The non-holiday December mix

I’m not big on Christmas music. It seems like my favorites of the genre are tracks I could listen to any time of the year. The rest of it is pure nostalgia, which may be my least favorite kind of sentiment. And, given how omnipresent that music is at this time of year, it is a forced nostalgia, which is even worse.

The assault of Christmas music has been underway since just after Halloween, at least in the places I frequent. And, let’s face it, it isn’t “holiday” music. It is Christmas music, even when the song is “Happy Holidays”.

So I tasked myself with creating to mix without any tracks specifically calling out any of the holidays that occur around the time of the Winter solstice. I gave a fair amount of thought to the abstract qualities the month brings to my mind.

The cold is a given. Some songs more effectively convey cold weather for me than some that directly reference the temperature. The second thing that comes to mind for me is the dark. After all, this month has the longest night of the year–in the northern hemisphere, at least. And, with those long nights of skies with low humidity, the stars draw one’s attention more than at any other time of year.

Similar to my November mix, I restricted this to the length of a standard music CD (80 minutes). None of the links to the YouTube videos are to tracks uploaded by me, so the future will doubtlessly bring many, many dead links. Future readers should regard these as the ghosts of YouTube links past.

“Driftmix”, Coil

I’m not much of a techno fan (or electro, or house, or whatever one chooses to call it), but I bought this EP on compact disc back in the day because of that cool artwork. That, and I was a fan of Throbbing Gristle, and I knew Peter Christopherson from that group went on to be one of the founders of Coil. One thing I love about this mix is there is no way anybody could dance to it, while the remaining tracks on that EP pretty much just so THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP until somebody decides they’ve had enough.

“Cherry-Coloured Funk”, Cocteau Twins

I have songs for all kinds of emotions and situations. This track is my go-to if I am driving in early dawn before the sun comes up on a cloud-free morning. There’s something about this tune which puts me in the mind of being under that massive gradient dome as the colors change more slowly than the eye can perceive.

“To Here Knows When”, My Bloody Valentine

Some distortion sounds like waves of heat to me. One such example is the entirety of the album Honey’s Dead by The Jesus & Mary Chain. Other types of distortion sound to me like waves of cold, and no band better conveys that than My Bloody Valentine.

“Time Baby 3”, Medicine

Of the tracks in this mix, this is the one that will likely be the most widely-known, if only because of its placement on the soundtrack of The Crow. I have never heard anybody call out this group for trying to sound like Cocteau Twins, but it is pretty obvious. Then again, I’m receptive to any and all bands that want to emulate that particular shoegaze act.

“Wandering Star”, Portishead

If this isn’t a song for being outdoors under a clear sky on a December night, I don’t know what is.

“Planets”, Teenage Fanclub

“Wandering Star” has an air of alienation to it. Let’s transition to a warmer feeling with “Planets”, as we look up to the sky in wonder, and contemplate our place in the universe.

“Wish I Could”, The Jesus & Mary Chain

Still night. Still outside. Still under the stars. But this track finds us getting closer around a fire.

“Harold & Joe”, The Cure

This is my favorite track by The Cure. Odd, since it was only released as a b-side. I’m not sure why this song moves me, but it seems to stir something deep inside. I don’t think it is the lyrics, as I have no idea what most of them mean. I read something once where Robert Smith said he wrote this as a lark and he kept flubbing vocal takes by breaking out in laughter. That stings a bit, as the track means something very personal to me. The thing is, I’m not sure exactly what it is that it means to me.

“Blue Light”, Mazzy Star

I like blue Christmas lights. The light they cast always seems a bit more mysterious than festive. I had strands of these along the ceiling beams in the first place I lived on my own. I liked to listen to music late at night with only those lights casting their ethereal glow around the room. This track was one of my top picks to listen to during those sessions.

“This Is Heaven To Me”, Madeleine Peyroux

If Medicine sounds uncannily like Cocteau Twins, Madeleine Peyroux is like Billie Holiday was reincarnated as a white woman. And I mean that as high praise for both women, as Holiday is tied with Sandy Denny for the title of my all-time greatest female vocalist. “This Is Heaven To Me” sounds like nothing other than a small but steady fall of large snowflakes as they meander down to earth.

