A Christmas mixtape can be a sad, weird, wonderful thing


"James Brown's Funky Christmas." (Polydor/POLYDOR)
November 23, 2012

Those songs. Again. Floating through the air like an inescapable airborne pathogen. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” “The Little Drummer Boy,” gleaming and repellent in its every version, Bing and Bowie forever excepted. “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

Actually, I kind of like that one. But it’ll never make my Christmas mixtape.

I love Christmas music. But if you do not, I do not consider you the opposition. I consider you my target audience.

Every December since 2006 – the year James Brown, of “James Brown’s Funky Christmas” fame, hit it and quit it for the very last time, on Christmas Day — I’ve compiled a CD of odd Christmas songs and ephemera. Like everyone who has ever made a mixtape, or its less confident, penciled-in cousin, the playlist, I am the very best in the world at it. Writing about the process feels a bit like explaining a joke, but here goes.

Because I believe in intermission, I program two seamless 40-60 minute “sides.” Two of those add up to a large, possibly rude, amount of time, but the holidays are full of long drives, airport-bench purgatories and interminable nights spent weeping oneself into a fitful sleep. And besides, Christmas in America is not about restraint. Christmas is the gaudiest, most NFL-LMFAO-James Cameron more-is-more holiday we’ve got.

Almost every mixtape is, on some level, an admission of vanity about our taste and our craving to be recognized for it. I go for strange songs you likely haven’t heard before, and a mix of tempos, eras and genres. There’s humor and solemnity, weighted heavily in favor of funny, or striving-for-funny. People have their schmaltz filters set on “severe” during the holidays. You have to try to charm and surprise your way through their defenses.

It’s the same obstacle songwriters face when they write a Christmas song.

One of my new-this-year favorites is Dragonette’s “Merry Xmas (Says Your Text Message),” an honorable, synth-driven addition to the holiday-breakup genre.

“I feel like in America there isn’t as much of a tradition of writing Christmas songs. It’s more of a tradition of covers,” singer Martina Sorbara says from her home in Toronto. Her only prior holiday song was a version of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” that she rendered as a melancholy dirge.

“I actually love Christmas,” she says. “But at a certain point every year it just feels like, ‘Oh my God, this is too much.’”

Sorbara wrote “Merry Xmas” in a few hours. It’s more typical for a song to take her a month. “I went for a walk, and I just saw the word ‘Xmas’ somewhere,” she remembers. The “Christ”-removing abbreviation that offends some Christians fit perfectly with “the carelessness of communicating with a text, and how empty it is.”

It’s a lock for this year’s mixtape.

While I do my best to make my mix sound professional, content-wise, I want it as strange and personal as possible. I think of them as variety shows rather than just sequences of songs. The seven Christmas records the Beatles mailed to the members of their fan club each year from 1963 to 1969 are a great model. Though less than 10 minutes long, they had improvised and traditional holiday songs, surreal skits, jokes, impressions and chitchat. The segment of the 1969 album where John asks Yoko what she thinks the ’70s will be like, and she predicts an era of peace and freedom, always gets me. She sounds like she really believes it. John’s cool reply (“I see”) makes it ruefully evident he does not.

These mini-albums never got an official release, but bootlegs are easy to find. I can only imagine the delight and confusion fan club members must have felt upon hearing them. They were weird years before the Beatles’ regular albums got weird.

My other big influence is Andy Cirzan.

Cirzan, a Chicago-based concert promoter, has been compiling an annual “holiday obscura” mix of beguiling, how-did-this-ever-happen holiday tunes since the ’80s. Chicago rock critics Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis have invited Cirzan on their radio show and podcast, Sound Opinions, every December since 1999 to play some of his most inexplicable yule-sides. They also post his mixes for free download.

I’m shameless about cribbing tracks from Cirzan. In 2010, I even named my entire set after a song he found: “Santa’s Magickal Ho-Ho Bag.”

Cirzan, 55, is very forgiving about this when I call him to confess. Lots of people make mega-mixes of his mixes. And it’s not like he wrote these songs — he’s just rescuing them from the void.

