All the News That Didn't Fit

On the Record

The Olympia Connection, Or Lack Thereof


The Numbness Is Just a Bonus

Hiphop City


Soul by the Pound


Incest is Best

The Rise and Fall of the N-Word


If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, Tell the Truth Anyway

You Don't Own Me

Summer Lovin'

Stagger Lee

Music to Lose Your Job By

Boy, You Sure Can Take the Fun Out of Music


Stuart Braithwaite From Mogwai

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A Whole N'other Level

Who Says Morrissey Fans Don't Get Laid?


Not Modest Enough

When I think of Christmas music, the first thing that comes to mind is Tom Waits singing "Heigh Ho" through a megaphone to the beat of a sledgehammer. It's from a 1988 Walt Disney tribute album called Stay Awake, and though it has nothing to do with the holiday season, it's what my mom had on our record player in December '88. There are a bunch of other covers on that album -- the Replacements' rollicking "Cruella DeVille," Sinead O'Connor's trembling, plaintive "Someday My Prince Will Come," and Suzanne Vega's a cappella (of course) version of "Stay Awake" from Mary Poppins -- that have become as anthemic for me as "Jingle Bells." The songs aren't about the holidays, but they give me that holiday spirit.

Holiday spirit exists in spite of the holiday season, which in our times means a visual assault of blinking lights and bells designed to separate you from your money. But people still volunteer, give to charity, and generally behave with goodwill toward humanity because it's within the human psychology to want to be good. And December is pretty much the designated month to make up for being such an asshole the rest of the time.

Holiday music, per se, is a genre to elicit groans from one and all (except the ironically hip, and they can keep their "Little Drummer Boy"). Of the three traditional Christmas albums in my parents' house, two of which are supermarket compilations featuring the great crooners Nat King Cole and Mel Torme, the only one we can still stomach is John Denver and the Muppets' 1979 A Christmas Together. On their version of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," Miss Piggy freaks out when Kermit sings, "Now bring us some figgy pudding," thinking that he said "piggy pudding." She stops the song and threatens Kermit with bodily harm until he convinces her she misheard the lyric. To me, that's the Christmas spirit.

But holiday gatherings are not compelling lyrical material, for the most part. And since the religiosity of Christmas or Hanukkah has been replaced by the American god of profit, the best you can hope for in the holiday season is love and generosity toward mankind.

In the same way that you might remember exactly where you were when you heard the opening chords of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," holiday music is about context, not content. It's the same as holiday spirit: What it means to individuals is more powerful than what it means to corporations. And as an Irish-Catholic-Russian-Jew with an inexplicable bounty of holiday spirit, I can assure you that any music can be holiday music if you listen to it from the day after Thanksgiving until New Year's; if you wrap presents or bake cookies while it's playing; if it gives you visions of twinkling lights, colored glass, bits of fancy string, and shiny paper.

But to really qualify as holiday music, I think, an album must be one you might not listen to any other time of the year. In fact, in my case, most of my favorite "Christmas" albums are embarrassingly geeky. My ultimate example, or confession, is the geekiest of all: Two Rooms: The Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, a tribute album.

No disclaimer. I love Two Rooms. I love every note hit by Sting, Hall & Oates, Eric Clapton, and Wilson goddamn Phillips on that album, though I will not listen to it from January to November. Two Rooms is the most tearjerkingly produced tribute album ever recorded, and I am completely in its thrall; I think it's the perfect holiday cheese.

Two Rooms came out in October of 1991, the same week as the first single off a little album called Nevermind. But that was lost on me. I had always been a sullen, icy teen, but that winter I melted. My parents, long separated, had gotten back together. 1991 was a full-family holiday season.

I'm an only child. My mother has always been cool and beautiful; when she took me to my first concert in 1987 -- Tracy Chapman and 10,000 Maniacs -- people thought we were sisters. She always knew about music -- she would sing Dylan songs to me while giving me a bath, and later she'd say things like, "Have you heard of They Might Be Giants?" (I hadn't.) She wore Betsey Johnson dresses. I thought that my mom was not only perfect (everyone thinks their parents are perfect for a little while), but a superstar. I didn't just want to be like her, I wanted to be her.

And my father I adored. My father has a great singing voice. I don't, but that never stopped me from forcing him to sing along with me to Donny and Marie Osmond records. If I remember correctly, I was a little bit country, and he was a little bit rock and roll. The point is, even though we had no money, my parents gave me a lot: a lot of attention, a lot of time, a lot of art and music. And I worshipped them.

But the hardest thing for me when I became a nerdy, sarcastic pre-teen was not being ostracized or maligned at school. I took out my frustrations on my parents (who doesn't?), and then they got separated.

And of course, I blamed myself.

Ultimately it's important to be disabused of your parents' infallibility. I'm not complaining, or fishing for pity. This is just how it was, and sometimes that's all you have to go on. I can't even remember the holidays we didn't spend together. Probably I don't need to. But I remember 1991 well. My mother had bought Two Rooms. (See? She was slipping. But it's good, it's human.) It played that whole month between Thanksgiving and New Year's: while we wrapped presents, while we baked cookies. As I write this, I'm thinking of Jon Bon Jovi's cover of "Levon" and the Brian Wilson-less, Kokomo-era Beach Boys doing "Crocodile Rock," and I can recognize what a godawful puddle of vinyl Two Rooms is. But by the time you read this, in December, I'll be deep into Kate Bush's airy version of "Rocket Man," utterly clueless and uncaring that Phil Collins should never have been allowed to record "Burn Down the Mission."

That's the essence of holiday music, because it's the essence of the holiday season. Despite the mockery of the original, however dubious the original holiday or song might have been, despite the blatant profiteering, despite the cheap commercial come-ons, the holidays -- and holiday music -- can suck all they want and still make you happy.