Sunday, December 8, 2019

The 2019 Holiday Music That Doesn't Suck Playlist | Wired for Music

Hello friends, it's that time of year again. Specifically, the day after Thanksgiving, and I've already eaten the traditional day-after-Thanksgiving-turkey-ham-and-sauerkraut omelette, so all that's left to do is start on this year's Wired for Music Holiday Music That Doesn't Suck Playlist. This year's list has some artists who've been featured here before but who have a lot more to offer in the holiday music arena, some classic rockers who have never cracked the list before, and as always some acts that are new to me but have something valuable to add to the overstuffed stocking that is holiday music.

It's always hard for me to edit these down to a reasonable size, so I've usually ended up redefining "reasonable" to be "however many tracks are left when I no longer feel like cutting" but this year was especially challenging - maybe because I really let myself go last year, or maybe because converging is harder than diverging, or maybe just because I get so excited about each song I come across that doesn't suck that I want to share it with everyone. I've already got more than enough in my holding pen for next year's playlist, and that's before I wade through all the stuff that's coming in the next few weeks. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, this year's playlist...I've got a full glass of home-made eggnog (this year I finally learned that aging makes it good), my Yankee Candle "Christmas Cookie" housewarmer lit, and my headphones on, so let's get to it, shall we?

  1. Ariana Grande - Santa Tell MeI don't think I've ever heard a non-holiday Ariana Grande song, but given that this is the second time she's made the playlist, maybe I should? This song has such a great energy and does a good job weaving in little Christmas details while really just being a very decent love/heartbreak song featuring some great vocal histrionic and killer backup vox. I just learned she has a second xmas EP so expect to see Ms. Grande show up here again.
  2. John Prine - Christmas in PrisonOne of my very favorite Christmas songs (or songs, period) is Emmy the Great & Lightspeed Champion's cover of this John Prine classic (featured here in 2014), but it wasn't until this year that I finally learned to know - and love - the original. Prine's voice and sparse guitar are the perfect vehicle and backdrop for gorgeous lines like "I dream of her always/Even when I don't dream/Her name's on my tongue/And her blood's in my stream." This song gets me every time.
  3. John Legend - Silver BellsFirst let's get my John Legend story out of the way: a long, long time ago, my college a cappella group competed against his a cappella group in a regional competition, so technically we've sung on the same stage. What's that you ask? Which group won that competition? Oh, who can recall details like that after all these years... Anyway, I didn't love his xmas album, and I absolutely hate that he (and about 1000 other recording artists) released a "deluxe" edition of said album a mere 12 months later, but his rendition breathes tons of life and energy into a song which is nearly 70 years old, so kudos to him.
  4. Backstreet Boys - It's Christmas Time AgainGang, I'm as surprised as you to find the Backstreet Boys on here, but this sequel to their truly terrible 1996 xmas single Christmas Time is undeniably good. Go ahead, try to deny it! It's got bells, it's got tight harmonies, it's got a great guitar part, and it's got a catchy-as-hell hook. Sure, most of the chorus lyrics consist of "la ta, la ta ta la ta" but it's the holidays, surely we won't begrudge this delicious Christmas cookie just because the frosting is a little sloppy.
  5. Squirrel Nut Zippers - Sleigh Ride
    Sleigh Ride is one of my absolute favorite wintertime tunes, and the Zippers' version is jaunty and jolly and really captures the feeling of going over a few jumps and bumps in a horse-drawn sleigh (or so I imagine). I'm always impressed by instrumentals that evince a sense of humor, because musical humor is such a damn neat trick, and this one pulls it off. 
  6. Rob Halford with Family & Friends - Deck the HallsRob Halford's latest holiday album, Celestial, is my favorite so far. He's joined here by his brother, his nephew, and some other folks for a killer backing band that perfectly matches his over-the-top-I-invented-the-prototype-for-high-pitched-heavy-metal-vocalists style. This song gets bonus points for the ridiculously long guitar solo in the middle, which covers a range of styles from thrash metal to blues metal before finally shifting abruptly back into Deck the Halls. And of course Halford sounds amazing.
  7. Killer Mike - Christmas GrindThis is Killer Mike's contribution to a compilation of what AMG calls "some of the Dirty South's hottest rappers circa 2003", and for some reason there's a few holiday tracks on there, which means now I have to track down a copy. They go on to say that "most everything here is marginal at best, especially the holiday songs" and while this isn't the strongest track on this playlist, it's still got good bones and Killer Mike sounding genuinely pissed off about having to work (robbing people, but work is work) on Christmas.
