Witnessing midtown Manhattan's holiday transformation — to quote Jon Stewart, it's “like Santa's balls exploded” — is truly magical. But if you're a music-lover...damn. Beyond Nat King Cole's warming baritone and, whatever, maybe that one Andy Williams song, my post-1970 yuletide favorites are meager.
But among the endless cases of sonic masochism (see “I Think You Might Like It” by Grease's aged co-stars...and trust me, you'll hate it), there appear occasional wonders. Like Mariah Carey's homespun rendition of “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” assisted by the Roots, Jimmy Fallon, and a damn children's choir. It's nearly enough to make me admit I actually loved Love Actually. With this in mind, I present a Spotify playlist guaranteed to warm even the hardest-core humbug's heart.
Snap-Her “I Hate
Christmas” (It Smells, It Burns, It Stings, New Red Archive,
Joan Jett and the Runaways defined '70s SoCal all-girl rock. Two decades later, Andi Beltramo led the awesomely anti-PC Snap-Her, a liberty-spiked middle finger to the emerging emo/mall-punk scene.
“Thank God It's Not Christmas” (The Christmas Creep,
Slender Means Society, 2009)
You need serious chutzpah to cover a track by glam-pop oddities Sparks. But Portland's Parenthetical Girls have that and more, replete with dramatic falsetto: “Blend with the crowd, blend with the loud / Hypnotic ebb and flow / Until the day goes slowly into night.” Still feel like partying?
Toasters “Rudy Christmas A Jail” (Christma-ska,
Megalith Records, 1999)
Of course you feel like partying! Just don't end up like this hapless rudeboy. The Toasters have been at it for three decades, and they're one of the few bands I know of who can maintain their solid workingman's roots throughout an entire Christmas album.
The Vandals “Oi
to the World” (Oi to the World!, Kung Fu, 1996)
Lay down your differences, erase the hate, and raise a pint with your fellow man. Just let this knockabout anthem's sludgy bassline (and hilarious fake accents; the Vandals originated in Huntington Beach, not Margate) guide the way.
The Ramones “Merry
Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)” (Brain Drain,
I'm totally Team Dee Dee, so it's bittersweet that this was his final Ramones album. Still, accompanied by some seriously un-punk bells, Joey sings the truth: “Christmas ain't the time for breaking each other's hearts.”
“Christmas in Hollis” (Tougher Than Leather,
Profile Records, 1988)
The hip-hop titans sampled Clarence Carter's PG-13 holiday hit “Back Door Santa” for their Queens carol, detailing Run's good deed and D.M.C.'s mom's home-cooking plans. Sounds simple, but it'll de-ice that jaded heart.
Collins “Merry Christmas Baby” (Christmas Is 4 Ever,
Shout Factory, 2006)
Nobody better to funk up the festivities than Parliament-Funkadelic's superlative bassist. Bootsy's holiday message? “Just that joy of seeing people get off. It's like a big 1999 party that you always look forward to.”
“Christmas Rappin'” (Kurtis Blow, Mercury, 1980)
Before “The Breaks” elevated hip-hop minds, a 20 year-old dude from Harlem named Kurt Walker became the first rapper signed to a major label, debuting his oft-sampled banger “Christmas Rappin'.” Good cheer for all.
Snoop Dogg ft. Daz
Dillinger, Nate Dogg, Tray Deee, Bad Azz “Santa Claus Goes Straight
to the Ghetto” (Christmas on Death Row, Death Row, 1996)
The Doggfather gets love from his smoked-out brethren: Daz's rapid-fire bounce, Bad Azz's off-kilter rhyming, and the late great Nate Dogg's G-Funk chorus. Festive brass licks and that bubbly bassline from Isaac Hayes' “Do Your Thing” keep the composition fresh.
Tree” (Halfbird, Menlo Park, 2001)
A crystalline bijou amid a sea of skronk-rock. Followup album Reveille would debut John Dieterich's virtuosic guitar and further define the band's prickly sound, but Deerhoof nails that atonal/beauty balance here.
Vanessa L. Williams
feat. Bobby Caldwell “Baby, It's Cold Outside” (Star Bright,
Should you stay or should you go? I suggest nuzzling closer to the fireplace (or if we're talking New York, the hissing radiator), ideally with your lovebird and definitely with a warming nightcap, as this superlative duo lays on the soul.
She & Him “Silver
Bells” (A Very She & Him Christmas,
Merge Records, 2011)
Just Zooey Deschanel and her ukelele. When you cover the classics — just check its recording history — less is definitely more.
Meiko “Maybe Next
Year (X-Mas Song)” (The Hotel Café Presents...Winter Songs,
A caroling compilation of female songwriters is almost as far off my comfort spectrum as an album of dude songwriters (Justin Vernon? GTFO). But this works, particularly Meiko's brushed-jazz number, anointed with her warming croon. That fire is so delightful.
of Love” (Revenge, RCA, 1986)
The holiday-ness of this song is debatable (though it was included on BMG's tired-soul Ultimate Christmas 2 compilation, featuring low-light covers by Kelly Clarkson — remember her? — and 'NSync), but Annie Lennox's hypnotic oath is totally in the spirit of the season: “The miracle of love will take away your pain / When the miracle of love comes your way again.”
I leave you with some stocking stuffers. If console orchestras are your fancy, download The 8bits of Christmas, a collection of Christmas chiptunes from 8bitpeoples' retro-ish roster. Sufjan Stevens just riffed off his Silver & Gold five-EP box set with Chopped and Scrooged, a hip-hop holiday mixtape. It's dope as hell and downloadable. Or if you've got bothersome neighbors, crank up Japanese noise-lord Merzbow's devastating (and fittingly titled?) "Silent Night”: