For me, Christmas music time starts the day after Halloween, but in deference to the Scrooges that serve as my intimate circle of colleagues and friends I don’t pull out the ear buds until after Thanksgiving. For the irascible sort that an irascible sort would surround himself with, the holidays are equated more with the kind of savage materialism we bore witness to this weekend. Such an event should not be celebrated they say, least of all in song.
Curmudgeons they may be, but they do have ample reason to complain. The salesmen Santas and the sizzling credit cards, the lines at the checkout counters and the awkward family dinners could be rightly all they see during the end of December. The broken angels of our modernity hark all over their holiday spirit.
While I remain unable to muster a persuasive argument to turn the hearts of Grinches, what they cannot deny is that a lot of Christmas comps kick ass. Christmas time in my humble home never sounds like a sad sack layaway aisle at Target. Real Christmas music is large and ambitious and dynamic and powerful, and is uniquely suited to be rendered in popular music.
To help solve your holiday blues, I’ve put together a list of the essential records needed to drive that cold winter away.
1) The Vandals – Oi to the World
Regarded by many to be the finest record The Vandals put out, Oi to the World is a Christmas album I listen to year round. Largely the production of Vandals guitarist Warren Fitzgerald, the tongue-and-check homage to the holidays was released in the midst of drummer Josh Freese’s rocket-ride to the most popular drummer in rock and roll. Mostly a set of brilliant holiday inspired original compositions, the record contains such classic Christmas tunes as “My First X-mas (As A Woman)” and “Christmas Time for My Penis.” Their rendition of “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” knows no current equal by any ensemble in any age while the tale of Trevor and Hajji in the record’s title track is one of the great unity anthems of our time.
2) Shawn Lee’s Ping-Pong Orchestra – Funky Treats From Santa’s Bag
My big find this year for Christmas music was this often overlooked experimental latin funk/jazz collection of Christmas covers that bring new definition to the musical concept of fusion. The brainchild of Wichita native Shawn Lee, Funky Treats includes an interpretation of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that brings to mind immediately “House of the Rising Sun” and a funktacular “Carol of the Bells” quite unlike any ever put to wax. The tutelage of Jeff Buckley is thoroughly present with a Christmas album that is unafraid to experiment with no sacrifice to pretension. A booty-shaker through and through.
3) Nettwerk Records – A Winter’s Night
By the far the superior of the Nettwerk Christmas comps, A Winter’s Night is the go-to record for a lo-fi, family safe audience that also requires music that doesn’t suck. Contained herein are the killer medley arrangement of the “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “We Three Kings” with Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan as well as McLachlan’s own Christmas classic “Song for a Winter’s Night.” Further gems are found with The Clumsy Lovers picking up the obscure holiday novelty followup to “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” and “All I Want” by the Weepies. Additional comic value is added by the comp’s only low point: the ridiculous pairing of Chantal Kreviazuk with Avril Lavigne on “O’ Holy Night.” With little similarity in either natural ability or training, it seems the common thread that compelled Nettwerk put these two women in a duet was the exceptionally uncommon spelling each woman’s name.
4) A Very Special Christmas Volumes 1, 3, 5
One should only watch even numbered Star Trek movies and, inversely, listen to odd numbered Very Special Christmas comps. A six volume set of benefit albums supporting the Special Olympics, this Very Special series feature all-star lineups performing home-run arrangements – so long as you only listen to every other one. The first installment includes Run-D.M.C’s anthem for Christmas in the 80’s “Christmas in Hollis,” Sting’s brilliant vocal piece “Gabriel’s Message,” and the epic U2 track “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Volumes Three and Five have unmissable appearances by Blues Traveler, Smashing Pumpkins, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, and an “Ave Maria” by none other than Chris Cornell. Nevermind the Debbie Gibson/Bon Jovi fronted trainwreck of Volume Two or the well-intentioned but ultimately uneven Very Special Live – were the series limited to these three, Very Special Christmas would rate as the best compilation series of all time.
5) Reverend Horton Heat – We Three Kings
The rockabilly giant nails this authentic, energetic martini-driven collection of Christmas standards. We Three Kings is the Reverend’s latest and hopefully not last studio record coming at the tail end of exactly two decades in the crazy ride that’s showbiz. The affair is much of what one would imagine: Gretch-heavy instrumentals dripping with reverb sprinkled into a buffet of oozing South Texas swing. But what makes this album a Christmas essential are the expectations it defies. “We Three Kings” is unapologetically bop while “Silver Bells” may never been wrought with blues this genuine. By comparison, the pair of Christmas offerings from fellow rockabilly luminary Brian Setzer seem like Nutrasweet in a season made for sweet teeth.
6) Joey Ramone – Christmas Spirit… In My House
In the very small club of posthumously released Christmas EPs, the title must belong to the one released on a holiday no punk felt much like celebrating. Released a year after Joey Ramone died, the Christmas Spirit EP served as the holiday companion to Joey’s simultaneously released solo record Don’t Worry About Me. Sharing the full length’s title track and the best cover of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” a man will ever record, this Christmas record deserves consideration greater than the gravity of circumstance it bears. If anything, the elevated status of its author suddenly enjoys is a liability. Christmas Spirit is a Christmas essential in the same way that Rocket to Russia is a high school essential. There is a reminder in the music of Joey Ramone that this too shall pass, that greater days are ahead. It’s music that screams “don’t worry about me.”
If there is ever a time of year when punks need that message most, it is Christmas.