I’ll Have a Blue (Indian) Christmas (Part 3 of 3)

Our third & final Christmas playlist (see parts 1 & 2).

It’s hard enough to take a beloved, classic holiday song (sacred or secular) and cover it in a unique, fresh way. Writing a (good) holiday original is, in my humble opinion, a much more difficult task. The traditional melodies, arrangements, and clichés are so ingrained in our cultural psyche that it is difficult to come up with something truly original. On top of that is the dilemma of choosing a mood for the song.

Does the musician want to go the goofy route and poke fun at the traditions of the season? If so, they have to walk a fine line and not slip into the realm of just plain dumb (Ray Stevens’ “Santa Claus Is Watching You“) or ridiculously annoying (“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer“).

Or they can go with the more serious approach which has its own challenges. Like the humorous songs, it can easily come across as banal. Recall the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1997 “Christmastime“? It had the wonderfully stupid refrain:

Christmastime has come
There’ll be toys for everyone
Cause christmastime has come for you

On the other end of the mood spectrum are the sappy, trying-too-hard holiday songs (1984 Band Aid project anyone?). Take Clay Aiken’s cover of Sandi Patti’s hit “Merry Christmas with Love“. A suicidal old woman spends her Christmas alone and depressed until carolers come to her door and give her life meaning once again. Really? We’re supposed to buy into that scenario and be moved emotionally (apparently, millions of people are since Aiken’s album of the same title has gone platinum and broke records for the fastest selling holiday album)?

With that, I bring you a selection of some of my favorite original holiday tunes that have (for the most part) slipped under pop culture’s Christmas music radar.

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Julian Casablancas – I Wish It Was Christmas Today

I’ll start with the one that is probably the most well-known from this list. Casablancas, frontman for The Strokes, released this song as an iTunes bonus track on his 2009 debut solo-album. It is based on a Saturday Night Live skit starring Horatio Sanz, Jimmy Fallon, Tracy Morgan, and Chris Kattan. It succeeds wonderfully at being funny by parodying all the ridiculously dumb original Christmas songs (sorry, Smashing Pumpkins).

Low – Just Like Christmas

Low have been releasing music for almost 15 years and have made a huge impact on the indie music scene (even rock monster Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin covered not one but two of their songs on his latest album). Their 1999 Christmas album is still a favorite of many and was re-issued on vinyl this year. It has a handful of original songs on it as well as several traditional covers that have been given the classic Low “slowcore” treatment. “Just Like Christmas” is the most upbeat cut on the EP.

My Morning Jacket – Xmas Curtain

I bet I could have labeled this track as being by Band of Horses and most of you wouldn’t have known any better. However, the fact that this song was released six years before Band of Horses put out their first proper album is a testament to the influence of My Morning Jacket. The song comes from their 2000 EP My Morning Jacket Does Xmas Fiasco Style! that has six original holiday songs (all great).

The Knife – Christmas Reindeer

Leave it to Swedish avant-garde siblings The Knife to create the weirdest Christmas song you’ve ever heard (and enjoyed). ‘Nuf said.

Paper Route – Thank God the Year is Finally Over

This indie band out of Nashville has been gaining momentum over the last few years. In 2009, they released a digital Christmas EP which you can still download for free today. I suppose you could argue this is more of a New Year’s song but I like it enough to drop it in to the general holiday category.

Yo La Tengo – It’s Christmas Time

Leave it to the Yo La Tengo trio to cover the most obscure Christmas song ever. It might as well be considered an original. The song came from a rare 7″ released by Sun Ra’s independent record label in the mid-1950s. Yo La Tengo’s version isn’t quite as doo-wop-ish as the original but it is still full of charm. The two other holiday tracks Yo La Tengo released in conjunction with this one are available on their web site though they aren’t nearly as good.

By the way, I’ve been lucky enough to see both Sun Ra Arkestra and Yo La Tengo in concert and they both put on amazing live shows. The Arkestra doesn’t have any 2011 dates up yet, but you Georgians can catch Yo La Tengo next month at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta.

Sam Billen & Josh Atkinson – Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

Sam Billen is well-known and much-loved in his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas but hasn’t received much (well-deserved) attention nationally. The man is a musical genius and offers a lot of his work for free on his web site. His latest Christmas project (in collaboration with Josh Atkinson) is no exception – it’s great and it’s free.