  8. Kacey Musgraves - Ribbons and BowsI heard of Kacey Musgraves only recently thanks to my friend Eduardo, who's long been one of my new music gateways. This song has a horn section, which faithful readers will know is one of my musical Kryptonites, and the hook is so hooky I've found myself singing this one to myself more than once since I started working on this playlist back in [unmentionably early month to be listening to holiday music]. Her staccato syncopation on "there's only one thing that I want" at the end of each verse (not to mention that beautiful baritone sax) makes up for the fact that there's no real connective tissue taking us back to the chorus, but it all works. Thanks for the tip, Eduardo - only took me 3 years to act on it!
  9. Juniore - Pour Noel, Cette AnnéeThis Parisian dream-pop quartet puts their spin on Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas is You, and the results sound like peppermint cotton candy. It's a lovely, lo-fi affair, with a sparse fuzz guitar and some light organ here and there, topped off by the husky vocals of songwriter Anna Jean. The bridge is a little dreary [Friends who speak French: what is she saying during the bridge?] but it returns to its odd little form by the end. I have no idea where I found this song.
  10. LCD Soundsystem - Christmas Will Break Your HeartThis song is way better than it has to be, considering that A) it's a Christmas song, and B) the band put this one together while they were technically broken up. James Murphy is clearly having fun channeling his inner Velvet Underground here with this simple bass-led background, and his inner Tom Waits with lyrics like "Christmas will shove you down/So just lay back in the snow/But that quiet wind won't wait/What's inside you has grown cold." Murphy has referred to this song as "depressing Christmas song" and folks, he's not wrong. This song makes a nice spiritual successor to the Everly Brothers' Christmas Eve Can Kill You, featured on 2012's playlist. [Ed. note: my descriptions were way shorter back then. Why are these so fucking long now?]
  11. Cocteau Twins - Frosty the SnowmanI remember being too young to know anything about this band during most of the 80s aside from their seemingly (at the time) unpronounceable name. I had no idea they were dream pop pioneers, and I would have guessed they were French if I didn't know they were Scottish, or possibly from Mars. Listen to this one on good headphones, it has more going on than you'd think.
  12. Weird Al Yankovic - The Night Santa Went CrazyThis song breaks a rule of mine that I've only broken once or twice before: no novelty songs. With weird Al, every song is a novelty song, so I didn't want to hold that rule against what is otherwise a fabulous Christmas song, with one warning: it's about a mass shooting. Not like how we use that term today, but more like Santa blowing the living shit out of his workshop, the elves, and all the reindeer. It's actually really good, if you look at it more like a Christmas horror movie plot than like a terrifying mirror of our terrifying world. Released in 1996, the song also parodies the musical style of Soul Asylum's Black Gold, which is a neat trick. It's also legitimately funny, if you're the kind of person who would laugh at a Christmas horror movie (you are my people).
  13. Little Eva & Big Dee Irwin - I Wish You A Merry Christmas
    This track is featured on John Waters's divine compilation A John Waters Christmas, which is a great pick-up for anyone looking to expand your holiday music collection beyond the tried and true. Released in 1963, this little sugar cookie features Little Eva, whose full name was Eva Narcissus Boyd and who is the voice behind 1962's Loco-motion, one of the most popular wedding and bar mitzvah songs of all time.
  14. Miss OD & Gentlemen League - Bells Of ChristmasI don't know anything about these people other than that they recorded this in France for the 2004 re-release of the 1981 ZE Records compilation A Christmas Record, which featured the release of The Waitresses' addition to the canon, Christmas Wrapping (featured on my very first playlist!). This song feels like warm cocoa on a cold winter's night. With some peppermint schnapps, maybe.
  15. Sheryl Crow - Blue ChristmasI really dig Crow's laid-back indie pop vibe on her cover of this classic tune popularized by Elvis's version in 1957. You think things have gotten as low-down funky as they're gonna get when the wah-wah guitar kicks in, but then bam! -- distorted harmonica. Crow sounds like she's singing through wax paper, but in a good way. 
  16. Phoebe Bridgers - Have Yourself a Merry Little ChristmasI thought Aimee Mann's version of this was the saddest version. I was very wrong. This was my first exposure to Phoebe Bridgers, whose website is This LA folk rocker is in a "supergroup" with Lucy Dacus (stay tuned for Lucy on next year's playlist!) and named her debut album Stranger in the Alps, so she seems like a cool person, or at least one with good taste. This would be a great song to drown to.
