2016 Holiday Music That Doesn't Suck Playlist

It's that time of year, friends. Noses are cold, skies are grey, and a nuclear apocalypse or environmental disaster is probably pretty nigh. What better way to spend your time than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while listening to these sweet holiday jams! Lots of great stuff on this year's Holiday Music That Doesn't Suck playlist, including some great takes on a few classic Christmas songs, at least 2 songs about doin' it, and a super-sad bonus song! Enjoy, and remember, kids, as long as we have music, the bastards haven't won yet. Happy Holidays from Wired for Music.

[Parents who share this playlist with the family, be aware a few tracks are on the explicit side, notably track 3, but "This Christmas" somehow continues to sound innocent even though it's obviously about banging.]

  1. Train - Merry Christmas Everybody
    I don't know who Train is. I always got the sense that I was not "supposed" to like Train, or that Train was a terrible band. Or maybe they weren't. All I know is for years I've seen passing references to Train, but I couldn't name a Train song. So of course I went and got Train's Christmas album, because that's how I roll. This cover loses the Alice Cooper-esque sneer and some of the jangly rockabilly guitars of the beloved original, but it makes up for that with the addition of a classic Beatles chorus pedal effect on the chorus vocals, significantly more advanced mixing techniques, and by replacing the put-on irony with put-on enthusiasm. Good job, Train, whoever you are.
  2. Ghost Hotel - Blue Christmas
    I got this off a compilation called A Very Maryland Christmas! but don't let that stop you from enjoying this light-as-a-feather cover of Blue Christmas that keeps some of the country twang from Elvis's version, but buries it under shoegaze-lite levels of reverb and candy-cane-sweet vocals.
  3. R.A. The Rugged Man & Mac Lethal - Crustified Christmas
    I first learned of Long Island's R.A. The Rugged Man through one of the special features on the DVD of Basket Case. I love it when my worlds collide. I won't bore you with the details of his connection to that movie, other than to say that if you haven't seen R.A.'s movie Bad Biology, don't. What he lacks in filmmaking abilities, he more than makes up for with his flow. Guest star Mac Lethal is no slouch, either.
  4. Còig - Carol Of The Drum
    Còig is a Celtic band from Novia Scotia, and that's everything I know about them, except they play a mean guitar. Shades of John Fahey on this one, it's a beauty.
  5. Family of the Year - NYE
    Got this one off of last year's Amazon "Indie For The Holidays" compilation, and it's lovely. I don't know this band at all, but this song has a laid-back vibe and a spare instrumentation and the lines "don't be a dreamer, be a dreamy sleepyhead" (I think), and references to California, and I have no idea what if anything it has to do with New Year's Eve but it feels like a beach at wintertime and that's good enough for me.
  6. Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors - Christmas for You and Me
    What can I say? I'm a sucker for breathy-vocaled, winking jazz numbers, and when it's about Christmas, I find this sound downright irresistible. A cool thin mint of a song that doesn't overstay its welcome and doesn't ask too much of you at a time of year when none of us has that much left in the tank.
  7. The Platters - Winter Wonderland
    Ever wondered what this song would sound like sung in the lowest possible human register? Well, now you know.
  8. R. Kelly - Christmas Lovin'
    Continuing a long tradition of Christmas songs about fucking, R. Kelly gives voice to all of us who just want to get down and make sweet love at Christmas. Isn't that all of us, really?
  9. Nikki Lane - FaLaLaLaLaLove Ya
    Nashville's Nikki Lane gives a husky performance on this instant-classic Christmas torch song, featuring a slide guitar solo and a sweet southern twang. Plus the ending is really stark and cool.
  10. Greg Lake - I Believe In Father Christmas
    This is a bona fide Christmas classic, courtesy of 1/3 of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (and 1/4 of King Crimson, I think). The double-tracked vocals, the intense lyrics from King Crimson's Peter Sinfield, and the layers of sound alone make this track worthy of its standing in the Christmas canon. But then there's the synths, the horns, instrument after instrument joining the fray, culminating in a stadium-rock anthem complete with military band-style drums and the classic line "the Christmas we get, we deserve." Badass.
  11. Chris Farren ft. Evan Weiss - Cold Front
    This is a bonus track on Chris Farren's brilliantly named album Like a Gift From God or Whatever. Don't let the nasal vocals fool you, this song is building to something, based around the heartbreaking chorus "Somebody said it was not my fault/Somebody was wrong." This song gets stuck in my head for days. It's kind of about winter or something, and includes the uplifting lyric "I would take off my coat and freeze for you." Fun!
  12. Seth MacFarlane - Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
    Yes, the man built his career by ripping off The Simpsons, but I can forgive that, because he also gave us Brian & Stewie's various road trips. But the point is, his holiday album is actually pretty good! Any Family Guy casual viewer probably knows MacFarlane's propensity for swing and big band arrangements, and he doesn't hold back here. His voice is strong, but he can't resist winking his way through some of the tracks, but I can forgive that, too, because it's clear he loves these songs and the arrangements are solid. Ignore the stupid shovel joke at the end, it's offset by the brief 3/4 "snow, snow" interlude in the middle which is just great. And of course he has a key change at the end. The guy appreciates the classic touches.
  13. Will Butler - City On A Hill
