The New Torres Christmas Canon

{ Previously: The Greatest Christmas Songs of All Time }

The Theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

December 18, 2017

Welcome to the 2018 inductees to the Torres Christmas Canon.

As a discerning connoisseur of the Christmas Spirit, it’s easy to become inured to the joys of the traditional Christmas canon after so much exposure. That’s why I make a point to pepper my Christmas playlists with songs that are just barely Christmas adjacent – and some songs that only have anything to do with winter celebrations if one were to use my specific psychological profile as a cipher.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the sixth James Bond film. It was George Lazenby’s only portrayal of the character, and features the only “Bond girl” to actually marry James Bond, portrayed by Diana Rigg – known by then as one of the leads of the TV spy fiction The Avengers, probably better known now as Olenna Tyrell.

One particularly tense sequence has Bond making a daring escape from longtime adversary Blofeld’s headquarters in the Swiss Alps which naturally results in a downhill ski chase.

I’m not even the hugest James Bond fan. It’s just that our household had a lot of movie soundtracks, including the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra’s take on much of the film series’ scores. The standout for me, the theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, invoked such a specific sense of tone and intention that it made perfect sense to me to discover it set to a thrilling ski chase.

Much like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s work, this song takes the sort of features you’d expect of a Christmas song (here, sleigh bells (huh… or is that tambourine)) and makes something a little more sinister, exaggerating all of the surrounding elements to get something more intense, moody, and driving than a simple jingle. I’ve come to associate it with adopting the resolute mindset and courage necessary to brave the elements on the worst of winter commutes.

It also has this ticking clock feeling that’s exciting and anxiety-inducing, very appropriate for the season. Will you sail through effortlessly as Bond always manages to, or soar off a cliff like Blofeld’s cronies? Hope you’ve done all your shopping!!

Look forward to a few more inductees to the Torres Christmas Canon (TCC). Are there are any songs you get in the mood for around this time of year that you’ll never hear playing over the speakers at the mall?

Seasons, by Future Islands

December 19, 2017

Welcome back to the 2018 inductees to the Torres Christmas Canon – my own personal reserve of songs that I play alongside the better known Christmas classics.

As I talked about with Last Christmas, Christmas, being such a tentpole on the social calendar, has come to nearly outpace New Years Day as a unit of measurement in the Western world. An event built on tradition invites endless comparison to its previous iterations. But measuring time really means measuring something more important: change. Noticing the weather, noticing the seasons, is noticing change. To reflect on the seasons is to anticipate, look forward to, or dread those changes. How often do we fantasize about gently falling snow in the blistering heat of summer, or about bright sun and blooming flowers while trudging through slush? How do we assert our desires and maintain our senses of self even while at nature’s capricious whims, going along for the ride?

Aside from the changing seasons, the other way to measure time is in other people, and that’s what this song is about.

In this video, frontman Samuel Herring, channels a strange, emo Elvis, moving his body with the effort of someone trying to have a great time, but is infected with something that might be killing him. It’s easy to get used to the idea that change is something that will happen in due time if you let it – which can blind one to the fact that change, much more often, requires a choice to be made.

Though the song seems to be about a slow, extended ending to a relationship – and the realization that stagnation can look so much like comfort – in it is an acknowledgment of what an enduring relationship is supposed to look like: something that allows you to change and grow together with the seasons.

To talk about seasons, to me, is to talk about winter and not-winter. That’s why this feels like a Christmas song to me. It takes something cold and uncomfortable and makes it… hopeful? At least, if you choose to look at it that way.

I particularly like this live performance done on Letterman. Herring really goes for it, and I’m thrilled that Letterman seems to love it.

Lahan (aka My Village is #1)

December 20, 2017

Introducing another inductee to the Torres Christmas Canon, a special reserve of songs that I attempt to argue to actually be Christmas songs. Here’s a weird one, so great ready.

Two of many staple albums of the Christmas season in the Torres household were Celtic in style.

One, sponsored by the elder generation, was The Bells of Dublin from The Chieftains. I really liked this album when I was younger because it did for me what no other Christmas music I’d been exposed to could. For the most part in my life till then – and, really, even now – the most played Christmas songs were easily divided in two categories: carols and hymns written (or rewritten) in the 1800s, and “instant classics” penned and crooned in the 1940s and 50s. The Chieftains’ music managed to evoke an era in-between the songs that had become popular with time and repetition and those that became popular because they were written to be.

It also invoked a place set apart. Repeated images of carolers, holiday feasts, and “how Christmas ought to be” often evoke for me an old world setting, places where many American immigrants families may have come from. Being an observer of Christmas in America is constantly acknowledging that the root of the traditions you participate in came from a different time and place. Where many performances of the old, arcane Christmas canon can feel distant and too-holy, the Bells of Dublin feels so much more inviting, a mix-up of the personal and the sacred.

And more strikingly, as someone who basically never considers his heritage or genealogy, it makes me wonder how members of my family who died before I could speak with them celebrated Christmas – if they would have preferred either the more solemn or more jolly tunes at a given time. It should be stressed as well that this was my first and most enduring exposure to Irish folk music, which tied the genre inextricably to the holiday season in my mind.

