Whew! I made it to the end of the little pet project of counting down my fave holiday songs.
Prior to four years ago tomorrow (December 25th) I listened to “Last Christmas” as simply a fangirl of George Michael. He was my first big celebrity crush at the tender age 8.
My jerk of Uncle Jeff tried, at that time, to dissuade me by pointing out that George Michael wore an earring in only the right ear which made him gay. That only made me love George even more. On Christmas Day of 2016, George Michael was found dead at age 53 and I remember exactly where I was: on a holiday bender. With news of his passing, I sobered up at that moment. I had lost a musical influence who influenced me with both his songs and his life (and lifestyle...we were/are both Cancerian “party girls” of Greek heritage who are queer as fuck although we weren't always able to express that).
Wham!’s "Last Christmas" is one of the most enduring and successful Christmas songs of all time, but did you know it was recorded using only a LinnDrum, a Roland Juno-60, bass guitar, and sleigh bells? All parts were recorded by George Michael, and according to Michael’s engineer Chris Porter, recording was “laborious” due to George’s limited musicianship, but the sessions were ultimately successful.
"Last Christmas" isn’t just about the lies we tell ourselves in order to cope with rejection – it’s also about the cognitive dissonance of obsessive love. At the end of the first verse, Michael pithily sets out this kind of doublethink: now he knows “what a fool I’ve been, but if you kissed me now, I know you’d fool me again”. It’s just one heart-rending epigram in a song full of them, capturing the way defiance masks hope, and how easily love and desire can delude us into forgiveness.
Damn George Michael, I will forever love you and your heartbreaking holiday song takes the #1 slot on my holiday jams countdown.
Fun Sappho fact: at the age of 12 I had taught myself every Beatles song released on guitar. I’ve always been a sucker and loved them for their pop mastery (I know it’s popular now to hate on the Beatles but I’ll take the path less travelled). Paul McCartney is the pop music maestro of the fab four in my opinion and that is also reflected in his body of work as a solo artist (and leader of Wings). So it makes perfect sense that he has etched out a piece of music real estate when it comes to Christmas songs. Flip over to your favorite station in December and you’ll most likely hear the distinctive synths (I am firmly convinced those synths had some lasting effect my musical psyche...I’m still all about them) , which “Wonderful Christmastime” is built upon, with what sounds like a delay effect, and this synth sound comes from the legendary Yamaha CS-80.
But what if that Christmas classic I’m so fond of blasting in the car is really a siren song for witchcraft? (Cue “DUN DUN DUUUUUN” sound effect). Last year, I started reading speculation on the internet as to if “Wonderful Christmastime” is in fact about Witchcraft. And here are the arguments which I think could be rather valid:
"The mood is right / The spirits up / We're here tonight / And that's enough
SIMPLY HAVING A WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS TIME
SIMPLY HAVING A WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS TIME “.
The part “and that’s enough” is where speculation as to that’s when the group of friends gets walked in on so they panic and start yelling Christmas songs so that way the person who walked in doesn’t suspect that they were doing anything suspicious.
People also analyzed the lyrics themselves and have even found more lyrics suggesting more clues of the song is about witchcraft. The more you read people’s analyses the more you start to wonder whether or not the theory is true or not. It’s eerie the more you go down this rabbit hole of theories and it makes sense in some ways.
“The word is out / About the town / To lift a glass / Ahhh don’t look down”
Could this be about rumors about possible practices of witchcraft going on so they held a town meeting to see who is responsible for teaching people witchcraft. To tell who is lying or telling the truth, each person lifts up their glass of, what I would like to assume is, wassail and have to look directly at each other. If they look down at their glass they are considered to be in cahoots with the witchcraft goings on. I mean it could be plausible, right? Regardless, it's always nice to turn a "classic" on it's head.
The more you listen to the song, the more you can’t unhear the possibility of this theory becoming true. Paul Mccartney has not commented on what this song is truly about. From the start of his career in The Beatles and his solo career, it is not uncommon for fans to analyze lyrics and make their own theories. No matter how many iconic Christmas songs there are out there, “Wonderful Christmastime” is truly one of the most amazing, well-written, and cryptic Christmas songs ever to be made.
Yeah, it is definitely my #2 fave holiday jam and just improves with age for me like a fine wine.
I love Judy Garland. Now that I got that out of the way let’s talk about song #3 on my Holiday song countdown.
Songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine wrote the classic song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" for Judy Garland's 1944 movie, Meet Me in St. Louis.
