My grandmother, Edna Salles, passed away last week.
She was only a couple weeks shy of her 97th birthday, and had been doing just fine until a week before her death. Doctors think she had a stroke – she stopped eating, and couldn’t find the strength to move. It had been nearly a year since I’d seen her, since I only get to Delaware around Christmas, and I’d already made plans to visit during my time off at the end of December. And now I won’t get to.
But I still have memories. My grandparents lived in Florida when I was a kid, and we would visit them during the summer (along with Disney World, which was right nearby). I loved their house, with its orange and kumquat trees in the backyard and its sliding doors, which I pretended were spaceship panels. I remember one year my parents bought a copy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller on cassette for my sister and me, and we spent that vacation dancing around Granny and Pa’s house.
And I remember when my grandfather died. He’d suffered a stroke more than a decade earlier, and Granny had patiently taken care of him since then. I remember worrying that without someone to watch over, she’d sink into despair. I was never happier to be wrong. From then on, Granny embraced life – she lived on her own, made friends, went out, had a great time. And even when her body started failing her, and she needed to be placed in a nursing home, she had a tremendous optimism about her. She was always so glad to see me, always asking about my job and my life.
I’m grateful we had so much time with her. I’m grateful she lived long enough to meet her great-grandson Luke. She had a good, long, blessed life – 96 good years, 340-some-odd good days, and only seven bad ones at the end. We could all only hope to be so lucky.
Rest in peace, Granny. We’ll miss you.
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So my Christmas will be a little sadder this year, but I’m not going to let that stop me from reveling in one of my greatest sources of joy: Christmas music.
Now, I have this rule. Christmas music is only OK between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. I know some people love hearing it all year round, and some are all right with the notion that the Christmas shopping season now begins in October, but not me. It’s a special time of year, and the only way it stays special is if you have to wait for it. I buy a lot of Christmas music every year, but I never listen to it until the day after Thanksgiving. And then, on December 26, it goes back on the shelf for another year.
The thing is, I love Christmas music. So in that tidy 30-or-so-day window, I binge on it like crazy. It’s almost all I’ve been listening to for more than a week now, and I’ve been buying new Christmas albums nearly every day. Yes, it’s 60 degrees here, with not a flake of snow on the ground yet. But in my house, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Or at least sound like it.
I’ve bought eight new Christmas collections this year, with more to come. Some of them have been less terrific than others – I wasn’t blown away by the melancholy Holidaydream, from the Polyphonic Spree, for instance, and despite my love for all things Savatage, Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s schtick is starting to get old. But some of them have been magnificent, exactly the tinsel my tree was looking for. Here’s a brief rundown of the best.
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I’m always wary of various artists compilations, even when they’re not Christmas-themed. It’s true that I loved the first few A Very Special Christmas collections when I was a kid – hearing artists like John Cougar Mellencamp, U2 and Tom Petty take on holiday songs was fun, and I still think Sting’s version of “Gabriel’s Message” is lovely. But quality varies wildly with these compilations, and I’ve often found myself plunking down cash for one or two tracks I want to hear, and being stuck with an hour of dross.
I didn’t have that problem with Holidays Rule, the Concord Music Group’s foray into multiple-artist Christmas platters. This one is solid, and wonderful. It was curated by Sara Matarazzo, who has supervised music for some very cool movies and TV shows over the past five years, and by Chris Funk of the Decemberists. It collects tracks by the Shins, the Civil Wars, Calexico, the Punch Brothers, Andrew Bird and a bunch of others.
Even the weakest tracks here are worth hearing, but the strongest are simply knockouts. The Punch Brothers deliver a haunting version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” Heartless Bastards take on “Blue Christmas,” and the Civil Wars give us a delicate, delightful “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” (That may be the last track we hear from them in a while, so it’s bittersweet.) The Shins do a nice job with Paul McCartney’s blah “Wonderful Christmastime,” and McCartney himself croons “The Christmas Song,” with Diana Krall and her band backing him up.
Rufus Wainwright and Sharon Von Etten give us a traditional take on the classic duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” while The Head and the Heart glide their way through a dramatic “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Most surprising to me was Calexico’s gorgeous version of “Green Grows the Holly,” which stands as the most beautiful track here. Just when you think it can’t get any better, the subtle horns come in. All by itself, it’s the counter-argument to my trepidation: I didn’t buy Holidays Rule for this song, but it’s my favorite.
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I’m also wary of buying new versions of things I already have. Four years ago, the Violet Burning issued their Christmas album, Divine, as a download-only affair. Now they’ve remastered it, added two songs, and released it on CD. If you’re a physical objects freak like I am, it’s already worth buying. But even if you already have Divine, the new version is a huge improvement, and the bonus songs (a version of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and an older original called “Room in My Heart”) are wonderful.
