I am not afraid to tell you that I really like Christmas music, have always liked Christmas music, and frankly enjoy the Christmas season. I say this fully understanding the ultra-capitalist implications of my holiday-lust, but whatever; I enjoy nostalgia. That being said, I know many many many people who despise this time of year, and who really really really hate Christmas music.
I get it – Christmas is annoying. It is religious. It is oppressive.
For me though, there is something interesting about the music of the season, and the infinite interpretations that exist of the holiday music canon. Perhaps its appeal lies in its commonality; we all know these songs (like it or not), and these days our culture is sort of lacking in tradition and communal experience, isn’t it? Whatever it is, I humbly submit eight of my favorite Christmas-themed albums. These are just eight though! I have left out a bunch. Feel free to comment on your faves as well.
Various Artists – God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen (Columbia Records, 1981)
An outstanding collection of concise and occasionally weird versions of all the classics; a real mood-setter. Perfect for cookie-baking and general Christmas-related household puttering. Required listening for the Christmas-music enthusiast.
Duke Ellington and his Orchestra – The Nutcracker Suite (CBS, 1960)
This is an often overlooked piece of pure holiday gold. A Christmas miracle, really. Original pressings are hard to find (and typically pricey), but reprints and CD versions are out there. Go get.
Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy Records, 1965 & 2006)
There is not much to say about this expect that it is just the best. The remaster from 2006 sounds really great and includes awesome liner-notes that tell the story of how Guaraldi was hooked-up with the Peanuts gig, and how his music became synonymous with both Schultz’s work and Christmas.
Various – Death Might Be Your Santa Claus (Legacy, 2012)
This was a Black Friday Record Store Day release in 2012 and the most festive thing about it is the cover. The music may not put you in the traditional capitalist Christmas spirit, but it is rad, and spooky, and real-feeling, which is perfect for that particular darkness one can feel during this special time of year.
Various – A Very Special Christmas Volume I (A&M, 1989)
This is perhaps included on this list due to nostalgia – it is one of the first Christmas music albums I can remember listening to with my mom and my brother, and it contains awesome versions of the classics as well as some amazing originals such as Run DMC’s modern classic “Christmas in Hollis”. My favorite track is U2’s impressive rendition of “(Its Christmas) Baby, Please Come Home,” which is full of verve and yearning, like most of pre-Zooropa U2.
John Fahey – The New Possibility & Christmas with John Fahey Vol. II (Takoma, 1968, 1975)
It always blows my mind when someone hasn’t heard The New Possibility, John Fahey’s sort-of famous album of Christmas songs reworked for finger-picked guitar. It is more likely that people have heard that album, but haven’t heard Volume II, which is just great and also features a bizarre psychedelic lion on its cover. These are both (usually) easy to find on vinyl.
The Beatles – The Beatles Christmas Album (Apple, 1970)
The Beatles never released an official collection of Christmas songs, but each year from 1963 to 1969 they released an un-official Christmas-themed EP which was given to members of the Beatles Fan Club as a gift. These flexi-discs featured a Christmas message and a song or two (hastily recorded). In 1970, the year of the band’s demise, they compiled all of these on one 12” LP, as a thank you to their loyal fans. This record is hard to find, and typically expensive. It has never been officially released but bootlegs abound! Happy hunting.
The Beatles – On Air: Live at the BBC Volume 2 (Capitol, 2013)
The Beatles saved my life when I was 11 or so. At the time I was in the middle of a heavy top 40 R&B phase and my favorite albums included Mariah Carey’s MTV Unplugged and SWV’s (not) classic It’s About Time. I think my mom was a little tired of this ongoing slow-dance hit parade (did I mention, though, that I was also infatuated with Ace of Base? I know, I know), so she took me to the local branch of the county library and together we checked out three Beatles albums: A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, and Revolver.
For whatever reason, these three records connected with me in a way that, up to that point, nothing had ever done before. I became mildly obsessed with all things Beatles. I needed to hear everything ever recorded by them, see every film, look at every photograph, read every book and magazine article. It helped that this was 1994/95, which was when when the Beatles Anthology and Live at the BBC Volume 1 had just surfaced and the band was enjoying a second wave of huge popularity. The anthology and the BBC sessions gave uber-fans a glimpse into the unscripted (though heavily edited) secret-feeling world of the Beatles; a chance to sit in on studio outtakes and live performances, which of course wasn’t possible really, since all the action happened three decades earlier.
I’m 31 years old now, and the Beatles fan in me is quite happy that Capitol Records has released a new slough of BBC Sessions from the years 1964 and ’65, featuring unheard live performances of various Beatles classics and covers. Also present on this extremely well-put-together 6-sides of wax are snippets of interviews and the characteristic witty-Beatles banter that fans love so dearly. Listening to the BBC Sessions Volume 2 is like stepping into a time machine, landing in 1964 and clicking on the radio. In short it is an awesome treat for fans and a window into a different time for everyone.
