The 2022 Holiday Music That Doesn't Suck Playlist

Singing Santa says: it's playlist time!

Happy holiday times, friends and lovers of holiday music that doesn’t suck! It’s that time again. Time for me to down glass after glass of eggnog while I write clever annotations that no one will read for a playlist that I’ve put way too much time into, starting of course last December, with all the tracks that didn’t fit into last year’s playlist.

Speaking of last year’s playlist, after I dropped it, I got an email from my brother Dave (who is a bit of a popular music expert/historian, to put it lightly) with his thoughts on each track, starting at the opening track with “This is terrible. I am questioning your taste in music and whether I should proceed.” So of course, this year I’ve invited him to be my guest annotator, chiming in on all these tracks with his commentary. Thanks, Dave!

Artist's rendering of my big brother

Also, in a rare nod to modernity, I’ve released this year’s playlist on Spotify! Of course, they were missing a couple tracks, and for one of them I could only find a low-fi live version, but you’ll still get the gist. If you're satisfied with just the gist, I suppose that's what you deserve.

And with that, pour yourself some nog, turn on the Netflix fireplace, and let’s get into it…

  1. Lemon Demon - Christmas Will Be Soon
    Lemon Demon is a one-man-band consisting of comedian and animator (and YouTuber, etc.) Neil Cicierega. He put out a Christmas EP back in 2012, and this song from it is an absolute banger. The lyrics are (mostly) about stealing winter traditions from the pagans and inventing Christmas. Should it maybe have one more musical section? Yes, of course it should. But I’m not going to hold anything against it when it bangs this much. I’m a sucker for piano rock, and this one trims my tree.

    Dave's take:
    Something about the vocals reminded me of early 90s Suede, which is most definitely not a compliment. The music is a pure slice of 80s bedroom pop. Didn’t expect it to work but it really does. I was surprised by this track and have listened to it a few times now. It’s a pretty charming little earworm. Hooray, we’re off to a good start.

  2. El Vez - Sleigh Ride
    El Vez, AKA “The Mexican Elvis,” AKA Robert Lopez is known for adding a satirical twist to his covers of classic tunes, and on this one… I guess the satire is that the sleigh crashes in the end? His instrumental take on my favorite winter song is popping with energy, all the way up to that unfortunate crash at the end.

    Dave's take:
    I first heard El Vez in 1991, when I bought his first 7” single because I loved Elvis and thought “The Mexican Elvis” would be fun to hear. It’s a great single: a fun rockabilly version of “That’s All Right Mama” (Esta Bien Mamacita) and really clever version of “In the Ghetto” (En El Barrio) that mixes English and Spanish, as well as parts of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” the Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling” and other random things. I finally saw him in concert in 2004, I think it was, and it was a completely insane experience. An energetic performer, to say the least. I love his music, love his socialist politics, and love his creativity. This version of Sleigh Ride is a fine rockabilly instrumental but unfortunately nothing too special. Far more interesting is his “Feliz Navi-nada,” which borrows from Public Image Ldt.

  3. Emmylou Harris - Silent Night
    Sure, Emmylou Harris has won 14 Grammys, is a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but has she ever been featured on one of my holiday playlists before? No, no she has not. The harmonies on this one are pure peppermint sweetness, and the instrumentation manages to feel lush and spare at the same time.

    Dave's take:
    I’m not a fan of Silent Night. Sometimes I really hate it. Other times I find it kind of pretty, but mostly I just find it kind of dull. Versions I do like include Annika Norlin’s (aka Hello Saferide and Sakert) absolutely gorgeous song called “Silent Night,” which is eventually the song we all know, but it’s also a song about the writing of “Silent Night” and about the famous World War One Christmas truce. I can also completely endorse the Quintron & Miss Pussycat instrumental version that sounds like it came from Hell’s roller rink, and the Flaming Lips lo-fi psych version that segues into a cover of Spacemen 3’s “Lord Can You Hear Me.” Those are all pretty non-traditional. Emmylou does a lovely job with this – definitely one of the better traditional versions I’ve heard – but it really doesn’t do much for me. 

