- In compliance with American Humane Association guidelines, no xmas minstrels were physically harmed during the writing of this column.
Congratulations! If you're reading this, you've nearly made it through not only the dangerous proceedings of 2015, but also through approximately 10 weeks of holiday music blaring through every radio station and public address system across the nation. Hey, maybe you're playing the same tepid instrumental arrangements of "Deck the Halls" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in private, too. I'm not here to judge. As it's a quiet week for local live music, I'm here to help you make this final week leading up to Christmas a little more enjoyable by suggesting some overlooked tracks for your holiday playlist.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, there's plenty of good holiday music out there, such as Vince Guaraldi's utterly charming soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, Phil Spector's majestic doo-wop arrangements on A Christmas Gift for You (if you can get past that whole convicted murderer thing), Run-DMC's classic single "Christmas in Hollis," and more recent offerings such as Sufjan Stevens' quintet of folksy, holiday-themed EPs. (Not to mention the transcendent beauty found in the realm of classical and art music, such as Gustav Holst's choral fantasy "Christmas Day" and Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols.") The following tracks are personal favorites of mine that might put a little extra kick in your eggnog, or whatever you people drink to get through the dead of winter.
To start off on a reverent note, you can't beat the entirety of Low's 1999 holiday EP, simply entitled Christmas. Dual lead singers Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker's thoughtful ruminations on faith are always present in their music, so their holiday EP is predictably sincere, with glacial, sparse arrangements working magically on standbys such as "Silent Night" and "Little Drummer Boy." Best of all, however, is their gorgeously harmonized take on the visitation of the Magi, "Long Way Around the Sea."
On the other side of the spectrum, the Blackstone Valley Sinners' The Cold Hard Truth About Christmas plants its tongue firmly in cheek. Colorado musical luminary Slim Cessna yodels and belts both countrified holiday standards and originals celebrating Christmas in Fairplay, over the world's cheesiest drum machine and the incendiary guitar work of Rich Gilbert. While every track on the album is unbridled, hokey joy, their take on "Feliz Navidad" is extra special due to the volcanic, punk rock guitar intro leading into that goofy, multilingual refrain.
Big Star's Sister Lovers album pushed the group's previously sparkling power pop into some truly dark and tortured places, and that makes the carnival-esque shuffle of "Jesus Christ" even more jarring. It also pokes some holes into a seemingly straight account of "angels from the realms of glory" and how "the wrong shall fail and the right prevail." That said, it's a song that can be enjoyed in any frame of mind, regardless of religious implications. It's probably the catchiest piece of holiday power-pop this side of The Kinks' "Father Christmas."
Sometimes known as "The Wild Man of Wivenhoe," the wryly eccentric Martin Newell's 1993 album The Greatest Living Englishman, produced by XTC's Andy Partridge, is about as good a melodic guitar-pop successor to The Beatles as you'll get. It also benefits from the glittery track "Christmas in Suburbia," an ode to getting drunk on cheap wine while celebrating "a shoestring Saturnalia." I think we can all relate.
The 1981 ZE Records compilation A Christmas Record is considered to be one of the first "alternative" Christmas albums, and it's stacked with excellent original offerings, including the Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping" and August Darnell's "Christmas on Riverside Drive." Perhaps most improbably, the compilation includes a track from the abrasive no-wave duo Suicide as well as a fantastically strange and haunting solo track from Suicide's lead vocalist, Alan Vega, called "No More Christmas Blues."
Finally — trust me; I haven't led you astray yet — you should honestly venture back to the mainstream and give a listen to "Music Box Blues" by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Yes, TSO's hyperactive, symphonic-metal takes on Christmas carols have definitely worn out their welcome since 1996, but this ballad shows some rare restraint in the Hammond organ-led soul-blues arrangement, and center stage is taken solely by the late Daryl Pediford's dynamically sandpapery vocals, easily the best the band ever employed. If you still dislike it because it's unhip, your heart must be three sizes smaller than the pre-reformed Grinch's.
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