Watch the AWESOME video for the Beatles cover of Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love”:
Of Montreal – “Lousy with Sylvianbriar” (Polyvinyl, 2013)
Kevin Barnes and company return with a British-pop inspired major work, and a sonic departure from the heavily programmed midi glam-pop that made them famous. Lousy with Sylvianbriar is an emotional, cheeky, exhibitionist fantasia – satisfying both lyrically and musically.
The arrangements are lush and the songs range from the dynamic pop of “Fugitive Air” to the stark-but-stylish “Sirens of Your Toxic Spirit.” Of Montreal prove they are masters of the subtly surreal on this record — not wearing their psychedelic merit-badges with the same gusto as, say, MGMT, but wrapping themselves in a cloak of understated hallucinatory soundscapes.
Listening to this record is less like taking acid at Coachella (dear god) and more like drinking a little mushroom tea in the woods with friends. This is felt most convincingly on gems like “Colossus,” “Triumph of Disintegration” and “Raindrop in My Skull.”
Listen to “Fugitive Air” by Of Montreal:
Paul McCartney – New (Hear Music, 2013)
I have to say, right off the bat, that I was completely floored by “New”, the first single released from the album of the same name by Sir Paul McCartney. The production is perfect, the song is full of hooks, the melodies are reminiscent of Revolver-era Beatles; I honestly couldn’t imagine Sir Paul coming out with a better song six decades into his career.
I probably listened to “New” about a million times before New was released – and so I was prepared for a bit of a let down (I love Sir Paul, I love the Beatles, but the man has clearly passed his peak). In a delightfully shocking turn of events, New is without a doubt the best Paul McCartney solo work since Band on the Run (unless you don’t count that as solo, which some don’t) or even Ram.
Yes, predictably there are some stinkers (I could’ve lived without “Appreciate”), but for the most part this album is genius and in true McCartney style has a little bit of everything, from the bubblegum of “New” to the strummy folk pop of “Early Days” to the Wings-esque rocker “Save Us.”
Standout tracks “Alligator”, and “Queenie Eye” burst with Beatle-esque energy and brit-pop sensibility, and my personal favorite track, “On My Way To Work” finds Sir Paul up to one of his best tricks: revealing a subtly surreal world hidden just beneath the surface of mundane everyday life.
Watch the video for “Queenie Eye”:
Bill Callahan – Dream River (Drag City, 2013)
“Drinking / while sleeping / strangers / unknowingly / keep me company / in the hotel bar / looking out a window that isn’t there / looking at the carpet and the chairs / The only words I said today / were beer / and thank you / beer / thank you…”
These are the innocuous and transcendently-gorgeous words that open Dream River, the latest masterpiece by Bill Callahan. Sung by any other voice, in any other cadence, this sort of dry poetry might fall flat. But in Callahan’s commanding baritone and with his absurdly-perfect timing, these words are capable of piercing the heart like a hot knife.
Dream River picks up right were 2011’s Apocalypse left off. If someone told me that these sessions were recorded at the same time, I would believe them. This is really great news for Callahan fans – more really good work, with essentially the same masterful production values and performances as the last two extremely satisfying Callahan releases on Drag City, but new songs! New words! New sentiments!
Imagine if the Beatles had recorded another album between Rubber Soul and Revolver – this is sort of what that’s like (maybe this is a stretch, but stay with me) for Callahan-lovers; just more of a really good thing that works really well.
Mazzy Star – Seasons of Your Day (Rhymes Of An Hour, 2013)
I’m not going to talk about how this is the first Mazzy Star record in five thousand years like every other blogger in the universe, but I am going to talk about the music on this record, because that’s the important thing right? (I’m generally disgusted by the way music bloggers just regurgitate press releases endlessly – get a job, hippies).
I’m also not going to talk about how everyone and their mother has basically lifted Mazzy Star’s sound in the last reverb-soaked decade, because EVERYONE IS SAYING THE SAME THING ON THE INTERNET! Weird, right?
This is a gorgeous new record from a wonderful band, that should delight fans and maybe confuse younger people who don’t know what guitars and drums sound like when they are perfectly in tune and when the beat isn’t edited by a machine. There are (happily) moments where you can tell that a band is in a studio performing music, where you can hear the sounds of the room, where you can almost feel the warmth of the tubes in the amps and the thwack of the sticks on the snare.
I haven’t smoked a cigarette in two months now, but goddamn – if I did I would turn out all the lights, pour myself some bourbon on put this record on.
Arcade Fire – Reflektor 12” Single (Merge, 2013)
The Grammy Award-winning, Canadian, Springsteen-worshiping band Arcade Fire released a mysterious new 12” single of “Reflektor”, the first offering from the group’s highly anticipated follow up to 2010’s The Suburbs, out in October on Merge. The single (and the album, which is also called Reflektor) was produced by LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy, which is evident from the minute the beat kicks in.
In the past, Arcade Fire might have flirted with the idea of getting their massive audiences to dance with songs like “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” but here, Win Butler and company have released the flood gates of groove, accomplishing in a somehow-tidy seven minutes what Daft Punk attempted to do with the (forced at gunpoint) “song of the summer” “Get Lucky”: making us move without telling us to.
If the title track is an indicator of what the rest of the record is like, Reflektor is shaping up to be worth the hype.