If you dare step foot inside a shopping mall or big-box store this holiday season, remember to wear protection. Noise-canceling headphones are a good start—a hoodie or earmuffs can also work in a pinch. Beware the beguiling hips of dancing Santas and their mechanical ilk—avert your eyes immediately lest you are drawn to push the shiny red “play” button of temptation. It’s not that Christmas music is categorically awful; it’s just that the sheer repetition of the standards is relentlessly taxing. Each December, hundreds of unwitting victims are carted off in straightjackets as a result of Muzak Madness, jingling all the way to the asylum. But there’s help.
The best way to stay sane this season is to look to the fringes for fresh, diverse holiday jams, and nobody knows the fringes of music like Flagpole writer, multi-instrumentalist and all around jolly guy Jeff Tobias. For this Mixtape War we paired him with Mat Lewis, who, besides looking great in a festive sweater, also sings and plays a reverb-heavy organ in local duo Grape Soda. He has also served as the little drummer boy for punk rockers The Agenda and cute slingers The Buddy System.
And with that, here are some gifts that keep on giving…
Jeff Tobias’ Holiday Mixtape
Why Jeff Tobias picked this track: While not strictly Christmas music, I think “Peace on Earth” is a universal tenet of the holiday spirit no matter what holiday you celebrate. If everyone on the planet stopped what they were doing to blast this posthumously orchestrated Coltrane hymn, we could get there for real—I believe it!
Mat Lewis’ reaction: This is totally setting the holiday mood. Everyone bundled up by the fire, snow on every rooftop and Coltrane jamming with an orchestra of harp-slinging cherubs. Coltrane has wings, is what I’m seeing.
JT: This is the jam that everyone sings at the end of Scrooged after Bill Murray, as Frank Xavier Cross, makes that big, hysterical speech and ghostly taxi driver Buster Poindexter gives him a thumbs up. “My brother, the King of Christmas!”
ML: OK, so those same people from the last track, the ones by the fire, under the snowy rooftop? They’ve just spent eight years under the crushing weight of the Reagan administration, and they’re searching for that glimpse of old-fashioned cheer in a callous, indifferent world. It’s somewhere in there if you listen hard enough.
JT: This is one of the more tender moments on Javier Morales’ album of lo-fi holiday classics. The solid minute of synth drone at the end is, I guess, meant to be a moment of silence.
ML: This is how you cover a Christmas song! This version sounds vastly different from how I normally hear this song, but sticks to the original’s solemn tone. Sure, it tempers that solemnity with exuberant noise and cascading waves of synth, but how silent do they really want it?
JT: There’s something about the chorale-style organ part that really paints a picture. This is before John Cale went all hockey-mask drugs-crazy, and is rather wholesome.
ML: Great song, all year ’round. A “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” for post-war Europe?
JT: There’s something about the ringing of cash registers that provokes a Pavlovian response in me; I immediately sense I’m about to be pepper sprayed. You were crazy for this one, BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
ML: A generation or two into the future no one will remember what ringing cash registers sounded like, but for now it’s clever.
JT: I have a very fond memory of Supercluster covering this at a WUOG Christmas party at Ciné. I feel like I remember a lot of people were throwing candy around.
ML: Was this the first hip-hop Christmas tune? The instrumental Christmas medley in the middle is like that outta-left-field surprise gift. I didn’t know I wanted a garlic press, but now that it’s right in front of me, it looks pretty good!
- “Jingle Bells” by Puttin’ on the Ritz
JT: More Christmas music should be this true to life: the sound of a bunch of drunks doing it wrong. Oh, what fun is right; these jazz weirdos sound insane!
ML: Wow, this song is spinning wildly out of control from start to finish. The only thing moving those drums is centrifugal force.
JT: Taking it in the exact opposite direction, this captures the vibe of post-holiday depression real well. You’re a huge drag, Low, and I love you for it!