“O, Dana”, Big Star

Everybody thinks they love snow so much, but sentiment fades fast once it is in ugly grey-brown piles alongside roads and parking lots. “O, Dana” makes me think of winter snow once it has lost its charm. And there is one part of this track which takes my breath away, during the line “I got busted across the bridge/they rounded up every soul”. I have no idea why that is, but something about that combination of strings and vocals snaps my mind to complete focus, like I’m a dog hearing a whistle.

“Razor Boy”, Steely Dan

I can’t believe there was a time when I hated Steely Dan, back when I used to rail against any music that didn’t “RAAAAWK”. I was insufferably and unjustifiably snobbish about music (OK, I know I still am, so shut up), and I dismissed the group as making elevator music. Thankfully, many people who were older and wiser than me shifted my attention to their lyrics. One friend described them as “more punk than punk”, and that’s not a bad assessment. Many of their songs tell stories that could be the plot of a feature-length film. Such is the case with “Razor Boy”, my favorite song of theirs. I can see a figure walking down a city street in the winter, bundled against the cold and watching strippers dancing in club windows as they wonder how much time they have before the title character takes all their fancy things away. A track as cold as the worst winter can bring.

“Take Your Carriage Clock And Shove It”, Belle & Sebastian

…and yet it may have nothing on Belle & Sebastian, a bunch of fey Scots who can say “fuck you” more eloquently and elegantly than any other act I know. I’m not even sure what the singer of this track is even angry about, yet that title seriously cracks me up. Glacial calm and glacial strings mask some strong hostility.

“Waltz”, Stealers Wheel

…and I get a similar vibe from this track by the act most famous for “Stuck In The Middle With You”. Once again, I don’t know what this song is about, but good money is on it likely being either Gerry Rafferty or Joe Egan once again singing about how much one hates the other, or Rafferty again railing against former musical partner Billy Connolly (that’s right–the guy who went on to become a famous actor and comedian). What is it about musicians who make the most gentle music that they tend to be the most hostile people?!

“Brief Candles”, The Zombies

Candles would seem to be an obvious aspect of tracks on a December mix, except the brief candles here are instead the short lives of different characters, with each verse being a vignette of each of the three. I love the bittersweet line, “Her sadness makes her smile.”

“Winter Is Blue”, Vashti Bunyan

This track speaks for itself.

“The Winter Is Cold”, Wendy & Bonnie

This track also speaks for itself, but I’m going to go on for a bit about the artist, regardless. Sisters Wendy and Bonnie Flower where only 17 and 13, respectively, when they made the stellar folk-pop album, Genesis. Another interesting bit of trivia is the keyboardist on the album is Mike Melvoin, father of Wendy Melvoin, who would find fame as part of Prince’s backing band, The Revolution.

“Cold Cold Ground”, Tom Waits

This track makes me think of hobos around a flaming oil can on a winter’s night. And, when I say “hobos”, I don’t mean modern-day homeless people, but the kind of characters who would ride the rails in old black and white movies.

“Bird On A Wire”, k.d. lang

Never thought I would become so enamored with an album where k.d. lang covers songs by her fellow Canucks. But Hymns of the 49th Parallel is a stellar collection. Lang’s voice is a thing of wonder. She hits each note perfectly, sometimes letting it roll around for a bit until it settles where it should. There have been many covers of this Leonard Cohen tune, but I don’t believe this version could ever be bettered.

“The Only Living Boy In New York”, Simon & Garfunkel

The holidays are as much about reconnecting with people as it is about parting from them again. After all, one only travels for the holidays to have to spend time with those you’ll just have to leave again eventually. There is something bittersweet about that which I like, and that is a feeling this track embodies so perfectly.

“Antarctica Starts Here”, John Cale

I wonder what John Cale’s fascination is with weird characters getting plastic surgery? First there was “Lady Godiva’s Operation” on The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat. Later, he would cap his fourth solo album with “Antarctica Starts Here”, which recalls nothing other than Sunset Boulevard‘s Norma Desmond regaining her youth through surgery. But her psyche is a cold and distant place–an Antarctica in her mind. And get a load of those amazing parting lines: “Her schoolhouse mind has windows now/where handsome creatures come and watch/the anesthetic wearing off/Antarctica starts here”. My takeaway from this is she is no longer just icy, but now she is completely loony, too.

So that is my December mix. None of these tracks may be traditional fare for the season, but I think each accurately represents certain truths about the month. There’s cold. There’s separation. There’s darkness. But, just like how cloudy days make people better appreciate the sunny ones, acknowledging the darker elements of December can help one better enjoy the happier aspects of the season.