  4. Broke Royals - Christmas Cookie Blues
    A DC band on a DC label that includes a married couple, this band has a lot going for it even before you hear their music, which is great. This track is a perfect holiday song - it’s about an awkward post-breakup (or more accurately, post-dissolution) unfortunate reconnection at a Christmas cookie party, and it’s about pain and sugar. Total Christmas. To hear more from this band, check out my friends Eduardo & Kevin’s podcast interview with them from earlier this year.

    Dave's take:
    There’s always a certain kind of benign and utterly forgettable power pop you are forced to listen to before you can get the off the plane. At least on KLM flights, anyway, and since I mostly fly on KLM, that’s my reference point. Shoutout to Royal Dutch Airlines. KLM, if you are reading this, these guys would sound great on your in-flight entertainment next December. I looked them up and saw that they consider Bruce Springsteen to be an influence. I’m offended on his behalf.

  5. Kacey Musgraves - Present Without A Bow
    Her 2016 album A Very Kacey Christmas is the gift that keeps on giving, because it’s full of original holiday tunes that have fantastic hooks, and this one is no exception. “The holiday’s just another day that’s cold/Standing all alone under the mistletoe” is perfection in my book. She name-checks candy canes, Silent Night, and presents without any of it feeling forced. Then Leon Bridges joins in with his soulful verse and the whole thing just gets even better.

    Dave's take:
    Hey, it’s Leon Bridges! Always happy to listen to some Leon Bridges. But this is corny as hell, and I never want to hear it again. I assume it will soundtrack some walking in New York at night in the snow with all the lights, etc. in some Netflix Christmas rom-com. 

  6. Ingrid Michaelson - Happy, Happy Christmas
    To think that this voice came from Staten Island… it boggles the mind. And yet, Michaelson’s delivery is pitch-perfect; her voice evinces a mix of fragility and power here, and this arrangement is just heartbreaking and beautiful. Not since Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas has the title and delivery of a Christmas song felt so far apart to me. 

    Dave's take:
    Just for a moment, when it started, I thought I was hearing Nick Drake’s “Way to Blue,” which is an infinitely better song. I don’t like this at all. Mostly I don’t like the sound of her voice when she goes full Tori Amos a few times in the song. For the rest of the song I thought her voice was quite nice, actually.

  7. Khruangbin - Christmas Time Is Here
    Indie darlings Khruangbin bring their unique yet accessible sound to this Vince Guaraldi classic, hewing to the spirit of the original even as they drench the occasional vocals reverb and add a funky drumbeat. This one makes me feel like curling up in front of a roaring fire on a chilly winter's eve.

    Dave's take:
    I know these guys from the EP they did with Leon Bridges, which was ok but not as good as I’d hoped it would be. That said, I wasn’t looking at the artist when I heard this and thought I was maybe hearing an old Rotary Connection track. The distant, dreamy vocals help, but this is more mood than memorable song.

  8. G. Love & Special Sauce - Christmas Joint
    Speaking of fire, G. Love is here to remind us of the true meaning of the season: rolling a fat one and getting stoned with your loved ones. When I saw that G. Love & Special Sauce had released a Christmas album last year, I just couldn’t resist. And now you all have to pay for my folly! I know this song is cheesy and ridiculous, but what would you rather do: sit there, arms crossed, judging G. Love (and by extension, me); OR spark that Christmas joint and rock out to these mellow grooves? I think you know the right answer here.

    Dave's take:
    If you’d told me this was something AM-era Wilco would play as an encore but have the good sense to never put on an official record, I would have completely believed it. I guess that’s the vibe he’s going for – music about getting high that sounds really clever if you actually are high (and are no older than about 21). To the rest of us it’s just forgettable piffle. But I suppose G. Love may be an inspiration to some, somehow still going (strong? that feels generous) 25 years after most people forgot all about him, or packed up their one G. Love CD and dropped it off at Goodwill. I certainly didn’t think he’d still be putting out mildly catchy but fundamentally stupid college bro music that vanishes from your brain the moment it ends after all this time. Good on you, G. Love.

    Oh good lord, I just saw that G. Love is my age. Time to put on your big boy pants, G. Love. 

