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.
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.