Some notes about a Christmas music Mix.

December 15, 2020 at 7:01 pm (Uncategorized)

At Christmas, some kids write letters to Santa. This (aging quickly) kid writes letters to a music mix. There’s that whole missing year thing, too. To start off with, you didn’t miss any 2019 holiday music mix from me…I didn’t make one. Or should say, I didn’t finish one. I got about 2/3rds of the way done, realized that for various reasons it felt…not right….to do a mix last year. And so I didn’t.

The good news is that I totally forgot I’d even started a mix last year, so when I was about halfway through with this year’s music, I discovered the folder hidden away on a drive, filled with some pretty decent Xmas tunes, looking for a home. Sure did make finding 20 good songs really easy!

It’s also worth noting that things have changed in the last few years, socially. I’d never considered the playfully flirty back-and-forth vocal of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” to be anything but fun…but I can see the point for those finding darker connotations there. We won’t be using that one anymore, in other words.

And this year, there’s been quite the kerfuffle in the UK over the beloved song that has closed out every mix I’ve made for a while for the holidays, The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”. It’s for THAT word, sung by Kirstie MacColl’s character at her most desperate and angry in the song. It went so far because the BBC tried to edit the song, which…no.

And there have been plenty of thoughtful people on both sides of the argument. Folks in the LGBTQ community who have no issues with that word’s inclusion and are horrified by the idea of editing a nonsensical phrase into the lyrics instead. But also folks in the LGBTQ community who do seem to raise genuine issues with that word’s inclusion.

I get it. I personally think that it’s fine, within its context…but I am so not the person to be judging such things, either. And frankly, I do get spooked by the idea of someone playing that song in front of young kids who may hear the word and repeat it without knowing what it means.

And here’s another confession: “Fairytale of New York” is a terrible song to try to mix in with others. It just is. I originally put it on a holiday music mix I made over 20 years ago, and I did that because when I used to make mix tapes in college for parties, I’d put a completely incongruous song at the end of the cassette to signal that it was time to flip the tape. That’s what “Fairytale of New York” always kind of was — the song that didn’t fit — and then it got to be a little tradition, and so on and so forth. I would so rather not use it, and I don’t think I will for a bit. I still think it’s a great song, but you don’t need my music mix to hear it anymore. It’s become pretty ubiquitous, controversy or no.

As to the songs I did use…

I’ll admit to cheating a bit right from the jump: there are TWO JD McPherson songs on this comp. If you’re sharp-eared, you’ll know that McPherson’s version of “Every Single Christmas” is on the 2018 holiday mix. He and Nicole Atkins were collaborating on the song, and McPherson finished it and put it on his amazing, excellent 2018 Christmas album, Socks. Adkins re-imagines it here as a sort of punk rock Brenda Lee thing (her words, but they fit) and it’s a terrific way to kick off the show.

Also love the James Brown here. It’s a song that sorta breaks one of my Christmas song rules, in that although it’s sort of about Christmas…it’s really just an excuse to find a groove and yell Christmas every few bars. But that groove is so good, I mean…who cares, right?

And then it’s Sam Phillips up, and if you were wondering “Have I heard Sam Phillips before?” Well, if you’ve ever watched Gilmore Girls, you’re going to go “Ah HA!” about 30 seconds in to this number.

Then we’re into a Waterboys song I’ve been meaning to find a place for going back at least five years. The “You’re out there stumbling through the snowfall too” lyric has never seemed more appropriate for a time when empathy should be front and center for all of us. And on the heels of that is the glorious 4-chord runaway train of “Headfirst Into Christmas“. Songwriters have been using the the four boxed chords on guitars for decades and decades, tens of thousands of times….but when those handclaps come in on the chorus, it seems like completely fresh powder snow to take a leap into.

I was gonna brag on my video editing skills to have produced the audio from a live “Glossary Christmas” youtube video show from 2013 to get the amazing song “Mission Bells“…but then yesterday they released the songs from that performance as a holiday ep. And the whole thing is good and worth seeking out.

And of course, JD McPherson redux with “Claus vs Claus“, joined by London-born Nashville music genius Lucie Silvas on the answer vocals. There’s this notion that no one’s written any decent modern Christmas songs. I beg to differ. JD McPherson put out a whole album of ingenious originals in 2018, and that album, Socks, is something you should run, not walk, to go buy. “Claus vs Claus” is sheer holiday genius.

A little somber, winter gothic detour with Camera Obscura doing “The Blizzard“, a Harlan Howard song that Johnny Cash and Jim Reeves also recorded…but nowhere near as longingly. And Vashti Bunyan sings of winter heartbreak, just to make sure we’ve got some cryin’ in our eggnog music to work with.

This is already too long, but yes, I did use “Valley Winter Song” again, the only song on this mix that is repeated from a previous year. Fountains Of Wayne songwriter Adam Schlesinger was one of the first handful of notable COVID deaths last spring, and I’m just not ready to say goodbye just yet.

And while I wouldn’t normally put a song with such overtly religious lyrics into a mix (you’d be surprised, or wouldn’t at how many folks of varied faiths or non-faiths have told me they download these mix things, so I try to keep it fairly surface-level if you get the drift) but hearing Mark E. Smith snidely rip through the verses of “Hark the Herald” over a killer guitar riff and absurdly over-done backing vocals is the kind of hilarity we all need for Christmas.

Also, pro-tip: if you’re going to use a song from The Rotary Connection‘s weird but beautiful, hippy-dippy soul-psychedelic 1968 Christmas album Peace, use one with Minnie Riperton singing. I almost didn’t. That would’ve been a massive holiday mix faux pas.

And finally, the end of the mix. I think that I tabbed the Rolling Stones song “Winter” as maybe the perfect penultimate mix track ever. It’s just SO good…so sort of rocking and somber at the same time and has a feel to it that sounds as close to Astral Weeks-era Van Morrison as anything they ever recorded. I could hear in my ears how perfectly this would frame the mix for some big, over-the-top final track.

And I wanted something big and bombastic. I told myself “Something that has the same feel as The Delgados‘ ‘Light Before We Land‘. Something like that.” And so I actually put that Delgados song onto an early draft of the mix, just so I could hear better the sound and sort of song I was looking for. And I think I must’ve listened to early versions of this mix dozens of times, always ending with this song.

And the thing is, “The Light Before We Land” isn’t a Christmas song. It isn’t a holiday song. It’s just a big, huge-sounding number with production that buries the percussion and bass deep into the red so much that it distorts. But there’s no Christmas to it. There’s no snow, no winter, no biting winds or decorated trees to be found anywhere in the lyrics.

But there is that chorus:

“And when I feel like I can feel once again
Let me stay a while
Soak it in a while
If we can hold on we can fix what is wrong
Buy a little time
For this head of mine”

And those words seemed so completely appropriate to end a music mix at the end of a year filled with grief and trauma and uncertainty and anxiety…but looks hopefully onto a new year with unflagging hope. And I thought “Not just a song that sounds like that, but also conveys that same spirit.”

And as you can probably tell, in the end I just decided the hell with it. 2020 is a different year. 2020 gets a different song at the end of its mix.

Merry Christmas, and may 2021 be a better year for all of us.

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