Ring Ting Tingling
It's Finally Okay to Play Christmas Music

So you know how Bill Maher has that “New Rules” segment where he lays down the law? Like, “New rule: Cheetos bags have to come with their own Wet-Naps now,” or, “New rule: Sarah Palin has to pay me for all the brain cells I’ve lost listening to her,” or something like that? Well, I’ve got one for you this week.

New rule: Christmas music is only acceptable between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas day. That’s it. I don’t want to hear “Deck the Halls” in my local mall before Halloween, and I don’t want to hear “Frosty the Snowman” in January, when the spirit has well and truly worn off. For those 30 or so days, have at it – bombard me with Christmas tunes all you like. But keep it confined to those 30 days.

Now, before you accuse me of having a heart two sizes too small, I should tell you I love Christmas music. I buy loads of it each year, and I’m always interested to hear my favorite artists take on these old chestnuts. (Marillion doing “Gabriel’s Message”? Magic.) But confining it to one month out of the year keeps it special for me. It’s like egg nog, perhaps my favorite beverage on earth. The fact that I can only get it for two months at the end of each year makes it a treat, and the longing, especially as the summer months wind on, is half the joy.

I will often buy Christmas albums before Thanksgiving, and not listen to them until after. Here’s a good case in point: the Indigo Girls released their first Christmas album, Holly Happy Days, on October 12. I bought it on October 12, and promptly filed it. And on November 26, the day after turkey genocide day, I pressed play and reveled in it.

Now, I’ve had issues with some of the more recent Indigo Girls records. I still think they’re marvelous singers, particularly when their voices intertwine, but lately they’ve been pretty lazy writers, content to spin out some major-key chords and winsome lyrics and call it good. Their last one, 2009’s Poseidon and the Bitter Bug, came in two versions – a full-band effort and an acoustic rendering – and I still don’t remember those songs. In some ways, they’re trying too hard, and in others, not hard enough.

But this? This is great. Holly Happy Days catches the Girls in a relaxed, yet exploratory mood, and I love every minute of it. Gone is the slick production of the past few albums, and in its place is a ramshackle, recorded-in-a-week feel that suits them. The album is made up of traditional songs like “O Holy Night” and “Angels We Have Heard on High,” but also contains three originals – two by Amy Ray, one from Emily Saliers – and some surprise covers.

It opens with a hoedown-style rip through Joe Isaacs’ “I Feel the Christmas Spirit,” with some bluegrass heavy hitters on board, like Victor Krauss and Luke Bulla. (The all-star band sticks around for the whole album, and they’re invaluable.) The Girls’ take on Chely Wright’s “It Really Is (A Wonderful Life)” sums up the spirit of the record – it’s sweet and genuine, sparse and yet as full as it needs to be. The Girls arrange “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” as if they’re recording it to wax cylinder in the early 1900s, and they lend a glorious reading of “Peace Child” some real spiritual heft.

The originals are wonderful too. Ray’s “The Wonder Song” is another bluegrass hootenanny, but her “Mistletoe” is classic Amy Ray, simple and heartbreaking. It’s a plea for love, no matter how fleeting: “While the yule fire burns on, please baby please, just let this love be.” Saliers’ “Your Holiday Song” is a call for tolerance and understanding (“No more one true right or wrong, when our faith calls our name, someone else’s does the same…”) set to a gorgeous melody.

For all that, my favorite thing here is “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The musical arrangement is traditional, but the Girls wrap their voices around one another, and even invite Brandi Carlisle in to provide a third harmony. By the end, the magic they’ve spun together will move and delight you. The Indigo Girls have been singing together for 25 years now, and they still find new ways to prove how perfect their voices are together.

Holly Happy Days fills my yearly quota of holiday records from artists I love all by itself. It’s not only a great Christmas disc, it’s a great Indigo Girls record. Just listen to Saliers and Ray wrap their wonderful voices around the closer, Beth Nielsen Chapman’s “There’s Still My Joy,” and tell me you’ve heard anything as beautiful all year. I really didn’t need to buy any other Christmas records.

But I did anyway. F’rinstance, here’s KT Tunstall’s six-song EP Have Yourself a Very KT Christmas. With a title like that, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Scottish songstress didn’t take this one very seriously, but you’d be wrong. Tunstall clearly worked on this with the same dedication she throws into everything she does. Here’s a list of instruments she played on these songs: guitar, bass, xylophone, harmonium, toy piano, glockenspiel, penny whistle, melodica. Oh, and at one point, she overdubs herself into a kazoo choir.

There are no originals on here, but her cover choices are fascinating. The disc opens with the Pretenders’ “2000 Miles,” from way back in 1983. Tunstall does it rave-up style, keeping her voice just on the safe side of Melissa Etheridge. She then turns in a rocking doo-wop take on Phil Spector’s immortal “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” and spins 180 degrees for a Hawaiian percussion party on R. Alex Anderson’s “Mele Kalikimaka (Christmas in Hawaii).” (That’s the one with the kazoo choir.)

