Let's Invent a New Genre of Christmas Music
There are only a few good Christmas songs, and it's impossible to add to the canon. So we propose something new, something that can include Gucci Mane, The Germs, and Gillian Welch. We suggest Neo-Christmas music.
You’re probably pretty close to exhausting your supply of good Christmas music. By now you’ll have played and replayed the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, run through all the classics—“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” “White Christmas —and blasted bangers like “This Christmas” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You” at all the holiday parties you got dragged to this month. But you can only listen to those songs so many times before you just can’t anymore—before you start to grow numb to them.
We need some new fucking Christmas music. Immediately.
Some have tried to make it. But every attempt at adding to the canon fails miserably. Have you ever heard Britney Spears’ “My Only Wish (This Year)?” How about Coldplay’s extremely sad and ultimately soulless “Christmas Lights?” The Killers’ “Don’t Shoot Me Santa?” They’re unlistenable.
So here are your options: Either listen to the songs you like so many times you actually wind up hating them, or subject your ears to total trash.
Well, this year, I propose a third option: an entirely new genre. One comprised of songs that make sense to listen to during the holidays, but weren’t necessarily written about Christmas. Without solid, new Christmas music to turn to, we’ve got no option but to repurpose songs to fit the season.
I’ve begun to lay down the foundations of this new genre—let’s call it neo-Christmas music—in the playlist below. Give it a listen. It’s your only hope.
Paul Simon: "Papa Hobo"
Let’s deconstruct this whole Santa Claus thing. The man’s past is largely a mystery to us, but we know he’s about 1000 years old. He’s got a massive white beard. He wears the same clothes every day. He survives, to the best of our knowledge, exclusively on the milk and cookies donated to him. Apparently he’s got some sort of house at the North Pole, but we’ve checked that wasteland out, and he’s never around. No one really knows where he lives.
Sound a little homeless to you?
We know him as Father Christmas, but an equally appropriate moniker for this guy, perhaps, is Papa Hobo. And Papa Hobo already has his own anthem, a readymade addition to the neo-Christmas canon.
“Papa Hobo,” off Paul Simon’s self-titled 1972 album, opens with the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar in A major, coupled with the soft whirring of a harmonium, which sounds a little like a church organ. The melody Simon hums has a hymnal quality to it.
It’s all about being “dressed like a schoolboy” and awaiting a man who’s been “planning my getaway” (from the North Pole?), “sweepin’ up the tips I’ve made” (milk and cookies?) and has a “left-handed way of makin’ a man sign up” for a “dream”—that dream being the myth, perhaps, of some benevolent old guy (who may or may not be a vagabond) cataloguing an entire world full of children as either naughty or nice and bringing the good ones a shit ton of toys.
The Germs: "Lexicon Devil"
The older you get, the stranger and more shameful it becomes to make a Christmas list. You grow increasingly, painfully aware of the fact that your parents have paid for pretty much everything you’ve ever owned; to ask for anything—much less an entire list of inessential junk—feels selfish and petty.
But your folks are going to get you something. Do you really want to wake up on Christmas morning, take your place by the tree, and unwrap a bunch of shit you’re never going to use, or wear, or read, or watch, and force yourself to pretend you love it?
No. You want something. So ask for it, goddamnit. Make a Christmas list.
And listen to “Lexicon Devil” by The Germs while you’re at it. As you’re scribbling away on some dirty old piece of scrap paper or typing up an email to your mom, thrash around in your chair to the sound of driving, distorted guitars, the crash of cymbals, the pounding bass drum. Scream “gimme gimme this gimme gimme thaaaaaaaaaaaaat” as you embrace your vanity, your selfishness, your unquenchable thirst for things.
Be worthless. Be a shithead. That’s what punk rock—and Christmas—are all about.
The Walkmen: "New Year’s Eve"
Once a year, on the day after Christmas, a heavy, desolate, unique kind of depression consumes me. It descends upon me, like a vulture, for a variety of reasons—all the presents have been opened, and out with the wrapping paper and cardboard goes my excitement for the future; my thoughts turn toward the obligations that will inevitably befall me once my vacation ends; the glorious day I’d been anticipating for so many months is now a full year away—but mostly, I get morose because I can’t listen to Christmas music anymore.
Neo-Christmas music solves that problem. It’s not about how “Santa Claus is coming to town,” or how “soon it will be Christmas day”—it’s about capturing the essence of the season, while it’s here and after it’s gone, in all its messy glory.
On the 26th, I’ll be fighting off my demons with “New Year’s Eve,” a perfect comedown from the thrill and innocence of the day before. The Walkmen song is about having “another one-night stand” with an ex-lover—perhaps, for instance, a high-school sweetheart, or some overly sensitive Paulie Bleeker type you only see when you come home for the holidays.
A jangling tambourine (or could that be sleigh bells?) combined with what sounds like a toy piano lend the song a Christmastime feel. And it paints a scene you can look forward to: getting blackout drunk at a New Year’s Eve party with everyone from your hometown, making out with somebody you don’t really know anymore, and helplessly following them into their bedroom as words fail you. Because, as frontman Hamilton Leithauser sings, “the more we talk, the less we understand.”
Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice: "Everything’s Alright"
Jesus Christ, son of God, sings a verse of this song. That’s Christmas as fuck. What more do you want?
