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Danny Elfman Made The Christmas Music You Forgot You Needed

Nightmare Before Christmas
Image CreditMovieClips/YouTube

The problem with Christmas music is that it’s inextricably linked with singers like Michael Buble, at worst, and Mariah Carey, the best. (Don’t get me started on those schmaltzy, nauseating Nat King Cole classics.) December is a big, great month with a lot of joy. But also, some days are cold, overcast, and wet. Or, God forbid, snowy.

Those days don’t call for Michael Buble and Mariah Carey. They need something more somber but sweet. Something a little melancholic but also a little musing. They need something you forgot about. They need Danny Elfman.

You’ll recall Elfman as the critically acclaimed, widely beloved score composer; if you don’t, that’s who he is. He has a catalog of straight-up bangers ranging from “The Simpsons” theme to all the best songs in the charmingly grim Tim Burton movies of the 1990s.

Underrated about Elfman is that three of Burton’s movies are packed with his songs of a gothic hue exquisitely capturing those chilly and cozy but somewhat gloomy days of the Christmas season. (The following are also some of my favorite Christmas-time films, largely because of Elfman’s contribution.)

‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990)

This entire soundtrack is essentially what I’m talking about. The title track (formally, “Introduction (Titles)”) chimes with majestic bells in waltzing three-four time, flutes and strings dancing atop. It also includes one of my favorite Elfman signatures: a children’s choir that provides only “ooo”s and “la la la”s that are subtle but highly effective. The next track, “Storytime,” is largely the same but with a killer ending wrapped in bittersweet sorrow. Same for the titles “Castle on the Hill” and “Beautiful New World/Home Sweet Home.”

Skip to the masterpiece “Ice Dance,” and you can practically feel the snowflakes swirling at your neck as the horns build up to a climax with a pounding timpani, fanning harp, and more children’s choir. “The Grand Finale” is essentially all of the aforementioned songs in one, but even more monumental in its sonic regality accented with crash cymbals and heralding horns.

‘Batman Returns’ (1992)

Save this one for December days of the truly macabre. No song in the soundtrack is anything less than melancholic, foreboding, and even menacing. But they manage to capture the same feel as the “Edward Scissorhands” score, only with a more thunderous brass and plodding strings that conjure dark images of threatening shadows marching the listener to uncertain depths. (‘Tis the season!)

For all of that, head to my favorite, “The Cemetery.” Yes, it’s bleak but also irresistible. Other greats from the soundtrack include “Birth of a Penguin Pt. 1,” “The Children’s Hour,” “The Finale Pt. 1,” and “End Credits.

‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (1993)

Best for parents with children exhibiting a dark streak. Obviously, you have to start with “What’s This?” — the upbeat, sleigh ride of an anthem capturing the childlike ecstasy of Christmas morning (but with cheerful themes related to death, nightmares, and fear). “Town Meeting Song” is another classic with ringing flutes and a muted trumpet to go along with lyrics explaining presents and ornaments to ghouls who only understand the morbid.

Skip to “Making Christmas” for bouncing mayhem and a haunting bassline while demons, witches, and beasts sing their gruesome spin on the holiday. Finally, “Overture” wraps them all into one, a medley of the film’s marquee tracks in purely instrumental, rapturous splendor.

Have a merry Christmas!

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