I’m all for recycling. Except when it comes to holiday music. We’ve been hearing the same collection of Christmas songs and seasonal ditties dressed up, dressed down and undressed, year in and year out for what feels like forever. Consider “Jingle Bells,” for example. That song has been done as choral music, lounge lizard jazz, heavy metal, big band swing, country, disco and even EDM. When you consider the trouble someone went to in order to come up with an arrangement of a tune like this that is different from one of the hundreds of others, you wonder why they didn’t just write a new song of their own.
Like the Great American Songbook has been to all jazz creatures great and small, so, too, the stocking stuffed with holiday classics has been a limitless font to everyone from Barbra Streisand to Mariah Carey, and Elvis Presley to Justin Bieber. It’s almost enough to turn the sunniest of dispositions into a green and grimacing Grinch.
We could use an infusion of some new holiday tunes, as well as some radical rethinking of the seasonal canon. If we are indeed going to keep some of these classic songs alive, we need the help of some artists given to thinking outside of the gift box.
At my house, we celebrate Christmas, and not surprisingly, music has a lot to do with that celebration. This year, I’ve assembled a playlist that blends classics with some new, and frankly, incredibly strange, classics-in-waiting. It kicks off in Buffalo, travels through the looking glass and into a freaky subterranean dream world, and ends up back at home next to the hearth, with its feet up on the coffee table and a nice frothy Guinness in its mitts. Hope you enjoy it. Happy holidays!
“Who’s Gonna Keep It Together,” Robot Holiday
The Robot Holiday collective features an embarrassment of Buffalo songwriting riches. Aside from Sufjan Stevens (see below), new entries in the holiday tune canon are few and far between. This song, a collaboration between Robots Rob Lynch and Jonathan Hughes, is one of many instant classics the collective has conjured. You can listen and download here: http://robotholiday.com.
“Imagene Piese – Atlas Eets Christmas,” The Flaming Lips
Whoa now. It’s almost as if some prankster dropped something funny into Santa’s milk and cookies. Your holiday will immediately become psychedelicized when you pop this puppy on while trimming the tree and serving up the eggnog. The Lips – and though the credits don’t ever make this clear, it would seem that the primary mastermind at work here is multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd – take tunes we all know and radically reinvent them in a primarily instrumental environment replete with pianos, sitars, tambouras and several instruments that are nigh on impossible to specify. It’s all just plain wonderful, in a manner both joyful and strange.
This obscure early Genesis gem is not a holiday tune, but it summons images of deepest winter, and longings for the coming spring. It’s chilling, weird, but somehow still comforting.
“Atheist Christmas,” Gruff Rhys
The erstwhile Super Furry Animals frontman offers yuletide blessings for those who perhaps have grown a tad weary of the commercial machinations spinning the tinsel behind the Christmas curtain. Some will likely find tunes like “Post Apocalypse Christmas” offensive. Other will get a big fat “ho ho ho” out of it.
“Xmas Time Is Here Again,” My Morning Jacket
Released in 2000, when MMJ was still largely an underground concern, this standout track from the group’s “My Morning Jacket Does Xmas Fiasco Style” is both irony-free and strangely beautiful.
“A Very She & Him Christmas,” She & Him
This whole album makes the playlist, perhaps as an antidote to some of the irreverence that precedes it here, but mainly just because it’s so charming.
“Christmas Unicorn,” Sufjan Stevens
The king of contemporary Christmas music knocked one out of the park with the snarky but celebratory “Christmas Unicorn,” an ode to a mythical beast boasting some delicious gingerbread-encrusted lyrics like these: “Oh I’m a mystical apostasy/I’m a horse with a fantasy twist/Though I play all night with my magical kite/People say I don’t exist.”
“50 Words For Snow,” Kate Bush
Close your eyes, and you’ll instantly be transplanted to the snowy moors, where Cathy still waits for Heathcliff’s return. Deeply romantic and hopelessly elegant, this is classic Kate with a seasonal spin. And again, it introduces something fresh and new to the holiday songbook.
“Jehovah the Lord Will Provide,” Harry Belafonte
Whatever you do or don’t believe in, experiencing Harry Belafonte’s voice intoning this hymn ought to make the hair on your arms stand straight up. I’ve been hearing this song since I was a child, and I still never let a holiday season go by without blasting it and getting all misty-eyed.
“Fires at Midnight,” Jethro Tull
This is not specifically a Christmas song, but it is simultaneously hopelessly corny and deeply moving, like so much seasonal music tends to be. Listening, you see the snow falling outside the window, and feel grateful for the company of loved ones. “Kindled by the dying embers of another working day/Go upstairs, take off your makeup/fold your clothes neatly away/Me, I’ll sit and write this love song, as I all too seldom do/ Build a little fire this midnight/It’s good to be back home with you.”
And to all, a good night.