This article originally appeared at Myoo.com
Listen to the radio play of this essay on MYOO's Spotify station.Oh, Christmas cheer. Snowflakes tumble just outside frosted windows. Flames dance merrily in the hearth. The perfect Frasier fir, adorned with shimmering bulbs from Macy’s, glows brilliant with tiny white lights, Michelangelo's Sistine angel perched atop, guardian of box upon box of carefully selected, triumphantly wrapped gifts. The children circle the tree, expectantly awaiting the new toys Santa has brought them, while the adults chatter, sipping old-fashioned cocktails, the velvety melodies of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Bing Crosby pouring like eggnog from the stereo.
In a flash, Betty Draper’s living room melts away. I’m eight years younger, a senior in college, sweeping up the bathrooms off the music hall in the back of the crumbling dive where I tend bar. The front door is locked, the neons extinguished, the only sound the rhythmic song of straw bristles scraping broken glass and plastic cups across a concrete floor. It’s been a long, slow night—most of the students are home on holiday break, but the few ragged winos and townie drunks who wandered in managed to make an impressive mess. I am sweeping the remnants of their revelry into tiny piles, my thoughts drifting between my family’s annual seven-course Christmas Eve dinner and the stunning blue-eyed brunette for whom I’d mixed a Crown and ginger earlier when, suddenly, there arose such a clatter, I sprang from the commode to see what was the matter. In hellish counterpoint to the sugarplums dancing in my head, from the next room marched Mannheim Steamroller’s “Carol of the Bells,” as if heralding a goose-schtepping legion of angry New Age fascists. I found this blaring orchestral synth rock—from the group’s multiplatinum 1988 album A Fresh Aire Christmas—terrifying, in the way I’d imagine a Satanic ritual to be terrifying.
It was after midnight in Atlanta, and we were in the Old Fourth Ward at a saloon-slash-gallery called Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium.
Rushing to the front lounge to investigate the origin of this racket, I found my boss, A.C., hunched over a half-empty bottle of cognac in the pitch dark at 3 a.m., awash in the Steamroller’s pompous, droning fanfare. As a younger man, he’d been a lynchpin of the local scene—musician, DJ, club owner. In the last few years, though—while most of his friends had settled down or moved away—his decades of bar life had finally sunk their hooks into his flesh. The latest blow? His longtime live-in girlfriend had just left him and, now, facing Christmas alone, he tossed back shot after soul-numbing shot of liquor, a fading silhouette of a man, loosely grasping his last shreds of dignity in the dark night...
“Look, man,” said my friend Frank, who I’d dubbed the Ghost of Christmas Past, he held his hand up to signal he’d had enough. “You’ve got to lay off with all this depressing bullshit.” He’d been in fine spirits since we’d met an hour or so earlier, but clearly, he was rattled by my tale of A.C.’s tragic descent into Mannheim Steamroller.
It was after midnight in Atlanta, and we were in the Old Fourth Ward at a saloon-slash-gallery called Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium. Surrounded by folk-art pictures of Jesus, my new friend and I bantered intently, sipping an esoteric concoction called the Spiritual Sangria from gaudy, fruit-garnished pint glasses. After pondering his interruption for a moment, I decided the Ghost was right—there was no reason to be such a downer. The holidays were in full swing. Besides, most people’s Christmases aren’t that bleak. For the lion’s share of us, they slide in somewhere between the idealizing of Bing Crosby and A.C.’s rock bottom—something akin to the tragic-comic bickering of the Griswolds in Christmas Vacation or the embattled couple in The Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight).”
“Alright, alright,” I said, taking a slug of the blood-colored wine punch. “I hear ya. But like I said before, sometimes I just get so sick of all that cheery Christmas music. It’s like someone with a creepy, unrelenting smile at a funeral. A slap in the face to all the lonely folks out there. They see how happy everyone else is, and it just magnifies their anguish. For a lot of people, the holidays are a dark time, man. Suicides per capita, you know? The number just goes through the roof.”
“If I buy us another round,” said the Ghost, “will you promise to not say anything else about suicide rates or sad drunks moping in the dark?”
“If you buy another round,” I said, “we can talk about whatever you want.”
When I hear Dean Martin sing ‘Marshmallow World’, it’s like Pavlov’s fucking bell—I want to bake Christmas-tree-shaped cookies, and buy little plastic toys for my nieces and nephews and get drunk on spiked cider.
The Ghost grinned. Frank had just finished a local theater production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and was still in full costume and makeup. He ordered us another round of Spiritual Sangrias. And then another. And another. Glass by glass, our guilt was washed away, replaced by righteous indignation.
“I’ll give you this,” The Ghost said, his tongue a little looser as the clock crept deeper into the small hours, “you were were right when you said all that traditional Christmas music was just a nostalgia trip. All that Rat Pack bullshit, year in, year out. ‘Silver Bells’ and ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’”
“That’s right,” I said, slurring a bit over my wine-stained lower lip. “Christmas albums are nothing more than the record industry cashing in on rampant holiday nostalgia—nostalgia for something that never really existed, memories smoothed over by time, like sandpaper. Nothing but a big sad, cash grab.”
