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Music

An Alternative Christmas Playlist for the Coming Ice Age

From the cover of Herbie Hancock Herbie Hancock / Michael Brecker / Roy Hargrove album, River: The Joni Letters (2007)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".


What do we want to hear each Christmas? Do we want to join our local chorale for a full-throated rendition of Handel's "Hallejulah"chorus? Do we want to attend any variation of The Nutcracker and try to find a different entrance into the story of magical toys come to life? The season starts sinking into our consumer consciousness earlier each year, usually solidifying itself halfway through November. We wander through trains, planes, and automobiles entertained by our own audio programming, soothing sounds from soft earbuds plugged into our phones. If Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" infects us during a trip through overstuffed aisles in WalMart, we have only ourselves to blame. In late 2017, to quote the dearly departed David Bowie, we are our own DJs and we are what we play.

Now that the overture has finished, we are ready for the main course. Start thinking too much about Christmas songs, and the mind reels with endlessly mundane renditions of "The Little Drummer Boy", "Blue Christmas", or "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer". Don't think enough about alternatives, and the pablum that passes for entertaining or inspiring Christmas music is relegated to a quick and painfully obvious set list.

In the last decades of the 20th century we made mixed tapes for loved ones or ourselves, thematically connected various artists or deep cuts from a singular favorite musical force. That evolved into burning CDs, which seems to have evolved to sharing YouTube links. Consider the following my equivalent of the Tibetan Five elements theory. If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these songs might be seem as their equivalents to surviving all the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Earth: Steve Earle, "Christmas in Washington"

This is simple folk for simple folk, more or less. Singer/songwriter Steve Earle evokes the best of Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Woody Guthrie in this track from his 1997 album El Corazon. No matter the time or leader in charge, the lyrics resonate with a universal meaning. It's about trying to reach the mortals in another area code: Woody, Utah Phillips, Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King, and Joe Hill. The time setting is Christmas, but there's an urgency in the chorus, as he calls back for help from heroes long gone, that makes this an earthy and serious holiday song (if only in name) for any day in our fallible calendar year:

"So come back Woody Guthrie / Come back to us now / Tear your eyes from paradise / And rise again somehow / If you run into Jesus / Maybe he can help you out / Come back Woody Guthrie to us now."

There will be other songs to slip through our nets during this holiday season, endless variations on the themes of longing and regret, of shattered dreams and clinging to loose remnants of family togetherness. We will try to squeeze them into convenient categories of elements, of artists, of tone and mood and the attempts will usually fail. Christmas songs are difficult monsters to understand. They're easy to remember, hard to forget, and conveniently disregarded once the season is over. Extend the season, disregard the limits of the calendar, and the sonic possibilities are endless.

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