Written by: Ron Bricker
You weren't expecting it. In fact, you were sitting quietly on your Aunt Diane's couch, absently sipping a glass of wine and feigning interest in the football game on the television, hoping that your Uncle Dave wouldn't feel it necessary to ask you for the sixth year in a row while you had all those things tattooed on your arm, and comforting yourself with the knowledge that eventually it would all be over and you would be sharing stories of your crazy family with all of your friends. Then it happened. Suddenly, Aunt Diane decreed that the football announcers be turned down so that she could play some holiday music to get everyone in the mood for the season. You noticeably cringe, wanting to crawl back into your own head, where the sounds of good music live, hoping that you can perhaps slip into some kind of Zen rock and roll state and appear to be comatose to all around you for the next two hours, blissfully playing Fun House by the Stooges over and over again in your mind. But alas, you've never been one for Eastern religion, so there is no escaping the font of jingling holiday shit about to erupt from your Aunt's stereo. This year, don't let your Aunt, or anyone else, ruin your holiday with the same old crap. This year, arm yourself with these four great alternatives to classic Christmas music that are sure to please even the most stalwart of tacky Christmasers. And if they resist your gesture of inclusion and good will toward men, I've included a secret weapon at the bottom that will send them shrieking from their cinnamon scented home and into the cold and unforgiving night!
1. Oh Santa! New & Used Christmas Classics from Yep Roc Records is the newest addition to the world of Christmas music alternatives, and thus is the newest addition to my own Christmas music library, so it seems like as good a place to start as any.
If you're already familiar with the Christmas records by the Reverend Horton Heat and the Los Straitjackets, also released by Yep Roc, then their songs on this record won't surprise you at all. They exist here mostly as filler for an otherwise fun, if inconsistent, holiday record. Los Straitjackets actually open up their pipes, which is totally out of character for them, to open up the album. It soon becomes apparent why these guys stick to the instrumental tracks. Much like Link Wray, they're best when they keep their traps shut and their fingers flying. The song by the Reverend Horton Heat which appears later was taken from their earlier holiday album and doesn't provide anything new, which is a disappointment.
The slow start continues with the call and response number by Jason Ringenberg (formerly of Jason & the Scorchers) and Kristi Rose (Pulp Country). The song is straight novelty, and unfortunately the novelty wears off after the first verse. Skip it.
The album doesn't really get started until the third track, a song by Jack Brennan which is a classic R&B style burner that really kicks things up. On a record not devoted to alternative Christmas song options, it would probably be forgettable, but in this context it really hops. It is certainly better than the songs that bookend it, the aforementioned Ringenberg/Rose duet and the awful track by Marah.
A few songs really do shine through and give you something a little different. Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman is in keeping with their weirder-than-thou Southern gothic tradition, and makes for a slightly darker track than you'll find on most albums like this. The Moaners also turn in a great one with Something Funny In Santa's Lap, a down in the dirt garage blues crawler that would be more appropriate listening while decorating your favorite opium den then while trimming the tree with the folks. And the song by the Minus 5, Your Christmas Whiskey, is a simple organ-driven pop song about the typical drunken Christmas methods most people employ to deal with their family each year which closes the record on a solid, if not inspired, note.
So Cold This Christmas by Cities is the only song here that feels decidedly out of place. It's a mess of lo-fi indie sludge that sounds even more alien than intended in the midst of all this Southern rock and rockabilly. I appreciate that Yep Roc wanted to get various groups from their label involved in this project, but the album could exist without it. And that's ultimately the lesson of Oh Santa! Pick what you like, download them (legally of course, as we here at CC2K would never advocate the breaking of a law), and leave the rest behind.
2. We Three Kings by the Reverend Horton Heat is one of the best alternatives to old square Christmas music out there. If anyone in your family likes rockabilly music, or if they just like to get a bunch of Uncle Dave's eggnog in 'em and dance like madmen, then this is the best record on the list. The highlight of this record, for either the rockabilly fans or the eggnog dancers, is the Rev's version
of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. It burns up one side of the stereo and down the other, painting an image not of Santa being towed by a bunch of dutiful reindeer, but rather barrelling down the streets in a suped up '57 Chevy Bel Air. Rockabilly fans, look out for the subtle homage to Link Wray's interpretation of the Batman TV show theme. The most refreshing thing about this record is that it never strays out of kid-friendly territory, which is something that can't be said for any of RHH's other music.
3. 'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets by, you guessed it, Los Straitjackets, is a nice companion piece to the Rev. Horton Heat's Christmas album. For fans of Los Straitjackets this album won't hold any surprises, but it is consistent with the rest of the band's work. Meaning, of course, that there is some excellent musicianship here and a lot of fun and energy poured into every song. Los Straitjackets are
the kind of band that don't half-ass anything, and while it would be easy to just dial it in for a Christmas record, they really don't disappoint. And this is another one that never strays away from kid-friendly material. So if you just can't take another Tony Bennett Christmas with your Mom, drop this in the record player and watch her dance around the cedar and the fake holly leaves.
4. I can't in good faith make this list without mentioning Atlantic Records' So This Is Christmas even though it is now long out of print. If you're like me, and you grew up embracing every wonderful thing
about the 90s, then you probably already have this or you at least know someone who does. Sure, Hootie & the Blowfish show up on here, which is nigh-inexcusable, but you also get Tori Amos singing "Little Drummer Boy," Evan Dando (Lemonheads) belting out "Silent Night," and most importantly, Juliana Hatfield's "Make It Home." To my knowledge, this collection is the only place that particular song by Miss Hatfield has been released, and it is well worth buying the entire record if you ever see it for sale. For those of you wondering, "Make It Home" got famous because it was the song featured heavily in the very famous Christmas episode of My So Called Life. Yes folks, I am a serious freakin' dork.
Now, before I mention the final selection on my list, I would like to state that there is nothing wrong with any of the Christmas recordings of Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Nat King
Cole, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash. I will be the first person to tell you that if you're going to have Christmas music playing, you could do FAR worse than a CD or LP by any of those artists I just mentioned. Hell, that Nat King Cole Christmas record gets into my player at least once every holiday season and it always brings back some of the fondest memories of my childhood. I say this because what I'm about to suggest is, in every way, the yuletide opposite of those great crooners.
Secret Weapon: Ladies and Gentleman, there can be no greater alternative to classic Christmas music, no greater record to shake you from the holiday doldrums, no better album to scare the tease out of Aunt Diane's hair and the stains out of Uncle Dave's undies, than Oi To the World! by the Vandals. Unlike the other records I've mentioned before, Oi To the World! is definitely NOT kid-friendly. That being said, it is one of the funniest things ever committed to audio. So put the kids to bed, take the Vandals to the big Holiday bash, you know, the one you have with your friends on either Dec. 18th or Dec. 27th and don't tell any family members about, get absolutely plowed under, and dance your ass off!
Happy Holidays and Best of Luck, ya bunch of savages!