Ever since some key albums imprinted themselves on my brain during past holiday seasons - thus forever coloring my recollections of those times - I’ve been trying to engineer the holiday spirit via pop music.
I figure I’m getting music anyway. Why not try to time it and select it in such a way that the holiday spirit is guaranteed?
Insane! I agree. Real life should be providing the spirit, not music.
Engineered Joy! Guilty! But spontaneity is really overrated.
And, of course, people remind me of, uh, Actual Holiday Music, which I’ll admit exists, but which has only a limited effect on me. Here’s the whole sad tale.
So there’s nothing like hearing great new music on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving to give the overall holiday season an added bump.
And when it works, it works!
Don’t believe me?
Digging the Fossil Record:
Here are some records I will forever associate with past holiday seasons, and the years they marked:
1969 - Abbey Road, of course. It played constantly during Christmas break. A great memory from a childhood that was about to end.
snapped me out of it.
1977 - Sailin’ Shoes by Little Feat - The opening number - “Easy to Slip” - took about two seconds to kick in, and first made me aware of the impact music could have on my state of mind during the holiday season. The rest of the album can barely keep up.
1980 - Remain in Light by Talking Heads - It had just come out and was capturing everyone’s attention. It was nice to feel young and part of what was going on at the time.
1983 - High Land, Hard Rain by Aztec Camera - It has more than enough melody and emotion to overcome its minor flaws, and haunt my imagination for the entire holiday season.
1985 - By now I was consciously seeking out music to accompany the holidays.
Wise Guy by Kid Creole and the Coconuts started the season off with a bang, assuring me before the first cut was over, that it was going to be a good holiday. Getting married that year had something to do with it, too.
And that’s where Listen by A Flock of Seagulls (Yes, those FOSGs!) comes in. Mrs. Jaybee got this one, and since I’m the self appointed music arbiter in the house (it’s in the pre-nup) I’ll decide what’s good and bad, thank you! But in the spirit of the holidays, I tolerated this. Then it kicked in at New Years, when Mrs. Jaybee and I, after having been out and about for most of the night, stayed up even later just talking and listening to this. If this sounds lame (and I don’t blame you) play “Transfer Affection” at 4am with the one you love.
1986 - Paul Simon - A truly great album at any time of year, but it’s one you can listen to by a quiet fireplace. Don’t worry if you don’t have one. This record will make you feel like you do.
1990 - Go Betweens: 1978-1990 - Please refer to the abovementioned sad (not really) tale.
1991 - All of this and Nothing by The Psychedelic Furs - A truly F'ed up year. Was it my dad’s fatal bout with cancer that made this hard rock record (most of which I’d already heard) resonate so much? “All of This and Nothing” explains all of this, and none of it.
1992 - Harvest Moon by Neil Young - Two am on Christmas morning, after the guests have left. But the hidden masterpiece is the strange “Natural Beauty”.
1993 - Lucinda Williams There were a lot of other records happening at the time that were almost as good, but “Side of the Road” and “Crescent City” gives this one the edge. One of my all time favorites.
1996 - Moving by the Raincoats - Nothing major, but sweet and weird. I was feeling weird myself at the time.
1997 - Diary of a Mod Housewife by Amy Rigby - Beauty, both lavish (“Sad Tale”) and spare (“Knapsack”), and a dose of reality (“Beer and Kisses”). Good for new beginnings.
2007 - Fox Confessor Brings the Flood by Neko Case - It had to compete with Oceans Apart that year, and because it was a little weirder, took a back seat for a while, until we kept playing it and playing it and playing it, well into Spring.
2009 - I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight by Richard and Linda Thompson - You could listen to this one by the fire when Paul Simon is over. Actually, put this one on first.
2010 - Push Barman to Open Old Wounds by Belle and Sebastian - The young people call it “twee”. I call it incredibly beautiful, sad, and guaranteed to put you into a major depression. What the hell???
“Survey Says!”, Just in Reverse:
Aside from a consistent theme of utter desolation (perfect for the holidays!) - plus a bit of joy to keep you going - what else do these records have in common?
They’re song-based and melodic. As simple as that. And they kick in right away. No multiple listens needed to know what you’ve got.
You’ll notice there are some years missing. That’s not because I somehow don’t remember. Nerds like me keep records!
Those years are the ones where the music just didn’t work, like when I got hilariously wrong with Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth. A very worthy album but completely inappropriate. (Duh!) The holidays are not the time to get adventurous. It just proves that Great Music does not necessarily equal a Great Time.
And it didn’t work this year, either. What went wrong?
Well, first, the albums have to be pretty great. That’s a tall order under the best of circumstances, and not much has risen to that level lately.
The other reasons I’ll give below. I’m tempted to review these albums on how they function as holiday music but that would be a mighty harsh assessment. I’ll just do my best to rate them as albums and explain how none of them put me in the holiday spirit:
A perfectly good album, but wow, what a let down! This is unfair. After the powerhouse I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight how could I think another R< record could compete? Oh, it's beginning to emerge from the shadow of that classic to stand on its own, but I doubt I’ll ever consider it an equal.
So we now know that the strategy of going with an old reliable can actually backfire! B+
Really? I thought this would sound nice? Why didn't I just get more Sonic Youth? It starts off with a song about a one-armed dwarf, for chrissakes, and goes from there. I thought I might be able to catch Tom before he took the plunge into the ditch, but by this point he's definitely hit it, and bounced a time or two. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I like Mule Variations, but it did take 20 listens or so to get there. There’s no time for that during the holidays! Not bad at all, just nothing I'd play around the Christmas dinner table, unless I was trying to clear the room. B
Probably the best of the three. A new artist (to me). Song driven, I’d heard. But it wasn’t clear on the first listen. Guitar driven, I’d heard, but I didn’t know it would be an angular, noisy guitar. The whiny vocals (Freedy Johnston going apesh*t.) can put you off, too. The lyrics are right up front and interesting, the chord changes very idiosyncratic. Very worthwhile, but just not pretty enough for this wonderful time of year. A-
So 2014 was a pretty big fail.
No music to fill my empty head during boring meetings at work. No magic added to my life via music.
As much as I talk about music, I ran out of things I felt like listening to about two weeks ago, and my house had something it hadn’t had in a long time - silence. For hours or even days at a time.
So I may need to take a break. Music was just not of huge interest to me this month, or at least it couldn’t overcome what real life occasionally dishes out.
It’s probably a temporary thing. Tomorrow something could come out of left field, blow me away, and me and music are best buddies again. It’s happened before.
But right now I’m feeling doubtful. I no longer look at album lists and see potential joy. Just temporary encounters that may offer limited fun, but no transcendence. Perhaps I expect too much.
Or I could try to find the Magic in real life. It’s there, along with the Loss, which is what I tend to dwell on. I’ll just have to resolve to recognize the Magic while it’s happening.
Now that’s a tall order.