Monday, December 23, 2013

Of Music, Family, and the Holidays

This past month or so has been a bit tough on me. As I mentioned back in April, my mom passed away very unexpectedly in February of this year, so my family and I have been dealing with her absence during what has traditionally been my favorite time of year - Autumn and all of its holidays, including Halloween, St. Martin's Day, and of course Thanksgiving, and also Christmas.

My mom was a huge fan of the entire Christmas season and would decorate her house every year with a dizzying array of lighted porcelain villages, nutcrackers, homemade cross-stitched pillows and framed pictures, candles, tablecloths, holiday dishes, stuffed animals, garlands, wreaths, and three freshly cut Christmas trees each decorated with a different color and theme. She began baking over 14 dozen Christmas cookies in mid-October and wrapped each cookie individually in piece of plastic wrap, then double-bagged them in Zip-lock baggies and stored them in her freezer to keep them fresh. They were taken out, unwrapped, and arranged on huge platters on the day of the annual Thomas Family Christmas Open House, where they sat beside a variety of other food items and a basket that held home-made ornaments that my mom made every year to give to her guests at the party.

Now, I know that to a lot of you reading this, that probably sounds like your idea of Hell - a house decked all out in a kitschy mixture of homemade decorations, old Christmas pieces from the 1950s-1980s, newer decorations with styles that don't match the older ones, and, well, just "Christmas" everywhere you turn around in the house. As my sister, who is not a fan of Christmas once described it, Christmas-time at my parents' house was like "living in a department store."

I bring this up because I actually loved all that stuff. Of course I grew up with it, but mom didn't really start going overboard with Christmas decorations until the past decade and a half or so. I had already moved out of the house by this time, but I always liked going over to the house to help my mom decorate and see what a good mood it put her in. I always tried to find her some new decorations throughout the year, and I always was giving her new Christmas music to listen to while she decorated.

As readers of my blog know, I usually end each blog post by indicating where I wrote that particular post, and what I was drinking and listening to while I wrote it. I'm not really sure why I started doing that, but it's something I like to share along with whatever I'm chatting about in the actual post itself.

I listen to music all day while I'm working, and while I'm driving, usually either on Pandora where I've created about 3 dozen different stations, or on iTunes, where I've got 10,102 songs loaded and 165 playlists. Of those songs, 1,966 of them are Christmas songs.

Again, I know that a lot of you are probably groaning right now and at this point you've already hit your saturation of Christmas music for the year and are ready to claw your eyeballs out if you have to listen to "Jingle Bells" one more time.

The thing is... I love Christmas music. I'm super picky about music (something my wife can attest to), and there are certain genres of music I stay completely away from (I hate Country and pretty much most stuff considered "pop"). I don't really relate well to people who say they "don't like" music, and I really can't understand people who don't care what song is playing or don't ever get in the mood to listen to a certain song or album.

So, Christmas-time to me is a time to re-visit all of this music that I love but that I only listen to between the Friday after Thanksgiving and January 6th (Epiphany). The rest of the year, I have the music segregated on my iTunes and I don't listen to it. So, for me, I'm not one of those people who "gets tired" of Christmas music and gets annoyed or angry when it's playing on the radio. I actually have so many Christmas songs that I can't listen to them all during the season, so I've created a smart playlist (that updates dynamically) in iTunes for Christmas songs that I haven't played for the past two years, so I can try to remember to listen to them.

A few years ago, I was at my in-laws' house for Christmas and was playing some of my Christmas tunes when my mother-in-law sighed loudly and said that she was "done" with Christmas music and "couldn't we listen to something else?" I really just couldn't understand that kind of thinking, because basically to me what she was saying was "all Christmas music sounds the same" - that is, it's almost as though to her and to many other people, Christmas music is a "genre" all itself, no matter the style or subject-matter of the song. My wife is very similar in this regard. She'll say that she's sick of Christmas music and instead wants to listen to pop or alternative. My response has always been, "Why don't you listen to Christmas music in the pop or alternative style?"

Just like all songs about heart-break, friendship, long lost loves, romance, or adventure are not done in the same style, the same thing is true with Christmas music. I think most people "get tired" of Christmas music because so much of it that gets played on the radio and in-stores is the same old songs recorded back in the 1940s and 1950s - classics like "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" by Bing Crosby, or "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays" by Perry Como. Again, I actually like those songs a lot, but even I do get a little tired of them from time-to-time. However, I recognize that just because I'm tired of a particular song, doesn't mean that I'm tired of all "Christmas music."

Where is this leading? Well, in an effort to help you make it through the rest of the holiday season and also perhaps to expand your definition of "Christmas Music," I've put together a little list below of some songs you may want to check out. I hope you do, and that they help increase your enjoyment of the holidays and that you discover some tunes that you weren't aware of. I'd love it if the list inspires some of you to re-examine your Christmas music collection and start adding some new tunes. And, please do share in the comments below your favorites.

