Christmas Stories: 12 Of My Favorite Christmas Records Of All Time

It doesn’t feel completely accurate to say that my wife and I like Christmas music. We freaking love it. We both come from homes that celebrated old school classics as well as newer material. As a result we have a pretty solid and impressive collection of Christmas music. In fact, we actually have an iPod dedicated specifically to Christmas music. When my wife got a new iPod, we took her old mini (which very appropriately is green), cleared out all the old stuff and loaded it up with holiday tunes. As soon as Thanksgiving’s over, we pop that bad boy on and dig those tunes until Christmas. I figured it would be a good time to lay down a list of some of my favorite records to listen to around this time. Hit the jump to dig these crazy tunes. Continue reading Christmas Stories: 12 Of My Favorite Christmas Records Of All Time

Christmas Stories: Gentle Giant Snowbunny Padme Mistletoe Bust

In previous posts, I’ve written about Gentle Giant’s awesome holiday themed statues that they send out to folks around Christmas time. Back in 2008, I received the Commander Cody statue with light-up snowman and scarf, then in 2009 I got the Yak Face with reindeer antlers and candy cane cane. I figured, since I was no longer working at ToyFare, ol’ Yak Face would be the last one I’d get, which was a bit sad but totally understandable. Then as if delivered by Santa himself instead of the mailman, I was surprised and excited to find a Gentle Giant box in the mail.

Since it came after Christmas (or maybe after we left to see family for the holidays, I can’t quite remember), I didn’t put what has been dubbed Snowbunny Padme up, so she was a welcome addition to my little Star Wars shelf when the missus and I started putting our  decorations up. The mistletoe and furry cape are a really nice touch. I’m not going to get my hopes up this year, but you never know when a Christmas miracle is going to happen!

Christmas Stories: Why Is Best Buy Being So Mean To Santa?

Seriously, who thought getting mean ladies to pick on Santa Claus, the bringer of joy to millions, would make for a great ad campaign this holiday season. I get that they’re trying to be funny and there’s nothing wrong with the concept itself, but when you’re trying to get laughs off of one of the most popular icons of the past century while also trying to make money off of the holiday he is associated with, it just feels off.

Am I off on this one? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not offended, I just think these commercials are annoying and a little mean-spirited. Though, considering how people act on Black Friday and in pretty much every mall parking lot from the end of November until the third week of January, maybe that’s fitting.

Christmas Stories: The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s Dig That Crazy Christmas

I know I’ve been severely lacking in Christmas Stories posts this year. It’s not because I’m not having trouble getting into the season, but I am having trouble writing posts about getting into the season. Also, turns out I’ve written about a lot of this stuff already, which makes sense because we watch most of the same movies and listen to the same records every single year.

But, I did get a few new Christmas discs that I’m pretty excited about. The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s Dig That Crazy Christmas from 2005 has been on my radar since it came out, but it wasn’t until Amazon sold the digital version for $5 (it’s $8.99 now) that I added it to our collection. I’d been a fan of Setzer’s since the swing revival of the late 90s. After getting Dirty Boogie along with the rest of the world, I also went back and got Guitar Slinger and later picked up the one and only ’68 Comeback Special disc. I really dig the rockabilly sound Setzer produces and thinks he really utilized his band. There’s also a lot of surf rock elements that I really enjoy.

Thankfully, all of those elements are on Dig That Crazy Christmas and it makes for a really fun holiday sonic adventure. There’s a great mix of standards like “White Christmas” and “Let It Snow” as well as blues and swing based tunes I hadn’t heard before and even a couple of original songs.

One of my favorite tracks on the record is the noodly mostly instrumental version of “Angels We Have Heard On High.” It’s already such a big and powerful song, which is both exemplified and amplified by the combination of the Orchestra and Setzer’s chops. And that’s really what I’m looking for in new Christmas albums: new takes on old favorites. Usually I’m the guy that wants new inserted into most things and that’s occasionally the case when it comes to Christmas music, but I usually want to sing along and if you can’t do it better or in a different way than Bing Crosby, Dean Martin or Peggy Lee, don’t bother. Setzer and company make these songs their own and thus give a nice rocking take on the songs I know and love.

Christmas Stories: Best. Gift. Ever.

