Music

Not Just Christmas Music

(But mostly Christmas music.)

Have a Holly Jolly Christmas
Burl Ives
1965, Decca

You probably have no idea who Burl Ives is by name (his birth name? Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives), but you know his voice if you have lived through Christmas twice. Burl Ives does the definitive version of the song “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” During the 1940s he got his start in “showbiz” as a singer of popular folks tunes—you might also recognize his version of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (that and some of his other songs are on the Fantastic Mr. Fox soundtrack). He has a really regal but wonderfully smooth, plain voice and was crazy prolific—he put out more than 25 records in his first 15 years of recording, and that is before he even got to 1955’s Men: Songs for and About Men and the awesomely titled Burl Ives Sings…for Fun. Basically, he put out between three and five albums per year between 1941 and 1971. He was busy. Anyhow, he got blacklisted for a bit in the ’50s for being political, but then made a comeback and broke into Hollywood in a big way and even won an Academy Award. He plays Paul Newman’s overbearing dad in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which is just a doozy of a picture, I recommend you watch. He was a household name, to be sure. Then, in 1964, his first big intersection with Christmas entertainment came. He narrated the classic animated TV special Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and it was a hit, along with “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” He became beloved and extra popular for his Christmas tunes. Like, synonymous with Christmas. This might have a little something to do with him looking like Santa, being a jolly fat man with red cheeks and a white beard—the power of suggestion is not to be underestimated in this instance. So then comes a long stretch where some old man who makes children’s music is on the waning side of culture, but Burt stays busy, taking whatever weirdo movie roles are offered to him. Most infamously, in 1982, he gets a starring part in White Dog, a movie that was so bad it effectively ended director Samuel Fuller’s career after 40+ years in Hollywood. It is a movie about a racist dog. It is a serious topic, of course, but the film is pure melodrama and camp and a real WTF/LOL fest. It stars Kristy McNichol (a teen actress/singer in the ’70s—she started out like the Vanessa Hudgens of her day, but then went on a Lohan-y slide out of stardom) as a Hollywood actress who finds this racist dog running loose and then asks Burl Ives, playing a dog trainer, to help her save this dog from being put down/succumbing to its racism. Totally noble pursuit, totally terrible movie. From there it is mostly about a black animal trainer trying to untrain the racism from this dog (which is played by maybe eight dogs, some of them different breeds) with a stack of White Castle sliders. Anyhow, there is a scene towards the end of the movie where Ives, McNichol, and the trainer are eating dinner after touring the trainer’s secret high-tech science lab (naturally), and Ives starts adlibbing—you can tell a cop is supposed to knock on the door and the knock doesn’t come for a bit—and he says, “Oooh, delicious sour cream” and eats like a HEAPING spoonful of it, like half the container is his personal serving. Just gung ho to fill his mouth with it, like it’s ice cream. Even if you love sour cream, it’s disgusting to witness. And now, anytime I hear Burl Ives sing his signature Christmas hit, or any song, really, all I can think is of him shoveling sour cream into his mouth and I gag. —Jessica

Blue
Joni Mitchell
1971, Reprise

“California” will make you want summer, “River” will make you feel OK about its being winter, “All I Want” will make you want to knit a sweater, write a love letter, and feel better, and the whole album in general is maybe one of the most perfect creations ever made. Joni Mitchell can’t be compared to anyone and this might be her best album. I envy anyone who gets to hear this for the first time. And I want to cuddle up and cry with whoever has already heard it and would like to share its tragic beauty with me. Sniffle. —Tavi

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
1963, Columbia

Do you remember what it felt like the first time you went away to college or moved to a new city, how everything was so different that when you eventually returned home, home didn’t feel the same anymore? That’s what this record is like. It’s disillusioned, the work of a man who is beginning to open his eyes to the world, and finds it wanting: full of injustice (“Blowin’ in the Wind”), warmongers (the scathing “Masters of War”), childhood friends you outgrow (“Bob Dylan’s Dream”), and love that leaves too soon (the absolutely heartbreaking “Girl From the North Country”). Most songs are just Dylan and his acoustic guitar, and the music is so simple it would almost feel too sparse if it weren’t for his lyrics, a cascade of images so crystal clear and richly observed that even his protest songs achieve a quiet, spectral kind of beauty. In the hands of a lesser songwriter, a song like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” could have been a strident list of injustices. Instead, it’s beautiful—a dark vision you could spend years unraveling (“I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it / I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it”). This is music for a hushed room, for leaning in and listening close. There is sadness and anger here, but so much truth and beauty too. In the end you have to open your eyes or you’ll never see it all. —Leeann

