Drew’s Holiday Special Feature 2011: Xmas Music That Doesn’t Suck
My gift to you this year is Xmas music that doesn’t suck.
I’m not a Christmas carol kind of guy. Hell, I’m not really a Christmas kind of guy either. Just never seem to get in the spirit of things this time of year. Part of what makes it so hard to deal with is that for about six weeks a year, every year, we are forced to hear the same songs or newer (and often worse) versions of said songs in stores, on the radio, in television ads, and now, increasingly, in the new generation of insufferable pop-up ads. It’s inescapable, it’s everywhere.
This year however, rather than putting as much distance between me and all things Christmas as I could, I decided to do things a bit different. I dug a little deeper in the crates and cobbled together a playlist that could put even someone like me in the Holiday Spirit. It worked for me, and if you’re like me, then maybe it will work for you too.
This list of 12 songs for Christmas represents what I feel to be the cream of the holiday music crop. I’m not talking about rock bands covering Xmas carols, like GnR’s “White Christmas” or Metallica’s “Enter Santa”, I’m talking about gen-u-ine O-riginals, contemporary classics, tailor made to suit the season. Some you may know, others you may not, but I hope you enjoy all of them. Here they are:
Band of Horses –“The First Song”: As the song says, “Christmas time is coming,” but beyond that and a brief mention of snow and present-wrapping, there’s not much about this song to suggest it’s one for the holidays. Good enough though, and maybe that’s why I like it so much – it’s like a carol in disguise. I guess you’d be creating some unreasonable impressions and expectations making the first track on your first album a Christmas song, especially since said album was released in March, so that combined with Bridwell’s deliberately obtuse vocals do well to obfuscate the songs true meaning. It’s exactly how I like my holidays: understated.
Ben Folds Five – “Brick” I’d never really considered it until the time of this writing what an ironic juxtaposition this actually is: a song about having to have an abortion during a time which purportedly celebrates birth, and what a slap in the face that must be to everyone involved. This one made the cut 1) because it takes place the day after Christmas, and 2) because every holiday party has to have one big bummer. I’m just glad this year it’s not me. It’s got some stiff competition this year but “Brick” might win the saddest song on the list award.
The Kinks – “Father Christmas”: From class struggles to youth-related gang violence, this holiday favorite covers all the bases, secular and non-. Though up-beat, poppy and fun, at its core there are some serious issues dealt with in this song: street toughs threatening a department store Santa, demanding the necessities that their parents are unable to provide, which turns out mostly to be money and guns. Best line: “Give my daddy a job ‘cause he needs one, he’s got lots of mouths to feed.”
My Morning Jacket – “Xmas Curtain”: The Okonokos version is the best one I’ve heard. Had to listen to an interview with the band to find what exactly, apart from the title, made this a Christmas tune. Lines like “The Christmas curtain falls on lawbreakers…” and “you pay to get behind her Christmas curtain,” made me think it was slang for something I didn’t recognize, but Jim James explained once that this song is about stealing Christmas presents from department stores when you’re too poor to buy them for the ones you love. (James admits to feeling somewhat like a misguided Robin Hood in those days.) You don’t often hear someone bragging about theft in a holiday context, and it’s one of the few songs on this list (along with “Evergreen”) that I can listen to all year round without feeling weird about that. A better (or more appropriate song, I should say) would be their cover of The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight.” This comes off their holiday-themed iTunes Session which was released this year, not really in time for proper consideration RE: list inclusion. I actually just heard it for the first time on December 19th. Though not I religious man, I am deeply moved on occasion when I am met by something which so deftly encapsulates the whole reason for the season, and this is another MMJ song that can reduce me to near tears.
MC Chris – “Evergreen”: Deck your halls with holly and hallucinogens while listening to my favorite holiday themed MC Chris song, and call it MC Christmas. From the misfits sample intro to the killer opening line (“On the first day of Christmas my dealer gave to me/a bag of ‘shrooms and some LSD”) right on through ‘til the end, the short but sweet holiday number is the perfect tonic for when you want to flip off hordes of angry shoppers or smash every Bing Crosby record you hear.