Yes, it’s January 3rd and I’ve got one more Christmas post in me. The missus and I headed back to Toledo for New Year’s/Second Christmas this year because my mom had to work hospice on actual Christmas. Well, that wasn’t the only reason apparently. It turned out that my parents and the missus had been conspiring for months to get me in town for one very special gift I never expected: tickets to the Steelers/Browns game yesterday in Cleveland. Originally, the folks were planning on just coming out here, but they all worked behind the scenes to get me in Ohio so I’d be much closer to the game. For a little while I was surprised that everyone was so sneaky (especially because the missus apparently told EVERYONE and no one accidentally let it slip), but after that, I was just happy and surprised.

And it all almost didn’t happen. We left for Toledo on Thursday morning, but early that morning I woke up with some pretty intense stomach pains. I didn’t really want to go, but felt obligated and wanted to see my parents. Then, I got sick on the way. Twice. The missus took over the driving duties and got my sick butt to Toledo which was even more impressive because she’s pretty pregnant. Oh, and it’s about a nine hour drive total and took even longer thanks to stops for both of us. She was a real champ and got me to town, offering to turn around, but I said no. Being sick in the car’s almost the same as being sick at home, right? The answer is absolutely not, but that’s what I told myself. As luck would have it, I woke up the next day and felt perfectly fine.

As I opened the ticket on our version of Christmas morning–which was actually New Year’s Eve day–I honestly didn’t get it at first. I saw the big Cleveland Browns logo on the one side, but it didn’t click right away. For some reason, I’ve thought about trying to get tickets to see the Steelers play against the Giants, Jets and even the Bills, but never contemplated going to Cleveland to check them out. Luckily my dad’s smarter than me and got this whole ball rolling. He even got tickets in a section that had access to an inside section where you could get food and beer, warm up and not go to the bathroom without freezing your junk off (much appreciate as it turned out to be pretty freaking cold).

Even though the Steelers are a much better team than the Browns, the Steelers still played hard. See, even though they had a spot in the playoffs clinched, they were still going for a win in order to get home field advantage and a by week (basically a week off for you non football fans) in order to get some of their banged-up players in better shape. As it turned out though, the injured Heath Miller and Troy Polamalu returned to action for that game, which was a lot of fun to watch. Seeing my favorite players in action was so much fun! My dad and I hoped that the Browns would put up a bit of a better fight just to keep things more interesting, but that was not in the cards as the score wound up being 41-9, Steelers.

It was actually hard seeing the Browns get beat that bad. My mom is from Cleveland, her mom (my Grandma) still lives there and my dad’s dad is a big fan, so there’s a connection to the city and the team. I even used to have a Browns poster in my room,remember when they were good and when they got sold and become the Baltimore Ravens, which was outrageous even to a non sports fan like me at the time. In fact, this is the only cover of Sports Illustrated without a beautiful woman in a bathing suit on it that I remember. Anyway, I think it was the badness of the Browns along with the badness of the Detroit Lions (the only other pro football team I’ve seen play live) that lead me to not care too much about football.

Years later I got into the sport after getting a copy of a few-years-old Madden game for PS2 in college and playing as the Steelers because my buddy Chad was a huge fan and was always talking about them. It was a good year for football because the Steelers were just getting good with Roethlisberger’s first year. Plus dudes like Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Tom Brady all made the game really fun to watch. I was hooked! Even now, I keep an eye on the scores for Browns and Lions games, hoping to see both teams turn things around (things are looking up for the Lions). Because of that nostalgia, I didn’t take it to heart when the amassed Browns fans hurled insults at the Steelers fans (I was wearing a new Steelers hoodie that I also got for Christmas under my heavy jacket, so I was incognito). Plus, I don’t take this stuff as seriously as most.

I’ve got to give it to the Browns fans. They’re dedicated. For a half at least. As you can see in the pictures, the stadium was pretty packed at first, but after halftime, it cleared out pretty quickly. Part of that is because of the intense cold (the sun started hiding behind the clouds which dropped temps by ten or so degrees which made my dad and I pop into that heated section a time or two) and partly because of the losing, plus they can just drive home in a few minutes while most of us Steelers fans had driven a while and wanted to watch the game. Some of the bigger Steelers players also didn’t return at the half for fear of stupid injury before the playoffs (the goal IS to win the Super Bowl afterall, you know?), but it was still fun to sit there with my dad and watch the Steelers do their thing. Our mostly Steelers section even started cheering for the downtrodden Browns a bit, shouting “Let ’em have it!” when a touchdown got overturned.

So, huge thanks to my folks and the missus for setting this whole thing up and my Grandma for giving us a place to sleep Sunday night, which gave us a two hour jump on our drive home today. We had a great time!

