"James Brown's Funky Christmas." (Polydor/POLYDOR )
Those songs. Again. Floating through the air like an inescapable airborne pathogen. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” “The Little Drummer Boy,” gleaming and repellent in its every version, Bing and Bowie forever excepted. “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”
Actually, I kind of like that one. But it’ll never make my Christmas mixtape.
I love Christmas music. But if you do not, I do not consider you the opposition. I consider you my target audience.
Every December since 2006 – the year James Brown, of “James Brown’s Funky Christmas” fame, hit it and quit it for the very last time, on Christmas Day — I’ve compiled a CD of odd Christmas songs and ephemera. Like everyone who has ever made a mixtape, or its less confident, penciled-in cousin, the playlist, I am the very best in the world at it. Writing about the process feels a bit like explaining a joke, but here goes.
Because I believe in intermission, I program two seamless 40-60 minute “sides.” Two of those add up to a large, possibly rude, amount of time, but the holidays are full of long drives, airport-bench purgatories and interminable nights spent weeping oneself into a fitful sleep. And besides, Christmas in America is not about restraint. Christmas is the gaudiest, most NFL-LMFAO-James Cameron more-is-more holiday we’ve got.
Almost every mixtape is, on some level, an admission of vanity about our taste and our craving to be recognized for it. I go for strange songs you likely haven’t heard before, and a mix of tempos, eras and genres. There’s humor and solemnity, weighted heavily in favor of funny, or striving-for-funny. People have their schmaltz filters set on “severe” during the holidays. You have to try to charm and surprise your way through their defenses.
It’s the same obstacle songwriters face when they write a Christmas song.
One of my new-this-year favorites is Dragonette’s “Merry Xmas (Says Your Text Message),” an honorable, synth-driven addition to the holiday-breakup genre.
“I feel like in America there isn’t as much of a tradition of writing Christmas songs. It’s more of a tradition of covers,” singer Martina Sorbara says from her home in Toronto. Her only prior holiday song was a version of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” that she rendered as a melancholy dirge.
“I actually love Christmas,” she says. “But at a certain point every year it just feels like, ‘Oh my God, this is too much.’”
Sorbara wrote “Merry Xmas” in a few hours. It’s more typical for a song to take her a month. “I went for a walk, and I just saw the word ‘Xmas’ somewhere,” she remembers. The “Christ”-removing abbreviation that offends some Christians fit perfectly with “the carelessness of communicating with a text, and how empty it is.”
It’s a lock for this year’s mixtape.
While I do my best to make my mix sound professional, content-wise, I want it as strange and personal as possible. I think of them as variety shows rather than just sequences of songs. The seven Christmas records the Beatles mailed to the members of their fan club each year from 1963 to 1969 are a great model. Though less than 10 minutes long, they had improvised and traditional holiday songs, surreal skits, jokes, impressions and chitchat. The segment of the 1969 album where John asks Yoko what she thinks the ’70s will be like, and she predicts an era of peace and freedom, always gets me. She sounds like she really believes it. John’s cool reply (“I see”) makes it ruefully evident he does not.
These mini-albums never got an official release, but bootlegs are easy to find. I can only imagine the delight and confusion fan club members must have felt upon hearing them. They were weird years before the Beatles’ regular albums got weird.
My other big influence is Andy Cirzan.
Cirzan, a Chicago-based concert promoter, has been compiling an annual “holiday obscura” mix of beguiling, how-did-this-ever-happen holiday tunes since the ’80s. Chicago rock critics Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis have invited Cirzan on their radio show and podcast, Sound Opinions, every December since 1999 to play some of his most inexplicable yule-sides. They also post his mixes for free download.
I’m shameless about cribbing tracks from Cirzan. In 2010, I even named my entire set after a song he found: “Santa’s Magickal Ho-Ho Bag.”
Cirzan, 55, is very forgiving about this when I call him to confess. Lots of people make mega-mixes of his mixes. And it’s not like he wrote these songs — he’s just rescuing them from the void.
“Ninety-nine percent of the stuff on my CD, there’s zero chance anyone can stumble upon it on their own,” Cirzan says cheerfully. “I’m the archaeologist digging away and saying, ‘I can’t wait until people hear this.’ ”