Merry Christmas
Mariah Carey
1994, Columbia

When you listen to Dame Mariah’s LIFE-CHANGING rendition of “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” any bitter thoughts you might have had about the holidays will immediately be destroyed. This song brings so much joy, I bet if Ebenezer Scrooge had a listen, his ice-cold heart would have melted long before the Ghost of Christmas Past came to visit. As for the rest of Merry Christmas, when Mimi croons the holiday classics you can expect nothing less than gold, but “All I Want” is definitely the diamond of the album. And since I’m sure you’re wondering, YES, I have been to one of Mariah Carey’s Christmas concerts. And YES, it was incredible. Now please excuse me. It’s time to watch Love Actually again. —Marie

Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas
Ella Fitzgerald
1960, Verve

This is my favorite Christmas album because it’s good when I want upbeat but not “All I Want for Christmas Is You” upbeat (LOOKING AT YOU, MARIE), and it’s good when I want nostalgic but not Rat Pack-creepy-slow-background-voices nostalgic. I guess the happy medium amid all that is a li’l thing I like to call JAZZ. Such an unappealing dad word, but I challenge you to find a better version of “Sleigh Ride,” to not smile at “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” and to explain to me just how it is that Ella makes Frosty the Snowman sound, for once in its inanimate life, not creepy. —Tavi

A Charlie Brown Christmas
The Vince Guaraldi Trio
1965, Fantasy

There may be no album more comforting or nostalgic for happy family warmth feelings than the soundtrack to the the TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. First of all, what’s more fuzzy and warm than jazz music? It is, as Tavi just pointed out, the coziest of all musical genres. Like mittens. For your soul. Now add a chorus of little boys…OH GOD, it’s charming my mittens right off. This heart-sweater of an album has been my favorite holiday jam since the tender age of whenever I figured out how to work the CD player. Every Christmas that I remember has been soundtracked by these sweet, sweet piano sounds. During one of my creative-writing classes my sophomore year in high school, a substitute teacher decided to play this album while we wrote. I sang along to every song (“HOOO DOODOOOO, HOOODOOO DOOOO, CHREESTMAS TIME IS HEEERE”) because I possess the voice of an eight-year-old boy angel, but apparently the sub wasn’t into it. She put me in time out for not shutting up after being asked to a few times. Who the hell puts high schoolers in time out? And what loser doesn’t love the voice of an eight-year-old boy angel?! Not me! Which is why the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s Charlie Brown Christmas is THE BEST HOLIDAY ALBUM OF ALL TIME! The end. —Dylan

For Emma, Forever Ago
Bon Iver
2007, self-released; 2008, Jagjaguwar

Man, this is a really personal record for me. I got it for Christmas in 2008 from someone I loved with handmade artwork slipped inside the sleeve, and I listened to it pretty much exclusively until the last bits of gross gray street slush melted away in March. But you know what? Just about everyone who hears it is bound to feel that it’s exclusively theirs somehow. Singer/founder Justin Vernon recorded it while hibernating alone in a cabin after a heart-obliterating breakup with a woman. His musical dissection of their relationship addresses every part of being in love, from the most beautiful aspects to the pain and pining that happen afterward. This music is the soundtrack to the relationship that was both your best and your worst, and it’s perfect to listen to in snowy solitude…and not just because “Bon Iver” comes from the French term for “good winter.” Just be careful—this album should come prepackaged with a box of tissues, for real, especially for usage during “Skinny Love.” —Amy Rose

The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album
The Beach Boys
1964, Capitol

I love love LOVE the Beach Boys. They could sing about literally anything and it would sound beautiful. Lucky for all of us, this album isn’t just about ANYTHING, it’s about Christmas, and I love every song on it. I have to admit that I am still not sure what exactly “Little Saint Nick” is about (bobsled? a really short Santa Claus?) but that doesn’t stop me from deeming it a serious Christmas classic. And of course the old chestnuts like “Frosty the Snowman” and “Blue Christmas” are just as good. This is the perfect album to listen to while you drive around looking at Christmas lights, because it makes everything seem so cheerful and dreamy and CHRISTMASY. It’s my favorite holiday album and it should be yours, too! —Hazel

Have One on Me
Joanna Newsom
2010, Drag City

JN is one of those rarer-than-rare beings who have always known precisely what they want/need to do. She requested a harp at the age of five, so the story goes. My mother listened to Joni Mitchell’s Blue incessantly while she was pregnant with me (I was almost named after the album), so I am no stranger to these ultimate otherworldly genius songstress musicians who are rewriting the book. I was not a devout JN fan till Have One on Me. I listened to this album incessantly while at a remote artists’ retreat in a two-story log cabin in the dead of last winter. It was the only music I would listen to while I worked happily in a cozy isolation nest. It is truly a masterpiece. —Sonja