Christmas Stories: Listening To The Jack Benny Program

I want to paint you a bit of a picture of my childhood. My room, throughout most of my growing up period, used to be the dormer of our house which means it had these sloping walls. The middle of the room, from door to wall (which also held a window) was regular height, but on both sides from there, the walls angled down to about three feet tall. Being short that aspect of the room rarely gave me trouble. In fact, the sloping walls were perfect for sky lights, which is exactly what my parents installed in the conversion process from dormer to bedroom and my bed was often directly under one of them.

When I was a kid, I had trouble falling asleep and at some point in my youthful days, my dad introduced me to old time radio. He had a set of tapes which I had access to and then, after a while, I wound up having my own tapes. I had classics like Abbott & Costello, Burns & Allen and Amos & Andy, but my favorite became The Jack Benny Program. For those of you who might not know, before TV came around, folks got their entertainment through the radio. Some soap operas that are still on now got their start in radio as did a few news shows, I believe. Like TV now, there were all kinds of shows from comedy and mystery to romance and science fiction. Shows were aimed and kids (like Ralphie listening to Little Orphan Annie in A Christmas Story) and adults and both, but I found myself drawn mostly to the comedies. I would up with a whole brief case-looking case of tapes that were all old time radio. I have very distinct Christmas memories of lying in my bed, with one strand of Christmas lights thrown around the window to my right along with one of those plastic light-up Santas and a ceramic Christmas tree with lights that my grandma made and listening to Jack Benny as I fell asleep. I rarely made my way through an entire half hour episode, so I became kind of an expert in the first 15-20 minutes of those episodes.  In college I found a website that sold DVDs of the old time radio with tons and tons of shows on them. Most of those discs don’t work on my computer now, but I was able to salvage two of the shows that happened to be on those tapes I used to have. Every now and then I’ll put on the story of how Jack Benny dealt with getting a polar bear named Carmichael and even though it might sound ridiculous, I’m transported right back to those days in my old room with the only light coming from Christmas decorations and the stars above me. I can still recite the shows verbatim, but only up to a certain point because, even now, I have a tendency to fall asleep before the show’s end. Listening to those two episodes while driving around in the craziness that is pre-Christmas traffic not only brought a huge smile to my face, but also made some of the awful driving of my fellow New Yorkers not so bad. I had a good time writing about this and think I might dig out some of those tapes when I’m home and write more about old time radio and my interactions with it.

Christmas Stories: Batman Returns (1992)

While I do love traditional Christmas movies like White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Elf and even Love Actually, I’m also quite fond of genre flicks that happen to be set around the holiday like Gremlins (in fact, I wrote a whole list about just that over at Topless Robot). All of which reminded me that Batman Returns–the movie I almost wore out on VHS from watching so much–is set around Christmas time with major moments revolving around tree lighting and other festivities. It’s been a while since I watched this flick and the first thing I was surprised by was how well I know this movie. I don’t just know scenes or lines, but how people are posed in scenes. I knew the exact way that Michelle Pfeiffer was holding herself when she used the taser on her would-be attacker. It’s kind of crazy.

The next thing that stood out to me was how unlikely it would be to see another Christmas-based superhero movie. Even though this one, directed of course by Tim Burton who readers will remember I think is Awesome, doesn’t get into any of the religious aspects of the holiday, it still seems like the kind of thing that studios would shy away from now (what would foreign markets think?!). Heck, I’m surprised they did it back then, frankly.

Anyway, I love how cartoony this movie is without ever being too silly. It really is a comic book movie with a gang of evil circus performers, a mutant being carted around as a mayoral candidate and penguins with rockets tied to their backs! What Burton does, though, is that he makes it all seem real and plausible by creating a world like our own, but clearly different. Yeah Penguin’s kind of ridiculous, but the scenes of him researching his background are pretty heartfelt and you can’t help but be on Selina Kyle’s side because she’s being bullied by the real villain of the movie: corporate crazy asshole Max Schreck played pitch perfectly by the one and only Christopher Walken.

The action’s not as cool as you might see in a recent Batman flick (though you can always tell what’s going on at least) and it might seem kind of over the top, but I would completely recommend this movie if you haven’t seen it and you’re a big fan of Grant Morrison’s run on the book. I highly doubt there’s someone out there reading Morrison’s Batman who hasn’t seen this movie, but I guess it’s possible for people who missed out the first time around or might be younger. Anyway, this is an all time, childhood favorite of mine that I will always cherish, but I think still holds up as a particular kind of movie that will probably never get made again. At least I’ve got it on DVD, plus a butt-ton of toys so I can recreate it on my own if the world ever looses power. I’m pretty sure I could recreate at least 75% with little trouble.