  17. Till Brönner - Last ChristmasThis cover of Last Christmas by German jazz trumpeter/flügelhornist and "pop star" Till Brönner is one of my favorites. It's the sound of a candy cane slowly melting into a glass of eggnog, with a little nutmeg sprinkled on top. It's a mostly instrumental smoothish jazz version of a modern classic, and I fell for it the first time I heard it, which was supposedly on something called the Free Soul Christmas compilation, though I can't seem to find any evidence that such a thing actually exists outside of some digital copies on various pirated music sites on the sketchier side of the web. If you really like this song and what to see just how far that feeling can stretch, here's a Spotify playlist of 100 versions of Last Christmas. Enjoy!
  18. Dru Hill - FireplaceI struggled to pick just one song of Dru Hill's Christmas in Baltimore last year, because how can I choose among such a great set of heartfelt contributions to my favorite genre of Christmas song: the ones about fucking? This is a rare song where the bridge nearly outshines the rest of the number. "Baby my focus is loving you right/Feeling the heat from the fire in your eyes" - this is good stuff, people. The harmonies are intoxicating, like a good glass of eggnog, which I just finished.
  19. The White Stripes - Candy Cane ChildrenThis 2002 single is supposedly a reference to "die-hard fans of the The White Stripes, who are called 'Candy Cane Children'". I don't know if I believe that, but I do believe that this song A) is vaguely about Christmas, and B) rocks in that classic fuzzed-out White Stripes way where it sounds like a band trying to sound like they're trying to hide how smart they are but they really also want you to know it.
  20. Matisyahu - MiracleI was running pretty low on good Chanukah music this year, so I'm including this track even though it's over-produced pop fluff. Still, it's short enough to not wear out its somewhat charming welcome before the candles burn down, and the chorus is pretty catchy. It's a little self-indulgent, but what do you expect from a guy who literally chose "gift of god" as his stage name.
  21. Vashti Bunyan w/Twice as Much - The Coldest Night of the YearFolk-chanteuse-turned-freak-folk-founder Vashti Bunyan turns in a fabulous take on the source material of Baby It's Cold Outside. This unreleased track from 1966 is full of great 60s production touches, and it even has sleigh bells! You can almost hear Bunyan accidentally giving birth to Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, among others.
  22. Queen - Thank God It's ChristmasSomehow I never knew before this year that Queen had released a Christmas song. And it's been around since 1984, although it was apparently really hard to come by before it was released on Greatest Hits III in 1999. It's fucking great. Hearing Freddy Mercury sing "Oh my love/We've had our share of tears/Oh my friends/We've had out hopes and fears/Oh my love/It's been a long, hard year" over a simple 2-note melody is arresting as he builds up to the chorus. The bridge (really just a different take on the chorus) is another matter, but they pull it out of the fire before it's too late.
  23. Brian Setzer Orchestra - My Favorite Things (instrumental)Brian Setzer is the gift that keeps on giving. The man who brought us Stray Cat Strut gave the world a treat of a holiday album a few years back, which is full of gems like this one. His version of this holiday classic (which has literally nothing to do with any holiday and contains only passing references to winter) is stirring and joyous, and what more could you ask for for the holidays? Nothing, you cretin. Ask for nothing more.
  24. The Dismemberment Plan - The Ice of BostonDespite being from the DC area, I was never a big Dismemberment Plan fan, but I really dig this song about how shitty Boston winters are. The EP named after this one was the only thing Interscope released of theirs before dropping them after realizing that no one was going to get any bonuses based on D-Plan releases. This song is funny, and sad, and bleak, and it rocks. "Here's to another goddamn new year" indeed.
  25. Mister Hopkinson's Computer - Fairytale of New YorkI was a latecomer to this song; my brother had to kind of beat me about the head until it clicked for me, but click it did. The original, that is. This version...well, this version is performed by a computer. I don't really know a lot about this artist or how the music gets made, but please try to keep an open mind and see this through to the end - it actually does incredible justice to the original.
  26. BONUS TRACK: Pentatonix - HallelujahMy only real rule besides "no novelty songs" (broken above) is "no Pentatonix." "No Hallelujah" is a good rule, too. Why am I breaking both of these rules? Because this version of this song is really beautiful (even if it is auto-tuned to hell and back) and features that classic slick pop production and a cappella chops that have kept Pentatonix off this playlist for over a fucking decade. Maybe I'm getting soft in my old age, who knows.
Well gang, we put up the tree today, put out the dreidels, and broke open the (briefly) aged nog, so it's only fitting that I put out the playlist tonight. As we barrel towards the end of another beautiful and horrifying year, please be good to yourself and others, give as much love as you take, and always remember what the holidays are really all about: music that doesn't suck.

Got a thought? Tell me in the comments like it's 2002! Thanks for reading and listening. [from]

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