Listen Up: The Best Christmas Album Ever
I’m about to make my annual December pilgrimage to Ikea and then peace out for two weeks of pretty intense holidaying-it-up, so let’s not mince words: Hanson’s Snowed In is the best Christmas album ever.
Perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you know of one more pious, more technically proficient, less pubescent. That’s fine. I encourage you to disagree with me. But I and my esteemed counterpart, Middle School Rachael, will not waver in our insistence of this fact.
I turned 13 the week before Snowed In came out. And that Tuesday afternoon, my mom picked me up from my after-school PSAT prep class and drove my sister and I to the mall, where we went upstairs to a record store that’s no longer there and that I no longer remember the name of, and I bought the album on cassette because I wouldn’t get a CD player of my own until that Christmas, a whole month later. And I’m sure that tape is the only thing I listened to for the next month straight. I’d probably ejected and flipped it midway about a seven hundred times before Thanksgiving even rolled around.
These days, I can hardly bear the sound of Christmas music before the end of November. But sometimes, out of nowhere, in the middle of March or on some blazing afternoon in late July, I will get an urge to listen to Snowed In that’s so strong, so all-consuming, no other music will do. No other Christmas music, no other Hanson album, no other music period. Several years ago, I finally bought a used CD version of the album and ripped it to my iPod just so that I could feed that need whenever it struck, and it has since saved me from several homicidal rampages.
I’m not sure anyone can argue with the assertion that Snowed In was a complete cash grab on the part of the band’s label, Mercury Records. Released just six months after Hanson’s breakthrough album, Middle of Nowhere, the one that ushered “MMMBop” into the world, it was, like pretty much every other holiday album ever released, a product of the Christmas-Industrial Complex from the very start. It was a stop-gap release comprised entirely of would-be filler tossed off simply to capitalize on the American public’s apparently undying love of Christmas albums and American teenaged girls’ apparently undying love of beautiful blond teenaged boys.
Given the context, the album could have been—and probably should have been—tremendously bad. But because they seemed (and still seem) incapable of doing things any other way, the Hanson brothers embraced it whole-heartedly and in absolute earnest. Its 11 tracks are mostly covers of other tossed-off pop Christmas classics plus a few traditional carols, rendered all punchy and pop-rocky at the hands of producer Mark Hudson (who’d helmed records by Aerosmith and Ringo Starr). The old songs were ones the brothers knew already—any late ‘90s Hanson fan worth her Pop Rocks knew the boys had grown up on their parents’ Time-Life compilations of ‘50s and ’60s R&B and rock ’n’ roll, so it made sense that they were so joyously covering Christmas songs by The Beach Boys and Stevie Wonder when other guys their age probably would’ve just rolled their eyes and gone back to blasting Green Day from their Walkmans. The album even had little pops and scratches tacked on at both ends to make it sound like a vinyl record being laid down on a turntable. These brothers were ruddy-faced, long-haired old souls, and Snowed In did its best to pay its dues.
The big thing about Hanson then was that they played all their instruments and wrote or co-wrote all of their songs, and so there are three original tracks on Snowed In. “At Christmas” and “Everybody Knows the Claus” were written by the brothers alone, and “Christmas Time” was penned with Hudson’s help. These three songs are the keys to the album’s real greatness, what transform it from pure ephemera to something real and weirdly meaningful that inadvertently encapsulates everything strange and wonderful about the holiday season, not just the jingle bells and steaming mugs of cocoa and presents under the tree (covered in fine form by the covers and carols) but the emotional and psychological topography of the season as well.
“At Christmas,” sung by oldest brother Isaac, is an oddly mature vision of the season: “Snow’s falling down as you step out of your car,” the only legally-able-to-drive Hanson sings at the beginning of the song, which goes on to describe “family nestled by the fire” and how “you’ll kiss your baby goodnight”—and it all feels so domestic, so weirdly adult, that you feel pretty certain he’s talking about a real actual baby, not the grown woman addressed as such elsewhere on the album in “Merry Christmas, Baby” or “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” The scene the chorus dreamily describes is a remarkable one to come out of the mouth of a 16-year-old—I mean, I loved my family and was a super-mega-homebody at that age, but I’m pretty sure I would have preferred being holed up in my room doing whatever than delivering a paean about hanging with my parents in the living room. It’s like he’s shooting at some future vision, how things will be when he’s older, when he’s not a kid anymore, but he’s still got a ways to go.
Still, Isaac did have a hand in writing “Everybody Knows the Claus,” the album’s worst track, which is all about how Santa Claus is—get this—fat. Righto, captains. But then there’s the wistful “Christmas Time,” which finds 14-year-old Taylor waxing nostalgic for “how it used to be, sitting under the Christmas tree,” which seems ridiculous at first, and maybe it is, because it’s likely he imagined himself as some strapping grown-up man singing it to the same nebulous non-infant Baby as Brian Wilson and Stevie Wonder had before him. But coming out of the mouth of a kid, isn’t it a little more potent, this idea of feeling like the real meaning of Christmas, everything you used to know and love about it, is so far from your grasp? I think most kids feel this way, to some extent—the Santa Claus ruse runs out right before the intense family-loathing and self-questioning of adolescence sets in, and then everything gets complicated, Christmas even more so. Christmas used to be pure magic, but now it just sucks, because everything sucks, and you want to feel like you did when you were a kid, but you hated kids, and you want to feel like an adult, but adults don’t get you, and you hate them for that, too.
“Everybody needs a little lovin’ around Christmas time,” Taylor sings. “Somehow you got to know you’re gonna be alright.” It’s easy to imagine a teenaged guy singing this to some doe-eyed inamorata, someone he’s snuck away from his nutso family who doesn’t get him—that’s how I imagined it playing out at age 14, anyway, because that Christmas I sure needed a little lovin’, I needed to know it was gonna be alright, and I sure would not have complained if Taylor Hanson wanted to provide me with either or both. It didn’t happen, but then Santa Claus brought me a stereo, so things got a little bit better anyway.
Snowed In is completely consumed by this tension, these stuck-in-the-middle teenagers crooning to faceless ladyfriends on half the tracks and straight-facedly hailing the magic of Santa Claus on all the others. Sex and money, the material and the immaterial, the past and the future, the innocent and the knowing. These tensions aren’t unique to Christmas, but do we ever feel them more strongly than this time of year?
This season has a way of compressing time, rendering so small and blurry every other day of the bygone years, so it’s just all the Christmases that stand out, their charms and their scars all glittering in the firelight. Never are my memories of Christmas more vivid than at every new Christmas, except maybe when it’s mid-June and I’m out on the highway and suddenly struck with the unshakable urge to queue up Snowed In. What was important about the album to me in 1997 was how it pulled my heart back to the past, to all the Christmases filled with warm feelings and magic that I’d never get to experience in the same way again. And what’s important about it to me 12 years later is how, now, it pulls my heart back to those same memories but through the very specific filter of 1997, which is in its own way a Christmas filled with feelings and magic I’ll never experience again, either.
I’ve never been too keen on taking the words of 14-year old boys to heart, but there was always one who I made an exception for, and it really is just like he sang: “Everything is different, but nothing’s changed / Are we going in circles? It’s Christmas again.”
It sure is, little Taylor. It sure is.
Rachael Maddux is Paste’s assistant editor. Her column appears at PasteMagazine.com every Monday.