This week’s question is from reader David Dalrymple:
What non-Christmas music do you associate with the holidays? It could be as simple as a song you first discovered around Christmastime, or from a CD that was under the tree. Or it could be a song with a theme you associate with the holidays: coming home, childhood, loneliness, whatever.
In the early ’80s, my oldest brother would get me records and/or tapes for Christmas, and those were among my favorite presents. Does Van Halen’s 1984 have anything to do with the holidays? Probably not, but I have a strong visual memory of tearing open wrapping paper and seeing that kick-ass angel smoking a cigarette. Does Loverboy’s self-titled 1980 album feature a stunning Canadian version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”? No it does not, but I do remember running away from the Christmas tree toward the basement, where the record player was, insanely excited by the fact that there was a Loverboy album that came out before Get Lucky. Who knew? Santa knew. Or my brother, the Jewish Santa. (Long story.)
My holiday playlist invariably contains a lot of Sufjan Stevens. Since I fell in love with Age Of Adz when it came out in 2010, whenever I hear Stevens’ Christmas tunes—the guy’s done enough Christmas music to fill hours and hours with holiday cheer and despair all on his own—I want to spend a little time with his existential crisis of an album, so I switch from the holiday playlist to “Age Of Adz.” There’s something snowy and crisp about the “oo-o-oo” and ethereal background singers, though those elements are on plenty other Stevens songs I don’t link to winter. Still, it’s a palate cleanser I now associate with subzero temperatures, colored lights twinkling under powdery snow, and the cold realities of a season fraught with desires for warmth and meaningfulness that inevitably leave me feeling a little disappointed in myself. I’m not saying those feelings dominate my holiday mood, but still, the song’s lyrics encapsulate the domestic dysfunction—and my own—that is revealed when spending time with loved ones: “I’m sorry if I seem self-effacing / Consumed by selfish thoughts / It’s only that I still love you deeply / It’s all the love I’ve got.”
The gratuitous modern American holiday season that stretches from October to January is my favorite time of the year, but I used to be a “no Christmas entertainment until after Thanksgiving” stickler. That’s a stance that’s been softened by professional obligation (The A.V. Club likes early deadlines for its holiday-related features) and my wife, who came to our first date with three unlabeled CD-Rs, one of which, I was told, contained a Christmas mix. It was early November, and choosing which CD to play first is the closest I’ll ever come to playing Russian roulette—inevitably, the disc I popped into my car’s CD player was the one with Dean Martin’s “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” on it, and my unnecessarily strict standards were forever altered. But before that fateful night, I used to give myself little musical cheats, like the dieter who eats a double cheeseburger every Saturday—only my double cheeseburger was Ben Folds Five’s “Selfless, Cold And Composed.” It’s sonic proximity that gets the job done here: The melancholy arrangement of this breakup waltz from 1997’s Whatever And Ever Amen is a reasonable facsimile for the music of my favorite Christmas album, Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. Ben Folds Five must’ve picked up on the parallels, too, sneaking sleigh bells into an outro that expertly evokes the “cold” in the song’s title. I still put “Selfless, Cold And Composed” on repeat every November (the entire Ben Folds Five catalogue pairs well with falling leaves and early sunsets), but these days I’m more likely to follow it up with Guaraldi’s “Skating.”
This is a bit of a cheat because of its involvement in Scrooged, but I will forever associate the holidays with Annie Lennox and Al Green’s insanely cheerful cover of Jackie DeShannon’s “Put A Little Love In Your Heart.” This dates back to 2001 in Barrington, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, with my high school friend Gary. We were back for our first collegiate Christmas break, and one afternoon we applied fake mustaches, put on Christmas sweaters, strapped a Christmas wreath on the front bumper of my car, and proceeded to “spread cheer.” We drove to numerous friends’ houses, blasting “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” as loud as it would play on my car stereo. At stoplights, we rolled down the windows during snowstorms and sang along, just hoping for a smile. Mostly we were met with curious gazes or fear. The tradition stuck, and every Christmas Eve we would brave ice storms and blizzards, driving around town to outlet malls or Christmas tree lots, pumping the song through my car’s tinny speakers. We kept this up until 2011 when we no longer had family in Barrington. I’m going to see Gary this Thanksgiving, and we’re already planning to spread a little early cheer.
My choice also comes from a Christmas film. Ever since Love Actually underscored its final scene with The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” I can’t help but associate that song with the holiday season. The reference to God and the declaration of love both feel appropriate to Christmastime. But there’s also a darker edge to the lyrics (“I may not always love you” and “If you should ever leave me”) that calls to mind the melancholy of Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” or “Auld Lang Syne.” The Beach Boys actually released a Christmas album in 1964, but “God Only Knows” feels more seasonally appropriate than anything on that record, thanks in no small part to its unexpected use of French horn, accordion, viola, and cello. I think of Christmas whenever I hear the song, but never more so than when I’m watching a woman rush past security to jump the prime minister at the end of Love Actually.