ML: I don’t find this depressing at all! After a while, all that goodwill and cheer starts to seem less genuine. This feels like someone pressed mute on all the seasonal commercials, radio jingles and holiday music to let me know the real world is still out there.
JT: When I got to interview George Winston, he hipped me to the invention and intuition of Vince Guaraldi in terms of how he could work out music that was perfect for all ages. The descending piano is nothing so much as falling snowflakes.
ML: I am a terrible ice skater and a terrible jazz pianist. This song has nothing for me.
JT: This makes me laugh until I cry. Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal.
ML: This guy can alternately scream and say, “OK,” over and over again for two minutes and make it funny.
Mat Lewis’ Holiday Mixtape
ML: Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg and friends give the “Christmas in the ghetto” premise the G. Funk treatment, in the process making one of the funkiest holiday jams I can call to memory.
JT: Rhyming “gifts” with “spliffs” about says it all. The video features Snoop sporting some kind of weird ZZ Top beard.
ML: Sometimes I just want to hear a standard Christmas tune. Sleigh bells? Check. Mandolin? Check. Saccharine lyrics about family and general cheer distribution? Double check.
JT: I agree. Here, The dB’s embody the conservative spirit that Christmas is really all about.
ML: Sometimes the last thing I want to hear is a standard Christmas tune. This sparse, sprawling gamelan arrangement is an excellent palate-cleanser to the normal fare you hear in stores and on the radio.
JT: This rules. I’m totally seeing indoor snowflakes falling from the ceiling at Ralph Records HQ while dudes with eyeball heads wearing Santa hats build a snowman.
- “The First Noel” by Masters of the Hemisphere
ML: This is probably my favorite traditional Christmas carol, and one I’d never heard before these hometown heroes did a rendition of it.
JT: Much more festive than Je Suis France’s cover of “No Christmas for John Quays,” this conjures images of friends huddled around the four-track for the holiday. Thumbs up.
- “Christmas Trees Everywhere” by Jonny Cohen
ML: What longtime indie-pop songwriter Jonny Cohen lacks in classical training he makes up for with spirit. Holiday spirit, in this case. Lines about the White House Christmas tree, sung in his trademark caterwaul, make me nostalgic for winter in metropolitan D.C.
JT: Jonny Cohen, eh? I’ve never heard of this guy, but I’m getting a sort of “A Very Jad Fair Christmas” vibe.
ML: I think this song is about trying to get out of the Mall of Georgia parking lot in December.
JT: This is catchy as shit, and the weird strangled guitar stuff on the second verse sounds like someone being electrocuted by Christmas lights.
ML: Best Christmas song of all time. Hands down. The layers of synth weirdness may seem wholly inappropriate for a holiday jam, but, dude, it’s got sleigh bells. As for the subject matter, I interpret it as a critique of Christmas music’s banality by embracing said banality. Heady stuff.
JT: Yes, very heady. This is the sort of Macca material that makes you wonder if he wasn’t the dead weight in Wings. As always, he means well.
ML: The Mael Brothers take a much more straightforward approach to hating on the holidays. But they contradict themselves: How can a song about how boring Christmas is sound so epic?
JT: Yeah! As you say, the lyrics are a bit grim, but the riff is total Santa’s-sleigh-over-the-horizon huge.
- “Daddy’s Drinking Up Our Christmas” by Marshall Crenshaw
ML: There are a lot of Christmas songs about drinking that dad-rock stalwart Marshall Crenshaw could have chosen to cover. He picked this Commander Cody tune, and now I’m picking his cover. Pay it forward this holiday season.
JT: This is indeed a rich genre, the “Christmas is canceled” Christmas song. Makes you feel about as warm as a howdy or five.
ML: When I think of Bryan Adams, the first two words that come to mind are “reggae” and “Christmas.”
JT: Ah, Bryan Adams. Face on that guy like a block of firewood. They have reggae in Canada? Who knew? The most implausible cultural crossover since Cool Runnings.
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