The keeper here, however, is Tunstall’s reverent and committed run-through of the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.” The song first appeared in 1987, and was included on the band’s outstanding If I Should Fall From Grace With God album in 1988. Tunstall invites British singer Ed Harcourt to play piano and sing, and together, they do justice to an absolutely splendid song. Tunstall takes the parts originally sung by Kristy MacColl, and she plays a mean penny whistle to boot.

Tunstall tops everything off with a sparse version of Mud’s obscure ditty “Lonely This Christmas,” and it’s just great. Despite its silly title, Have Yourself a Very KT Christmas is a too-brief slice of joy. I liked it a lot.

Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a slapdash various artists compilation, though, and Warner Bros. has obliged this year with Gift Wrapped: A Change in Season. Now, Gift Wrapped actually started last year, with a 20-track download-only collection of Christmas tunes old and new. There’s a second volume out now, with an additional 23 tracks. But they’re only available online. A Change in Season is a sampler of those two compilations, available on CD in independent record stores. And that’s the one I picked up.

And let me tell you, this thing is strange. It starts with a new year’s song, “My Dear Acquaintance,” performed on piano by Regina Spektor, then slams into “Christmas in the City,” a synth-y, Pink Floyd-esque number by Everest. Nothing here is very Christmas until you get to Los Lobos’ “Rudolph the Manic Reindeer,” a too-brief instrumental jam played with the L.A. band’s typical verve. Then comes an original Throwing Muses song, “Santa Claus,” that sounds like… well, a Throwing Muses song.

Other bits of weirdness: Foxy Shazam presents a massive, overblown, kind of terrific take on “Walking in the Air,” from the 1982 animated film The Snowman. The Bodeans turn in a weak two-minute ditty called “Jinga Bell Rock,” with a children’s choir, while Soul Coughing’s old take on “Suzy Snowflake” is included, much to my delight. (I think this is the oldest recording here, dating back to the late ‘90s.) (Update: My friend Chris L’Etoile informs me that the Throwing Muses song is from 1989. Thanks!) Devo contributes an original that rips all religions, called “Merry Something to You,” and Stardeath and White Dwarfs take on (believe it or not) George Michael’s “Last Christmas,” and they do it seriously.

The record ends with the old Flaming Lips tune “A Change at Christmas (Say it Isn’t So),” originally released as a b-side in 2003, and it’s one of the best, most consistent things here. That says a lot. Perhaps I will throw down for the complete Gift Wrapped sets on iTunes, but based on what I’m hearing here, I may not bother. This is inconsistent and just plain bizarre stuff.

Faring much better is Quiet Company, one of my favorite bands around right now. A Merry Little Christmas is a three-song EP of traditionals done in the Austin quartet’s dramatic pop style. Taylor Muse and company take these songs seriously, and arrange them like original tunes. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is delightful, the band raving up during the “here we are as in olden days” section and closing things out with a “na na na” refrain. “Angels We Have Heard on High” is also swell, done as a piano-pounding Beatlesque power pop workout. (And then there are the kazoos…)

But it’s “O Holy Night” that will knock you out. This has always been one of my favorite carols, with its endlessly building melody, and it’s perfect for the QuietCo treatment. Muse starts it out with just a piano and his voice, but before long Jeff Weathers’ drums are crashing in, and the harmonies start building. The ending is magnificent, Muse reaching for the high note on “divine,” the band exploding around him, and then dropping away, leaving nothing but the piano again. In many ways, they turn this century-and-a-half-old classic into a Quiet Company song, and that’s the greatest compliment I can give.

You can hear all of A Merry Little Christmas, and name your price to download it, at QuietCo’s Bandcamp site. Just remember to stop listening to it after December 25. New rule and all.

* * * * *

Okay, since I mentioned KT Tunstall and the Indigo Girls, I should probably say that Tunstall’s third album, Tiger Suit, is excellent, seamlessly blending new electronic flourishes with her more earthy songwriting, and the Indigos’ first release of the year, a double live record called Staring Down the Brilliant Dream, is terrific. There’s just too much music, and I can’t get to all of it.

And since Tunstall’s album and Gift Wrapped were both limited releases for Black Vinyl Friday (my favorite nickname for the mini-Record Store Day event on the day after Thanksgiving), I should probably mention the other things I bought. I don’t do the vinyl, but if I did, I would have bought a whole host of goodies. As it was, I picked up a teaser for Iron and Wine’s new album (dark and full and rich and very good), and Metallica’s Live at Grimey’s, which proves in nine songs that the band can still bring it. Yes, they can still play “Motorbreath,” and yes, they can play it well.

One more thing I ought to say before I go. I don’t want to make a big deal of this, since I went all out for the 500th, but the first ever online TM3AM column went out on November 29, 2000. Which means that as of two days ago, I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I often said during the early years that I’d do this for a decade and see how I feel. Well, I feel really good. So here’s to another 10, if I can do it. And thanks to all of you who have come along for the ride.

Next week, we start our end-of-the-year festivities, with a look at some worthy records rendered ineligible for the top 10 list. After that, the honorable mentions, the list itself, Fifty Second Week, and then it’ll be 2011. Time flies.

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.