By Daniel Ford (From Blown Speakers)
It used to be that once you crossed into Alabama en route to Birmingham, the wide and rolling interstate became a winding and claustrophobic two-lane highway. The speed limit ebbed and flowed unpredictably as you passed through small country towns with names like Carbon Hill and Guin (whose sign informs you it’s pronounced Gu-win, thank you very much), each small town telephone pole adorned with glowing outlines of bells or snowflakes or candy canes. There are carbon copies of Carbon Hill here in Arkansas and all over the country, factory towns whose picturesque main streets serve as time capsules for the out-of-towners driving along them.
On our annual holiday drive through these towns, it was my mom’s responsibility to guide our teal green Nissan Altima through the sharp curves and speed traps. It was my responsibility to sit shotgun and hold the portable CD player, hooked up to the car’s speakers through a cassette tape adapter, as steadily as possible in my lap. This was an important job, and I took it very seriously, because neither of us wanted the music to be interrupted by the turbulence of the bumpy drive. Having dusted off my mom’s prized collection of Christmas music after its 11-month hibernation, I assumed the vaunted role of DJ – lining up a slew of holiday favorites that each of us had resisted the temptation to listen to until this drive.
There were several compilations of late 80’s/early 90’s quasi-famous musicians singing Christmas songs, aptly titled The Stars Come Out for Christmas. There was some lady named Kathy Mattea that I only knew through her significant Christmas output. There were time-honored classics like Bing Crosby and Brenda Lee. There were the heavy hitters: Mariah Carey and especially Amy Grant, a Pop/Christian artist who carved out a Santa-shaped niche with multiple Christmas masterpieces.
While you can lose your mind trying to keep up with the ever-shifting trends in music and culture, Christmas music is refreshingly static – every December we listen to the same songs, watch the same movies, laugh at the same family stories. As someone who generally shies away from radio-friendly music, Christmas music is comfort food, an opportunity to indulge in the decidedly un-hip.
For me, Christmas music will be forever linked to these little towns, now bypassed by a smooth new interstate that runs straight to Birmingham. These cheesy, joyous, bombastic songs manage to pull me from the stressful grasp of (semi) adulthood, sonic speed traps forcing me to hit the brakes and bask in the warmth of familiar melodies. I’m going to highlight a few favorites below, and I created a 50-song yuletide playlist (link at the bottom of the post) featuring a hearty mix of classics, covers of classics, and some indie originals. Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals.
“Come on! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!” by Sufjan Stevens
Sufjan, or Cool Uncle Christmas as I like to call him, has churned out almost 100 Christmas songs over the course of the last decade plus. This is one of my favorites (nine other favorites of mine are included in the playlist), a playful and melodic original with lyrics (“K-Mart is closed, so is the bakery, everyone’s home watching TV”) that perfectly capture the post-feast malaise that falls over Christmas night.
Main Title from Home Alone (“Somewhere in My Memory”) by John Williams
If this song doesn’t immediately conjure up feelings of Christmastime mischief, then you need to drop what you’re doing and go watch Home Alone and its excellent sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. I spent most of my formative years attempting to run away from my mom only so that we could reunite dramatically in front of the giant Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center in NYC.
“Home for the Holidays” by Emmy the Great & Tim Wheeler
This original by British folk singer Emmy the Great and her boyfriend Tim Wheeler uses an insanely catchy bubblegum pop melody to effectively paint the picture of estranged former lovers now living in different cities returning home for the holidays to renewed romantic feelings. This one’s guaranteed to make you look up your high school ex on Facebook.
“Where Are You Christmas?” by Faith Hill
Honestly, this one made the list because of the incredible music video above, starring Faith Hill’s crimped hair as she emotes on the side of a fake mountain. It’s also an undeniable slow jam from one of my favorite Christmas movies (Jim Carrey’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas), perfect for belting from your car as you maintain intense eye contact with the person stopped at the light next to you.
“Merry Christmas Baby” by Otis Redding
Otis Redding slays this cover of the classic Christmas song, using his one-of-a-kind pipes to add some playful desperation. There are a ton of incredible Motown/Soul Christmas albums from the likes of the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, etc., and you’ll find most of them represented on the Spotify playlist below.
Happy Holidays and happy listening!