It was exactly what Americans, weary from the years of World War II, needed to hear: those words of hope — the promise that in the next year all, at last, would be well.
Today, two versions are popularly sung. There’s the version Martin tweaked for Judy Garland – “Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” – which is a rather poignant listen this year, as many families around the world are physically apart. There’s also a later version by Frank Sinatra, who asked Martin to sprinkle a little festive joy on that rather downbeat line for his Christmas album. And that’s how ‘Hang a shining star upon the highest bough’ came to replace Garland’s melancholic lyric. Of course Judy Garland would nail the melancholy feelings of the holidays and keep it so classic that revisiting it in 2020 it literally speaks volumes.
She was singing on the set of a motion picture that was being produced in wartime. She could have had no idea that her words would carry such present-tense power more than 75 years later.
Next year all our troubles will be miles away.…
But as Christmas approaches in 2020 it is the original that can cause listeners to pause and ponder what they have gone through in the long months since last Christmas. If, when the song was new, it brought a tender, fragile look to the eyes of its listeners, it is having a similar effect now, in a country in many ways changed yet at its core much the same as it ever was. In this year of so much illness and death, when we have been warned against surrounding ourselves with loved ones at the gatherings we always took for granted, there are those haunting words of yearning, over all the decades:
Once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us
The knowledge that the lives we take on faith, the daily assumptions about the world around us, can be yanked away so quickly by uninvited forces that overwhelm us. Which is why, as we are admonished to keep our distance, those words, in a fresh yet familiar context, can stop us in our tracks:
Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow,
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
What is the message, as we do our best to muddle through this cold December? Probably the same as it was in 1944 — nothing more simple, or more complicated, than this: Have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
So I fell behind a few days on this countdown but since this is vanity project and I am my own boss so can play catch up today on this countdown of Holiday jams. Also, it is the Solstice, so Happy Solstice y'all. With no further ado, here is the next 3 songs in my countdown.
Tall Black Guy is the production moniker of Detroit-born, DC-based musician Terrel Wallace. Throughout the 2000s, Wallace has honed his beat craft, blending clever samples with original instrumentation. Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and Michael Jackson are just a few of the artists TBG has reinterpreted to stunning effect. Clearly a graduate of the Dilla school, his reinventions of familiar material have earned him respectful recognition in hip-hop and beat circles.
He takes on Donny Hathaway's "It's Christmas" with a beautiful smoothed out hip hop edit. Originally released in in 2014, this jam has been a staple in my holiday playlist since first listen. I highly suggest you check all the work of Tall Black Guy, it's really good!
I've been a fan of August Darnell's since I first heard his work with Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band ("Cherchez La Femme"...such a great song!), which morphed into Kid Creole & the Coconuts. They put out a series of amazing albums that combined Caribbean rhythms with R&B, rock and anything else Darnell (aka The Kid) could think of. This song was originally titled "Winter on Riverside Drive" (first recorded by Gichy Dan who is Jehovah Witness and he refused to use the word "Christmas"), but Darnell later remixed it and renamed it "Christmas on Riverside Drive."
Basically this song is Christmas in NYC in 1981 inside a snowglobe inside my head.
Darnell waxes nostalgic for both subway rides and sleigh rides. That tireless signifier of sleigh bells is the only holiday sound present, but the melody and groove have proven hooky and durable enough to burrow their way into my memory in a way that always triggers visions of this time of year.
Disco meets comedy! Or rather, they meet again. The great part about disco was that you could overlay those long sections of dance beats with just about anything: sound effects (Meco’s “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band“), lusty monologues (every Barry White record), or even humorous schtick. A year before “Disco Christmas,” Rick Dees pioneered the disco comedy record with “Disco Duck,” which featured an amorous canard squawking over some really tasty drum breakdowns.
In 1977, the Universal Robot Band added Christmas to the mix and came up with a genuinely funny holiday dance number. Like most disco records it features a bright, cheerful chorus section, here introducing the shiny, new concept of a mirror-ball holiday: “this year we’ll do it up right.”
But the real draw is the witty spoken dialogue between Santa and Rudolph, his right-hand reindeer, as they attempt to “add a little soul to this white Christmas.” No longer a Rankin-Bass puppet, the red-nosed deer enthuses, “I can dig it, boss!” Like most Americans, neither Nick nor Rudy are too clear on the exact dance moves required in disco-dancing, but Santa wants to “try and work it out in these new platform boots.” The comedy gets a little broad—“Rudolph, you alright… slap me five. Not in my eye, fool!” — but it’s still a funnier record than “Disco Duck.” (Or am I damning it with faint praise?)
