Soon, critics and amateurs like me (though not me) will be filling the cyber-airwaves with their "Best Of" lists for the year in music. I won't be partaking, simply because I haven't "bought" much music this year, having transitioned in May to Spotify, and I continue to believe in the paradigm that one can't make a claim to his or her best music of the year without "owning" it. It's too easy to dismiss or embrace lightly that which we have no investment in. That may change for me. And soon. But not now.
Instead, here's a quick look at the long game, the most durable album of all time. Note immediately that "durable" and "greatest" do not necessarily intersect. There are numerous albums/CDs that are universally acknowledged as some of the most essential in modern music that I cannot stand to listen to anymore. I've grown tired of them, and I enjoy their pleasures only after long absences from them.
"Durable," on the other hand, is my term for that music which can stand up to repeated playings, whether year after year, even day after day, or some other sustained period of listening. Contenders on my short list include The Allman's Brothers' Live At The Fillmore East, the Steely Dan catalog, Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue, The Wild, The Innocent, and The E-Street Shuffle, and most of the early albums of Van Morrison. All have weathered four decades of listening well.
But the album that stands up year after year for a sustained month of sometimes hour-after-hour listening is A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. You all know it, you've all heard it, though perhaps not as much as I have.
For the past thirty years, this vinyl album, then CD, then Spotify album, has been the mainstay, the most-played music of my family's December. We start right after Thanksgiving, maybe even in the car on the early next morning trip to "Black Friday" outlet malls in Georgia and continue onward day after day, separately or collectively, until it provides the soundtrack for our Christmas morning (along with the Chieftans' The Bells Of Dublin and, in more recent years, Sufjan Stevens). And then it's done. Once Christmas has passed, the songs hold little value for eleven months. But how many listenings during those four weeks of late November/early December? And why?
The reasons are myriad. First, there is without doubt a heavy dose of nostalgia contained in those Christmas tunes. There is childhood, there is memory, there is the cartoon itself for which the music is soundtrack, a television special that once seemed both longer and better than it does now, but which continues to amaze with how much story it manages to tell in about 20 minutes or so.
But A Charlie Brown Christmas is no simple comfort food for the ears. Consisting of only piano, bass, and drums (and occasional vocals), the performances have primitive but effective production values that allow the songs to feel honest, authentic and heartfelt in ways that few subsequent offerings in the barrage of Christmas CDs by everyone but your mother can achieve. Seemingly recorded with little more than a mic on each instrument, and maybe some natural reverb in the room, the trio's rendering of Christmas songs both traditional and original have too much sadness beneath them to ever make us yearn too completely for what once was.
Part of that is because of the ticks and quirks in the performances. Once you've heard Guaraldi's mistake on the piano as he starts "Linus and Lucy" the second time through, you almost can't help but listen for it. A flaw? Hardly. A reminder of real musicians recording on the cheap with just a couple of chances to get the song right? Absolutely.
The other quirk, for me, is the use of children singing. More often than not a cheap recording trick, to my ears only Guaraldi and Pink Floyd use children's voices to properly serve the song. That there are two versions of the original "Christmastime Is Here" shows how different the "feel" of the song is when voices are added. As an instrumental, the song is almost melancholy; when the children sing the lyrics, it becomes an innocent, perhaps naive, statement of the holiday's non-religious qualities. It is not surprising that is has become a standard, even for the most commercial.
And, finally, much of the record's lasting durability may be because the songs were written and recorded to serve the Peanuts story, not to become a best-selling manipulation of a holy season. To hear the songs out of context is still to remember them in context, the sweet story where, for once, everything turns out okay for Charlie Brown.
For me, it's also because those three musically-wise musicans, their instruments clear, full, and distinct, present each song as a distinct gift over time and distance to fulfill the promise of the season again and again and again.