Himself
Bill Cosby
1982, Motown

Holidays can be a stressful time. Draw attention away from yourself and dissolve awkward family dynamics by putting on this comedy album while you light the menorah or trim the tree or make dinner or what have you. It’s Bill Cosby at his best—loose but precise, mean and sweet. He’s especially hilarious when he trash-talks his own kids, decades before Louis CK did it. And there’s nothing dirty, so you can listen with your whole extended fam and no one can talk about politics or your hole-y jeans or your sister’s creepy boyfriend because they’ll be too busy laughing. —Anaheed

“The Holiday Song”
The Pixies
1987, 4AD

At some point in my life, I bought into being apathetic. Somewhere between seventh grade and a bottle of black nail polish, I became “angsty.” Now that I’m older and, dare I say, wiser, I’ve realized that that’s no way to live. Have you seen a hedgehog take a bath? You physically cannot roll your eyes for days after watching a hedgehog take a bath. Unfortunately, it seems that some of my former apathy returns during the holidays. I just can’t get excited about Christmas like I used to. I love giving people presents—and candy canes are a sweet sweet gift from the gods—but I’m never filled with the Holiday Cheer I see in others. Thankfully, the Pixies’ “Holiday Song” exists to bridge the gap between moody tween and sweater-wearing caroler. It’s an upbeat punk song about masturbating that has the word “holiday” in it often enough for me to justify playing it over and over in the living room this Christmas. —Shelby

Bridge Over Troubled Water
Simon & Garfunkle
1970, Columbia

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” is just one of those songs that is in the consciousness of the whole world because it’s been so popular since the day it came out. I was always a bit meh about it. Until one day, a particularly hard day, I heard it and froze and by the time Paul Simon was joining in on the “Sail on, silver girl” line, I had tears in my eyes (cheesy but true). The thing is, it is just on the right side of cheesy —it doesn’t quite cross the line into sentimental, but it’s just enough to stop you in your tracks. I’ve noticed Simon & Garfunkel mostly sing about the colder months and especially like clouds, rain, and cold (we have a similarity here), so therefore they are perfect for winter listening. Bridge Over Troubled Water, the album, has all the depth you would want to explore on cold walks or cuddled up inside, but isn’t so heavy or dense that it takes a lot of energy to listen to. —Naomi

50 Words for Snow
Kate Bush
2011, Fish People/EMI

Not to be totally hyperbolic, but is there anyone you would rather listen to sing about the snow than Kate Bush? Is there a better voice to lead you into the icy drifts and darkness than hers? NO WAY DOT ORG. This album, Bush’s first proper record since her ethereal stoner-mom double LP from a few years ago, is a mega-concept-album about snow. Thematically, she really sticks to the topic; it is frosty, blizzarding, wintertime, howling-wind-in-the-eaves business from start to finish. You’d think she would be metaphorical about it, but she is literal in her lyrics. And the sound is basically you and Kate in her private igloo—her voice is breathy and close. It’s not dynamic and dancey and New Wave with leotards and heavy blush like “Running Up That Hill,” it’s 10-minute-long duets with a soloist from a boys’ choir, or with Elton John where he sounds all aggro and grunge, even though the song is about them being star-crossed loves during WWII and hiding him under her bed (which is really funny to me as I imagine it being ’70s Elton with giant glasses, being stuffed under a canopy bed with an eyelet-y dust ruffle). The first 45 minutes of the album has a heavy grey mood, dark ambience in the ice-womb style—basically, the perfect nighttime soundtrack for your wintertime hibernation. —Jessica

A John Waters Christmas
Various Artists
2004, New Line

Did you know our Uncle John does a special Christmas show every year? And did you know he has a compilation album to go along with it?! It is basically an awesome mixtape of the Pope of Trash’s favorite holiday jams! There’s the dreamy and soulful “Fat Daddy,” Tiny Tim’s take on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the very creepy “Happy Birthday Jesus” by Little Cindy, a spooky theremin song by the Coctails and even a Chipmunks tune! Do yourself a favor and switch your mama’s Michael Bublé Christmas album out with this one to listen to when she makes you wrap everyone’s presents. Bonus: here’s an old picture of me making a finger moustache next to Uncle John and his moustache. Happy holidaze! —Marie

23 Comments

  • annagracie December 15th, 2011 11:11 PM

    “it’s coming on christmas, they’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace…”
    Oh, Joni. I always listen to River at Christmastime. Even though it’s not really a Christmas song and it’s so sad, I love it.