“All those crooners,” Frank said, “they come from this idealized era. But then you take a show like Mad Men—probably the first honest show about the ’50s and ’60s. Unless you were a rich or middle-class white male, the ’50s weren’t so idyllic as everyone thinks.”
“You are absolutely right, man,” I said. And while Frank and I might’ve been a couple of drunks in love with the sound of our own voices spouting flowery and not altogether coherent anti-status-quo rants, somewhere in there, were were on to something. For a while now, I’d been of the opinion that the whole classic canon of holiday music had become nothing more than a shorthand for this glossed-over, idealized version of holidays past, playing on nostalgia to make us want to buy stuff we don’t need. “But what are we gon’ do?” I went on. “They got us where they want us, Frank. When I hear Dean Martin sing ‘Marshmallow World’, it’s like Pavlov’s fucking bell—I want to bake Christmas-tree-shaped cookies, and buy little plastic toys for my nieces and nephews and get drunk on spiked cider. Because I’ve been doing it since I was a kid—except for the the spiked cider part. You know what I mean. But when I hear Sinatra sing ‘Silent Night,’ all of a sudden, the bad memories drift away. The blow-out arguments...”
“...the overcooked turkeys, the spoiled kids whining about how they didn’t get exactly what they wanted...”
“...the year Grandma passed away.”
“Now, that’s just terrible. Straight to Hell, that’s where you’re going.”
The saving grace here, for me and Frank at least, is that, if you venture beyond Old Blue Eyes and the gang, there is plenty more great holiday music out there. Lesser-spun tunes that take kerosene and a match to nostalgia and watch it burn like a dried-up christmas tree, songs that boldly call bullshit on this whole mentality of idealization.
“Just the other day,” I told Frank, “I heard James Brown’s ‘Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto’ and Run DMC’s ‘Christmas in Hollis.’ And then I was listening to OutKast—that Big Boi song 'Unhappy.'"
“I love that song! When I found out that Santa Claus was nothing more than Vanilli, it was silly...”
“Exactly. And the rest of that verse—about how crazy the whole Santa lie is, and about how Big’s family worked hard to make ends meet, but then they’d end up in debt at the start of every year because they didn’t want to disappoint the kids.”
“It happens all the time—families breaking the bank for no good reason,” Frank said, pounding the bar with his fist every few words, his blood wrestling the Spritual Sangria for real-estate in his veins. “They’re out there, shopping alone instead of spending time with the people they care about, braving Black Friday pepper sprayings because society says they have to.”
“It’s insanity,” I said. “You won’t find me within 100 miles of a mall on Black Friday.”
“Me either,” said Frank.
“Any time after Thanksgiving,” I mumbled, “if you do go to the mall, you can bet for damn sure they’ll be playing all that nostalgic crooner Christmas music.”
There was a long silence. Frank and I drank our drinks.
“I don’t know,” I said after a while. “I’m not trying to disparage the old masters. I like the Rat Pack as much as the next guy. Probably more. My family is Italian—I grew up on that stuff. With the exception of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home” it was all we listened to at Christmas.”
“Home Sweet Home?” he laughed.
Something that not only celebrates tradition and the bright side of the holidays, but that gives equal weight to the depraved, the down-and-out and a whole lot of everything in between.
Frank and I rambled on into the night. Eventually, we agreed that, in some ways, we do need nostalgia, we cling to it—like a limb in a river that’s raging toward a waterfall. The whole year just whips past as we’re tossed about in the current of our lives. But, the holidays—if approached with the right mindset—they can be an oasis. And all of these traditional songs, the ones we’ve been taking mean-spirited swipes at all night in Church—as much as they’re played to death the last two months of ever year, they’re a big part of it. It’s just that for decades now, they’ve been hijacked and put to ugly use duping us into associating empty, mindless consumerism with candy-coated memories of some perfect childhood we never really had, leaving us penniless, exhausted and unfulfilled, our closets full of Tickle me Elmos or even worse, Rotatos.
“It’s enough to make you want to just throw it all out and start from scratch,” I said.
“A new canon of holiday music?” Frank asked.
“Why not?” I said “Take some newer bands, some lost classics, throw in a couple interesting covers of the old standards. I’m talking about something a little more all-encompassing, in both sound and subject matter—something that not only celebrates tradition and the bright side of the holidays, but that gives equal weight to the depraved, the down-and-out and a whole lot of everything in between.
“Cool. Why don’t you make me a mix?”
“LAST CALL!” the bartender shouted.
“Another round of sangria?” I asked.
“Sounds good,” said the Ghost of Christmas Past. “But this one’s on you, you miserable bastard.”
THE NEW CHRISTMAS MIX
While you check out Steve's mix, listen to it free on MYOO's Spotify station.
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.
—Steve LaBate is a senior contributing writer for online music, film and culture magazine, Paste, where he was associate editor from 2003-2010. Currently, he is working on his first book, 40 Nights of Rock & Roll: A Life-Affirming Death March through the Heart of Rock Music on the Road in America. He hopes his Sinatra-loving parents don't disown him for writing this piece.