Sunday, December 4, 2016

Yuletidal Pools II

"Baby Jesus, Born to Rock"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.  You may also want to check out the first volume in this multi-volume mix for more info on its theme.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

It’s been five years since I first introduced my holiday-themed mix, Yuletidal Pools.  You may recall that one of my main goals for this mix was to make sure I had some “fresh” Christmas music to listen to, because the standard fare was getting a bit old.

Unfortunately, if you listen to the same thing over and over again for five years, even if it’s only for a month or so out of the year, then that’s going to get old too.  You need some fresh blood.  We need even more upbeat, non-sappy, non-silly holiday tunage up in this joint!  So, just in time for the upcoming holiday season, I present: volume II.

Volume I was 25 tracks long, which (although it didn’t occur to me at the time) made it sort of perfect as an advent mix.  You could play one song every day, if you liked.1  This time around I’m throwing in an extra tune, for Boxing Day.

There are lots of other parallels with volume I too.  As before, we’re light on the covers: no actual traditional songs at all (although there are two based on traditional tunes), 3 covers of songs originally recorded in the 50s, which you may or may not have heard before,2 and one song from an animated Christmas special.  The songs are mostly upbeat, leaning towards rockin’, with just a few slightly more serious tunes right in the center.  There’s a bit of absurdity, a bit of decrying of the despoilment of the season, a bit of over-the-top lunacy, and a bit of genuine emotion covered up by power chords and silliness.  I have to admit that volume II is not quite as strong as volume I—it’s difficult to top the sheer perfection of “Oi to the World”—but we’ve got some absolutely great tunes, and I don’t think you’re going to be disappointed.

A lot of the specific songs have correlations too.  Our volume opener, for instance, is this volume’s “Oi to the World”: a strong, upbeat track that starts off lyrically a downer, but overcomes that to instill a positive message in the end.  In this case, that message is that Christmas is a time for redemption, and it doesn’t matter how much of a shit you were all year—you can still come together for the holidays.  The Hives, a great punky-thrashy band from Sweden, are absolutely perfect for this, and you can never beat Cyndi Lauper for bringing the pipes.  “A Christmas Duel” is definitely my new favorite song of the season.

After that, you can see a pretty strong correlation between numbers like Bob & Doug McKenzie’s “Twelve Days of Christmas” and Elastica’s “I Wanna Be a King of Orient Aah”: both are mangulations of classic Christmas tunes with new life breathed into them.  In the case of the veteran SCTV characters, the new life was unadulterated silliness; Elastica, however, takes a holiday standard and takes it to truly new and interesting places.  As does Yellowman, with “We Wish You a Reggae Christmas,” which is, as the Brits say, exactly what it says on the tin.

It’s also pretty easy (and obvious) to contrast South Park’s “Christmas Time in Hell” with Monty Python’s “Christmas in Heaven.”  Both are tongue-in-cheek; both feature outrageous characters; both are in some odd way odes to commercialism and excess.  And of course it’s hard to miss that there’s a rap song for each volume.  I didn’t choose “Christmas Is” just to have a rap song on volume I—I just like Run–D.M.C.  However, for volume II I’ll admit that I did go looking for one, because I really liked the vibe the Run–D.M.C. tune imparted to the mix.  What I eventually settled on was Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’.”  Now, I’ll admit that I’m not a Blow fan by nature.  And “Rappin’,” from 1979, is pretty old-school rap, by which I mean it’s reminiscent of things like “Rapper’s Delight”: fairly simple rhymes, nothing too tricky in the meter or flow ... overall pretty basic.  But it also has a funky bassline which strongly recalls “Another One Bites the Dust,”3 and some clever lyrics, so I think it works well in the final analysis.

