Your Christmas playlist companion Share
This isn’t the usual “essentials” set … figured I’d be even looser than usual here.
I’m a fan of Christmas music, within reason. The secular songs are usually insanely catchy, even if it’s a little hard to identify with numbers about snowy fields and horse-drawn sleighs (the latter is probably problematic even for modern Yankees and snowbound midwesterners) and the religious ones speak to a part of me that I’m proud of and grateful for. I like the iconic throwbacks like Nat King Cole dishing up “The Christmas Song” (the one about chestnuts on open fires, another thing I’ve never experienced firsthand) and Jimmy Durante speak-singing his way through “Frosty The Snowman.” I believe “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues is one of the finest things ever committed to record, not strictly a Christmas song but a song about Christmas, if you get my drift.
If you don’t want to let go of your Texas music obsessions for the bulk of December, it’s helpful that Willie Nelson and George Strait made among the best Christmas albums ever … they’re sincere, yet restrained and simple in a way that modern country music often fails to be (not just talking about holiday anthems here). Jerry Jeff Walker had a mellow, homey “Gonzo Christmas” about a decade ago that fits in nicely. A few years ago, Jack Ingram recorded the only version of “Jingle Bells” that I can handle upon repeated listens: how did he manage to make that song sound urgent, yearning, even kind of fresh? Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas From The Family” and Hayes Carll’s “Grateful for Christmas” frame their sentiment in richly detailed scenarios the average Texan-American can relate to, and the Asylum Street Spankers’ “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” brings on a hell of a smile back-to-back with Billy Joe Shaver & Flaco Jimenez’ version of “Feliz Navidad.”
But for many – and I guess I’m in this camp as well – Christmas music is, much like grain alcohol, easier to swallow with a little tasteful dilution. Hour after hour of straight-up holiday music can be a souring experience, tweaking the needle on your sense of cheer until it goes all the way back around to cynicism. But surrounded by some of your other favorites – maybe this would be a good time to consider your own year-end best of? – it goes down much better, leaving you unburdened by a Pavlovian tic every time you hear a sleigh bell sound effect on the intro. This is particulary true if you like country, Americana, classic R&B, or other genres well-represented in the Christmas music spectrum. My cousin-in-law Luis’s fondness for playing Gary Stewart at Christmas parties led at least one of his daughters to just assume that Stewart was Christmas music, thematic absences nonwithstanding.
Another bit of advice: if empowered by iTunes or something similar to cherry-pick songs instead of investing in whole albums, consider taking a semi-international/cross-country approach to round out your collection. There’s a couple of fine Cajun Christmas albums available, a handful of bluegrass ones, and some choice Caribbean stuff (reggae, calypso, steel drums, etc.) as well as Celtic Christmas, Hawaiian Christmas, et al. If you don’t find musical transistions to be jarring, it’ll keep you from falling into a genre rut and make you look worldy and sophisticated to the neighbors who were considering forming an HOA to protest you still having the Christmas lights up from last year.
One more thing: that “Deep In The Heart: Big Songs for Little Texans” album from earlier this year makes a good companion to your Christmas playlist. It’s kid-friendly, cheery, and at its best makes you feel young enough to hang out by the chimney in hopes the big bearded guy with the deep voice and the jolly laugh shows up. When it turns out it’s Ray Benson instead of Santa, try to act surprised.
Peace, love, Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays,