The 2020 Holiday Music That Doesn't Suck Playlist

Hello, fellow holiday music freaks. It's that time again... time for me to get drunk on my homemade eggnog, try to forget most of 2020, and post this year's Holiday Music that Doesn't Suck playlist. This was a... special year in many ways. Many horrible, horrible ways. But there were some silver linings: [Editor's note: fill in some silver linings here if you ever think of any], and of course the fact that this year you get not one but two 2020 holiday playlists from your old pal Jordan Claus! So pour yourself a glass of something warming, sit back, and relax as you enjoy a plethora of palatable painkillers in the form of a playlist. See you next year! 
For those of you who enjoy missing tracks and underpaid musicians, here's a Spotify link (for real, it's missing several tracks).

  1. Ne-Yo w/Curtis "Sauce" Wilson - This Christmas
    I'll be honest, I don't think I'm hip enough to have heard a Ne-Yo song before this one, but I quite enjoyed his Christmas album. His update of this Donny Hathaway favorite makes great use of synth horns, machine-generated drum beats, and autotuned vocals to turn a classic into a downright banger.

  2. Elvis Presley - Santa Claus Is Back In Town
    Do I put too much Elvis on these playlists? I don't know, is eggnog too delicious? Are Christmas lights too festive? What the fuck kind of question is this and why would you ask it? Sheesh. Anyway, this song, from the writers of such Elvis hits as "Hound Dog," was released as the B-Side to Elvis's "Santa, Bring My Baby Back to Me" in 1957, and for my money, it's the better track, full of swagger and humor and hip-gyrating Christmas cheer. Oh it's also yet another a thinly veiled Christmas song about fucking, which faithful readers know is my favorite holiday music sub-genre.

  3. Natalie Cole - Merry Christmas Baby
    Natalie Cole's biggest album consisted of covers of songs by her father Nat King's Cole, but she was a mighty talent in her own right, as evidenced by her performance of this 1947 R&B holiday tune. "I haven't had a drink this morning/But I'm lit up like a Christmas tree" is just a baller way to end a Christmas blues song. [Editor's note: I went back and forth between this bluesy version and Otis Redding's more playful take for this year's playlist, but the blues won out, for obvious reasons.]

  4. James Brown - Soulful Christmas
    Like Elvis, eventually I will put every James Brown holiday tune on one of these playlists, because they all kick serious butt. This song is basically an extended shoutout to the fans who've come to see his shows and bought his records, with James singing about how grateful he is for the people who keep him going. That plus a couple "huh!"s and a well-timed "Maceo!" make this one classic Brown.

  5. John Legend w/Esperanza Spalding - Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
    Legend pours his voice into his track like chocolate syrup poured over an eggnog sundae [Editor's note: that sounds delicious], and he and Esperanza Spalding pair beautifully over a nice jazzy music bed complete with a Rhodes-style organ, spare guitar, and the occasional trumpet solo. Personally, I'd drop the strings, but what are you gonna do? Props to Legend for infusing this sad sack of a song with life and joy.

  6. Chris Mann - Happy Holidays
    Chris Mann surfaced on my quarantine playlist earlier this year, and honestly I had to stop myself from putting 2-3 more of his tracks on this playlist. The guy just has stellar pop sensibilities and he knows how to make a holiday tune out of little more than a beat, a synth loop, and several layers of vocal tracks. This one gets stuck in my head a lot.

  7. My Morning Jacket - Christmas Must Be Tonight
    This is a mopey cover of a mopey song by The Band, and I love it. The Band released this one in 1977 (on an album that also included a cover of "Georgia on My Mind," recorded to aid Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign), and it's been covered here and there over the years. This version captures the spirit of the original with a few little updates, including replacing the overwrought organ with a subtle slide guitar, and the song's better for it.

  8. Maccabeats - Oh Hanukkah
    Yes, I used to perform in (and direct, and arrange music for) more than one a cappella group. And yes, I really hate a cappella music. But I have a soft spot in my heart for this all-male, all-Orthodox Jewish group, because that's like three kinds of nerd in one group. This spirited version of the Hanukkah classic doesn't overstay its welcome, although it does feature a completely unearned key change in the middle.

  9. Ghostface Killah - Ghostface X-mas
    OK, this song isn't Ghostface's best work, but it does open with the line "Holy Jesus, I gotta drop all these toys off" and I love the idea that the first thing Santa does as he heads out on a busy Christmas Eve is take Jesus's name in vain. Yes, this is a Christmas cash-in, but that's a time-honored genre at this point and in my opinion is completely valid as far as holiday songs go. It's got a decent beat and Ghost actually puts some effort in, especially on the very creepy bridge: "Ghost knows when you be sleeping/And Ghost knows when you are awake/And I know if you been bad or good/So be good for old Ghostface." Yessir, Mr. Ghost.

  10. Sera Cahoone - Last Christmas
    Better known as the sometimes drummer for Band of Horses (among other bands), Seattle's Sera Cahoone turns in a lovely and somewhat haunting version of one of my favorite holiday tracks here, paring it down to little more than a steel-string and her voice, shot through with pain and just a touch of optimism for the future. She was apparently also briefly engaged to soccer start Megan Rapinoe, which is pretty cool.