We also have smooth upbeat Big Bad Voodoo Daddy originals in both volumes: last time it was “Last Night (I Went Out with Santa Claus),” about a drunken bar crawl in the company of the man in red; this time we have “Christmas Is Starting Now,” which I first heard on the Phineas and Ferb Christmas special.  The latter song is a bit simplistic, compared to the former, but it’s catchy and it’s happy, and that’s really all I’m looking for.  And, in the category of “songs that sound happy but are really about missing someone during the holidays,” volume I gave us “Santa’s Coming Home” by the Cocktail Slippers, whereas volume II goes out to Sweden’s Hello Saferide for “Ipod X-mas.”  The twee-pop of Hello Saferide is evocative of Pomplamoose, and this song, even though its lyrics could rightly be called depressing, is still somehow fun to sing along with.  Then there’s the “sort of serious but also not” category, which last time was represented by the Ramones, with “I Don’t Want to Fight,” and this time is povided by Timbuk 3, they who are so famous for “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.”4  “All I Want for Christmas” has a very serious message (about the prevalence of violence in toymaking), but it also contains some surreal lyrics, like “deck the halls with great balls of fire” and “chestnuts roasting on the VCR.”

In the category of punked up and/or funky versions of animated holiday classics, last volume gave us “Mr. Heatmiser,” “The Chipmunk Song,” and especially “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” in a fantastic version by NJ punks the Whirling Dervishes.  This time Asylum Street Spankers5 give us a low-key version of “Linus and Lucy,” which isn’t exactly a Christmas song, but you can’t deny that, even without using any words, it will put you in mind of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is a pretty great thing to be in mind of around the holidays.  And as a sort-of-but-not-really version of the same motif, I couldn’t help but include the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s crazy—but very fun—Christmas mash-up of the theme to The Flintstones, “Yabba-Dabba Yuletide.”  This is one of the great examples of a silly song which is not silly: that is, the whole concept of rewriting the Flintstones theme to be a Christmas song is silly, but, once you move past that, it’s actually quite a fun song with happy, heartfelt lyrics.

When it comes to borderline-too-silly infectious pop, last time we heard from “Weird Al” Yankovic and the Vandals.  For this volume, tempted as I was to include Weird Al’s other Christmas classic, “The Night Santa Went Crazy,” it’s just way too over-the-top ... it lacks the fun of “Christmas at Ground Zero.”6  So I went with “Don’t Shoot Me Santa” by the Killers, which I found vaguely annoying the first time I heard it, but it has a tendency to grow on you, and “Xmas at K-Mart” by Root Boy Slim, which most of my family continues to find annoying, but I like it.  But the absolute best song in this category is, appropriately enough, “The Best Christmas Song,” by Canadian comedian and YouTuber Jon Lajoie.7  Lajoie brings an infectious, nerdy joy to his Christmas song, which is obsessed with mittens and Santa’s never-seen neck, and contains gems such as

This is the best Christmas song that ever existed.
If you don’t believe me, well ... you should believe me.
‘Cause this is the best Christmas song, so listen to it now.

Then there’s the category of “catchy songs that remind us that the holidays can be kinda stressful.”  Whereas last volume we had blink-182’s “I Won’t Be Home for Christmas,” this time out we get “Scary F**ked Up Christmas” by the amazingly talented musical comedy duo Garfunkel and Oates.  The thing about musical comedy is, generally speaking, you can sing good songs, or you can tell good jokes, but it’s genuinely difficult to do both.  Not many people can pull it off.  Garfunkel and Oates (a.k.a. Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci) are among the few that can.  Besides being an insanely catchy tune, the words are hilarious—in fact, this volume only narrowly avoided being subtitled “You’re Totally Tripping Balls.”

But, in the end, the honor of being volume namer went to the Eels.  “Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas” is a straight-ahead rocker that is reminiscent of last volume’s “I’m Getting Pissed for Christmas.”  The fact is, the Eels don’t generally do straight-ahead rocking ... they’re much more often prone to songs which are slightly off, like “Novocaine for the Soul” or “Beautiful Freak.”8  In fact, “Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas” almost didn’t make the cut for this volume: I listened to it with half an ear, made a note in my file that it was a happy little tune but nothing special, and had officially resigned it to a prospective volume III, but then one of my volume II songs unfortunately hit the cutting room floor.9  So I needed a replacement, and a rocker seemed like it would fit in perfectly.  So I auditioned it, and I finally listened well enough to hear our volume title, muttered half-audibly between verses.  Could there possibly be a more appropriate title for a volume of this mix?

