There are two kinds of holiday music: that which I cannot abide, and that in which I can find goodness. The chasm between the two is wide, and if one were to pile up the selections from the two kinds of holiday fare, the stuff I abhor would be Everest compared to a much smaller pile that rises to, say, the elevation of a fruitcake at sea level.
I have previously made known my dread of the holidays. There are numerous reasons that range from the ickiness of crass commercialism, to creating mythology that feeds said consumerism, to relentless darkness, to more relentless darkness. Pagan that I am, I focus on the Winter Solstice, which heralds the return of the light. And, to get myself in the mood, I’ll spin a few of my seasonal favorites whilst whipping up batches of spiced pecans to give as gifts and mainlining the Dearly Beloved’s annual batch of potent and probably flammable Polish eggnog. Whatever it takes. But, it’s music that serves as salvation in my life, no matter the time of year. Here follows a few of my holiday stalwarts.
I don’t care what anyone says, Sting is awesome, even if winter is his favorite season. In 2009 he released “If On A Winter’s Night … ” a collection of songs based on traditional music from the British Isles. He’s pictured on the cover hatless and a bit like Heathcliffe wandering the moors, what with his dark duster (I’m sure it’s cashmere) romantically a-flap in the wind, a faithful hound trotting by his side through a snowy landscape. So vigorous is the sneering I endure when this is playing, I only play “Winter’s Night” when I have the house to myself. Imagine my paranoia when, preparing to write this column, I couldn’t find it and immediately assumed it had been hidden from me. On purpose. Super mean. But it wasn’t. And so I have another year to look forward to hearing “Soul Cake” and other lute-y, Sting-y songs that are not the usual fare. One derisive snort outta you and I will fight you. (Wink emoji).
From the very first time I heard Bob Dylan croaking out “Here Comes Santa Claus” on his 2009 album “Christmas in the Heart,” this has become a new holiday standard in my world. By the time “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” rolled around a few more tracks in, my credit card knew the depletion of the 12 bucks it took for me to own it. He sings this collection of pretty standard tunes with a remarkable amount of pep and vigor, even if he does sound like a hooch-happy street Santa spreading holiday tidings on a grimy corner. “The Christmas Blues” is 2 minutes and 55 seconds of ravaged cheer. I’m charmed senseless. My family considers it unlistenable. They know nothing, Jon Snow.
And speaking of rough around the edges men singing holiday tunes, I bust out my 45s of Keith Richards singing, “Run, Run Rudolph,” and Bruce Springsteen having an enthusiastic go at “Santa Claus is Coming To Town,” every year. Warms me heart, it does.
For me, it isn’t Christmas until I hear Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes” about a million times. “Blankets of white, brighten the night, (such a feeling), they seem to say, that our love is here to stay, we’ll be cozy and warm until summer.” This gem of a song is on numerous Motown compilations, but I have it on a CD I got with the British music mag, MOJO. MOJO comps are all amazing, but “Blue Christmas” is a fat-flaked flurry of 15 contemporary gems by The Flaming Lips, Rufus Wainwright, The Staple Singers and B.B. King, among many others. Neal Casal’s melancholy and beautiful “Cora Jones” really puts the blue in blue Christmas. For those of us that have to dig deep for the holly jolly, embracing how sad this time of year can be is perfectly fine. In fact, it’s realistic.
In the bleak midwinter (thank you, Christina Rossetti), I long for banjos. Well, maybe not banjos per se, but certainly bluegrass music, which I will always, until my time is up, associate with summer’s shoeless joy. The great multi-instrumentalist and singer, Tim O’Brien, teamed up with some of the best acoustic musicians around (Phillip Aaberg, Darol Anger, Alison Brown, Mike Marshall and Todd Phillips) for a project called “Newgrange, A Christmas Heritage.” Mandolins, fiddles and yearning harmonies ease the bleak midwinter (that song is included here) in a way that works better than even the scientific knowledge that the Earth’s resolute turning will eventually bring on summer. The sprightly ode to Winter Solstice, “Newgrange,” has been known to single-handedly lift me from the abyss of despair and lent cheer when I was sure there was none. O’Brien’s warm vocals have always been good medicine for my soul and never more so in wintertime, when I need to hear them most.
Such is the power of music to invoke emotional reactions, I find that much of my favorite holiday selections are instrumentals. I love jazz in all seasons, but for trimming the tree and sipping a proper cocktail, “Yule Struttin’, A Blue Note Christmas” and Verve’s “Have Yourself a Jazzy Little Christmas” are heaven sent. With taste and cool, the artists on each of these records remake the holidays into something that makes me want to slip into a little black dress and hang around the mistletoe. Chet Baker, Count Basie, Benny Green, Lou Rawls, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Smith, Bill Evans and a host of others have been my holiday compatriots for over 30 years.
Also strictly instrumental and contemplative, are John Fahey’s beautiful records — five in all — that celebrate Christmas. I love his playing and his interpretations of religious works, standards and folk classics always bring comfort and joy. And no singing. It’s refreshing.
But, lifting up voices in song is as Christmas as it gets. Another family classic is The Chieftains’ phenomenal “The Bells of Dublin.” It is by turns, dark, reverent, joyous and somber. My kids love it. If you want time to stop and let goosebumps prickle your skin, Rickie Lee Jones’ version of “O Holy Night” is the song to play. Grab a cocktail napkin for dabbing at tears. It is holiness.
Lastly, what better way to handle the holidays than humor? I never, ever get tired of Bob Rivers Comedy Group’s “Twisted Christmas,” even though I’ve listened to it every year since it was released in 1987. “A Visit From St. Nicholson,” “A Message From the King,” and “O Come All Ye Grateful Dead-Heads” never fail to deliver the massive dose of irreverence I need to cope with this thorny time of year.
When it comes to this frosted season, I say, to each his own. One thing we all can agree on is that music goes with the holidays like fresh nutmeg on eggnog. Not all of it has to be awful, nor does it have to be incessant. I really only start playing my collection a week or two before Dec. 25 and not a lick of it after. Not until next winter. Ho, ho, ho.