The second album was discovered by me and my brothers on the Internet at the turn of the last century. This was before the dawn of Napster and P2P file sharing, when downloading a single MP3 file was a momentous occasion. An American otaku living in Japan took on the responsibility of sharing the video game and anime soundtracks he bought online. But the times being as they were, he didn’t have the storage space or bandwidth to share and upload entire albums at once. Instead, he decided to curate a rotating selection of music and host it on a public website. This was BIGmog.com.

It was here we would listen to music from video games that weren’t even available in America yet. We would also discover a trend that had been secret to us until then; the demand for video game music CDs in Japan was big enough that sometimes the creators of that same music was release new albums rearranging that music with real, live instruments instead of synthesizers. It was a heady rush to see our niche interest lent a new dignity and sense of legitimacy in this way.

In this way, bafflingly, we began to download and listen to another album with Celtic influence: Creid. We were already familiar with Yasunori Mitsuda’s work with the game Chrono Trigger. With this album, arranged from his music for the coming game Xenogears, he went in our eyes from a someone who made video game music to someone who made music. His music wasn’t merely cool – now it could MEAN something. From Wikipedia:

The album’s title [‘creid’ is Old Irish for ‘believe’] refers to two ideas, with one being ‘a message to those who feel they have lost sight of their ambitions for the flood of information this era surrounds us with’ and the other an affirmation to himself that Mitsuda had ‘rediscovered [his] own path’. Mitsuda felt that with this album, he had ‘discovered the precise mode of musical expression [he] was seeking within’ himself and ‘given form to the belief within [his] heart’.

More interview excerpts with Mitsuda get across his excitement in getting to play and record new takes on his music with other people in Ireland and Japan. This sensation of gratitude and collaboration is encapsulated in the album’s penultimate song, Lahan, named for the protagonist’s Doomed Hometown. The feeling of the Beloved Peasant Village is incredibly strong here, and as it goes on, it sounds like the more talented and expressive residents of a tucked away settlement deciding to come together, culminating in the sort of atmosphere you’d expect at one of those impossible, idyllic, year’s end celebratory holiday feasts.

Because Yasunori Mitsuda’s work reminded us so much of the Chieftains, we routinely attempted to insert it into the the house’s Christmas album rotation with only some success

History Maker

December 21, 2017

Introducing our final 2017 inductee to the Torres Christmas Canon. Finally, the reason I decided to initiate the Canon to begin with.

Going off of yesterday’s Japan motif… the way Christmas is observed over there, at least as I understand it, is really interesting to me.

In European style, Christmas Eve seems to be bigger than Christmas Day itself. Moreover, Christmas Eve has come to have very romantic connotations – like Valentine’s Day, but in Overdrive. Unlike Valentine’s, Christmas usually comes with time off from work, and is followed closely by the New Year. This raises the stakes exponentially, as dramatic romantic gestures are more expected and single people have to decide with whom they’ll be spending New Year’s Eve in a week. This leads often in Japanese narratives (at least those that I have observed (or at least Terrace House and Love Hina)) to a decisive “all or nothing” conveyance of affection, made more fateful by the fact that it will be the last great affirmation of one’s will that may be made in the calendar year – and will define this year’s You. Here, the “Christmas miracle” is not something that happens to you, it’s something that you make happen.

The enduring themes here are “love” and “courage”, and to an extent, “timing”.

The best expression of the sort of passion that results in these “all or nothing” moments is the theme song to last year’s special little darling ice-skating show, Yuri on Ice. So often a story of achieving one’s dreams, especially in the context of a competition, is about obstruction. Narratives like this are about what’s in your way, about all the reasons you “cannot”. Obviously, this is the most dramatic way to tell a story. But it’s also exhausting, and, if you’re like Yuri – someone for whom the “self” is the greatest obstacle, for whom shame and sabotage come unbidden – potentially oppressive.

Imagine instead a story of self-actualization that emphasizes the “cans” instead of the “cannots” – that your success, your glory is fated, inevitable, because OF COURSE you can do it, you were always going to be able to. What separates this from other pump-up songs is its perspective. Even though it’s one singer, it starts by going back and forth between two people: the one stuck in the darkness, and the one who guides them out of it. The chorus goes to first person plural, and then the next verse goes back to two people, but now the magic has already taken hold – our dreams have gone from something that we talk about to something that we can see! The way these two voices alternate between standing out individually (I, you) and combining as one (we) not only illustrate the metamorphic quality of an empowering love, it – FUCKING BRILLIANTLY – evokes a pair skating routine.

It’s your preemptive victory parade. It’s about having the courage – and more importantly, the permission – to believe in yourself. I’m on your side. HISTORY is on your side. You’ve already won!

That belief, that hope in darkness, lets me comfortably play this alongside other Christmas songs.

(Also, it’s got skating and tubular bells, I don’t know how else to sell it!)

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