The 2018 Holiday Music That Doesn't Suck Playlist

Hello boys and girls. As I write these words, it's not even December and I've already subjected my family to a month (+ a few days, if we're being honest) of Christmas music, Chanukah music, New Years Eve music, basically anything and everything I can get my hands on that might qualify as holiday music that doesn't suck. Of course, the sad truth is that most of it really, really does suck. A lot. (I'm looking at you, Eric Clapton.) But never fear, girls and boys, Jordan Claus is here to sift through all that crap so you don't have to! And sift I have.

This year's playlist started, as they usually do, as a list of 20-30 songs that didn't make it to last year's playlist. Some of them fit in just fine this year, others were as appetizing as stale Christmas cookies (I mean, I'll still eat 'em). Then of course I had to add another 50 tracks or so of all the new (to me, not necessarily stuff that came out this year) tunes I had made my way through since I busted out my bottomless xmas playlist way back in August October.

So pour yourself a glass (or three) of nog, turn on the Netflix fireplace, cuddle up under your Snuggie, and feast your ears on some holiday cheer as we dive into this year's Wired for Music Holiday Music That Doesn't Suck playlist. Enjoy, and drop me a comment if you liked it!

  1. Eels - Everything's Gonna Be Cool this Christmas
    After I put together last year's playlist, I realized that it was my tenth outing into this crazy sonic winter wonderland. I had missed my own 10th anniversary! [Ed. note: Mrs. Wired for Music says that this year is my 10th anniversary, last year was just my 10th playlist. Which still feels important to me, but whatever.] So to make up for it, I'm kicking off this year's playlist with an alternate version of the song that started it all, 10 years ago. "Baby Jesus, born to rock" as the man says. I called this the "alternative version" compared to the one I used in 2008; that one was slower, had an acoustic guitar and toy piano, and is much more chill than this one. But that one may actually have been the alternate version and this one the original, I don't know and I'm on my second eggnog so I no longer care to look it up. Happy holidays!
  2. Elvis Presley - Blue Christmas
    Versions of this song have made it on to several playlists past - and expect to see it again in the future, I love this song. But somehow I've never used the King's version, and it's totally amazing - from the "I'll-a-have-a-a-a-blue" opening line to the backing "a-woo-a-woo-oo-oo" vocals, to that distinctive vibrato, he makes this one all his own. Which makes sense, considering that his 1957 version cemented the song as a holiday classic.
  3. Fettdog - Fett's Festive Fest
    I don't know if the name is a play on the amazing MC Chris song Fett's Vette, nor do I know who or what Fettdog is. All I do know is that this song manages to somehow successfully mash together Cake, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, and The Star Wars Holiday Special. It's not for everyone, but this being my 10th anniversary, I'm doing an extra-long playlist, so there's room for everything. Happy Life Day, everyone!
  4. Barenaked Ladies w/Sarah Mclachlan - God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen / We Three Kings
    It's odd that I've featured a number of songs from the BNL holiday album, as I actually don't like most of it, but when they're good, they're very good, and this outing is a great example of that. The arrangement really works for their voices, and when Sarah M joins in, she takes the whole thing to another level. I also love the very light percussion here that adds just enough backbone to the whole thing to keep it grounded. 
  5. Teitur - Happy Xmas (War is Over)
    Before hearing his version of this Plastic Ono Band Christmas standard on a friend's mix, I'd never heard of Faroese musician Teitur Lassen before. (I had to look up Faroese.) He is apparently beloved in Denmark and has given a TED talk, but don't hold that against him. This version of Lennon/Ono's remarkably sad-sounding ode to optimism (based on the tune of an old English folk song) manages to feel stark and lush at the same time and reminded me how beautiful this song can be.
  6. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - Just Another Christmas Song
    While it's definitely an original composition, this song by the late great Sharon Jones is actually an ode to Christmas songs, and so it's a perfect fit for this playlist, which is all about celebrating the best Christmas and other holiday music I can find. This song is mostly references to other songs, interspersed with that catchy-as-hell chorus over top of that groovy backing track. This song makes me dance along in my chair, which is usually a good sign.
  7. Ladyhawke - Merry Xmas Everyone
    This take on Slade's addition to the modern canon is from New Zealand's Ladyhawke, AKA Phillipa Margaret "Pip" Brown. She named herself after a 1985 Richard Donner film starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, and Michelle Pfeiffer. More to the point, this song features an arpeggiator, and those of you who actually read all this stuff every year (or have a good ear) know that I am a total sucker for arpeggiators. Welp, looks like it's time to refresh my eggnog glass before writing about...
  8. Fitz and The Tantrums - Santa Stole My Lady
    These LA popsters turn in a great performance on this bluesy number that features the next best thing to an arpeggiator: a horn section! I've been walking around for a month with this one in my head. I love the idea of a Santa who not only leaves presents but also romances the lady of the house and will just ride off with a dude's girlfriend, who is no doubt happy to be trading up.
  9. The Funk Brothers - Winter Wonderland
    Motown (behind the scenes) royalty The Funk Brothers keep it pretty straightforward on their reading of Winter Wonderland, but this version is relentlessly cheery and just a touch funky, like a splash of peppermint schnapps in a mug of cocoa.
  10. Diana Ross & The Supremes - Twinkle Twinkle Little Me
    More famous Motown royalty Diana Ross leads the Supremes here in a 1965 song that makes a neat metaphor out of a Christmas tree ornament. This song is full of great little background touches, but the main attraction here is of course a young Diana Ross infusing this song with innocence and longing. It's also kind of a song about fucking (the best kind of Christmas song) depending on how you read the lyrics.
  11. Outkast - Player's Ball
    I've known this song for years, and only recently realized that not only is it a Christmas song, it was essentially their audition for a label and ended up launching their career. This song sounds like it's from a different era (because it is), and yet it's unmistakably OutKast. It's not only dripping with style and cooler than a snowstorm, it manages to both tell a short morality tale and celebrate Atlanta's annual gathering of pimps. 
  12. Sia - Candy Cane Lane
    I have to admit, I'm not a huge fan of Sia's pinched vocal delivery (she sounds to me like she's always singing out of one side of her mouth), but I found her Christmas album strangely irresistible, like a candy cane you found under the couch but that still looks really tasty and only has a little dog hair on it. This song is kind of the sonic equivalent of jamming candy canes into your ears, but in a good way. She wisely puts off the chorus for a little while, and when it drops, it drops hard. The words are pure minty sugar but who cares when it's all so sweet? I defy anyone not to bop their head to that chorus.
  13. Stompin' Tom Connors - Christmas Angel
