Perhaps you may have guessed that I sort of have some affection for Christmas and holiday themed music. Time to confess that this wasn’t always the case.
Let’s flash back to Christmas, 1991. I’m a part-time 9-hours-semester college student spreading my time between working at a restaurant in the college town of Columbia, Missouri, while also working for the student radio station there (good ol’ KCOU-FM). Since it’s late December, classes are done for the semester at Mizzou and most of the students have returned to their homes for the month-long holiday break. As for me, I’m still in Columbia. The restaurant I’m working at, Katy Station (it was a converted rail station on the old MKT line), has recently made me a server trainer and as such I’ve got responsibilities…like staying in town when school is out because even though things slow down, there are still 50-60,000 folks in the area, and someone needs to be around to work.
And so somehow that December I get conned into working Christmas Eve. No real biggie, I’m assured. It should be a slow night, I’m told. I’m in Station 1, which means I should be the first station cut when things slow down, and I’ll get out early. That’s good. A few years prior to this my mom and I had established something of a new Christmas tradition; instead of Christmas at her house with family going there, we started going to my brother’s home in rural Missouri. His five kids back then were all pre-teens or barely-teens, so Christmas was a Big Deal. As a country doctor he has a huge house that is always incredibly decorated inside and out; my brother and sister-in-law know how to keep an amazing Christmas to this day, and that was just as true 20 years ago. Anyway, he’s in Sedalia, a mid-sized town of about 30,000 folks about an hour or so from Columbia. I figure I’ll get done with work by 7:30 or so, and be in front of a Christmas Eve fire sipping red wine or holiday beer or eggnog or something by 9pm at the latest.
Well. If you’ve ever gone out to dinner on Christmas Eve, you’re already laughing at my stupid 1991 self. If you don’t do that, here’s what you don’t know: Christmas Eve in a restaurant is insanely busy. I used to manage at an upscale steakhouse in a Washington DC suburb, and Christmas Eve was the busiest day of sales dollars per hour of the year. I know this now, and that knowledge can make working on Christmas Eve kind of fun. Everyone’s in the holiday spirit, it’s busy like crazy, but there’s an indescribable energy in the air that just makes it a neat day to work.
But…these things I did not know in 1991. For our family, Christmas Eve was a big deal. Big dinner at Grandma’s, then presents there, then back home, more presents, and then midnight church. You hung with family on Christmas, at home, or so I thought. As you might imagine, I got a rude awakening that Christmas Eve night of 1991. I was completely mentally unprepared, and as the minutes and hours ticked away and my station was still full and we were still on a wait at the front desk, my mood got blacker. 7:30 came and went. Then 8:00. Then 8:30. I finally managed to get out by about 9:30 or so, but I think I had to double-tip a busboy to do my station and rollups at the end of the shift, and if I did my assigned sidework, I’m pretty sure it was done rather shoddily. What made the passing of time even worse was that a winter storm was rolling into mid-Missouri that night. Freezing rain that wouldn’t turn to snow until Christmas morning. Not only was I going to get a late start on getting to my brother’s house for Christmas, but it was also going to be a painfully slow trip to get there. I called from my apartment (which seemed gloomy and empty; my girlfriend had already gone back home to St. Louis for the holiday) to let my sister-in-law know that I was getting a late start. She promised that she or my brother would keep a light on for me, and the front door would be unlocked.
Honestly though, at that point I was ready to bag the whole thing. I was in a terrible, Christmas-hating mood by that point. I was tired, I was bummed out, and the thought of taking a shower, putting the TV on and sleeping was a lot more appealing that driving through freezing rain that night. I was downright gloomy (2010 Chris would probably slap 1991 Chris in the face with a curt “Get over yourself”.) To make matters worse, I’d bought Christmas presents for the family, but needed to still wrap them. I’m almost helpless when it comes to wrapping presents. I got out the stuff for wrapping gifts and my thoughts turned to what I’d listen to on this painful drive ahead of me. Back then a CD-player in the car was an unheard-of luxury, so if I wanted to listen to something I’d have to tape a CD or record onto a cassette to listen to it. I thought about taping a couple of CD’s I’d gotten as gifts earlier in the week, but something in my head made me decide that if I had any chance at all of getting out of the self-pitying grouchy mood I was in, it would have to be something that got me in the Christmas spirit.