You can find all of these songs on iTunes, and they all should be in Pandora as well, so you can create a station around a particular tune, which is a great way to discover even more songs you didn't know about.

  • "Soulful Christmas" by James Brown. There's almost no way you can hear this song and keep your feet from tapping. It's a fast, energetic song by the Godfather of Soul, with classic lines such as "You bought my records... you come to see my show... that's why James Brown love you so." This is probably my favorite tune from Brown's excellent "Funky Christmas" album, which also includes many great tunes like "Go Power at Christmas Time" and "Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto." 
  • "Charlie Brown Cut-Up" by Colossus. The "Charlie Brown Christmas" special is hands-down my favorite Christmas special and also in my top 10 animated shows of all time. The soundtrack to the special is also one of my favorite Christmas albums. It's a jazz combo of piano, bass, and drums, and is the perfect music to play while trying to relax after a long hectic day of Christmas shopping. This fun tune is a mash-up that puts a hip-hop back-beat and a lot of scratching over the children's choir humming the tune "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Trust me, it works. 
  • "Christmas Vacation" by Mavis Staples. Okay, this particular song isn't actually available on iTunes and the soundtrack is long out of print, but if you know how to use Google you can find a copy somewhere online. This is the theme song to the classic 1989 "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," which was required Christmas-eve viewing in the Thomas household for many years. While the movie is a combination of slap-stick humor and heartwarming moments, the theme song is a fun, catchy, energetic holiday tune that will keep you smiling as your remember your favorite moments from the film. 
  • "Christmas Is a Joyful Day" by Lord Executor. Head down to the Caribbean with this calypso tune about a cantaway, a "knock-out" rum drinking served during the holidays. 
  • "A Party for Santa Claus" by Lord Nelson. This is another Caribbean style song, explaining why we should give gifts to Santa Claus to thank him for all he does for us, so he'll come back more than once a year. Ideas include "trade in the old sleigh and the reindeer for a big car with a chauffeur, get a helicopter...," "an apartment with modern equipment" and my favorite, "take him out to a nightclub or a movie, get some fine chicks and have a party." 
  • "Be-Bop Santa Claus" by Sweet Daddy Lowe. This isn't really a song, but a spoken-word piece done in the style of the old hipster poets, in a re-telling of "Twas the Night Before Christmas." Great stuff in here, especially if you listen carefully and have a working knowledge of the jazz greats. At one point, the Be-Bop Santa delivers a gift, "a record cut by Diz when he was two." 
  • "Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)" by Miles Davis and Bob Dorough. This is not a feel-good song, but rather a look at the commercialization of Christmas, a "time when the greedy give a dime to the needy," and "plain old bad taste." This is the only real holiday song by jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, and if you're a fan of his (as I am), you should have this in your collection. Also, listen carefully to the voice of the guy singing the song, Bob Dorough. That's also the same voice of most of the old "Schoolhouse Rocks" songs, including "I'm Just a Bill."
  • "Back Door Santa" by Clarence Carter. This is a blues-style rocker, and the main riff is what Run D.M.C. used for their classic "Christmas in Hollis" tune. Carter sings about "I keep some change in my pocket, in case the children are at home; I give them a few pennies so we can be alone..."

Also, I've published a few holiday playlists on Spotify for my ad agency, Always On Communications (AOC), as "Christmas gifts" each year for my clients and followers:

  • AOC Holiday Soul Playlist
    • Donny Hathaway, Otis Redding, Charles Brown, Brook Benton, the Drifters, and more
  • AOC Holiday Remixed Playlist
    • Remixes of classic songs like "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" by Kay Starr, "Christmas Time Is Here" by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and "Happy Holiday" by Bing Crosby
  • AOC Holiday Uncommon Playlist
    • Interesting tunes like "Holiday on Skis," "Santa Claus' Party," and "Vauncing Chimes"
  • AOC Holiday Mellow Jazz Playlist
    • Relaxing (but never "smooth") jazz, such as Herbie Hancock, Red Garland, and Chet Baker
  • AOC Holiday Contemporary Playlist
    • Everything from Paul McCartney ("Wonderful Christmastime") and the Beach Boys ("Little Saint Nick") to Sting ("Gabriel's Message") and the Waitresses ("Christmas Wrapping")

That's just a very short list - there's Christmas music in every style, from classic jazz (such as Dexter Gordon and even a 13+ minute rendition of "My Favorite Things" by John Coltrane), swing, blues, reggae, rock, soul and R&B, classical, and more. So, the next time you starting thinking, "Man, I'm really tired of Christmas music..." pause for a second and see if it's just a particular song or a specific style that you're really tired of, and then mix it up a bit.

And above all else, enjoy your holidays. 

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Stone Ruination IPA
Listening: "We Wanna See Santa Do the Mambo" by Big John Greer
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