The Knife, brother and sister team Karin and Olof Dreijer, made their musical debut in 2000. Twenty years later, the Swedish siblings have successfully solidified their status as two of the most influential electronic artists to emerge in the early aughts. Karin and Olof managed to carve out a niche for themselves through their extreme sonic experimentation and their uncompromising commitment to their ultra-progressive political ideologies, which they often weaved into their lyrical and visual content. Their unabashed rule-breaking has given their work a timeless quality, and although they disbanded in 2014, their legacy lives on. I was fortunate to see them live once in 2014 in Oakland for the farewell Shake The Habitual tour.
“Christmas Reindeer” was released in December 2006 as a freebie by The Knife in December of 2006 and was available for download on their website. Originally recorded 2000 and released on their debut album, “The Knife”, as “Reindeer”; “Christmas Reindeer” tweeks the original by adding bells and removing the guitar solol. Written from the reindeer’s perspective, I’m pretty sure this Blitzen or Vixen or Donner is not a big fan of Santa. It’s a somber and dark song but one that I would be more than impressed with is if some carollers turned up at my doorstep with this one.
I’m pretty sure I am an anomaly. Since Sufjan Stevens has come onto my radar every one who I have ever heard speak about him vehemently swings from devout liking to pretty vehement disregard. Not walk the same path of a take or leave it attitude toward him like I do. He’s prett much background music to me...except for this song.
“Christmas Unicorn,” a twelve and half minute anti-epic pop song that starts off in a folk style and builds to an electronic, symphonic climax. The album presents many styles of Christmas songs, including Bach chorales, hymns, original songs, “Jingle Bells,” and a New Order cover. This is a post-modern observation giving us all the ways expressions of Christmas are valid, no matter how commercial or humble. “Christmas Unicorn” synthesizes all these styles through the metaphor of the unicorn which I pretty take as a way of saying “hey, I think we’re all special.”
To be quite honest, the part that really brings me the most joy in the song is when it finally breaks out into reprising “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Nice way to sneak it in for a “religious” (Sufjan does not keep his faith separate from his music; his Christian beliefs inform his lyrics on occasion) song.
My best friend when I was eleven in 1987 was Tamara. Both of our Dad’s were in the Navy and so we both were experienced with ourselves and our friends moving away to different locales throughout the world when our parents received new active duty assignments to Navy stations positioned globally. My family had moved to the Bay Area that year and being ten going on eleven, and just starting that awkward puberty faze, my Mom, in her infinite wisdom, decided that to help me with making friends that I would be part of a Girl Scout Troop when entering middle school. Needless to say, I was expecting to no longer be a scout after elementary school as I thought it was not a cool thing to do in the 6th grade. Fortunately in Troop 1337, where I pledged to live by the Girl Scout Law, Tamara was also a member. We got on quick and were way too cool for this Girl Scout stuff but were stuck at our mother’s whims. Turned out both of our Dads were stationed the same aircraft carrier that was deployed out to sea for 9 months, so it was just our Moms at home.
Our Moms chauffeured us after our weekly Girl Scout meetings and every weekend to locales that pre-teen girls liked to hang out at. You know, like, malls and pizza parlours and music stores and the beach. I LOVED being able to hang out and play over at Janelle’s house. While my Mom played the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Supertramp and Steely Dan through the car stereo; Tamara’s mom was getting down to the likes of Prince, Chaka Khan, and Rick James.
Come holiday time that year, her Mom was driving us around the East Bay Hills one evening to look at all the hella badass Christmas lights up there. Holiday music in my world up until that point had been the likes Barbara Streisand, Bing Crosby, and Willie Nelson Christmas albums plus Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” and Wham’s “Last Christmas” (which will have it’s own posts in a few days coming up). The music playing through in the car that evening was a tape of a really soulful man’s voice singing standards like “Winter Wonderland and “Jingle Bells.” I had heard those songs a million times but this was funkier.
I asked her Mom who this was singing on the album we were listening to and she answered something along the line of "my dear, this is the Reverend Al Green." Then the last song of the tape came on and it was “Feels Like Christmas." Oh man, I giggled and bounced around in the back seat of that car when I first heard it. Even then I had a thing for a swinging, shuffled four on the floor. I begged my Mom to buy that cassette, "White Christmas," the next day and she did.
