Standing underneath the unflinching fluorescent lights in your local grocery store, you start wondering what Lovecraftian entity came up with the idea for a food item called “Uncrustable,” and a song hits your ears. Hits is an understatement, since verbs like strike, stab, desiccate and desecrate are more appropriate when you’re being forced to listen to Christmas music that has as much cheer and atmosphere as being cornered by an ultra-religious relative who wants you to know that you are Hellbound. The Inferno actually sounds pretty good after having to hear Mariah Carey warble or Sir Geldof and company asking “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” for the billionth time. (The part in the latter where Bono grandstands with “Well tonight, thank God it’s them, instead of you” is so ridiculous that I simultaneously roll my eyes while stifling a giggle. It’s a miracle that it hasn’t induced a minor stroke. Yet. If it happens, I’m blaming Bono. Also, settle down, Sir.)
Never fear, holiday goers, I have the balm for what ails your poor battered ears that were so unfairly exposed to a Christmas song by Paul McCartney and fucking WINGS. You deserve proper cheer and genuinely interesting holiday music to bring you the proper vibes of coming of Winter. No matter if you love the season for spiritual reasons or just for the festiveness and stark beauty of the Winter Equinox, these five albums will fit like a snug woolen mitten for all sorts of Yuletide purposes.
My personal holiday musical tastes tend to sound like a beach party meets The Wicker Man (which you will all soon realize…dun..dun..dun!) but I realize that when having family and some of our more pink friends over, you’re going to want something a little more mainstream that doesn’t make you want to dry heave into your momma’s Walmart poinsettia. One work that will find that easy balance is pick number five, the Barenaked Ladies’ 2004 album, Barenaked for the Holidays. I discovered this one back in my retail days where I was strong-armed by corporate into playing holiday music from November to January. Luckily, I was given a wee bit of leeway and threw this one on out of curiosity and assuming it would be safe for our oh-so-delicate customers.
Admittedly, I wasn’t and still am not a big fan of this band as a whole, a statement I make with zero malice or snark since I objectively think they are talented and seem like nice dudes. But this is such a fun and sparklingly diverse holiday album that will please both yourself and normie loved ones. There’s the acoustic-coffeehouse tinged cover of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings” to the pseudo-lounge-jazz of “Elf’s Lament,” which features crooner Michael Buble on vocal duties. If that’s not enough to appease both you and your Aunt Ruth, there’s a version of “Jingle Bells” that goes from slow-speed-piano-suicide to souped-up toddler who just snorted a big fat line of pixie stick dust. The absolute highlight though is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which is a glorious instrumental glowing with sheer-muzak aplomb. They do cover “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” which while still not my cup of spiked cider, it is at least mercifully Bono-less.
Now, the family is heading back to a nearby motel. (Hey, you’re not a mad person! One can only handle being near their relatives for so long.) The time is nigh to start cleaning up and let loose some steam. The Barenaked Ladies are nice and all, but you need a little more vim and vigor with your Christmas music. Let me present to you album number four, Billy Idol’s Happy Holidays. Released in 2006, Happy Holidays is fun and weirdly straight, for the most part, Christmas album. What makes it special is that it is Billy Idol singing about Santa, holly, and bells. Even the album cover looks like it comes more from the John Tesh side of things versus the man who gave us “The Dead Next Door.” The jolly cheek of it all!
It’s like the demonic spirit of Andy Williams infused Idol while he was hanging a wreath made of fir and red ribbon and I totally dig it. Idol’s version of “Frosty the Snowman” is wink-and-a-nod schmaltz, giving you the chance to hear Billy Idol croon, “Ooh Frosty.” It’s not right. What is he going to do to this cursed man made of ice, snow, button, twigs, and coal? Nothing good and believe you me, Andy Williams would have done the exact same thing. No mythical, wintry orifice is safe when these two cats show up at your house after they’re all hopped up on THE NOG.
The musical arrangement, courtesy of Brian Tichy, who has also played with Whitesnake and Zakk Wylde’s underrated side project, Pride & Glory, is really good. It’s twinkly where it needs to be and balances the traditional arrangement of the standards with a fresh take really well. “Silver Bells” showcases this quality the best, sounding a holiday on the prairie-wagon range. On a slight side note, the combination of Billy Idol singing such yule-time stalwarts like “White Christmas” is a spicy and even frightening one. The latter garnered one of the best YouTube comments ever, with commenter loverainthunder noting, “It’s like a sexy Satan singing innocent kid songs. He could probably eat candy and make it seem sexy. I like the audio but he scares me.”
Indeed loverainthunder, indeed.