    If you hate Arcade Fire, you might want to skip this one, as this is basically an Arcade Fire song that never builds to anything. But it's still a good song, because the spare piano arrangement allow Butler's passionate vocals to carry the day. And the lyrics aren't bad; he yells "fuck off" at least twice, so that's cool.
  14. Mary J. Blige - This Christmas
    When I first heard her Christmas album, I really hated it, but I happened to hear her take on Donny Hathaway's entry in the holiday canon again recently and it really won me over. The arrangement is joyful, and she manages to make "Fireside blazing bright/We're caroling through the night" not sound like a pun about sex, which is impressive.
  15. Quiet Company - All I Want For Christmas Is You
    I've been meaning to put Mariah's version on this playlist for years, and it always gets bumped, despite being an absolutely brilliant piece of holiday music. Thankfully, Austin's Quiet Company (who were featured on last year's playlist) turned down the emotion and overwrought production of the original and replaced it with punchy horns and percussive drum fills. This is the sound of a band having fun putting their stamp on a classic.
  16. Kylie Minogue (ft. Iggy Pop) - Christmas Wrapping
    When I saw Iggy Pop's name show up on Kylie Minogue's fantastic Christmas album, I had the same "isn't he dead?" reaction that Diane has in Trainspotting. Kylie covers a lot of ground on the album, but she gets major cred (from me, anyway) for picking a modern 80s classic that doesn't involve any diva-esque crooning. She hews fairly close to the faux-ska sound of the original, upping the production values massively and adding some killer harmonies. Also adding Iggy Pop as the voice of the unnamed love interest, which was a brilliant move.
  17. Tele Novella - Purple Snowflakes
    I'm a really big fan of Marvin Gaye's original version of this song, so I was really happy to discover yet another Austin-based band by way of their loving version of this song, which wouldn't sound out of place in a Quentin Tarantino movie (or possibly a David Lynch one).
  18. The Crystalairs - Silent Night
    It's not often I can refer to a band as "my favorite German doo wop/a cappella group," but these guys fit the bill. The music here is right out of a 50s ballad, including tons of little group vocal stings, and the words are sung in German. English, and Spanish (I think). It's just so damn pretty.
  19. Duke Ellington & His Orchestra - Jingle Bells
    This is one of my favorite versions of Jingle Bells rivaling even Sammy Davis's version (featured way back in my first holiday playlist). I mean, it's Duke Ellington, so of course it's going to be good. What surprised me was how fun it was.
  20. Otis Redding - White Christmas
    When people think of Otis Redding and Christmas, they tend to think of his classic version of Merry Christmas, Baby (and with good cause, it's amazing). But his version of White Christmas, recorded in 1968, is just breathtaking. The song sounds like it was written for Otis Redding, and he gives it his all. When the horns come in during at the top of the second verse, I get chills. Plus this song is a frontline-tag, which is just cool on its own.
  21. Sam Bush - Sleigh Ride
    The legendary Sam Bush turns his mandolin on one of the jolliest winter songs, and the result is a toe-tapping newgrass romp through the snow that really feels like riding along on something fast and fun. It makes perfect sense that this song was originally written as an instrumental; it doesn't lose a thing without the lyrics.
  22. Johnny Cash - The Gifts They Gave
    You didn't think this whole playlist was going to be fun, did you? Johnny Cash is here to show you that Pete Seeger doesn't have a lock on gloomy-as-hell-but-still-really-good Christmas songs. I learned today that this song was originally titled "The Friendly Beasts." Christmas is weird.
  23. Cat Power - Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
    No matter what source material she's covering, Chan Marshall seems unable to leave out at least a hint of melancholy in her music, which is part of why she's so compelling to listen to. She sounds like she knows a sad secret and she's not quite ready to tell you. So of course she took on one of the most deceptive songs in the holiday canon, which purports to be about being merry and joyful and light of heart and leaving our troubles behind, and yet manages to be about as happy as a hangover. Her version isn't as stark as Aimee Mann's, but it is beautiful.
  24. BONUS TRACK: Leonard Cohen w/Jennifer Warnes: Silent Night (live, 1979)
    There are better Silent Nights out there (one of them's even on this playlist), but it's not every year we lose Leonard Cohen, so here you go, in case 2016 hadn't left you bummed out enough already. I don't know what the music is at the end, this is pulled from a YouTube video. The crowd laughs a bit when he starts this, but Cohen's not laughing. He sounds deadly serious, like he always does.
Well, gang, that's it for this year. Thanks for reading and listening and commenting - making this playlist has been a bright spot in an otherwise pretty damn depressing final couple months of this year. I'm trying out a new HTML5 playlist tool this year, so this thing should work on mobile devices! If it pans out, I'll try to update some old playlists too.

You can download this year's playlist here. And be sure to check out previous years' playlists!

In closing, happy holidays, keep fighting the good fight, and here's to somehow turning the world back around in 2017.


And for a special bonus treat, and a glimpse into a terrifying future under our robot overlords, here's a Christmas tune penned by an A.I.:

1 comment:

joefrombrooklyn said...

It's terrifying to think about how much Christmas music you must listen to all year round to compile so many excellent lists for our listening pleasure. It's an honorable masochism you've taken on for the rest of us (kind of the Noel equivalent of your jumping on a grenade to save the rest of the platoon) and I, for one, greatly appreciate it.