***3 Albums was a semi-regular music series I wrote for the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library between July 2016 and January 2018.
All 3 Albums posts can be found in their original published form HERE***
FA-LALALA-LAAAA-LA-LET’S TALK TUUUUUUNES!
As per usual, with blatant disregard to our degree of readiness, the holidays have snuck up on us again. The change comes ninja-quick and odds are your first clue will be that the music you listen to 11/12ths of the year has been stealthily swapped with the shiny jingle of sleigh bells and glockenspiels. (Kudos to the holidays on this… it’s insanely difficult to be stealthy whilst carrying jingle bells).
Full confession: I have a big ol’ soft spot for Christmas music but it disappoints me that so much of it gets churned out as tired cookiecutter fluff. Slap that new voice over the oft-used arrangement and ship it out to be downloaded and distributed.
Bah Humbug to that, good sir or madame! Put something unique under my tree, please! I love artists who take the time to add something new to the Christmas canon or at least bring a different groove to that centuries-old carol.
Now, I know that tradition is the bright ember that gives the holidays a good deal of its warm fuzzy glow…
So, don’t fret Bing, Burl and Lee’s both Brenda and Peggy: traditional holiday music will always occupy a fond, fire-lit room in our collective hearts. However, if I’ve learned anything from classic Christmas movies, it’s that our hearts have the capacity to grow (sometimes up to 3 sizes in one sitting!).
So in that (Christmas) spirit:
Here’s 3 non-cookiecutter albums that dare to trod outside the well-reindeer-hoof-beaten path of holiday tunes… GO!
1. Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas (2006)
“Santa Claus is coming! Hear the banjos strumming!” – “Come on! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!”
It’s rare when you come across an album that you get to designate as “Life Changing.” It’s even more rare for it to be a Christmas album. Strange as it may seem, Songs for Christmas literally altered the trajectory of my life.
Sufjan Stevens seems to be custom-made for Christmas music. His music effortlessly seems to weave the ordinary with the divine and the joyous with the somber. Similarly, Christmas is a crossroads where so many unusual traditions and feelings intersect.
So it’s not surprising when heartbreaking songs like “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” occupy the same tracklisting as rapturous sing-a-long anthems like “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!” With the Sufjan treatment, even traditional hymns like “Come Thou Fount” feel just as Christmas-y as over-the-top original numbers like “Get Behind Me, Santa!”
Stevens is known for being an multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire and he brings out all the bells and whistles and banjos and kitchen sinks for the celebration. Amidst the slew of original songs and unusual arrangements he plants short traditional instrumental numbers to keep this crazy Christmas train from going too far off the rails.
So, how did this collection of songs change my life? Back in 2006, Songs for Christmas inspired me to put on a Christmas concert that tried to embrace all the wacky wonderful faucets of the season like Sufjan’s album does. It became an annual event and over the years it grew in size and pageantry and quickly became my favorite part of the holidays. This album also inspired me to write original Christmas music and some of those songs I consider to be my best songwriting efforts to date.
This year will be the 11th Annual incarnation of that concert and it’s turned into a bonafide cherished holiday tradition for myself and many of my family and friends. Odds are this album won’t change your life quite as dramatically as it did mine. Then again, anything is possible come Christmas time…
(Fav Originals: “Put the Lights On the Tree,” “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!,” “Hey Guys! It’s Christmastime!,” “Sister Winter.”)
(Fav Covers: “I Saw Three Ships,” “O Holy Night,” “The Friendly Beasts,” “Joy to the World.”)
2. She & Him – Christmas Party (2016)
“It’s the holiday season so whoop-de-doo and dickory dock and don’t forget to hang up your sock!” – “Happy Holiday”
Oh Christmas Twee, Oh Christmas Twee! The ever-so-quirky Zooey Deschanel caroled her way into our collective Christmas consciousness via an unknowing duet with Will Ferrell in the now modern-classic film “Elf.” Since then, she’s continued spreading plenty of holiday cheer with her pal M. Ward under their band moniker She & Him.
This year they released their 2nd Christmas collection and I approve. Given that this is only their 6th album total… you can assume these cats have some intense love for Christmas. I mean, Bob Dylan was 33 studio albums deep before he even put out one gravelly holiday album.
It could easily be argued that this album isn’t exactly non-cookiecutter:
Exhibit A: There are no originals.
Exhibit B: The sound is an easily accessible modern-vintage vibe that has flavored all their music.
Exhibit C: Zooey Deschanel isn’t exactly under the radar.
Valid points, Mr. Imaginary Criticizer that lives in my head! However, what I think makes Christmas Party (and to a lesser degree their first holiday album, A Very She & Him Christmas) unique is their attention to song selection.
There is a small pool of maybe 30-40 Christmas songs that repeatedly show up on a bulk of Christmas albums. This very small group of songs get an unfair amount of our holiday attention, but those songs are hardly the only presents under the tree. I raise my cup of eggnog up high to musicians like She & Him that gravitate to some of the more rare Christmas tune treats.
So settle in for this low-key Christmas Party (the close-friends-clutching-warm-mugs-while-laughing-’round-a-cracklin’-fire kinda party). Party entertainment provided by Zooey and M. taking on an oft-overlooked Sinatra gem (“Christmas Memories”), the most under-rated winter song (“A Marshmallow World”), a way better/not so creepy version of the “Baby, It’s Cold Out There” premise (“The Coldest Night of the Year”) and even a version of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” where the singer doesn’t try WAY-too-hard to be Mariah. Yeah, I’ll take an invite to that party please!
(Favs: “Must Be Santa,” “Happy Holiday,” “Christmas Memories,” “A Marshmallow World.”)
3. Nick Lowe – Quality Street (2013)
“Another Christmas Eve I was needing some proof and Brother, that’s when I heard the hooves on the roof…” – “Hooves on the Roof”
Nick Lowe is like a snowman. By that I mean he’s one cool dude. The guy’s first solo album was titled Jesus of Cool for pete’s sake! So, its no surprise that Lowe spent 40+ years making music before he put out a Christmas record. Christmas music isn’t exactly known for its high degree of hip factor.
That’s exactly why we need artists like Nick Lowe making it.
Word on that street is that Lowe balked when his label asked for a Christmas album before having the thought (I’m paraphrasing of course because I was not inside Nick Lowe’s head circa 2013): “What if I made a Christmas album that I would actually listen to? Throw out the sleigh bells and the traditional Christmas playbook and see what happens.”
And thus Quality Street came to be.
The result is a fantastic little record that doesn’t look or sound quite like any other holiday album out there. The aforementioned small pool of typical tunes is nowhere to be found. Instead, Lowe put his focus on originals, forgotten gems from the 40’s/50’s, obscure kids songs, and reimagined folk ditties. Oh, and “Silent Night” snuck in there too… but only because they came up with a rollicking shuffle version that is just too good to ignore. It’s got a horn section… it’s not exactly silent.
There’s a wide assortment of unusual genres that somehow all end up playing nice with each other. Skiffle beats alongside jazz fingersnaps alongside rockabilly stompers alongside lounge crooning. It’s the perfect respite for those who love Christmas but don’t mind dialing down those jingly-jangly bells. And of course since it’s Nick Lowe… the whole thing is cooler than the North Pole.
(Favs: “Christmas At the Airport,” “Hooves on the Roof,” “Silent Night,” “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday.”)
P.S. So open yourself up to some different Christmas music this year and let the library be your Santa (we won’t climb down your chimney… but we can get new holiday music into your frost-nibbled ears).