Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Holly and The iPod

For the past week or two I’ve been working on compiling a playlist of Christmas music MP3’s, and my iPod has been shuttling back and forth between the dock on the PC where I’m downloading songs and the auxiliary cable of the stereo where I can crank up the tunes (whilst doing something else like folding laundry or baking cookies or whatnot). The playlist itself is still a bit of a work in progress, and no doubt will continue to be right up through the 25th and beyond, since it should end up getting some use every year. Sometimes it seems like my whole life is a ramshackle chain of works-in-progress both literal and metaphorical, but at least the Xmas-Mix 2011 has been fun. Insanely fun, really, like to the point where my wife came home from work one night last week to find me listening to it, cleaning the kitchen, and in a bounce-off-the-walls good mood.

I love Christmas music, really, I guess I always have. My parents had several vinyl Christmas albums of which I have inordinately fond memories, as none of those records were classics, exactly. No John Denver and the Muppets, no Bing Crosby or even Vince Guaraldi. We had stuff like Sing the Songs of Christmas with Guy Lombardo or The Wonderful World of Christmas compilation from Firestone Records which does include a track by Bing (but it’s the relatively obscure What Child Is This/The Holly and the Ivy medley) and a track by Nat “King” Cole (but NOT The Christmas Song(!), instead it’s A Cradle In Bethlehem) but perhaps more importantly features the greatest holiday song of all time, Little Heads In Bunkbeds as laid down by Tony Orlando. (By “importantly” and “greatest” here of course I mean, respectively, “to me and my brother who grew up with that album in heavy rotation” and “related by the scantest of bizarre tangents”.) At some point late in my middle school years, right about when my parents got themselves a CD component for the family stereo, they also obtained a Reader’s Digest two-disc 50-track Christmas compilation which encompassed a lot more of the standards. But even before that, I was always the one pestering my parents about when we could start busting out the Christmas records on the weekends several weeks ahead of the holiday itself.

I was also in the school band as of fourth grade and I remain convinced that when the school puts on two music concerts per year and one of them is a holiday concert in December, one of two things will happen: you will learn to love all kinds of Christmas music or you will quit the band. I never quit, but I didn’t really have that far to go to love the songs of the season, either; I just had it all reinforced on a very fundamental brain-pattern level. (And to this day I get a weird little thrill or reminiscence when I hear orchestral versions of Sleigh Ride or when the horns come in midway through It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.)

Anyway, I had started trying to make a Christmas playlist a couple of years ago and never really got very far on it, primarily because I was trying to give the entire playlist a very unified throughline. Specifically, I wanted every single track to be one which I absolutely loved in my heart of hearts; special bonus points for consideration if it were a song which is usually underrepresented in the airplay this time of year. Unfortunately, all told that only amounts to maybe six or eight different songs. And honestly, the necessity of a custom Christmas playlist seems to be obviated by the omnipresence of satellite stations over in-store sound systems and the local lite adult contempo FM station that goes to 24-hour Christmas music every Thanksgiving around here. Do not misunderstand, I am grateful for the FM option! But I can quibble with it in two ways:

1, there’s a lot of repetition of the same songs, not just year-to-year and day-to-day but sometimes even hour-to-hour. I am nothing if not a huge fan of deep cuts, so I get a little weary of Gene Autry’s Rudolph the seven hundredth time I hear it in a given month (or evening). And even certain artists get played to death in the format; this year’s big offender is Michael Buble, who just put out a Christmas album. (He also, for reasons I will never fathom, put a cover of All I Want For Christmas Is You on said album, which to me is about as inessential as anyone after Nat Cole covering The Christmas Song to begin with, but this also in the same year that Justin Bieber covered All I Want as well, as a duet with Mariah Carey, whose version of the song I genuinely do consider a fantastic piece of Christmas pop which I almost neve get sick of, but ALL THREE VERSIONS alternating every thirty-eight minutes or so? That is a bit much even for me.) One of my cardinal rules for playlists (going back to the days of mix tapes) is to avoid repetition of all kinds, so that gets tough to take.

2, in addition to the aforementioned select group of Christmas songs I love beyond all reason, there’s all the rest of Christmas music which I merely really really like, and then there’s another small grouping of Christmas music which I don’t care for at all. And of course all of those songs get a lot of radio airplay (which is probably why I dislike them so; if they weren’t so overplayed I wouldn’t feel such animosity).

So my own custom playlist neatly avoids these problem areas. No repetition of different versions of the same song, no duplication of artists, no Little Drummer Boy or Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer or Wonderful Christmastime Blue Christmas (I know dissing that last one is a little bit blasphemous, but honestly the whole sub-genre of sad Christmas breakup songs is not my cup of candy-cane tea).

And once I allowed myself to open up my custom list to all the songs I simply like a lot instead of only the ones I can’t live without, it became much easier to fill up an hour or two even while following my self-imposed anti-dupe and anti-dud rules. I’m very amused by the results, which include everything from Bing and Nat and Andy Williams and Darlene Love to Bruce Springsteen and the Waitresses and Run DMC to Weezer and MxPx and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Stephen Colbert. No Tony Orlando as of yet, if only because I can’t quite decide how much replay value my childhood nostalgia and adult sense of irony can truly support.

The only major disappointment I’ve had (these being inevitable even in this glorious golden future of iTunes and Amzon’s MP3 store and all, because those e-vendors put great effort into convincing us that they can provide anything we might ever imagine, even though that’s not 100% the case) is that I really wanted to include an interlude in the mix for Eddie Izzard’s stand-up bit about how nobody knows all the words to The Twelve Days of Christmas yet everybody goes bananas for the “five go-o-o-o-old rings!!!” part. Dress to Kill is on iTunes but it seemingly only has like six tracks, so not only is the Twelve Days bit not isolated but I don’t even really know which longer riff it is a part of (I haven’t seen Dress to Kill in like ten years). So close, and yet. Maybe I’ll get it sorted out in time for next Christmas. And then, I can only hope, someday twenty or thirty years from now my kids will approach every holiday season feeling a vague imperative to listen to not only alt rock Christmas carols but also ancient British transvestite stand-up. I can only hope!

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