  • MeeMoo December 15th, 2011 11:34 PM

    Love this list! Love this site… and everything ever!!!

    While it is not a Christmas album or even a very wintery album, my go-to chilly weather listening is Joanna Newsom’s Ys. The nature-related imagery and poetry is so vivid and for whatever reason, I picture it all in a barren winter landscape. Cold breaths and layers of clothing and pining. Awesome-sauce, basically.

    • Narnie December 16th, 2011 4:03 AM

      Yes!!! Ys is so so incredible.

  • Sue Denim December 16th, 2011 12:21 AM

    JOHN WATERS HAS A CHRISTMAS ALBUM!!!! HOW DID I NOT KNOW THIS?????

    And big up for The Vince Guaraldi Trio and their warm soft Christmas vibes.

  • toridori69 December 16th, 2011 12:27 AM

    you guys, what about the Bright Eyes ‘A Christmas Album’ album?? the holy mecca of sad teenage girl christmas albums.

  • missblack December 16th, 2011 1:12 AM

    I loooooooooove Joanna Newsom, she is AMAZING.
    I also am a huge fan of the Beach Boys.

    And btw Kristy McNichol is in this movie called ‘Little Darlings’ that is definitely one of the best movies on the face of the planet. Everyone should watch it. Everyone!

    Little&Trivial

  • emilyelizabeth December 16th, 2011 2:13 AM

    Tavi, Blue is one of my favorite albums ever! Joni Mitchell is completely brilliant!!!

  • Minna December 16th, 2011 2:47 AM

    Bluueeee… songs are like tattoos…

  • ruby December 16th, 2011 3:14 AM

    for emma forever ago is one of my favourite albums, I love ‘blindsided’ and ‘re: stacks’ <3

  • Narnie December 16th, 2011 4:02 AM

    As soon as I saw Joanna Newsom, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’re all my best friends. She is my absolute hero, and having her music in my life has inspired me more than I ever believed I could be inspired, taken me through every human emotion, and possibly saved my life. If you ever get the chance to see her live, you MUST absolutely DO IT. There is not a musician who has such charisma, talent, and ability as Joanna Newsom. It’s like the music just comes out of every single one of her pores. Anyway, thank you so so much for putting “Have One On Me” on here, all 6 billion people on this earth need some Joanna in their lives.

  • callie December 16th, 2011 5:25 AM

    yes to the beach boys but also you forgot Goodbye England All Covered in Snow by laura marling

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rt1dmt-Zqyc

  • timelady December 16th, 2011 7:25 AM

    Joni and Simon & Garfunkel! I can’t get enough of them. Wonderful list. I’ve been listening to Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney lately, and it’s stuck in my head.

  • soretudaaa December 16th, 2011 8:38 AM

    John Waters is my spirit animal.

  • Naomi December 16th, 2011 2:57 PM

    i listened to have one on me in the summer so listening to it now might be… weird. gonna do it anyway though!

  • julalondon December 16th, 2011 3:59 PM

    I absolutely love Simon & Garfunkel! Great music.

  • Marie December 16th, 2011 5:17 PM

    Tavi! I know you loves Mariah!!

  • rhymeswithorange December 16th, 2011 7:04 PM

    BON IVER!! For Emma is quite possibly my favorite album. Every song… there are no words.

  • fizzingwhizbees December 16th, 2011 10:11 PM

    I’m not a big fan of Mariah Carey…but I am completely, unironically in love with “All I Want for Christmas is You”. It is the GREATEST.

  • Fortune_Goddess December 17th, 2011 3:00 PM

    I love the Mariah Carey song… Have you seen her music vid with Justin Beiber? Gross x8!!!
    And also… John Waters is lookin’ kinda creeping in that picture. But Marie and her finger moustachio are awesome! Haha.

  • KusterBeaton December 20th, 2011 1:48 AM

    I don’t know the album it’s on but Feist’s “Now At Last” has always been a nice melancholic, but hopeful, sounding wintery song to me. I highly recommend it.

  • Izzy December 21st, 2011 11:38 AM

    50 words for snow. kate bush. (i sadly go a little bit more insane every time her name is mentioned) i have asked for that album for xmas. i so hope i get it! (and your image of elton john under kate’s bed totally cracked me up.)

  • rroseselavy December 24th, 2011 10:51 AM

    I have been obsessed with the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan all break so far, and now I read this! Rookie is always such a mindreader! And thank you for all of the posts about Bob Dylan, I was so close to liking him before, and now I am ABSOLUTELY IN LOVE.