The Violet Burning has always balanced its rock and atmospheric sides well, and they continue that tradition here. Opener “Little Drummer Boy” is loud, Michael Pritzl’s guitars taking on a Siamese Dream-level thickness. But just listen to the band’s lovely take on Wham’s “Last Christmas,” that kitschiest of kitschy holiday tunes. And Pritzl sings his heart out on “O Holy Night,” probably my favorite carol. “Room in My Heart,” which first appeared in 2003, is a Violet Burning classic, dramatic and lovely.
The biggest surprise, if you’ve never heard Divine before, is “Blue Christmas/Sandy Claws is Coming to Town,” which features Mike Roe of 77s fame doing his best Elvis impression. The Violets are, by and large, a very serious band, so this moment of levity brings a big, wide grin. Divine is a terrific Christmas offering from an unjustly obscure band, and now it sounds better than ever. Get yours here.
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I will admit, after last year’s brilliant, scathing, anti-religious We Are All Where We Belong, a Christmas EP from Quiet Company is kind of a surprise. But it’s a welcome one. Winter is Coming contains five songs over about 18 minutes, and it’s a nice burst of the band’s full-color power pop. The packaging looks amazing, too. I have yet to receive my copy, but I’ve been dancing about to the download for a week now. I can’t wait for this to pop up in my mailbox.
Winter is Coming is essentially an upgrade of the band’s 2007 three-song Merry Little Christmas digital EP. The rollicking versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” are still terrific, and the dramatic read of “O Holy Night” remains among my favorite versions. The two new songs include a splendid, guitar-orchestrated shimmy through “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and a sparkling “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” The latter finds Taylor Muse unleashing his falsetto while the horn section blares. It’s great.
Quiet Company is one of my favorite bands, so I don’t mind the fact that I’ve downloaded this version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” three times now. Winter is Coming is a little delight, like a candy cane hanging on the tree. Looking forward to the full package. You can get one at their site.
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Another sweet surprise: One Christmas at a Time, an out-of-nowhere collaboration between Jonathan Coulton and John Roderick. Coulton is the snarky, geeky Internet superstar behind hits like “Code Monkey” and “Re: Your Brains,” and the guy who made one of last year’s coolest records, Artificial Heart. Roderick is the lead singer of the Long Winters, who made a swell album called Putting the Days to Bed in 2006, and have been working on the follow-up ever since. Roderick guest starred on Artificial Heart, and that evidently led to this, one of the weirdest Christmas albums I’ve ever heard.
To start with, it’s all originals – no carols for these guys. As you might expect, it looks askance at the Christmas season, going for the laughs more often than not. This ain’t the record to put on when your aunts and uncles are visiting. But it’s perfect for when you’re stuck in traffic at the mall, or trying to get the lights on the tree to work. Before it runs out of steam at the end, One Christmas at a Time is a stocking full of sarcastic fun.
It even has a couple of Coulton classics. Opener “Uncle John” is about that relative who ruins Christmas every year: “He borrows Nana’s car, staggers in at 3 a.m. with a new girlfriend, this one barely speaks, she studies cosmetology… she’s got a Hitler neck tattoo.” And then there’s the record’s best tune, “2600,” a paean to the original Atari game console that we all wanted in the ‘80s. (Don’t lie. We all wanted these.) While Roderick sings “2600” in the background, Coulton repeats, “There’s only one thing that I want, there’s only one thing that I want.” It’s catchy and danceable and among Coulton’s most fun.
Things get sweeter with the wistful, jazzy “Christmas in July” and the classic rock-flavored, skip-the-family-holiday anthem “Christmas With You is the Best.” Well, relatively sweet: “We’ll have no turkey or guests, sleep in late but before we get dressed, I want to give you a present…” I’m also fond of the tender “The Week Between,” on which Roderick celebrates those seven days between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
I just wish the record didn’t peter out in its final third. Coulton pads things out with a new version of his old tune “Christmas is Interesting,” and the final two tracks smack of drunken late-night joke sessions. “Wikipedia Chanukah” finds Roderick reading the Wikipedia entry for Chanukah over a junky electric beat, while “Christmastime is Wunnerful” repeats its title phrase endlessly, again and again, for four minutes. Which I’m sure is the joke, but it gets old remarkably fast. Still, One Christmas at a Time is a fun, unexpected little present, and I’m glad to have it. You can pick one up here.
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There is no one who has dissected, analyzed and reassembled Christmas music like Sufjan Stevens.
