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The Unconventional, Underplayed Christmas Music You Need This Holiday Season

On December 2, 2016

It’s happening sooner and sooner every year. An entire section of your local record store has been taken over by crates of backstock Christmas albums visibly dusty from the 11 months they spent stashed away in the basement. Dollar bins overflowing with Firestone Christmas albums, themselves stuffed wall to white-wall with festive schmaltz from Bing Crosby, Leonard Bernstein, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. If you’ve been keeping count, and why wouldn’t you have been, there are now seven(!) different variations of the Now That’s What I Call Christmas! collection to be had. Maybe you even get inspired to search around the floorboards of your car for that battered copy of The O.C. Mix 3: Have a Very Merry Chrismukkah.

Holiday music, by and large, is an empty extension of some of the most crassly commercial aspects of the season. At worst, it’s muzak that’s meant to be point-of-sale impulse purchased along with the gingerbread latte that will fuel your last minute gift shopping. It’s just filler for mid-level acts to snag an end-of-the-season financial buzz that, they hope, pairs well with itchy green and red knit sweaters that are always one size too small.

But... it doesn’t have to be that way. If you know where to look, there are a bunch of excellent holiday-related albums that can put the jingle in your stocking and even liven up a Christmas in July party. Sure, there are the handful of albums that everyone can agree on, namely Vince Guaraldi’s bittersweet A Charlie Brown Christmas and Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, but where do you turn when those have burned a hole in your music listening soul after decades of over-play? We've got you.

For the freaky folks there’s A John Waters Christmas, a half hour of tinsel-tossing oddities curated by cult film director John Waters from his personal collection of yuletide novelties. Water’s Christmas parties in Baltimore are a legitimate hot ticket (his Christmas cards are nothing to sneeze at either), so you’re in good hands form the word go. With tree-topping heat like the sweet-soul of “Fat Daddy,” Tiny Tim’s legendarily high pitched take on “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” the delightful doo-wop of “Christmas Time Is Coming (A Street Carol),” the proto-kwanzaa vibing “Santa Claus Is A Black Man,” and the positively evergreen funk of Big Dee & Little Irwin’s “I Wish You Merry Christmas,” A John Waters Christmas is an easy must-have for sipping psychedelic-spiked hot chocolates around the hearth.

If you’re looking to get even farther out than John Waters comp, you should dig into the downright charming American Song-Poem Christmas album. For the uninitiated, “song-poems” were the result of normal folks like you and me sending lyrics they had written to semi-scrupulous companies that would then turn those words into songs that were then pressed on wax. There’s a whole breed of record collector that’s out there looking for these difficult to find oddball one-of-a-kind records, but thankfully after Bar/None Records put out a pretty great anthology of some of the best examples of the genre, the label turned to the holiday season as a source of inspiration for their follow-up, subtitled "Daddy, Is Santa Really Six Foot Four?" If you’re tired of hearing the same songs over and over again piped into whatever department store where you’re getting your last-minute shopping on, then an hour of titles like “Santa Came On A Nuclear Missile,” “Maury,” “The Christmas Mouse,” “How Do They Spend Christmas In Heaven,” “Randy,” “The Li'l Elf,” and “The Rocking Disco Santa Claus,” as written by people in various states of mental stability should be more than enough to pique your interest in this disc.

If the measure of a good compilation is that it doubles as an historical document, bringing rare musical antiquities into the mass produced digital age to be appreciated by the otherwise ignorant masses, then Dust-To-Digital is doing god’s work. Their one and only (so far?) seasonal collection, Where WIll You Be Christmas Day?, brings new life to long-forgotten 78s from names you maybe know like Leadbelly’s “Christmas Is A-Coming,” Bessie Smith’s “At The Christmas Ball,” or Lightnin' Hopkins’s “Happy New Year,” as well as a dozen or more obscurities from folks like Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers, Fiddlin' John Carson & His Virginia Reelers, McKinney's Cotton Pickers, Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, and they even toss a couple of “baby jesus in the manger” sermons in for good measure.

