Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas

I was raised in America, which means it's pretty much a given that I have some measure of familiarity with Christmas, as do most of us here. A bunch of Christmas carols and Christmas-related hymns are ingrained in my brain on various levels, but they were instilled so early that many of those songs have no major standing, or have been turned to white noise via repetition. It certainly doesn't help that I was convinced for many years that there was a place called Orientar, of which there were three very vocal kings.

It means that, these days--as with many things--I tend to aim for my own sense of both tradition and "Christmas," which often has interesting results. Because a lot of traditional music leaves me cold (for reasons I can elaborate on, but don't feel the need to here), it means pursuing Christmas songs from less traditional sources. Of course, this doesn't mean that this is a novel idea. There are fantastic lists of unusual or more recent lists of Christmas or holiday songs from various bands and artists over the last few decades, from faithful covers with rock instrumentation to strange, twisted covers on into both sincere and tongue-in-cheek songs written only in that same time frame.

Normally, I'm very lazy about this: I open my chosen media player (MediaMonkey) and create automatic playlists with filter words like "Christmas," "Xmas," "Winter," "Snow," and "Santa." Liking black metal can make this a multi-step process ("snow" and "winter" tend to show up as indicators of entirely different notions). Of course, plenty of other artists skew those results, too. It takes a bit, and for some reason I find myself starting over every year. I tried to start it up this year and found myself, instead, booting up the Christmas bonus levels of Epic MegaGames Jazz Jackrabbit--the original game having a solid soundtrack, and the Christmas levels having carols worked into the same style to great effect.

I did eventually get the list together and, as with every other year, a few tracks consistently and without question show up in that list:

"364 Days" and "Dead by Christmas" by the Murder City Devils
"Father Christmas" by the Kinks
"Homeless for Christmas" by the Black Halos
"Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas" and "Christmas Is Going to the Dogs" by Eels
"Merry Fucking Christmas" by White Town
"Thanks for Christmas" and "Countdown to Christmas Party Time" by XTC
"The Closing of the Year" by the "Musical Cast of Toys" (Wendy & Lisa, former partners to Prince)

I suppose the most amusing of these tends to be the tracks by the Devils, Halos and Eels (once you hear it, White Town's track is less obvious by far). Of course, I use the word "amusing" at somewhat of a stretch. "364 Days" is from the Devils' last release, Thelema, and it is actually titled to reference the amount of the year that St. Nick spends "all alone." Spencer does invite Nick to "take off [his] boots, pour a drink," but then does add that, in doing this, he should "try not to cry, try not to think." It's a clever conceit for the song, and was not placed on the album to indicate its Christmas-relations. Its first release, though, was on the "Christmas Bonus Single" 7" in 1998, backed by, of course, "Dead by Christmas."¹ Self-loathing, nihilistic stories of infidelity are nothing unusual for them, but this Hanoi Rocks cover's Christmas setting certainly puts a different spin on it. As a song, though, it remains far more upbeat than the plaintive and aching "364 Days."

The Black Halos were a small Canadian punk band who actually shared a lot of labels with the Murder City Devils, both releasing their first albums on Die Young Stay Pretty before moving to Sub Pop, though the Devils stayed there until their initial breakup, while the Halos moved to a sublabel of Century Media who are usually known for metal releases. In any case, "Homeless for Christmas" is another inappropriately upbeat song, wherein Billy Hopeless, their vocalist, intones his desire not to be found, well, homeless for Christmas. As with many bands of the more independent stripes, this was another 7" release originally, a split with a band called Tuuli I know essentially nothing about (who are of course also doing a Christmas song on the release).

Eels' "Christmas Is Going to the Dogs" was actually from the live action Grinch movie, and tells of a Christmas celebration from a dog's perspective and does so quite well, though it predates front-man/only-man E's ownership of Bobby, Jr, Eels' dog mascot. Working in a chorus like "Christmas is going to the dogs/We'd rather have chew toys than yule logs," should get some kind of award, honestly. "Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas" is probably the most "normal" of all these tracks, though it still comes from the deep, dark life that E has had in its way. It's a beacon of hope and optimism in the midst of that sensibility, though, and it shows.

"Father Christmas" is actually another on the dark side. The Kinks released the track in the 70s, after their initial phases of critical acclaim and before their popular breakout on the U.S. (the one, at least, that was not stunted by a ban from playing here). Ray sings of dressing up as Father Christmas and being accosted by a group of youths who insist: "Father Christmas, give us some money/We got no time for your silly toys/We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over/Give all the toys to the little rich boys."

XTC released their tracks as "The Three Wisemen" on a 7" and managed to work a strong, heavily electronic synth and a quirky, shuffling, danceable beat into the rather odd "Countdown to Christmas Partytime," (linked is Andy's demo, rather than the band version that was released, as XTC's catalog is a mess of red tape, multiple releases and confusions in general).

As someone who intends to spend the day watching Gremlins, Die Hard, and Scrooged (with possible slots for Black Christmas and Home Alone), this list is the kind that makes more sense to me, but it's the theme from the movie Toys that I actually find most evocative of my personal perception of the glowing positives of Christmas, especially when married to the footage it originally appeared next to. I don't have access to show you that, but I can leave you with the music video Wendy and Lisa did record for it, which does include some of that footage (and lets Seal make an appearance):

¹There has not been a digital release of the track to my knowledge. The video of it uploaded to youtube involves a dead animal, so I'm going to spare anyone and everyone. If this doesn't bother you, feel free to search it up.

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