And so I started to tape songs as I wrapped. I grabbed a bunch of Atlantic R&B Christmas tunes (Ray Charles, The Drifters, etc.) from the 8-disc box set I’d gotten as a gift. I grabbed some Christmas songs from the Stax Volt box I’d bought that fall at one of Streetside Records “20% off all CD’s on Tuesday” sales (Otis Redding, of course). For some reason I had this Christmas sampler CD that had been sent to the radio station–I think it was an IRS Records thing–and I noticed there was a song by The dB’s, one of my favorite bands on it. It was a song called “Home For The Holidays”. I taped that, too. I also grabbed a certain Pogues song that night.
I’d made my first Christmas mix.
I didn’t roll into Sedalia until about 2 in the morning, and the driving was just awful–25, maybe 30 mph down Interstate 70. Not fun times. I was tired to the point of complete mental and physical exhaustion, barely keeping it going by the power of a bottle of Mountain Dew. I think I listened to talk radio for as long as KFRU could hold a signal that night. Then I put some random music in the car’s cassette player. It was a good while before I thought to put in my cassette of Christmas music.
Of course you can probably guess at the effect. Despite my nerves being frayed by driving that night in icy conditions with wakefulness only preserved by excessive amounts of stomach-destroying caffeine, and despite my earlier dark mood, that Christmas tape was like all three of Mr. Dickens’ ghosts visiting Ebenezer Chris in one fell swoop. Clyde McPhatter’s lilting alto on “White Christmas”, Otis Redding’s infectiously joyful “Ha ha ha!” on “Merry Christmas, Baby”…yeah, they did the trick. And there was that dB’s song, which was recorded in a rather loosey-goosey recording session the band had done about 5 years earlier. Most of the songs from that session sound as if everyone having a bit of a drunken goof, but then there’s “Home For the Holidays”, in which Peter Holsapple sings with his plaintive Carolina voice “Every year as I get older Christmas gets to me/More and more I want to be home by the Christmas Tree”. The song is gorgeous and evocative, and by the final verse when he strains to sing “and maybe you can make it next year” I think I probably had tears in my eyes.
After that song, I know for a fact that “Fairytale Of New York” came on. I remember it because I’d just turned onto state highway 65, which meant just another half hour or so until I was at my destination. I also remember it distinctly because I ended up behind a salt truck and snow plow from MODOT, and that truck was moving surprisingly fast and I settled into its wake and was able to drive at 45 down that four-lane highway and as the boys of the NYPD Choir were singing “Galway Bay”, and as Kirsty MacColl was calling Shane a scumbag and a maggot and a cheap lousy faggot and as the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day, I realized I was going to get to my brother’s house soon, and safe, and that Christmas was still going to be pretty awesome and I think I was smiling ear to ear in the car.
So that’s what Christmas music is to me. It helps me recapture that moment of pure holiday joy, of thinking of friends and family and giving and all the other happy trappings of the season. If it brings anyone else even a fraction of the happiness that holiday music has brought to me over the intervening 20 years…well then we’ve done our jobs.
Yeah, finally time for this!
As ever, doing this mix dragged me kicking and yelping straight into a healthy dose of Bob Cratchit-esque Christmas spirit. Heck, yesterday it was 60 degrees in the environs of the greater DC area–tough to get all hyped about Christmas with that sort of weather unless you’re Australian, y’know? Still, Christmas happens like a big train coming down the tracks, and you can either let it go by, get run over, or jump on and dig the ride.
You know which one we chose, right?
This year’s mix is called “I Still Believe In Santa Claus (Even If No One Else Does)”. I’ll leave it for you to listen to find that triumphant refrain in the mix, but I think it expresses the sentiment I feel for the holiday each year. I realize that I have some fairly religious friends who are recoiling at the invocation of believing in–of all things–Santa by a grown adult during this holiday, but so be it. It isn’t really “Santa Claus” per se, but rather a feeling of joyfulness and happiness and nostalgia and hope that the season can confer. Whatever the source of that feeling, once you catch that Christmas feeling during the season there’s little to be done about turning it off. Calling it “Santa Claus” is as good a name as anything.