  9. Mike Doughty - I Hear The Bells
    I used to be a huge Soul Coughing fan, from the first time I saw them open for Shudder to Think at the Black Cat in DC back in 1994 (or thereabouts). So, imagine my surprise when their lead singer blocked me on Twitter (RIP) for some reason some 20 years later! What does this have to do with this song? Nothing, really. This one finds Doughty hewing more to traditional song structure, but of course he’s still bringing his spoken word poetry to the fore, with beautiful lines like “I hear the bells/They are like emeralds/And glints in the night/Commas and ampersands” sharing space with ridiculous ones like “You snooze, you lose/Well, I have snost and lost.” There’s something magnificent about this song to me, surpassing most of Doughty’s solo output. And look, we made it 9 tracks before I needed an eggnog refill! Sit tight til I get back.

    Dave's take:
    When I saw the title, I thought maybe this would be that song from Hairspray. Nope, definitely not. I saw Soul Coughing in concert once. Jordan was there. The music was boring and repetitive, and no song ever seemed to go anywhere. Every song sounded pretty much the same and just kind of plodded along until arriving at some kind of ending. Then the next one would start and we’d repeat the experience. We left to get nachos, I think? But then you became a big fan, which I never could understand. But then, when I hear your Christmas mixes, I have no real understanding of what you like and why. 

    This one really works for me. It’s the kind of song that could be two minutes long or ten; since it doesn’t really go anywhere it doesn't make much difference. I guess that’s just his thing. The small addition of the female vocalist adds a lot and while it’s very repetitive, the music feels like it’s building throughout. It probably would have been better if it built to a more definitive ending, though – it feels like it ends at the moment he got tired of the song. It reminds me a lot of “Million $ Man” by Imperial Teen, but that one has a better and more cathartic ending. But I’ve listened to it five or six times now; probably the most time I’ve spent on Mike Doughty since that aborted concert experience.
  10. Nina Nesbitt - Oh Holy Night
    I’d never heard of this Scottish chanteuse before I found her on a Spotify holiday playlist last year. Her simple version of this classic carol has only a few elements, but each one works well: the piano, her voice, and then that choir that kicks in for the second verse. It does a lot with a little, and I’d love to hear a full holiday album from her. It tickles me that a musician in 2021 can cover a song written in 1847 and make it feel fresh and relevant, even after hearing thousands of versions of it over the years. This is what I love about holiday music — so many artists all having a go at the same themes and often the same source material, like a grand musical experiment. Speaking of the old feeling new again, here’s…

    Dave's take:
    I’ve always like how Rent incorporated this song and other Christmas music into some of the shenanigans in act one (pro tip – stay through Act One and the opening song of Act Two, then go home). In general, however, I hate this song and I hate this sappy as all hell version. The backup singers sound great; I’d have a preferred just hearing them. 

  11. Nicole Atkins - Blue Christmas
    New Jersey’s own Nicole Atkins starts this one off slow and syrupy before the drums kick in and the whole thing takes on an irresistible shuffle. First recorded in 1948, this is my other favorite Christmas song (I even recorded my own version of it last year), and now I have a new favorite version of it. The little piano arpeggios, the whistling, the echoing guitar line — it all sounds like Nicole Atkins, if you know her stuff, while still remaining pretty faithful to the classic versions that came before.

    Dave's take:
    The music feels inspired; she sounds a little bored. I love Patsy Cline, but clearly not as much as Nicole Atkins loves Patsy Cline. The problem with this song for me is that I’ll always compare it to the Elvis version, which I consider to be definitive. Atkins does a good version of “Dancing in the Dark,” by the way. It’s very common for people to cover it by slowing it down to really highlight that it’s not actually a happy song; she did that, like many other people, but she did it pretty well.

  12. Jacobites - Teenage Christmas
    British 80s rockers Jacobites dropped this one as a vinyl 7” in 1998, and reportedly released only 250 copies of it. I have no idea what the title means, or who any of the people are that they’re singing about in the verses, or what any of this is really about, but it rocks. And I’m out of eggnog again, only 4 tracks later. This doesn’t bode well for the rest of my evening, so I’m switching to water for a bit as we ring in…

    Dave's take:
    Nikki Sudden! Go listen to some Swell Maps. Weird, when this started I really thought it was Stephen Malkmus singing. Other than the silly little bit from Jingle Bells at the end, this is pretty great. Now go listen to some Swell Maps. They were crazy and sound nothing like this.