“Ninety-nine percent of the stuff on my CD, there’s zero chance anyone can stumble upon it on their own,” Cirzan says cheerfully. “I’m the archaeologist digging away and saying, ‘I can’t wait until people hear this.’ ”

Cirzan’s mix abides by strict rules: Everything is vinyl-sourced. Genre can be anything from “song-poems to jazz to old acoustic blues to kooky ’70s pop,” but it’s rare for anything more recent than the 1970s to make the cut. “Modern production values are jarring tonally when they slide up against a 1930s country blues Christmas tune,” he says.

Most important of all, he doesn’t make tracks comprising the sides of his CD individually skippable. They exist as one extended, single sequence.

Of course! Mixmakers are dictatorial. We don’t want you daytrippers monkeying around with the order we’ve thought out so carefully.

All rules and perils of mixtape-making as codified in Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel “High Fidelity” apply to the holiday mix. But the overall mandate is to make an album that flows aesthetically while suggesting a thematic or even narrative arc.

That leaves you plenty of freedom in terms of song selection. There are songs I’ve used that count as Christmas songs because, well, I’m The Decider. Woody Guthie’s “This Train Is Bound for Glory” is a seasonally nondenominational gospel number, but Johnny Cash sang it with Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis on one of his TV Christmas specials in the ’70s. So on it went.

T he volume of quasi-original content on my mixes has been growing. Once I put a mournful piano instrumental from one of Sufjan Stevens’ mournful Christmas EPs under a 1930s radio ad suggesting a Blue Coal automatic heat regulator would be a great last-minute gift idea. Something about the way that long-dead pitchman’s voice, speaking in the dinner jacket cadences radio abandoned long ago, rubbed up against those plaintive piano notes still moves me. The Satanic-sounding loop I closed with that year was just the intro to Frank Sinatra’s familiar version of “Jingle Bells” run backward, because that’s my idea of a joke.

None of this is hard to do if you have a Mac from the past eight or nine years. My next yulemix spiked Bob Dylan’s already baffling 2009 take of “Here Comes Santa Claus” with some tape of a fawning Studs Turkel interviewing a hilariously uncooperative 22-year-old Dylan on his radio show 46 years earlier.

Emboldened by these experiments, last year I made a sort of collage that intercut between an interview with country singer-songwriter Hayes Carll about his song “Grateful for Christmas” — wherein the narrator perceives a family holiday get-together from three different stages of life in the song’s three verses — and comedian Patton Oswalt’s story about seeing “Jerry Maguire” with his brother in a deserted Los Angeles cinema on Christmas Day. It sounds insane, but I think I spliced those two narratives together with music in a way that created some resonance between them.

Of course, a mad scientist who sewed a cat’s head onto a dog might feel exactly the same way. Or someone who sews a dog with a cat head onto a Christmas sweater.

Objection to the six-week onslaught of played-to-death-yet-horrifically-undead songs prescribing eggy dollops of compulsory good cheer is a matter of taste as least as often as it’s a matter of religious preference.

“There are only so many Christmas songs,” says Rhett Miller, who’s released several solo albums in addition to being the frontman of the beloved alt-country band Old 97’s, which released an original Christmas song in 2007. “Even the ones I love, like Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’ — how many times can you hear that?”

He’s come to prefer Presley’s religious Christmas recordings as a sober antidote to relentlessly merrymaking seasonal fare. “That’s what drives me crazy sometimes: the disingenuous cheerfulness.”

Every songwriter I’ve ever asked about Christmas music has given some variation on this answer. They bristle at it for the same reason I bristle at “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas: It’s ubiquitous, and there’s something ruthless and intolerant in the way it wants you to feel one emotion. 

But there is so much other Christmas music. Sad, weird Christmas music. Cash-in novelty Christmas music as calculated as anything by the Black Eyed Peas, conferred with “authenticity” by the false prism of nostalgia.

That’s the stuff Cirzan loves. Increasingly, it’s the Christmas music I prefer, too.

“I’m not trying to poke fun at the baby Jesus,” Cirzan says. “I’m trying to poke fun about how somewhere along the way [Christmas] turned into something very different from what it was originally intended to be.”

The mix I’m happiest with is the one I think expressed the contradictions of Christmas best.

It’s called “That Means Christmas to Some People.”

Klimek is a freelance writer.

There are only so many Christmas songs. Even the ones I love, like Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’ — how many times can you hear that?”

Rhett Miller, Old 97’s

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