This caveats around this years Christmas Mix are the same as they ever were: the songs are mostly secular thanks to my Christmas Card list being improbably populated by folks of all faiths and creeds. Everything’s a single mp3 stitched together and crossfaded and normalized so that everything should play at the same volume.
This year: 17 new songs, 5 repeats (including two old friends who weren’t around for last year’s mix but had to come back.) We’ve got terrific originals from The Boy Least Likely To, The Summer Fiction, The Leisure Society and a host of others. We’ve got some great interpretations of standards old (Richard Hawley’s amazing “Silent Night”) and new (Bettie Serveert’s Carol Van Dijk handles a Joni Mitchell tune like she was born to sing it, while Superchunk turn a John Cale bit of weird brilliance into a neat fuzzpop concoction). We go from joyful (the LeeVees giddy Hanukkah song) to morose (Isaac Hayes) and pretty much everything in-between. Enjoy, and Happy Holidays everyone!
1. Kimmy Liston, Live At Five Is Wrong.
2. “Christmas With The Snow” Marah
3. “A Happy Christmas Baby” The Boy Least Likely To
4. “Stoned Soul Christmas” Binky Griptite
5. “Walking In A Winter Wonderland” Goldfrapp
6. “The River” Bettie Serveert
7. “For The Holidays” The Grip Weeds
8. “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” Lenny Kaye
9. “How Do You Spell Channukkahh?” The Leevees
10. “Christmas Is Coming Soon” Blitzen Trapper
11. “Christmas Mistakes” The Leisure Society
12. “Run Away With Me” Jens Lekman
13. “Winter Snow” Isaac Hayes
14. “Sleigh Ride” The Ventures
15. “Believe In Me” .fun
16. “Hey Parker, It’s Christmas” Ryan Adams
17. “Secret Santa” Buffalo Killers
18. “Christmastime Is Here” Ivy
19. “A Child’s Christmas In Wales” Superchunk
20. “Another One Of Those” Deleted Waveform Gatherings
21. “Christmas Eve For Two” The Summer Fiction
22. “Silent Night” Richard Hawley
23. “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” (Muppet Remix Version)
First of all, to take advantage of this gift, you’re going to need a Kindle, or the free Kindle app for iOS devices or Android. But c’mon, that’s a lot of you, right?
Second of all, you’re going to need to be a music lover of a sort. That’s probably a given if you happen to be reading this blog.
So what’s the gift? Well, waaaaaay back in March I meant to do this and made the purchases and then somehow never got around to giving these out. Now I find them to be a very nice little e-book stocking stuffer, so that’s what we’re doing. So yes, this is a Kindle book, and I have 10 copies to gift out to the first ten folks who drop me an email at an address I’ll give in a moment. I would very much like to see this particular book find it’s way into the hands of folks who’ll appreciate it. The book is called Music–What Happened. I personally think it is the best-written and most compulsively readable bit of rock criticism I’ve seen in years and years. What the author here does is go every year from 1957 through the present and pick out songs that matter to him, songs that have some importance. The number of songs he discusses from any given year is dependent on only one constraint: they’d have had to all fit on a single CD. Thus, some years there are two dozen songs, some years less than that. The descriptions of each song are brilliantly-written and so sharply-observered that you’ll be diving into your own music collection repeatedly to hear bits and pieces of songs that you maybe missed the first time through.
The guy who wrote this is a music hero of mine, a fellow named Scott Miller. Miller was the leader and songwriter of the 1980′s band Game Theory, and in the 1990′s and 2000′s that morphed into his sort of occasionally current band The Loud Family. I’ve met Scott on a few occasions and can attest that of all professional musicians I’ve met through the years, he is absolutely one of the nicest, wittiest, smartest, and most self-deprecatingly hilarious artists who ever picked up a guitar. He’s also one of the most talented. Scott apparently has kept a list of his favorite songs of every year since his birth in 1957, and a few years ago embarked upon a project of making CD’s of those songs going year-by-year as a hobby. That in turn led to this book, which is wonderful beyond any description I can possibly give. Here, I’ll let Rolling Stone blurb it from their 4-star review:
“Scott Miller was the cerebral indie-pop auteur behind the band Game Theory, whose classic 1987 album Lolita Nation is a head-spinning classic. But he puts a lifetime of musical smarts into this book. The premise is simple: Miller breaks down songs from every year since 1957, more than 1,000 in all. But his insights are dazzling. It’s rare to see anybody say something new about Dark Side of the Moon, which he blames for crummy-sounding records that followed: ‘The managed jazz influence… and sequencer bloops had nations erroneously reasoning, “Who needs big, fat-sounding anything?”‘ When he digs into details that make a song work, he’ll make you want to hear ‘Hey, Jude’ right now—and make you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time.”