This is more winter music than Christmas music, but nothing feels like December for me more than Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems For A Seventeen Year Old Girl.” There’s nothing in the lyrics about the season, and I was never a 17-year-old girl myself, but there’s something about the breathy vocals (provided by Metric’s Emily Haines) that bring me back to Chicago mornings in the dead of winter. I’d be trudging, carless, through the slushy sidewalks toward some coffee shop on Chicago Avenue as part of my morning routine, iPod headphones firmly plugged into my ears with the music mixing with the sound of gusting winds. With the sun just barely starting to rise along with the music’s gradually building cacophony, I’d grab a copy of the Chicago Tribune’s RedEye and a print edition of The Onion, get my drink, and nestle into a corner chair to start in on the morning sudoku and crossword puzzle, relishing in the music and the warm comfort of being inside and out of the snow.
Cheerfulness is all well and good, but I prefer to associate my holidays with the crushing bitterness of winter. For me, no music fits that mood better than The Crane Wife by The Decemberists. I first listened to the album during a long drive home from college for winter break, and since then it always makes me think of cold, dark nights where it seems like there’s nothing good outside of wherever I happen to be at the time—in a good way, though, if that’s possible. The eponymous “Crane Wife” songs on the album center around a retelling of a Japanese folktale about a man who falls in love with a woman who is also a crane—this is The Decemberists, after all—and the pain of winter is present throughout the entire story. It’s not an especially depressing album beyond that, but it just feels like an honest judgement of how much this time of year can suck. So it’s light on the holiday cheer, but something like this always appeals to me more than the uplifting music that is usually associated with the holidays. Besides, holiday cheer is overrated.
I could make an actual mixtape featuring non-Christmas music that leaps to mind around the holidays, as my wife and I first started dating a week or so before Christmas, which causes me to get even more sentimental than I already tend to be anyway. If I had to pick just one song, though, it’s got to be “Skyway” by The Replacements. One of the first times Jenn and I ever hung out together, I caught her singing along to a couple of then-current country songs, which caused me to think, “Okay, I can deal with that, because she’s really cute.” I needn’t have worried about her tastes in music, though, because our first in-depth phone conversation led me to discover that her tastes were highly similar to mine, including an appreciation of Paul Westerberg and the boys. As such, when I picked her up for our first date, I had “Skyway” cued up and ready to play as soon as I started the car. As she still says to this day, it did wonders to make up for the terrible shoes I was wearing, and the rest is history.
The music I associate with the holiday is the music that mostly defines me as a lover of music: Butch Walker’s Letters album and basically every volume of The O.C. Mix (that would include the Chrismukkah album, but I think that one actually gets the least play, even during the season). Letters got me through the worst summer of my life, and I continued to play the album non-stop through that year. I think the honesty and rawness of that album got me through the holiday season in a time when the last thing I wanted to do was celebrate good tidings for Christmas and was counting the days until I could leave home for college. So strangely, whenever I hear a track from that album, I tend to think about the holidays first. As for The O.C. Mix, that’s simply music for every season. But since one of my favorite things to do on Christmas is re-watch the Chrismukkah episodes of The O.C. (even the dreaded “Chrismukkah Bar Mitz-vahkkah”), I’m always sent back into that O.C Mix state of mind. There is a method to my madness—these are kind of like holiday security blankets to me.
During all the Christmases when I lived at home, it seemed like the whole family was on the same schedule, and we spent most of the holiday break hanging out together, doing family stuff. Then I went off to college, and when I came back for Christmas, my sister and parents were all working through most of my break, and everyone I knew in the area had scattered to the winds. Which is how I came to spend about a week one Christmas beating Sonic The Hedgehog on my sister’s new Sega and listening to the two Christine Lavin albums I’d requested for Christmas over and over and over. Those two albums (Compass and Attainable Love) are half goofy, jokey folk (“Sensitive New Age Guys,” “Shopping Cart Love: The Play,” “Prisoners Of Their Hairdos”) and half maudlin, grieving relationship songs, and they pair oddly with the endless jangling noise of Sonic picking up gold rings to trade in for free lives. To this day, if any of Lavin’s music comes up on shuffle, I instantly flash back to a bored Christmas spent mostly sitting on the floor, staring at a screen, trying to get Sonic up to speed to make the latest leap into a shiny new area of his digital world—one, just like the last six or so, strangely infected by singer-songwriter concerns about relationship communication and the hope of tentative new love.
I have an ongoing, mutating playlist of acceptable holiday songs by various indie or indie-minded musicians, and they all at least nominally mention Christmas or adjacent holidays. At some point, I started mixing some of these songs down into a CD-length amateur-DJ epic, complete with weird samples and sometimes satisfying, sometimes clunky transitions. In its various forms over the years, one non-Christmas song always turns up toward the end of the mix: “The Ice Of Boston” by The Dismemberment Plan. It’s not so far removed from Christmas in the sense that it takes place on New Year’s Eve, but it’s not really an alternative to singing “Auld Lang Syne” out of tune the way Dylan’s version of “Must Be Santa” has supplanted most other Santa Claus-related songs in my mind, or how Rilo Kiley’s “Xmas Cake” is my “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Far more than the holidays, “Ice Of Boston” is about a grand, rueful fuck-up of an evening, and though I’m past being able to particularly identify with being “all alone on New Year’s Eve, buck naked, drenched in champagne, staring at a bunch of strangers, looking at them looking at me” (to the extent that I ever could), I love closing out the holidays with the sense of deep futility that comes with screaming at Gladys Knight to get a life. It’s the perfect song to play me into another new year (even if I’ve never actually seen the Plan do it on New Year’s Eve).