20 December 2008

12 Songs of Christmas -- Song #12

I hate most Christmas songs for the same reason the readers of this blog likely do -- most of them are crap, or at least most of the versions endlessly recorded of them are crap. Finding a really moving, beautiful song that fits the holidays and still retains any semblance of artistic purity is like finding the Virgin Mary in a piece of peanut brittle at Stuckey’s.

Oddly enough, however, this year we may just end up with a “new” standard at Christmas, and it’s a genuinely lovely bit of work. But first, a little background.

If you're in the UK, or even outside of it, and keenly interested in music, then you may be aware of the annual holiday tradition of the #1 single at Christmas. It’s a huge deal, searing itself into British brains, selling a crapload of copies and -- occasionally -- becoming a genuine holiday song.

Finishing off this extraordinary year, we have the distinct possibility of an extraordinary topper -- Canadian Leonard Cohen's 1984 song “Hallelujah,” covered in a soulful if rather bombastic fashion by a young lady who won some British talent show -- is set to become the first song ever to have multiple versions in the Top 30 simultaneously. In addition to her version, which will very likely be in the #1 slot, fans of Jeff Buckley and his more-famous version are coordinating to get his version to the top (though it will probably end up #2), and fans of Mr Cohen intend his original version (which I find really pretty awful, ironically) to be in there as well (currently at #31, it will probably crack the Top 30). No song has ever had two versions in the Top 30 simultaneously, let alone three.

The song has been used in innumerable ways and covered over 170 times by various people. The best versions, I think, are the most minimal and ”personal” renditions -- the quiet pleas of heartfelt emotion -- rather than the symphonic, belted-out opuses too many try for in a misguided attempt to give the song majesty by substituting orchestral overindulgence.

I decided that the best way to present this would be to pair it with other overlooked yet beloved (at least by me) holiday songs old and new -- very few of which most readers will recognise. So today, I present the first entry, my favourite rendition of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by John Cale.

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