Last year, the Obamas and the Bidens each released holiday playlists on Spotify. This came so late in the season — December 23rd — that most people never noticed.
Who wins this festive sonic duel between the First and Second Couples?
However, the Obamas’ set quickly devolves into a ‘90s-heavy paint-by-the-numbers lineup of R&B Christmas standards: the tedious crooning of Boyz II Men & Brian McKnight, Mariah Carey’s omnipresent “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” The Jackson Five shrieking “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and Destiny’s Child’s clinically materialistic “8 Days of Christmas.”
At this point, Stevie Wonder’s earnest “Someday at Christmas” comes as a relief, but the Obamas then disappoint again by choosing an inferior rendition of “The Christmas Song.” We normally hear Nat King Cole’s 1961 version, but Barack and Michelle evidently prefer its desecration in the form of a posthumous duet with his daughter over a cringe-inducing new musical arrangement.
The First Couple recovers with Ledisi’s splendid jazz take on “Silent Night,” backed only by upright bass and brushes.
Unfortunately, they then afflict listeners with an interminable ’90s R&B Gospel cheezification of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” by Yolanda Adams.
Late in the game, the Obamas get back on the good foot with guitarist Kenny Burrell’s acoustic interpretation of “Away in a Manger,” followed by Eartha Kitt’s well-worn but still definitive “Santa Baby.”
Unfortunately, the First Couple offends again with Sinatra’s sappy take on “The First Noel,” followed by a double-shot of overlong ’90s dreck: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Luther Vandross and “Little Drummer Boy” by Whitney Houston.
Taken together, the Obamas’ list disappoints… much like their terms in the White House.
Vice-President Joe and Dr. Jill, by contrast, keep it real. Like a pair with no aspirations for a political future, they swing with Ella, Tony Bennett, and Diana Krall, and rock with Springsteen, U2, and Tom Petty. Their sole R&B selection (Mary J. Blige’s cover of “This Christmas”) contains more soul than all of the Obamas’ selections combined. Their impressively omnivorous musical appetites improbably find passable songs by Neil Diamond, Kenny Loggins, and Coldplay, and dial up a rousing opera number by Andrea Bocelli.
Biden tosses a wicked curveball in the middle of the proceedings. In homage to his home state, he unleashes “Delaware Slide,” an eight-minute blues blitzkrieg by George Thorogood and the Destroyers. It has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, but it shows that the vice-president — who has endured more than his share of personal tragedy — feels the blues in his bones. If, like me, you have previously dismissed Thorogood as the “Bad to the Bone” guy or a John Lee Hooker wannabe, then this epic, scorching track from his 1977 debut album may cause you to reconsider.
The Second Couple err only twice, near the end. First, with Percy Faith’s insufferably chipper “We Need a Little Christmas,” and with “Wonderful Christmastime,” probably the worst song Paul McCartney ever perpetrated, a horrific marriage of inane lyrics to insipid melody, perhaps documenting the ex-Beatle’s attempt to find the brown note on a synthesizer.
Those isolated missteps do not detract from the overall excellence of the Bidens’ playlist. The Second Couple clearly takes first place as the best holiday DJs of the executive branch.
Will there be a rematch this year?