Arab Strap – “To All A Good Night” : This one belongs with “Evergreen” in the chemically enhanced holiday category. “To All A Good Night” is about taking ecstasy on Christmas Eve Eve, which doesn’t really sound like a bad idea (especially if it’s snowing), provided you can shrug off the psychic hangover that’s sure to follow an evening’s indulgence in methylenedioxymethamphetamine in time for the Big Day. No one needs their sense of well-being shattered on Christmas like that. Though Aidan is not always the easiest to understand (he tends to mumble a bit), you should get the gist from the first couple of lines.
Morphine– “Sexy Christmas Baby Mine”: I found a really cool user video for this song where they took the track and played it over a picture slideshow of exterior and interior shots of seedy motels, which is exactly where I feel like I belong when I’m listening to Morphine, most of the time. The most striking of these images is displayed at 1m2s and is recalled after less than a second, made even more powerful by its brief appearance. It’s a short video for a great song, not to be missed.
Run DMC– “Christmas in Hollis” A lifetime favorite of mine from a bygone era when rap could be completely wholesome and preach values (“I’d never steal from Santa, ‘cause that ain’t right/so I was going home to mail it back to him that night.”). Everything about this video is awesome: the black Santa, the soul food menu, the track suits, the idea of buying a car and boat that match, I could go on for the rest of the year. It’s like someone adapted “The Night Before Christmas” for the ‘hood. The list doesn’t need to be longer than this one song, really, because it’s got everything it needs to get the job done. I included the other “eleven” really as an excuse to discuss just this one song.
Tom Waits – “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis”: Again, not the most overtly Xmas-y song on the list, but to be honest, I was struggling a bit to get to my self-set goal of 12 songs. Like “Brick” it’s another holiday sob story, but unlike Ben Folds, Tom Waits manages to inject a little cheer where you think there’s none to be found. Neko Case does a good cover; the church organs put the tune in a more reverential, holiday mood. Also, since this is in fact a letter from a hooker, it sounds proper sung by a woman. Wait’s vocals are more soulful, doleful to be sure, but he does not sound like a hooker. Scratch that – he doesn’t sound like a hooker you want to receive a Christmas card from. Ms. Case certainly does though. The best version I’ve heard is this one, where he leads off with “Silent Night,” segues into “Christmas Card,” and finishes with a reprise of “Silent Night.” He has scant accompaniment and the setting is intimate, which lends a Nighthawks at the Diner vibe to the whole performance.
The Pogues – “Fairytale of New York” This song has survived being covered several times, most notably perhaps by the Dropkick Murphys , but more successfully (perhaps) by No Use For A Name. The original video remains a classic. It’s like the east coast Irish analogue for Tom Waits’s “Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis.” Both are mournful but uplifting, centering on themes of love, loss, drugs, alcohol and Xmas. The smoking ashtrays surrounding the band as they play are a nice touch.
The Ramones – “Merry Xmas (I don’t wanna fight tonight)”: I love this video. The whole thing is like a Christmas card from the Ramones that you can watch anytime you want. The dynamic between the couple is fantastic, and the inclusion of the Jewish mediator is a masterful touch. I think it’s sweet of Joey Ramone (who was also Jewish) to want to wish us a Merry Christmas, but I don’t know if it’s meant to be genuine, ironic, satirical or what. The dude throwing up at the end of the video makes the whole Merry Christmas message seem a little more backhanded. Still, a classic none the less.
James Brown – “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” Holiday wishes from the hardest working man in show business, off his Funky Christmas album. It’s also a good way to remember that there was one Christmas when, amidst the flurry of gift giving and receiving, something was taken from all of us; something that many of us may not have even noticed. The Godfather of Soul passed away on Christmas Day, five years ago this year, leaving behind a legacy that may never be outlived. That’s why every year around this time I bring along a little James Brown on my drive over the river and through the woods. I call it Christmas Mourning.
Drew Vreeland-MuzikReviews.com Staff