So the dishes have been cleared and the handful of your close inner circle of friends are busting out some rich, hearty red wine and everyone can fully unwind a little bit. Projekt Records’ various artists 2007 release, A Dark Noel (In the Excelsis series) is the third entry on this list and it is a seasonal beauty. This is a lush collection of songs ranging from modern Christmas staples (The Cruxshadows singing “Merry Xmas (War is Over)” to Black Tape for a Blue Girl’s rich version of “Chanukkah, Oh Chanukkah.” There is something evocative for various faiths and no faiths at all, while never sacrificing any seasonal reverence.
A Dark Noel is a tight little sampler of Projekt’s Excelsis series. For the unfamiliar, Projekt are a label best known for sporting a roster of some of the best artists in the darkwave, gothic, and ambient scene. This particular compilation also serves as a nice preview of some of the label’s strongest artists. (Minus the ultra-fantastic Lycia, who did at least appear on the first volume of the series with a collaboration with The Unquiet Void for the track, “We Three Kings.”)
One of the strongest tracks here is courtesy of Voltaire with Unto Ashes and their flawless “Peace in the Holy Land,” which manages to bring in nods both to Christianity and Judaism without overarching or reaching. (No surprise, though given that both artists are the goth equivalent to the “the bee’s knees” which should possibly be replaced with the “skeleton’s collarbone.”) There’s also Arcanta’s ethereal and hauntingly ambient rendition of “Carol of the Bells,” and the black velvet gentle fog of “Welcome Christmas” by Love Spirals Downwards.
For those of us who celebrate Yule, there’s the dark pagan folk of “For I Am Winter Born” by Unto Ashes, which is THE soundtrack for walking alone through a snowy forest at night, lit only by the full moon and stars. Arizona-based Audra, one of the absolutely strongest and underrated bands that emerged in the early 2000s, contribute their original, “Let the Reindeer Live on My Roof,” which has the sweetness and slight melancholy of childhood excitement during the holidays. There’s also UK experimental/industrial legends Attrition and their fantastically creepy rendition of “Silent Night.”
So, a more reflective and richly somber mood has been set…until the fourth glass of wine starts kicking in and suddenly, you feel this deep, primal, blood-born need to BOOGIE. There’s only one-holiday album that can scratch your mistletoe-itch and that’s the number two entry, Los Straitjackets 2002 yule-time-sparker, ‘Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets. Oh my goodness, this album positively, utterly, completely, wholly-holly-jolly Christmas-time SMOKES!
If you have a heart, a soul, and any trace of the Subgenius-laden Yetison seed, then you will love both this band and album. It’s not enough that the band all wear luchador masks and play surf rock, but the fellas DELIVER the goods. “Feliz Navidad” gets the Straitjackets treatment, complete with strains of Richie Valens’ classic 50’s rocker, “La Bamba,” thrown in for good measure. If that alone wasn’t enough, the band also took “Frosty the Snowman” and made it an balls out swanky-rocker! (As opposed to Billy Idol, who undoubtedly had a Me Too moment with sad, violated Frosty.)
Their take on “The Christmas Song” is nicely reflective while keeping the band’s quintessential bopping-verve. The absolute star shining high on top of the surf-rock tree though is their version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Holy cats, this is the deal! They impeccably inform the holiday hoariest chestnut with bits of The Ventures’ “Pipeline,” as well as Del Shannon’s sad-eyed giant, “Runaway,” resulting in a Swiss Colony multi-tiered cake-log of sonic sweetness.
The last remaining handful of friends have all gone home, most of whom are sinking in the backseat of their taxi of choice while questioning some life decisions. You’re not feeling too bad, though, miraculously. All of the main lights in the house are out, with only your living room being illuminated by the golden strings of lights from the festooned fir tree. Looking outside your window, you can see all the stars nestled in the endless sea of a black night sky. Such a magnificent view of the midnight winter landscape greeting your weary eyes and open heart merits music of equal calm and wonder, which is Jill Tracy’s 2012 album, Silver Smoke, Star of Night.
Being a musical treasure architect, Jill Tracy is an artist whose work is always as captivating as it is smartly expressive. Silver Smoke, Star of Night is no exception and actually achieves the one thing that no other winter holiday album has fully achieved, for me, which is that it is as much of a joy to listen to in the languid thickness of mid-Summer as it is two weeks before Yule.
It’s a glowing holiday gem of a record. It’s moody, crisply sensuous and truly conveys the starkness and cold beauty of Winter. There’s a beautiful instrumental version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” as well as the crimson noir of her original song, “Room 19.” Tracy’s take on the 16th-century song, “Coventry Carol” is an onyx hearted jewel. Every song on here is a winner, though, and Jill Tracy truly makes every note, phrase, and tone her own and there is no finer holiday present than that.
So as we all tuck ourselves into the fresh breath warmth of our beds, resting up for a new day and preparing for a new dawn, you now have a motley and beautiful crew of holiday albums to love the season anew.