—Rob Sheffield in the April 14, 2011, issue of Rolling Stone
Here’s Christgau weighing in:
“The way he describes the songs he loves—some very indie, some anything but—is tremendously suggestive. If only he or some acolyte could spin a worldview around those observations we might really have something to go on.”
Here’s a sample song review from the book, just to give you an idea. The year is 1960:
“Shop Around” The Miracles
This is really the first record that sounded like the sixties. The intro–”When I became of age my mother called me to her side”–sounds pointedly old-timey fifties, but then the verse comes in and pow, suddenly you’re in the world of go-go boots and Ford Mustangs. With the seventh chord accents, busy backing vocals, and out-of-nowhere chord changes going into the chorus, it’s the one song on this list that could almost be on Help! or Rubber Soul. Speaking of: another underappreciated sixties architect, George Harrison, was unrestrained in his praise of Smokey Robinson.
There’s tons of great stuff like that in this book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves rock, pop, and soul music.
And so, I’ve got 10 of these as Kindle E-books to give away. The first 10 folks who drop me an email at chris AT (use the @ symbol, obviously) popnarcotic.com get one (if you have another working email addy for me you can hit me there, too). Perfect reading to while away some free time over the holidays!
Aw yeah, it’s that time of year! We the humble blog elves of Popnarcotic happily present you with the coolest thing ever: Dubstep Christmas, 2011! This was the year we fully embraced a music movement that isn’t at all fleeting or breathtakingly awful and yeah I’m talkin’ serious dr0pz yo. Without further ado, here’s the track list:
1. “Adeste Fidelis” –deadmau5 (27:29)
2. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (Extended) –DJW00t with do5ta4 n w00dy (41:13)
3. “Fairytale Of New York” –The Pogues (3:41)
Tomorrow morning I’ll be putting up the Popnarcotic Christmas Music Mix for 2011, and I’m very happy with the way it turned out after about 5 revisions. We got you a bunch of new or never-used tracks along with a handful (three or four) old favorites making a return from Mixes Past. So there’s that.
This here post is by my way of curmudgeoning the conventional, lowest-common-denominator lunkhead “I hate Christmas” music types out there. I spent a week or so submerged in the sludge of some of the very worst holiday-themed music any human’s ever had to listen to (and some good stuff, too; credit where it’s due). In one room a bitchy grinch declared that “rock and Christmas don’t mix.” Au contraire, my cynical fellow dj with the magpie intellect. Christmas is all about joy, love, happiness, sadness, disillusionment, longing, nostalgia, and hope. Guess what? Great rock and pop and soul is all about those things too. They can go hand-in-hand.
Which doesn’t mean they always, or even often, do. Thing is, way too many artists, publishers, and record companies recognize rather cynically that this season turns us into hyperconsumers. People seem to turn off any ability for critical thought involved in consumer-based decision-making, which is marketing speak for “people will listen to some really crappy music if you brand it as seasonal in December”. I have observed people playing some of the very worst dreck imaginable in the guise of Christmas music. If there are folks out there who have a kneejerk hatred of holiday tunes perhaps that’s an understandable reaction to nonstop exposure of the likes of Whitney Houston, Vanessa Williams, Mariah Carey, and Jessica Simpson butchering the hell out of songs that should stand on their simple beauty this time of year.
As a final side note, when a whole roomful of folks are blissing out on Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s duet of “Drummer Boy”, probably not the best idea to point out that Ziggy Stardust ended up as the well-adjusted thoughtful father figure out of that pairing. Just saying. Good night for now, with visions of cars big as bars and rivers of gold dancing our heads.