  11. Sufjan Stevens - Lonely Man of Winter
    Can Sufjan Stevens write a happy holiday song? Maybe, who cares? This track is classic Sufjan, and it has a weird backstory: it was first recorded back in 2007, and given by Stevens to musician Alec Duffy as a prize in a songwriting competition. In exchange, Duffy gave Stevens the rights to his competition-winning song "Every Day is Christmas," which Duffy eventually released on Stevens's Asthmatic Kitty record label in 2018, released as the B-side to Stevens's version of Duffy's track. Confused yet? Have some more eggnog.

  12. Cassie Dasilva - Season's Greetings
    Canada's Cassie Dasilva does a fantastic job on this song, which I think was featured in a Canadian made-for-TV movie that found its way to Netflix called Christmas Wedding Planner, referred to as "wildly bad" by one reviewer and the "worst movie ever" by several IMDB reviewers. I tried listening to some other Cassie Dasilva songs, and it made me appreciate the one she got right even more.

  13. The Monkees - Jesus Christ
    I put Teenage Fanclub's beautiful rendition of this unlikely Big Star track on 2018's playlist, and I love this version just as much if not more. Mickey Dolenz's reverb-laden, over-enunciated vocals work perfectly on this simple sugar cookie of a song from The Monkees' 2018 Christmas album, and they really captured the spirit of the original while improving on it significantly, likely due in large part to production from the late great Adam Schlesinger.

  14. Andrew Bird - Skating
    As if Andrew Bird wasn't already cool enough, the classicaly trained indie rock violinist put out a holiday EP in 2019 featuring two covers of Vince Guaraldi Trio classics, taking them into the modern era while staying true to the jazzy wistfulness that makes them so great.

  15. David Grisman - God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
    Don't let that somber intro fool you, the Dawg is ready to party, he just takes a little time getting to the festivities. This version builds slowly to a swinging crescendo, revealing new facets of this ancient English folk carol. Not bad for a Jewish boy from Passaic.

  16. JD McPherson - Every Single Christmas
    JD McPherson's Christmas album "Socks" is great fun, and this track is a standout among the collection of 50s R&B-inspired rockers. Hats off to McPherson for penning an entire album's worth of yuletide originals that all manage to feel like classics from a dusty jukebox. He co-wrote this song with Nicole Atkins, whose Neptune City is a standout of late 2000s indie pop.

  17. Whitehorse - 2000 Miles
    I featured Whitehorse way way way back in March on my quarantine playlist, and I had a hard time choosing between that track and this gorgeous cover of The Pretenders' 1984 sort-of-Christmas song. Whitehorse is a Canadian husband-and-wife musical duo, and they are really good together (musically, at least). While many people think this song is about star-crossed lovers, it's actually a tribute to The Pretenders' former guitar player, who died in 1983. Merry Christmas!

  18. Charlie Parker - White Christmas
    Recorded live at the Royal Roost in NYC in 1948, Bird turns up the heat on this snowy Christmas classic, playing alongside trumpeter Kenny Dorham and legendary drummer Max Roach. And like any horn player worth his reed, he of course works in a quick Jingle Bells riff without breaking his stride.

  19. Daveed Diggs - Puppy for Hanukkah
    Some of us know Daveed Diggs from his "experimental hip-hop" group clipping., and some of us know him from Hamilton. While I'm in the former camp, I'm fairly certain that neither camp expected him to drop a Hanukkah bop in this ridiculous year of 2020. This song is silly Hanukkah fun and really nails that feeling of getting a pair of socks on the first night (yes, it really happens). Apparently Diggs went to Hebrew school and was raised Jewish, which just makes him cooler in my opinion. After a faithful (and auto-tuned) version of the blessing over the candles, Diggs raps "That blessing is a bop, now I've said it/Not sure what it means, but I learned it phonetic" which definitely speaks to a large chunk of the lived American Jewish experience. UPDATE: I have just been informed that my friend Alex directed the video for this song! 

  20. Regina Spektor - My Dear Acquaintance (A Happy New Year)
    Leave it to Regina Spektor to pen an original New Year's song with really happy lyrics and a really sad melody (plus a bunch of war sounds in the background), keeping nicely in line with every New Year's song I've ever heard. UPDATE: after a little research, it appears Spektor is actually covering Peggy Lee here, which was a surprise. The original is nice, but Spektor's version is more memorable in my opinion, and a fitting way to ring out this goddamn year once and for all.

  21. BONUS TRACK #1: Chris Farren - The Undertaker
    Florida's Chris Farren released the amazingly-titled Christmas EP Like a Gift from God or Whatever in 2014, and this track really feels to me like it fits the modern moment. It's basically about dying on Christmas, but it might be a metaphor for something? It ends with our narrator taking an elevator to Hell.

  22. BONUS TRACK #2 (NOT FAMILY-FRIENDLY!) Dying of the Light - Santa Claus Has Got the AIDS This Year / No Xmas for John Key 
    Sorry, I couldn't resist including this industrial-strength cover of Tiny Tim's Christmas, well, "classic" isn't exactly the right word. Don't play this one for the kiddies unless you want to have some deep and dark holiday conversations. The last 20 seconds or so turn into a sort-of-cover of The Fall's "No Xmas for John Quays" which is also a good conversation starter.
Well folks, if you made it this far, thanks for listening, thanks for reading, and thanks for wearing a goddamn mask. Here's hoping we never see another year quite like this one. Happy holidays, everybody! Leave a comment if you want to remember the golden age of blogs!


Lisa said...

Hey, cuz - I really like the playlist this year. Happy holidays to you and your family! Stay healthy and safe.

Jordan Hirsch said...

Thanks Lisa, same to you!! Hope the family's doing well.