  13. The Cameos - New Years Eve
    I couldn’t find much about the doo wop outfit The Cameos, who released this bell-ringing little number in 1957, except for this tidbit: “Same band members as the Quadrells, morphed from The Turbans, released this 45 under the name The Cameos.” I can’t help but tap my foot along with this one whenever it comes on.

    Dave's take:
    Well that was a jarring segue from the last track. Doo wop is always fun, but I wouldn’t say this is a particular standout. It’s fine.

  14. Luna - Egg Nog
    Luna released this instrumental confection as a 7” vinyl promo for Elektra back around Christmas 1992. What can I say? It sounds like a Luna instrumental from 1992, and that’s a good thing. At 1:58, this little Christmas cookie crumbles away before it can overstay its welcome. Honestly they could have called this song anything, but I choose to believe that it was genuinely inspired by my favorite seasonal concoction.

    Dave's take:
    I love Luna, but there’s really not much here, is there?

  15. Fifth Harmony - Can You See
    Ooh, overly autotuned girl pop produced by Simon Cowell? Yes, please! I’d never heard of this made-for-TV (literally) R&B group before I heard this track, and while I don’t think I need to hear any more, this one really grabbed me. I think this track was recorded for the soundtrack to the movie The Star, which I refuse to learn anything else about beyond a quick glance at the poster, from which I gather that it’s about the birth of donkey Jesus. Or something.

    Dave's take:
    I had to look up the lyrics to confirm that this really is a Christmas song. I couldn’t understand the words through all the emoting and what I presume is autotune. I don’t want to ever hear this again.

  16. Kurt Vile - Must Be Santa
    Philly’s own Kurt Vile takes a whack at this Christmas tune, first released in 1960 — but he’s not just covering this song, he’s specifically covering Bob Dylan’s version, which he took to be an original when he first heard it. (I was sure that I’d featured Dylan’s version back in my 2009 playlist, but apparently I was mistaken. This is not an important parenthetical.) Vile’s daughters join him on the chorus for his one, and it’s all very wholesome and cute and also ironic and chillcore and weird and I love it. 

    Dave's take:
    Oh lord. This is “Schnitzelbank,” just done as a Santa song and in the most boring way possible. I think I first heard Schnitzelbank on the old Animaniacs cartoon. Perhaps not the most authentic version, but it’s a gem. So I had to stop for a while and watch Animaniacs videos, which are much more entertaining than whatever Kurt Vile is doing here.

    But holy shit, I looked it up and see that Bob Dylan has a version of this song! And not only that, it’s about a thousand times better than this one and has a great video as well. Dylan’s version is much more authentically Schnitzelbank than Vile’s version. Kurt Vile’s version feels like a war crime. It’s an abomination. I have no idea how he could suck all the fun out of such an absurdly joyful song. 

    In summary, I absolutely love Bob Dylan’s version and will happily pass on this boring garbage that Kurt Vile shat out. And Animaniacs was a brilliant show.

  17. The No Ones - A Christmas Voice (I Don't Want To Bring You Into This World)
    Every year, I’m looking for a Christmas song that’s also an abortion rights protest song, and finally, someone delivered. I’m going to let The No Ones describe their band and this song themselves, because I’m tired: “The No Ones, including members of R.E.M., The Minus 5, and I Was A King, share a snappy holiday tune with sleigh-bells a-plenty. However, Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, Arne Kjelsrud Mathisen & Frode Stromstad deliver something deeper than St. Nick and candy canes by mourning rights that have been stripped away. Despite the solemnity driven by thoughtful lyricism, this holiday single features mellotron merriment, signature Fender 6-string bass riffs and a 12-string chime.”

    Dave's take:
    Sounds like the Byrds covering Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys. Listening to REM in the 1980s, I wouldn’t have expected Peter Buck to develop a Brian Wilson fixation. But he did. It showed up here and there until finally bursting out into the open with “At My Most Beautiful,” which is a lovely song. Anyway, this is quite nice, and it works for me.