The king of kings and host of hosts when it comes to unconventional Christmas music so far as I’m concerned though, is Stones Throw Records’ 2007 collection titled Peanut Butter Wolf Presents Badd Santa - A Stones Throw Records Xmas. It’s nowhere near as cohesive as those albums I mentioned above but the compiler, the titular label-head Peanut Butter Wolf, makes such weird decisions in his programming of it that it’s worth dissecting in greater detail.

From what I can tell, this festive comp got its start with a tis-the-season promotional disc, Happy Holidays 2005 - Happy Luck 2006, that they tossed in with orders from online retailer Sandbox Automatic. Since it was a promo thing, the logistics for licensing were a bit looser, so only about half the songs on there made the transition over to Badd Santa, but the later disc, comparatively more legally legitimate, has a couple of extras that make it indispensable.

Badd Santa is a unique beast in the history of holiday compilations. It’s a label sampler, including the freak-nerdy electro funk of James Pants’s “This Christmas Girl,” the earthy soulfulness of Georgia Anne Muldrow’s “The Kwanzaa Song,” the spazzy garage punk of Baron Zen’s “My Lovely Christmas,” and far-out mid-60s techno pioneer Bruce Haack’s “I Like Christmas.” Stones Throw has always been home to a wide variety of talent but these four are plucked from the furthest reaches of their broader kaleidoscopic crew of artists. None of the label’s then-heavyweights, Madlib (in any of his seven dozen incarnations), MF Doom, or Percee P are to be found. A more rap-centric label focusing on their admittedly weirder and harder to pigeonhole second tier talent might not make much sense, but it works well when seen through the long view of the label’s aesthetic. Ever since Peanut Butter Wolf founded the label in 1996 to put out an album by himself and the then-recently departed Charizma as well as scratch battle records, the label would go on to be the launching pad for new soul singers Mayer Hawthorne and Aloe Blacc.

Stones Throw’s bread and butter has tended to be rap, and there’s definitely some hip hop to be found here, but instead of getting acts from that end of their roster to record their takes on solstice seasonal classics, PB Wolf dove deep into his vast personal record stash and snatched up some odd and hard-to find gems that hadn’t seen the light of day in quite some time. From the the big apple we get Busy Boys’s NY electro “Funky Fresh Christmas,” Hard Call Xmas’s 1987 B-Boy records track “My Christmas Bells,” Super Jay’s 1980 disco funky “Santa's Party Rap,” and sadly chopped down from its original ten minute run time, Scoopy’s aptly named “Scoopy Rap,” before we head down south to Miami for 69 Boyz And Quad City DJs write a profane letter (only mildly) to Santa with "What I Want For Christmas" and even build in a dueling 12 days of hood Christmas run down. Lookin out for the folks who just came here for the hard to find rap, Stones Throw thankfully pressed up an EP collecting all of these that can be found pretty damn cheap if you know where to look.

The funky soul quotient of Badd Santa breaks down to a repressed rarity “Santa Got A Bag Of Soul” (limited to 250 and goin for about $65), by Soul Saints, a ‘90s soul revival group that has loose ties to DJ Shadow, and “Go Power At Christmas,” the highlight from James Brown’s 1970 Hey America It's Christmas holiday cash-in album. Rounding out the album is the lite-psych of Free Design’s 1968 single “Close Your Mouth (It's Christmas),” Coco Tea’s long-forgotten mid-80s reggae novelty track “Christmas Is Coming” (no stranger to novelty, his 2008 ode to America’s then newly minted commander in chief is not to be missed), and just for the hell of it we get the frigid uptempo lushness of Vince Guaraldi’s “Skating.”

Sure, there are better or more cohesive holiday albums out there, but Badd Santa is one of the most confidently off the beaten path entries in the canon of holiday comps, as well as a clear mile marker in the history of Stones Throw’s “We do literally whatever we want” zero-fucks aesthetic.

If none of this sounds good to you, keep on digging. Maybe any one of the three volumes of Santa's Funk & Soul Christmas is your speed, or if you’re an 80s baby you might prefer Rhino’s jangly Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Xmas, and 90s kids might remember Geffen’s grungy Just Say Noel... Don’t Grinch Up and throw in the towel on lookin’ for your holiday music joy to soundtrack this season of warmth. There’s a shining star glittering in the night sky for every taste on the planet.

Profile Picture of Chris Lay
Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

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