reasons — start your education here — but they combine math and science and music and create amazing videos as well as give back to the community and they are (mostly) L.A. locals and I couldn’t admire them more if I tried. So, with no further ado, here is their way pre-fame Christmas wish for you all on this Christmas Day.

Check out the previous post, or start the countdown to 2020!

Christmas Countdown, Thursday #4

Day 14

Thursday’s theme is Funny Christmas, and while this one isn’t a Christmas carol per se, it’s kind of a meta take on the whole theme, as SNL imagines a whole series of celebrity Christmas songs that, honestly, aren’t all that far-fetched. This dates back to December of 2013, but it’s still relevant today, and seemed most appropriate for Christmas Eve.

Of course, SNL has had a long history of doing Christmas episodes and sketches, and this season marks their 44th, which is pretty remarkable if you think about it. Yes, it’s had its ups and downs over the years, but when it nails it with an amazing cast, it really nails it — and this is something that the show seems to manage to do at least around every Presidential election year.

We certainly saw it in the 2019 lead-up to 2020, and then it just exploded in 2020 — no mean feat considering that a lot of the season was performed remotely, with the cast in their own homes, but it still worked.

But… when they’re not doing politics, they’re nailing human foibles and pop culture, which the video below does. Their aforementioned Christmas sketches do, too, and if you’re interested, Refinery 29 has a list of the best of them.

Check out the previous post or see the next.

Christmas Countdown, Tuesday #4

Tuesdays theme is traditional Christmas Carols performed in non-conventional ways, and for this one I bring you the masters of non-conventional, 2Cellos, Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser, a Slovenian and Croatian cellist duo who met as teens in a master music class. Like so many before them, they learned to do things that their instruments weren’t supposed to do, and they came to prominence with their music video for Thunderstruck, which sets their performance style in a setting more appropriate to the Baroque era before blowing it apart.

The only way I can describe the performance in the video in the previous paragraph, and everything else they’ve ever done, is as super-charged. Sure, I think the staged video may have involved some faking it to pre-recorded tracks, but at the same time, the emotional connection between these two guys when they play together is a constant. It’s almost like they’re having sex in the most non-sexual way. And anyone who has ever played music in a group with other people will understand that.

The connection of music is primal, immediate, in the moment, all-powerful, and it transcends all weaker forms of communication that require words or symbols. Musical communication is pure thought, pure emotion, pure NOW. If you’re not a musician and don’t believe me, go find a drum circle and give it a try, then get back to me.

And, in case you’re wondering — yes, that dynamic between these two guys and their audience is still apparent in a live show, even if they have upgraded to electric cellos.

Note that it seems to be a rule that they play most of their shows with half the horse-hairs on their bows broken from the first moments.

See the previous post, or dive right into Christmas and one of my favorite bands.

Christmas Countdown, Monday #4

Day 25

Feliz lunes, y otra navidad española, esta vez con Natalia Jiménez. She is one of the first singers whose songs I started to learn to sing, both as a solo artist and with her group La Quinta Estación (or La 5ª estación, if we’re doing it properly), and she’s pretty amazing.

In case you’re wondering, my favorites of hers are Creo en mi and El sol no regresa, which also is one of those amazing one-shot videos. Here, she performs the old classic Blanca Navidad, or White Christmas, and this is a pretty amazing example of how to translate the idea of lyrics while keeping the rhythm and not relying on being absolutely literal.

Watch the previous video or see the next.

Christmas Countdown, Saturday #4

Day 23

For this weeks “Famous Duets” theme, we have a return of the song Baby It’s Cold Outside, this time as it originally appeared in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter, and if the date-rapey aspects aren’t obvious in the lyrics, they sure are in the choreography and performances. It’s also interesting to see the entirely different tone taken depending on whether the Wolf is a man or a woman. The man feels that the woman owes it to him. Meanwhile, the implication the other way around is that the man is a fool for refusing the woman’s advances. (Indeed, the male Mouse is the only one to actually walk out the door, but then walk right back in, and is also the only one who winds up on the bottom at the end.)

Regarding the “Famous Duets” involved, some names people may know now and some maybe not, but this clip features Ricardo Montalbán and Esther Williams, and then Betty Garrett and Red Skelton. You might know one of them as the not-Benedict Cumberbatch Khan. Esther and Red were A-listers in their days, while Betty wound up comfortably in character actor territory. At this point, Skelton had a well-established career as a radio star — consider him the equivalent of a YouTube influencer of the era. Everybody knew who he was, even if they weren’t used to seeing him in the medium of film.

Meanwhile, Williams had been recruited from a career as an Olympic swimmer, and then was groomed and trained to be an actress while making a name for herself as a pin-up model — a career path that is still common today.

This was one of Montalbán’s earlier films after establishing himself as a star in Mexican cinema, and it was his second with Williams. Think Gael Garcia Bernal or, to go a bit further back, Antonio Banderas, although he was Spanish, not Mexican.

Finally, Garret had managed to get noticed on Broadway while an understudy gig for Ethel Merman put her on stage for a whole week, and she wound up in Hollywood as a contract player for MGM, which put her in this musical not long after she arrived in town. Eventually, she wound up in television, where she’s probably better known from numerous series, including 70s and 80s biggies like All in the Family, Laverne & Shirley, Murder She Wrote, and The Golden Girls.

