Last year I wrote a narrative essay for website Myoo.com introducing a playlist of nontraditional Christmas music I’d compiled. Then I decided to turn the whole thing into a holiday radio play featuring Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Mannheim Steamroller, The Ramones, OutKast, Dodd Ferrelle, and Neal Holman as The Ghost of Christmas Past. It takes place almost entirely in a bar. You can stream or download here…
A Christmas Music Story
And if you’re interested, here’s a link to the the two-volume playlist on Spotify…
• A New Christmas Canon, Vol. 1
• A New Christmas Canon, Vol. 2
Here’s some commentary on Vol. 1…
1. Dodd Ferelle - Strung Out Like the Lights (at Christmastime)
Ferelle’s aching yet hopeful voice wraps delicately around his duet partner Betsy Ingelsby’s, capturing perfectly what it’s like to battle addiction and loneliness during the holidays.
2. Tom Waits - Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis
A Christmas piano ballad for the dregs of society. A ruse, a sham, an attempt to prey on the better nature of some poor greasy haired schmo, a sucker in love with a hooker. But in this tale, even the tramp has a conscience, coming clean at the very end, perhaps inspired by the true spirit of the season.
3. Eux Autres - Teenage Christmas
A brand-new lo-fi holiday anthem that sounds as if was stuffed in your stocking by Guided By Voices circa Bee Thousand.
4. Yo La Tengo - Mr. Tough
Nothing I’ve heard in decades sounds more like an outtake from Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas.
5. The Band - Christmas Must Be Tonight (Alternate Version)
A tender, stripped-down, upbeat rocker celebrating the Christmas story. Bassist Rick Danko takes the lead vocal on this, his vulnerable warble taking full spotlight.
6. Matt Pond PA - Holiday Road
A gorgeous, contemplative take on Lindsey Buckingham’s holiday roadtrip classic, made famous by its inclusion in Christmas Vacation precursor, National Lampoon’s Vacation.
7. Dolorean - Violence in the Snowy Fields
Portland, Ore., folk-rock outfit Dolorean, paints a desolate, sighing, soundtrack to winter.
8. Santo & Johnny - Twistin’ Bells
The same duo responsible for instantly recognizable steel-guitar instrumental “Sleep Walk” cut this twangy surf-twist version of “Jingle Bells” in 1962.
9. Big Star - Jesus Christ
This celebration of Christmas day is a two-minute twenty second handbook for jangle pop. One of the finest songs from one of the most under-appreciated bands of all time.
10. James Brown - Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto
James Brown’s soulful plea to St. Nick to remember all the good little boys and girls celebrating Christmas in the ’hood.
11. Red Simpson - Out on the Road for Christmas
A master of country-music niche marketing, Simpson made his entire career singing for the truck drivers of the world. This one’s for all the lonely big-rig kings with no family back home.
12. Cyndi Lauper & the Hives - A Christmas Duel
Eighties pop star Lauper and Sweden’s garage-rock darlings The Hives team up for a naughty duet of holiday family dysfunction.
13. Mötley Crüe - Home Sweet Home
This is not a holiday song per se, but I’m including it to illustrate that any song can become a holiday song under the right circumstances—you just have to build the association. Back in the ’80s, when I was just a kiddo who still believed in Santa, my parents charged my hair-metal-obsessed teenage sister with transferring all of our family’s old Christmas favorites from vinyl to cassette. As a subversive, rebellious joke, she inserted Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home” smack between Jimmy Durante and Mario Lanza. At first, my Dad was a little peeved, but every year we played that cassette, and eventually the Crüe evoked for us the same Pavlovian response as the rest of the old-school tracks, nostalgic pleasure centers lighting up like Christmas trees at the sound of that melodramatic piano intro.
14. Run DMC - Christmas in Hollis
Picking up where Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” left off, these rap pioneers tell the tale of the time Santa visited Queens, N.Y.
15. The Ramones - Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)
Three-chord sledgehammer power-pop just about everyone visiting their relatives this holiday season will relate to.
16. Tobias Froberg - When the Night Turns Cold
“Will you help me start a fire?” A much less creepy (less date-rapey) alternative to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
17. Rogue Wave - Christmas
It’s as if these Oakland indie rockers have bottled up this epic Who track from Tommy inside of a snowglobe.
18. Pixies - Winterlong
Black Francis and Kim Deal’s sad-beautiful harmonies anchor this Neil Young cover, as does lead guitarist Joey Santiago’s simple but perfect octave guitar chugging. Even better than the original.
19. Elliott Smith - “Angel in the Snow”
No one since Nick Drake has been able to tap into the bleak depths of human sadness like Smith. Even in a gentle, nervous love song such as this, he leaves a cloud for every silver lining.
20. Low - Little Drummer Boy
Slo-core fuzz rockers Low obliterate this tune from the old Christmas Canon in a wash of static destruction.
21. The Clash - Lost in the Supermarket
Like I said before—any song can be a holiday song under the right circumstances. This one perfectly captures how out-of-my-element I feel the one day a year I break down and go to that swirling vortex of everything I hate about gluttonous consumerism in America—the mall.
22. OutKast - Unhappy
Big Boi says it all in verse 2:
Once upon a rhyme, one time when I was a child
When I found out that Santa Claus was nothing more than Vanilli
It was silly, `cause my mom and pop they worked for every penny
Didn’t have many, but had enough to get by, enough to get fly
Only to start off New Year off in debt
23. Weezer - O Holy Night
From the Weezer’s 2008 Christmas EP. The band’s signature wall of guitars fits surprisingly well on this traditional tune.
24. The Pogues - Fairytale of New York
Desperate, depraved and as real as it gets. Christmas Eve in the drunk tank. A rocky romance set against the backdrop of seedy ’70s New York. Of all the reasons to love charming drunkard Shane MacGowan and his band, this is at the top of my list.
25. Dwight Yoakam - Santa Can’t Stay
In this country song for the ages, little junior tries his best to understand why Mama is kicking Santa out of the house.
26. The Everly Brothers - Christmas Eve Can Kill You
A poetic ballad chronicling the hardships of the drifter at Christmastime.
27. The Last Heard & Bob Seger - Sock it to Me Santa
If Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances” had been a Christmas song it would’ve been this. Guaranteed to get any holiday party wild & sweaty on the dance floor.