  18. Benny Goodman & Peggy Lee - Winter Weather
    “Jordan,” you ask, sheepishly, “is this the first time you’ve featured Benny Goodman on your holiday playlist?” “No, I say. No it is not.” Benny and frequent collaborator Peggy Lee recorded this one in back in 1941, and it still warms you up like a hot toddy in a snowstorm. And I think it’s technically the first entry on this playlist that’s a Christmas song about banging, and loyal readers will know that that’s my favorite Christmas music sub-genre. You can almost feel Peggy Lee’s hips swinging when she sings “collect the kisses that are due me.”

    Dave's take:
    This is an absolute gem. No other comments necessary.

  19. Alicia Keys - Favorite Things
    I don’t know why Alicia Keys chose to omit nearly all of the lyrics in favor of a haunting “ee-ee-ee-ee” for the verses and whisper-speak the rest of this one, but even though it’s really strange, I think it’s my favorite song on her new holiday album. It’s just weird and cool and creepy and I dig it. I like to sleep late, too, Alicia. (That’ll make sense when you listen to it.) I also have no idea why Favorite Things is considered a Christmas song, but maybe that's a side effect of being Jewish?

    Dave's take:
    You missed a great opportunity to include Laibach’s stunningly creepy but weirdly beautiful version of this song, from their full album cover of the Sound of Music soundtrack. Please don’t forget Slovenia’s finest again in the future.

    That said, what is this, exactly? I love it, and it’s almost as weird as Laibach’s version. Slightly less creepy, I guess? The wordless vocals again reminded me of Rotary Connection, although I imagine Minnie Riperton would have taken this somewhere else entirely. I’m guessing that Sault might be more of the direct influence, however. I could totally hear it fitting in somewhere in the 10+ albums they’ve put out in the last few years. 

  20. Joel Paterson - I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
    Joel Paterson comes out of the Chicago blues and roots scene, and when I saw what he looked like (middle-aged white dude with huge glasses and an even bigger guitar) I was not surprised at all. His whole album Hi-Fi Christmas Guitar is outstanding, and this one stands out to me for how many different guitar styles he manages to work into one song, all while sounding like an extremely technically proficient hot jazz act. Well done, Joel.

    Dave's take:
    I was pretty certain this track was at least 60 years old. Good work, Joel. This is good stuff. I want to hear the full album.

  21. Les Bicyclettes de Belsize - A Very Indie Christmas
    Named after an Engelbert Humperdink song (or the 1968 British musical short film that the song was written for), I couldn’t find much out about this band, so I’ll let them speak for themselves, from their Bandcamp page: “Imagine Stephen Duffy fronting a band including Al Stewart & members of Belle & Sebastian, and you will have a rough idea of the folky, indie, DIY, acoustic songs of Charlie Darling & Les Bicyclettes de Belsize.” I didn’t catch 2/3 of those musical references, which is probably why I caught only about 5% of the references in the lyrics of this tune, which are 100% about the golden age of 80s British indie music, I think.

    Dave's take:
    The Orchids! The Lilac Time! The Primitives! Talulah Gosh! C86! This is all referencing a very specific moment in British indie pop. C86 was a cassette compilation put together by New Musical Express in 1986 that was legendary for capturing a certain sound at a certain time. Cherry Red has done the lord’s work in the last few years by expanding the compilation and adding compilations for other years from the 80s. I’ve discovered a ton of bands I had never heard before through these reissues. Want to hear a wonderfully jangly song? Go check out the Talulah Gosh song that is also called “Talulah Gosh.” I love this sound. Crazy how so much of this stuff was unknown in the US at the time.

    This song recreates the sound of that era beautifully while also playing tribute to the big names. This feels like the kind of song that was made for me, or maybe more specifically for the British version of me. 