Check out the previous post or the next one.

Christmas Countdown, Friday #4

Day 22

This is the last Friday before Christmas, and the fourth and last video on this theme — All I Want for Christmas Is You. It’s only fitting, after all the covers, that we bring it into the station with the diva herself, Mariah Carey. She released it just over 25 years ago, right before Halloween 1994, and it was the lead single from her fourth studio album and first holiday album, Merry Christmas.

She’s also covered her own song several times, including for her second holiday album in 2010, Merry Christmas II You, and again in 2011 as a duet with Justin Bieber for his holiday album Under the Mistletoe. And countless other people have recorded it in the ensuing two and a half decades as well.

Like I originally described it, you can think of the song as “Mariah Carey’s Retirement Plan.” I’ll have another famous artist’s retirement plan song coming up soon although, sadly, they never made it to retirement. And there may be one more surprise in the works when it comes to All I Want for Christmas Is You.

Check out the my favorite cover of this song, the previous post, the next post, or the first post on this theme and in this series.

Christmas Countdown, Thursday #3

Day 21

Thursday’s theme is Funny Christmas, and when you think of funny song parodies, Al Yankovic probably comes to mind. Over the course of at least four decades, he’s consistently turned out amazing takes on major pop songs, with classics like Fat (Michael Jackon’s Bad) and more recent hits like Tacky (Pharrell Williams’ Happy.) He even has an epic setting of the Star Wars saga to Don McLean’s American Pie called The Saga Begins — featuring a rare appearance by a completely clean-shaven Al.

He doesn’t always parody famous song lyrics, though, and his polka mash-ups are a feature of every one of his concerts and albums. And speaking of mash-ups, that brings us to today’s installment, The Night Santa Went Crazy, which incorporates a few songs into a very dark take on the holiday.

Check out the previous post, the next post, or start at the beginning.

Plus there’s a Christmas bonus!

Christmas Countdown, Wednesday #3

Day 20

Wednesday is Famous Bands day. So far, we’ve seen Wham! and Lennon and Ono. Next up, it’s the Boss doing an old classic in his unique style. There’s really not much more intro to give it, except that this was recorded live in concert in 2007.

Check out the previous post, see the next, or start at the beginning.

Christmas Countdown, Tuesday #3

Day 19

Here’s another holiday number from the boys from Out of the Blue Oxford, and while it includes a nod to their earlier cover of All I Want for Christmas Is You, they really camp it up here with an all-male rendition of a song that is traditionally sung by a woman, Santa Baby.

Then again, it’s the 21st century and we’re under a month away from starting the second decade of that century (that’s in 2021, it wasn’t in 2020), so to hell with “tradition,” because that’s a thing that doesn’t exist, just something that is constantly recreated.

See the previous entry, check out the next, or take it from the  top.

They’ll probably drop their 2020 Holiday charity single around this time of year, so keep an eye on their official YouTube channel!

Christmas Countdown, Monday #3

Day 18

It’s Monday, so time for Spanish Christmas carols; los villancicos navideños españoles. This one is very special to me, but first a little back story.

Like a lot of kids in Southern California, I took four years of language between middle and high school. Well, in my case, five, but the last year was German because I’d topped out with the AP (advanced placement) class in the other one.

The first four years… well, four levels over five years, I was lucky enough to get Spanish. (It was luck of the draw between Spanish, French, and German.) I loved the language and loved learning it — I’ve had a thing for other languages since about first grade — but when we got to that last class, our teacher did us a great disservice.

She let us vote on whether we wanted to focus on language or literature, and the vast majority of us voted for the former. She overruled it — so why did we vote, again? — saying that we would learn the language by reading the literature. The only problem was that we weren’t ready for it, especially since we started with Cervantes, who wasn’t even writing modern Spanish. Imagine giving a bunch of fourth-year ESL students Shakespeare and you’ll get the idea.

So it turned out to be a non-productive year, and most of us would drive over the Cal State University Northridge library on weekends, since it was open to LA Unified School District students, although we couldn’t check anything out. What we could do, though, was find and copy the English translations of our reading assignments. (Hey, not quite everything was on the Internet yet.)

This defeated the entire purpose of that year. We would have learned so much more focusing on grammar and conversation. And that was where my Spanish learning ended, although the basics were always in the back of my mind. Still, I forgot quite a lot of it, and couldn’t have carried on a conversation anyway after I graduated.

Flash forward to about seven years ago, and for reasons I won’t get too much into, I found a reason and a need to refresh my Spanish skills. (TL;DR: Doing rewrites on a play of mine being produced that had scenes set in Mexico City and wanted to get it right.) So I started studying again via various methods, like Duolingo, along with reading, joining Spanish language Facebook groups, watching videos on YouTube, and changing my car radio to only Spanish language stations.

And that brings us to this. Every December, the local station KLVE plays a lot of villancicos, and this one was one of the first I ever heard and learned the words to. I also have become a big fan of the performer, Juanes. His stage name, while it looks like the plural of Juan, is actually a portmanteau of the performer’s first two names: Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez.

It’s a simple song about a man riding his little donkey from the savannah (burrito sabanero) to Bethlehem (a Belén.) Belén is also the Spanish name for what English speakers call a nativity scene. ¡Disfrútalo! Enjoy the video!

Check out the previous post, see the next, or start at the beginning.