The Velvet Underground: "Jesus"
I never got too into the whole “God” thing, and I always hated church. To go meant to put on a stiff, scratchy collared shirt, hand-me-down dress pants so oversized they made me look like a white, six-year-old MC Hammer, and a pair of black derby shoes that felt like they were carved out of wood. They always hurt my toes. I’d sit through each sermon without really processing what the priest said, immersed and isolated in my utter boredom, the interminable dullness broken up periodically by a command to kneel down in the pew. Sometimes I fell asleep.
Listening to “Jesus” by the Velvet Underground is the closest I’ve ever come to having a religious experience. Each time I hear that song, my legs, constantly shaking, cease to jitter. My shoulders drop, and the tension drains from my (weak, near-nonexistent) muscles. A deep and total calm settles over me. I get goose bumps, and sigh, and feel close to the earth.
Lou Reed intones “Jesus” more than he sings it; it’s a chant, a hymn, more than it is a song. His mellow droning puts me back in that pew, shoots me back to the age of six—but, for some reason, that feels kind of nice.
If the lyrics to “Jesus” somehow snaked their way into the Bible, they could pass for a holy mantra:
Jesus, help me find my proper place
Jesus, help me find my proper place
Help me in my weakness
‘Cause I’m fallin’ out of grace
It feels a little hollow to celebrate Christmas without dropping Jesus a line. I might not remember the “Hail Mary,” or “To Our Father,” but I do know “Jesus”—a strange, dark, sad kind of prayer, but a prayer nonetheless.
Glory be to God. And all hail Lou Reed.
Gucci Mane: "St. Brick Intro"
The existence of Santa Claus is a dubious prospect at best. But East Atlanta Santa is very, very real. He’s got a tattoo of an ice cream cone on his face. He published a memoir in September. His name is Gucci Mane.
Instead of delivering presents to children, East Atlanta Santa (AKA Gucci Mane La Flare AKA Big Guwop AKA Mr. Zone 6) slings cocaine to the residents of East Atlanta—or at least raps about it on East Atlanta Santa and East Atlanta Santa 2: The Night Guwop Stole Christmas, among his 80-plus other albums and mixtapes.
“St. Brick Intro,” off Gucci’s The Return of East Atlanta Santa, sets profoundly vulgar rap to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” At first, the classic Christmas song hovers in the background while Gucci raps about “a house full of naked hoes snortin’ blow” and how “it’s so lonely at the top—plus it’s real cold.” But then he delivers his own take on “Jingle Bells,” a reimagining, if you will:
I'm just trap-pin' through the snow
Sellin' nine half-a-bricks in four ways
Over the hills we go
Got an extendo and an AK
For too long, rap hasn’t had much of a place in the Christmas music canon. But this is neo-Christmas, baby. Anything goes.
Gillian Welch: "Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor"
Come December, when work crescendos into a frenzy and exams render school near-impossible, when the sky turns gray and the bitter wind begins to howl, when endlessly crowding onto packed buses and subway cars sparks in one a claustrophobia so severe it’s physically exhausting, a single thought, one burning desire, rises to the surface: I want to go home.
“Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor”—an old blues standard that Gillian Welch covers with such feeling, such sorrow, it’s hard to believe she didn’t write it—awakens in you a longing for home you never knew ran so deep. It was made for the middle of December.Welch sings of a timeless kind of disillusionment—of “hangin’ round with good time friends” who only treat her nice when she’s “got a dollar and a dime,” of seeing the “weary blues” everywhere she looks, of catching freight trains and sleeping bad and feeling bleak as all hell.
“Make me down a pallet on your floor / When I’m broke and I got nowhere to go,” she croons. And when she does, you want, more than anything, to lie down on that pallet. Maybe, by about December 22, you’ll feel the urge to crawl into the bed you had as a kid for a few nights. Listening to this song will make you want to run into your mother’s room and curl up in a ball on the floor, swaddled in pillows and blankets, for the rest of your life.
Swamp Dogg: "Do You Believe"
I’ve always been torn about the fact that, yes, I love Christmas, and all that comes with it, more than anything on this earth; and yet, I don’t really give a shit about Christ, whose birthday I guess I’m celebrating and without whom I wouldn’t experience such incalculable bliss each December.
So what the hell am I so happy about all month? Am I wrong to derive so much joy from a holiday whose literal foundation I don’t believe in?
“Do You Believe”—an upbeat southern soul anthem, the ultimate neo-Christmas song for the non-Christian—absolves me of that dilemma. “Do you believe,” Swamp Dogg wails over bright horns and a funky guitar lick, “that everyone believes in something or other, if only their mother?”
“Do you believe… in integration?” he sings. “Liberation? Sex relations? Conversations?”
“Do you believe, if you’re gonna succeed, that you got to believe in you?”
Yes, Swamp Dogg! I believe!
You see, Christmas is about more than the birth of Christ, more than celebrating the everlasting love of some big daddy in the sky, more than feasting before an all-important fast. I don’t know what it’s about, exactly; but I believe in it. I have an unshakable faith in my unplaceable, inexplicably deep, downright idiotic love for Christmastime.
I’m asking you to have some faith. Have faith in Swamp Dogg, in Papa Hobo, in East Atlanta Santa and Gillian Welch and Lou Reed. Have faith that, in time, their songs—the bedrock of the neo-Christmas canon—will mean just as much to you as all those age-old, classic jingles do today.
What else are you going to do? Listen to this? I don’t think so.
Drew Schwartz is coming to town. Follow him on Twitter.