When I saw this Christmas album had a cover of the fairly obscure “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” I knew I was in for a treat. Billen and Atkinson take Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score (from the famous 1983 Japanese film that stars David Bowie) and add vocals and instrumentation to it that take it to a whole new level. It’s pretty stinkin’ awesome.

Tom Waits – Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis

While not everyone enjoys Tom Waits’ vocal styles (he’s had several), one has to admit that he is a fantastic storyteller. He’ll weave a poetic tale that is both humorous and devastatingly sad. This song does just that and even throws in a twist ending to boot. In fact, I’d recommend you watch this video of Waits performing it live to fully appreciate it (he throws in a bonus, drunken “Silent Night” intro and outro there too).

Blitzen Trapper – Christmas Is Coming Soon

I’m not a big Blitzen Trapper fan – not because I don’t like their music, I just haven’t been exposed to much of it. Nonetheless, this song is quite a charmer. You can buy it off the 2008 I’ll Stay ‘Til After Christmas compilation of which all proceeds go to Amnesty International.

The Winston Jazz Routine – Through the Snow

Staff at The Blue Indian have reported in the past that The Winston Jazz Routine makes their heart flutter. Though I’m not ready to admit of any fluttering, I still love this song and the peaceful, wintery images it conjures up in my mind’s eye.

Love this song? Don’t run over to http://www.thewinstonjazzroutine.com/ looking for more (you’ll find nothing but Japanese scrap recyclers). Instead, scroll on down to the Nathan Philips song below.

Frightened Rabbit – It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop

If you are familiar with Frightened Rabbit’s music, you are used to their songs of emotional love/hate relationships and heart break. Lyrically, this song drops perfectly into their discography in between their last two albums. Lead vocalist Scott Hutchinson pleads for (temporary) reconciliation with his lover on Christmas day.

It’s Christmas so we’ll stop
‘Cause the wine on our breath puts the love in our tongues
So forget the names
I called you on Christmas Eve
In fact forget the entire year

The next day life went back to its past self

A bit of a downer for a holiday song I suppose.

Beach House – I Do Not Care for the Winter Sun

This one is hot off the press. Just last week, Beach House (who gave us one of the year’s best albums) dropped this holiday gem on their web site for the world to enjoy saying, “we recorded this a few days ago in our practice space: its a winter/holiday song, it’s a gift to the internet, thank you for the lovely, intense year!”

Though the song isn’t very Christmas-y (there are some faint sleigh bells a jinglin’), it definitely evokes the mood of “this time of year.”

Nathan Phillips – Cross-Country Skis

Nathan Phillips wins the prize for being the only artist to be featured twice on one of our Christmas playlists. While he used to perform under the moniker Winston Jazz Routine (remember that awesome song you just listened to above?), he has since been releasing work under his own name. This song appeared on two different holiday compilations in 2008 and was credited differently on each one. Sam Billen’s The More the Merrier lists it as Nathan Phillips’ whereas the Peace on Earth: A Charity Holiday Album collection labels it as The Winston Jazz Routine. Bottom line: it doesn’t matter whose name is attached; the song is beautiful.

Camera Obscura – The Blizzard

The Blizzard was ballad written by Jim Reeves in 1964. You wouldn’t know it from Camera Obscura‘s chipper holiday presentation, but it’s actually a pretty depressing song. The song is a dialogue between a rider and his horse on their way to see the man’s lover in a blizzard. They travel together for miles and finally freeze to death just a hundred yards from her doorstep. Merry Christmas to you too, Mr. Reeves.

Bonus: Hear Jim Reeves’ original here.

Half-Handed Cloud – Plant A Little Fir Tree

Nobody brings good tidings and cheer like John Ringhofer. In this short, peppy tune he suggests that “if you plant a little fir tree on the roof then we’ll all be gifts beneath it.” What a clever idea!

Another idea I’m quite fond of is indie labels releasing Christmas compilations. This Half-Handed Cloud track showed up in 2008 on Sounds Familyre Records’ first free holiday album. They’ve made the compilation an annual tradition and you can get this year’s two songs at a time until Christmas Eve.

Sufjan Stevens – Sister Winter

Hands down, my favorite original Christmas song in recent memory. This track showed up on the fifth volume in Sufjan’s Songs for Christmas (stream/buy them all here).

Bonus: Make sure you listen to artist Tracey Thorn’s fantastic cover of “Sister Winter” available for free from her Christmas Stocking.

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We at The Blue Indian hope you’ve enjoyed these three Christmas playlists. If you have a song or album you think deserved a mention feel free to share it below in the comments. Happy Holidays!