I also decided to throw in a few modern remakes of mostly-forgotten holiday songs.  Last time that was primarily in the form of “Is Zat You, Santa Claus?” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, which I was completely unaware was a cover until well after I’d fallen in love with it.10  This time I’m going with the Reverend Horton Heat.  “Santa Bring My Baby Back” was originally an Elvis holiday tune, which Wikipedia tells me was very popular back in 1957, although I swear I’d never heard it before.  The second track from the good Reverend is the Chuck Berry classic “Run Rudolph Run,” which I absolutely was aware of, but I just think it’s great anyway.11  I’m not claiming Heat is bringing anything super-special to these remakes, but, c’mon ... it’s the Reverend Horton Heat, fer cryin’ out loud.  As an added bonus, the Reel Big Fish update of Bing Crosby’s 1950 Hawaiian-themed “Mele Kalikimaka” is absolutely a fresh (some might even argue a bit too fresh) take on a crusty old once-classic.

And of course I wouldn’t forget to throw in a few genuinely pretty songs.  I won’t tolerate mush for mush’s sake, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a song or two which just makes you feel happy inside.  Last time I chose Enya’s “White Is in the Winter Night” and “Peppermint Winter” from twee-pop band Owl Eyes.  This time around I was surprised to stumble across a holiday tune from a band I first heard from a couple of my college roommates: Carbon Leaf, who I always thought were from Illinois,12 but it turns out they’re actually from Richmond, Virginia, which is near where I grew up.13  “Christmas Child” is a sort of countdown song which skips merrily through the days leading up till the big day, and it’s quite fun to sing along with.  Whereas “Snow Angels,” by Pittsburgh alt-country band Boca Chica, is just a beautiful song which manages to exactly capture the feeling of a snowy Christmas night without ever once mentioning the holiday by name.14  While in general I find Boca Chica to be not nearly enough “alt” and way too much “country,” this tune is just perfect.

I also couldn’t resist a certain amount of parallelism in our closers.  For volume I, I went with “Merry Merry Merry Frickin’ Christmas”; for volume II, I find Denis Leary’s “Merry Fuckin’ Christmas,” as cynical as it is—and it’s a good deal more cynical than its counterpart—just plain fun.  If a bit NSFW.

Yuletidal Pools II
    [Baby Jesus, Born to Rock]

        “A Christmas Duel” by The Hives & Cyndi Lauper [Single]
        “Santa's Beard” by They Might Be Giants, off Lincoln
        “Merry Something to You” by DEVO [Single]
        “Yabba-Dabba Yuletide” by The Brian Setzer Orchestra [Single]
        “I Wanna Be a King of Orient Aah” by Elastica [Single]
        “Santa Bring My Baby Back” by Reverend Horton Heat [Single]
        “Scary F**ked Up Christmas” by Garfunkel and Oates [Single]15
        “We Wish You a Reggae Christmas” by Yellowman [Single]
        “Christmas in Heaven” by Monty Python [Single]
        “Christmas Child” by Carbon Leaf [Single]
        “Snow Angels” by Boca Chica [Single]
        “Don't Shoot Me Santa” by The Killers [Single]
        “All I Want for Christmas” by Timbuk 3 [Single]16
        “Christmas Rappin'” by Kurtis Blow [Single]
        “Xmas at K-Mart” by Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band with the Rootettes [Single]
        “I Want an Alien for Christmas” by Fountains of Wayne [Single]
        “Chiron Beta Prime” by Jonathan Coulton, off Thing a Week Two
        “Ipod X-mas” by Hello Saferide [Single]17
        “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree” by The Magnetic Fields [Single]
        “Linus and Lucy” by Asylum Street Spankers, off A Christmas Spanking
        “Mele Kalikimaka” by Reel Big Fish [Single]18
        “Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas” by EELS [Single]
        “Christmas Is Starting Now” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy [Single]
        “Run Rudolph Run” by Reverend Horton Heat [Single]
        “The Best Christmas Song” by Jon Lajoie [Single]
        “Merry Fuckin' Christmas” by Denis Leary [Single]
Total:  26 tracks,  76:48