    Tom Connors is a Canadian country and folk singer, and his Christmas album is a treat. This song is another ornament-as-metaphor song, but this time with a little more heartbreak. I'm not actually sure which part is the chorus and which part the verse on this song, but it hardly matters once that slide guitar starts sliding and Tom starts pining for his love to be back in his arms once again. 
  14. Lyle Lovett - Christmas Morning
    Speaking of country songs about heartbreak, this one is a killer. Every time he sings that descending line about "perhaps I'm the fool she takes me for" my heart breaks just a little more. This song is best enjoyed while standing outside in the cold, looking in the window at a warm scene of a loving home that you will never access. Thanks, Lyle.
  15. Aimee Mann with Michael Penn - Christmastime
    America's sweethearts Aimee Mann and the Penn brother who wrote No Myth sound like they're singing two different songs here, but they add up to a great take on this track from her 2006 holiday album One More Drifter In The Snow. She's doing a fairly straightforward and slightly sappy Christmas tune, and he's doing another, cooler song, about...I don't know exactly, but it sure sounds sinister after her syrupy opening verse. This song has a nice minor-key vibe to it once it gets going, because we all knew Aimee Mann wasn't going to keep it breezy for more than a verse. Plus Michael Penn sounds like he's channeling George Harrison here, so that's cool.
  16. Saint Etienne - I Don't Intend To Spend Christmas Without You
    British twee poppers Saint Etienne do a killer version of Margo Guryan's 60s Christmas love song. This song kicks so much ass it's hard for me to talk about. It's just a silly little 60s pop song, but these guys do such a great fucking take on that sound that I find myself listening to this one over and over.
  17. Karmin - Sleigh Ride
    I don't know who these kids are, but they clearly have a lot of energy. I don't know if the rap in the middle works exactly, but at least they're trying something to spice up a classic, and I respect that move. I also respect the hell out of the horns and the crazy "giddy-up" shit they do in this version. This is one of my very favorite winter songs, and I love to see the young people experimenting with it.
  18. The Burning Hell - Happy Hanukkah
    I learned about this song from one of my favorite Christmas playlist sites (yes, kids, even your heroes have heroes), Amelia's Christmas Mixes. It's depressing as hell and features the great chorus "I'm lonely, and I'm drunk, happy Hanukkah." He also rhymes "latkes" with "vodka" so hat's off to you, buddy. Oh and the entire thing is more or less sung to the tune of one of main blessings over the Chanukah candles, which is pretty impressive.
  19. My First Earthquake - Holiday Sweaters: The Search for Hipster Santa
    It's getting late and no one's still reading so google these guys yourself, but the point is that this song features the HELL out of an arpeggiator, so it was really a no-brainer. It's also catchy as a winter cold and the lyrics are dumb as rocks: "you make me feel so seasonal, like a mall in December." It also features a "sack" joke. Mad respect.
  20. Dr. Dog - I Believe In Santa Claus
    In another year, I might have cut this song, but for the big 1-0, I'm letting myself run long, so enjoy the honky tonk piano, sugar-cookie-sweet chorus, and general good-natured ramblingness of this endlessly repetitive song. Hell, if the Beatles can do it, why can't Dr. Dog? (Don't answer that.) And look at that, my eggnog glass is empty! Time for a refill before we get to the final third...
  21. Teenage Fanclub - Jesus Christ
    I've heard many versions of this Big Star track (the Monkees' version is particularly good), and I like each one more than the original. This one from Teenage Fanclub keeps the pop sensibility of the original intact while playing up the sweetness just a tad. It's an odd one for this Jew to find himself singing aloud, but hey, tis the season.
  22. Jessie J - Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town
    Jessie J is apparently a very famous British singer. I'd never heard of her before her Christmas album, which is a fuckin' doozy. This lady can sing, people. Her voice belies her age and is full of so much feeling for such a silly little song. Then the horns kick in, and I fell in love. Especially in the pre-chorus, those low horns are just perfect.
  23. The Polyphonic Spree - It's Christmas
    Does this song need to exist? I don't know. Did I need a third glass of eggnog to finish writing this? Probably. Don't overthink it, just boogie along and let this song wash over you like a third glass of eggnog. It's got enough horns to wake a shepherd. Or something.
  24. Freedom Fry - When the Snowflakes Fall
    OK, maybe this LA-based indie duo's name didn't age all that well, but this beautiful little snowflake of a song is just lovely and has gotten stuck in my head a bunch over the past month. This song feels delicate enough to melt in your hand.
  25. Herb Alpert - What Are You Doing New Year's Eve
    Leave it to jolly old Herb Alpert to take a downer-but-kind-of-optimistic holiday season classic and turn it into a funeral dirge. But a really good funeral dirge. He exhales a bit in the bridge, but this song is a reminder that the question in the original - "what are you doing New Year's Eve?" - goes unanswered.
  26. The Monkees - Unwrap You At Christmas
    At last, a Christmas song about fucking! For some reason, this year's playlist has been a little light on those, but don't worry, I'm making up for it here as we near the end. This track was written by Andy Partridge of XTC, and it features Micky Dolenz in perfect dirty old man form. Much has been written about all the collaborations on their new album (Michael Chabon! Rivers Cuomo! Peter Buck! Other people!), but don't let that overshadow the awesome video for this song, done in comic book form.
  27. Dru Hill - No Holiday
    This song is only kind of about fucking, and I have to give an honorable mention to Fireplace from the same great Dru Hill album, Christmas in Baltimore. But still, the slow-jam beat in the chorus and those beautiful harmonies tell us what this song is really about, no matter what the words are saying. We're no fools.
  28. Cheap Trick - I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day
    Yes, Cheap Trick has a Christmas album. No, it's not great. But their version of Wizzard's holiday classic (featured as a bonus track on last year's playlist) eclipses the original for me in terms of energy, production value, and having more Cheap Trick. And it has a harpsichord! And horns! Horns! This song makes me smile no matter how I feel when it comes on, so it's a perfect closing track. Except...
  29. Tom Waits - New Year's Eve
    I couldn't end this on a happy note! The world is doomed and our evil overlords are more evil and overlordy than ever, so let's close things out on a sadder note, shall we? I believe Mr. Tom Waits is just the man to help us out here, with his patented ability to cram a heartbreaking short story into rhyming verse. This song's about drug addiction and family and pain and also kind of New Year's Eve. Happy New Year, everyone.
  30. BONUS TRACK: Galaxie 500 - Listen, The Snow is Falling
    Ok, that was too dark a note to end on, so here's Galaxie 500 covering Yoko Ono's B-side to Happy Xmas (War Is Over). Enjoy a little extra something in your stocking.
Well, gang, it's only December 5th as I finish writing this, and already everyone I know is hounding me to post this thing, so I'll close out by saying sorry for the wait, thanks for listening (and maybe even reading!), and here's to a brighter year next year, filled with even more holiday music that doesn't suck.