  22. Simon & Garfunkel - Go Tell It On The Mountain
    Ah yes, two nice Jewish boys singing about the birth of a fellow nice Jewish boy, what could be more Christmasy? If you listen to this one on headphones, you can really hear Garfunkel’s voice breaking a couple times in the left channel, but that’s OK, this version of the 1860s spiritual is still a good time. The driving guitar keeps the train a-running, and the harmonies are just lovely. I also learned while looking up Art Garfunkel tonight that his cousin is the record producer who invented the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC. That guy then went on to die in prison while serving a 25 year sentence for running a $300 million Ponzi scheme. Live and learn!

    Dave's take:
    It’s a great song done well. Not much to say about this one.

  23. Quiet Company - Angels We Have Heard On High
    OK, this is the third time I’ve featured Quiet Company on one of my playlists, and the reason is that their little holiday EP is fucking great. This Austin outfit has a bunch of albums and I’ve never heard a single one of them despite loving the hell out of this EP. I should probably fix that. This song has a bridge featuring (as far as I can tell) kazoos, so that’s cool. 

    Dave's take:
    I’ve heard a few songs by this band, and I’d say they have a Cheap Trick power pop kind of vibe, with a good sense of humor. I think this song represents their sound pretty well. It’s catchy and fun and sounds like Cheap Trick. A lot. The kazoos are a nice touch, though.

  24. Tori Amos - Better Angels
    Tori Amos went to my high school! Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, Tori gets to close out this year’s playlist with this song that sounds like no one else in the world. Her voice is so distinctive, and she’s carved out such a musical style for herself, that even when I don’t like her music, I always respect it. This one I like, that driving intro riff that comes back throughout perfectly sets up the verses, and of course the melody never goes where you expect it to. I like that this year’s list is bookended by piano-driven rock.

    Dave's take:
    I fucking hate Tori Amos with the passion and fire of a thousand suns and always have (although finding myself in possession of two 7” singles by Y Kant Tori Read made me a good chunk of change some years back). This song is no exception. As I know that this is my own issue to deal with, I will only say that it would have made a nice instrumental. And that I didn’t make it to the end.

  25. BONUS TRACK: Maximilian and The Reinhardt feat. Jordan Hirsch - There's Always Next Year
    Some time last December, after this playlist was already in the can, my friend Kevin tweeted something wherein I think he was jokingly threatening to write a Christmas song. I’d find the original tweet, but Twitter search is of course fucked at the moment and will likely never be fixed, but that’s a rant for another playlist. Anyway, I replied and told him I wanted to be a part of it, and then my favorite thing happened: a joke about a musical collaboration turned into a real musical collaboration. This ridiculously sad holiday song is the result. Kevin wrote most of the music and played all the instruments and did the production, I just had to show up and sing and write a few lyrics. As with most of my songs, a year later, I want to re-do all the vocals because all I hear are the things I want to change, but I’m slowly getting over that. Kevin told me that a local Milwaukee radio station wouldn’t play this one because it was too sad. Midwestern terrestrial radio listeners, consider yourselves protected.

    Dave's take:
    Oh hey, that’s my brother singing. How about that.
And that's it for another year. I'd like to thank my guest Grinch commentator Dave, who always has something interesting to say about music and who actually put in the time to listen to this playlist, even if he didn't read my notes (does anyone)? And I'd like to thank all of you for reading, for listening, and for making me a part of your holiday tradition. Here's to another year — let's make it a great one.


joefrombrooklyn said...

Sherlock must have his Moriarity...the guy from Basket Base his deformed conjoined twin. So I guess it's no surprise that Jordan must have a hater brother. I can only imagine what the holiday dinners arelike (Jordan: Mom, the brisket is delicious! Dave: It's overcooked, under seasoned, and I'm beginning to think there's no way I actually emerged from your vagina!). Fortunately, since we've never met, there's little chance I'll ever be subjected to this awkwardness.

But, even the Grinchiest of Grinches (AKA: Dave) must admit that's there's enough holiday cheer here to melt the glaciers of Greenland (which, disturbingly, are actually melting). From Benny Goodman to Khruangbin, I have found plenty to add to my seasonal rotation. Thanks, as always. And a happy holiday to the entire Hirsch family.

99 said...

Dear joefrombrooklyn,

There will be no brisket.
I am a vegetarian.

The Grinch