Kitschy disco strings, intimate crooning, the nasal twists, the syncopated entrances and exits, the sudden leaps into falsetto...it’s all there.
It may well be the starkest festive song ever recorded.
"Things Fall Apart" was written and recorded by Cristina Monet-Palaci for the ZE Records Christmas compilation of 1981 (this is the second of 3 songs from that record label on this list...they really released some great music). Her biography on the Ze Records website notes Richard Strange's spot-on assessment of her: "In a sassier, zestier, brighter, funnier world, Cristina would have been Madonna."
Trust me, this ain’t no “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer", instead it's an anguished tale of the festive season spent amongst vacuous city-dwellers, heartbroken but unsurprised by another failed romance with a commitment-phobic lover ("He said he couldn't stand in my way, it's wrong. "Way of what?", I asked, but he was gone"). Cristina, bless her, recounts her doomed attempts to find a little Christmas cheer with “Things Fall Apart.” The song begins with a musical box melody that fades into a brittle reverb before the guitars begin adding their acid into the mix. Her fatalistic vocals then start their laser focus on deadpan observations on how she is fated to careen through life never fitting in with “the crowd” and living “alone again, alone.” Underneath it all, the nihilistic rhythm section purrs like a cat waiting to pounce, probably just like the cat Cristina heads home to feed. "I caught a cab back to my flat. And wept a bit. And fed the cat". Merry FUCKING Christmas!
A very sad and poignant footnote is that Cristina died on April 1st, 2020 of COVID compilations. I wonder what would have happened if the sassier, zestier, brighter, funnier world that Strange referenced had existed. Would we have lost this person and so many others in the United States this year?
Big Richard D. James fan here. I've heard stories of his goodwill towards and fans and it seems so fitting he's made music with a holiday theme. Before I talk about why I like this specific song, I want to just relay a quick story as to just one of many reasons why Aphex Twin is awesome.
In the mid 1990s I had a friend who was interning at Capitol Records who was constantly bugging her supervisor to put her in contact with some of the artists on the label. Well, for some reason, my friend's supervisor had RDJ's personal email on a post-it note on his desk and my friend swiped it and put it in her pocket. My friend then, like a stalker, emailed Aphex Twin and gushed about how much she loved him AND he emailed her back. That was a start of a 4+ year email only friendship they fostered which included him faxing her binary code art at one point which she still has. I've heard from other sources that he is hella approachable, also. Gotta love a mad genius, nice guy.
So back to why this song is #11 in my countdown.
There's a moment in XMAS_EVET10 that occurs at exactly at 07:35:300, a tight mid-tone pan/gong sound. That voice makes total sense in that moment, exists only at that moment and appears absolutely nowhere else in the track. It's not flashy, it's not hooky, it's almost nothing.... But for whatever reason, the way it sits in the track and asserts itself as completely necessary, just does it for me. I'm not sure I can explain it better than that.
I listen to this track and wait close to eight whole minutes for this tiny little tone to set me off as big as any singalong chorus from any other artist out there.
I've always been a bit confused on the whole 12 days of Christmas thing because it is the days from December 25-January 6 and in my silly brain I think it makes more sense for it to be the countdown to Christmas, which means it starts today. So welcome to Sappho's 12 days of Christmas holiday song countdown where I just actually lay out my top twelve all time holiday songs in ranking order with a little tidbit about why I love it.
On my version of the 12th day of Christmas, my #12 favorite holiday song of all time is...drum roll..."My Silent Night" by Lisi.
This is one of three songs on my list released ZE Records Official
on various Christmas records. I love how the slowed down electro beat comes in right at the lyrics of 'Round yon virgin Mother and Child.' I'm sure I am not alone when I reflect back to being a kid and finding that line amusing and exciting because it contained the word VIRGIN. It seems fitting to hear it be emphasized in this dark rendition of 'Silent Night.'
'My Silent Night' was recorded by Lisi aka Lisette Linares and was released on ZE Xmas Record Reloaded 2004; obviously by the title it was released in 2004. Just 3 years later, Lisi was a contestant on Survivor: Fiji (Season 14). Wow! She must have some stories. She lasted 21 days on Survivor before being voted off the island. Not only is this a great song but there is a lesson to be learnt from this: no matter what you are currently doing, you can always apply to be on Survivor because they are ALWAYS actively recruiting since they are like on Season 43 which is insane and they must be running out of eligible people at some point. Follow your dreams.