Every year, Stevens records a Christmas EP for family and friends. But these are not quick one-offs, these are in-depth explorations of the soundtrack of the holiday, replete with original songs, radical reinterpretations of old favorites, and a sense of scientific curiosity about this corner of the music world. Stevens wants to know what makes Christmas music tick, and he’s dedicated himself to this endeavor with remarkable vigor.
Six years ago, he made the first five of those EPs public, in a box set called Songs for Christmas. The front cover illustration was a crayon drawing of a Christmas tree, the CDs were designed like vinyl records, and the whole thing was very 2006 Sufjan. Back then, he was a safer artist, although we didn’t know it at the time. He’d just released Illinois in 2004, and was reveling in its success, while wondering what to do next. Songs for Christmas follows the pattern of his music from 2001 to 2005 – folksy, acoustic beauty with horns and strings, becoming more ambitious as the set went on.
Since then, of course, Stevens has flipped that script on its ear. After a six-year break, he returned with 2010’s brilliant, messy The Age of Adz, an album smeared in electronic noise and emotional chaos. Whatever box we had him in six years ago, he no longer fits. The same can be said of his second Christmas box set, Silver and Gold, which covers the Adz years – 2006 to 2010. This one is louder, stranger, more unpredictable than the first, and while it doesn’t really sound like Christmas, it does sound like Sufjan Stevens, the uncompromising artist. Even the box art is wilder and odder.
Silver and Gold actually starts fairly traditionally, with 2006’s Gloria. With Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National in tow, Stevens turns in some lovely acoustic lullabies, from “Silent Night” to the 16th-century “Coventry Carol.” Aaron Dessner writes four original Christmas tunes, and they stick to the strummy, woodsy feel of the whole thing. This EP fits in nicely with the first five.
But then things get weird. 2007’s I Am Santa’s Helper mashes 23 songs into 43 minutes, and many of them are throwaway trifles. It’s a whirlwind listen, from the overly long “Christmas Woman” to a few Bach chorales to three versions of “Ah Holy Jesus” to the annoying rockabilly “Ding-a-Ling-a-Ring-a-Ling.” Even the hidden gem “Mr. Frosty Man” can’t make this thing coherent. If Stevens intended to depict hyperactive confusion, he succeeded.
2008’s Christmas Infinity Voyage is even stranger. Here is where Stevens begins experimenting with the electronic sounds that would permeate The Age of Adz, and he first unveils them on a nine-minute version of “Do You Hear What I Hear.” The anti-dance arrangement works well for the first few minutes, but the tender melody is increasingly drowned out by glitchy noise. It feels like a rough draft for parts of “Impossible Soul,” an impression only strengthened by the chorus of that song appearing in this version of “Joy to the World.” Midway through this crazy record he covers Prince’s “Alphabet St.” for no reason whatsoever, and he ends things with “The Child With the Star on His Head,” a truly great four-minute song that goes on for a quarter of an hour. The final minutes are taken up with formless electronic gibberish. He’s like a kid with a new toy, one he’ll slowly learn to use over the next two years.
2009’s Let It Snow feels perfunctory to me, a quick, more typical 21 minutes. It’s strange – this record shows a leap in ambition and execution from most of Songs for Christmas, but after the insanity of the last two EPs, it feels like it was tossed off too quickly. Cat Martino guests, and sings beautifully. Sufjan whips out new arrangements of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Sleigh Ride” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” and gifts us with a wonderful original called “X-Mas Spirit Catcher.” There’s nothing wrong with this collection, but in this big box of crazy, it’s pretty safe.
Have no fear, though, because 2010’s Christmas Unicorn is everything a modern Sufjan fan could want. It effectively merges his orchestral folk and thudding electro sides, just like Age of Adz did. It includes the flat-out coolest version of “Up On the Housetop” you have ever heard, all sinister beats and synths. Its instrumental interludes are delightful, the skipping take on “We Need a Little Christmas” is lovely, and the originals that close things out are among Stevens’ best Christmas pieces. Of special note is the 12-minute title track, a fantasia of glorious nutball joy that somehow seamlessly incorporates the chorus of “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
Listening to Silver and Gold all the way through will take you a little more than three hours, but it’s like listening to Sufjan Stevens evolve. It’s a behind-the-scenes treat bridging the gap between two of the most brilliant albums of the past 20 years, and though I can’t say it provides non-stop Christmas entertainment, it’s fascinating stuff. He started off exploring how Christmas music ticks, and ended up showing us how he does. I hope he never gives up on this tradition.
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And that’s it. Next week, the end of the year festivities begin with the honorable mentions of 2012, followed by the top 10 list and Fifty Second Week. Time is a river flowing on… Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.