We also have a few just plain weird tunes in both places.  Last time that was provided by the Psychobilly Christmas sampler (specifically, “Halloween on Xmas” and “Shot My Baby for Christmas”).  This time I’m going even more bizarre by reaching for They Might Be Giants and Devo, who give us “Santa’s Beard” and “Merry Something to You,” respectively.  Both are fairly upbeat, musically; TMBG’s contribution is more like the volume I tunes in this category in that its poppy melody belies its darker themes, but the Devo tune is pretty uplifting, I’d say.  Plus they transition beautifully into each other.  Then, towards the end of the set, we stumble across “Everything is One Big Christmas Tree” by the Magnetic Fields, an eclectic band from Boston that’s been called everything from synthpop to Baroque pop (whatever that is).  I’m not sure I can properly describe “Everything is One Big Christmas Tree” ... you really just need to experience it for yourself.

And we need a few tunes that are as surreal as they are poppy and fun to sing.  Last volume we got that from the ultra-classic “Elf’s Lament” by Barenaked Ladies.  This time around I discovered “I Want an Alien for Christmas” by Fountains of Wayne, which is exactly as catchy as it sounds, and as you’ve come to expect from FoW.  I defy you not to sing along.  And I followed that up directly with amazing songwriter and NPR host Jonathan Coulton’s “Chiron Beta Prime,” which is exactly as clever and hooky as you’ve come to expect from him.  Plus the triple-threat of Fountains of Wayne, Coulton, and Hello Saferide is just a beautiful trill leading into the closing stretch of this holiday mix.

Have fun with it, and have an excellent holiday, no matter what your festival persuasion may be.

Next time, it’s time to get back to the brass.


1 Personally, I don’t have that sort of patience, but your mileage may vary.

2 I had only ever heard 2 of the 3, personally.  But then I was never much of an Elvis fan.

3 Although, technically, “Christmas Rappin’” preceded Queen’s The Game by six months, so it’s difficult to tell who was influenced by whom here.

4 We’ve already heard from them twice before: once on Tenderhearted Nightshade, and once on Porchwell Firetime.

5 Who we heard from on Salsatic Vibrato III and Zephyrous Aquamarine I.

6 Well, as much fun as a song about nuclear holocaust can be, anyway.

7 Wikipedia tells me that you might know Lajoie from The League.  I’ve never watched that show so I wouldn’t know.

8 Which we heard on Bleeding Salvador.

9 Not that it matters, but it was “Santa Claus” by Throwing Muses.  In the end I decided that, despite the name, “Santa Claus” just isn’t a holiday song at all.  And that’s sort of a prerequisite for this mix.

10 Specifically, it was a Louis Armstrong song from 1953.

11 And, yes, I’m cognizant of the fact that the lyrics of “Run Rudolph Run” have some lingering sexism—the boy wants a “rock-and-roll electric guitar,” while the girl only aspires to a “baby doll that can cry, sleep, drink and wet.”  But I’m willing to move past this, as it was a product of its time, and also the rest of the lyrics are pretty cool.

12 I assume I got this mistaken impression from the fact that one of the aforementioned roommates had previously attended college there.

13 See, sometimes I even learn a thing or two about the bands I feature here in these blog posts.

14 In fact, you can make a very strong argument that this isn’t a holiday song at all: just a sort of winter song.  But it has sleigh bells in it, so I say “pooh-pooh” to that.

15 As far as I know, YouTube is the only place to get this song, which is the only reason I’m linking to it there.

16 This is another one that’s very hard to find.  You can buy the CD from the link I’m giving you, but you can’t download it there.  But try searching YouTube if you really can’t wait.

17 Yet another obscure one: it’s only available on a Swedish holiday sampler.  And on YouTube.  Of course.

18 Ditto the above, except substitute “Universal Records” for “Swedish.”

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