As always, this year's playlist is fully downloadable. Happy holidays!


joefrombrooklyn said...

The fact that you made it through 10 playlists without including Elvis' "Blue Christmas" is a testament to your encyclopedic knowledge of holiday music. Thanks to you, my last 10 tree trimmings and menorah lightings have been soundtracked with non-sucky music.

But this year my biggest thanks go to your family. I noticed you alluded to a wife in your liner notes. Perhaps you have children too. Since we've never met, I have no way of knowing. I've always imagined you huddled in a spider hole, smoking cigarettes, freebasing coffee grounds, listening to thousands of hours of holiday music. Totally devoid of human contact. Like an oddly Noel-y Unabomber. What your family must be subjected to while you whittle down your selections is unimaginable. I tip my hat to them.

Julie said...

I just discovered your archive of playlists while starting my own list last week, and was excited to see a new entry come up for this year! I’m still working through this year’s list, but here are a few recommendations for next time.
- "When the River Meets the Sea": From Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas (basically Gift of the Magi re-told with Muppets). It's a beautiful song that brings tears to my eyes.
- "12 Days After Christmas": A dark take on one of the most overplayed, repetitive holiday songs. Deborah Voigt’s version is particularly expressive and captures the humor well.
- "Ríu Ríu Chíu”: An archaic Spanish carol beautifully covered by the Monkees.
- "Winter Song" by Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson

Jordan Hirsch said...

@Julie, thanks for the comment! I'll check out those songs you mentioned, I always love to hear new stuff.

@Joefrombrooklyn, should we ever meet one day, I'll invite you back to the spider hole for a frosty glass of nog.