So it’s the Holiday Season one and all, and let’s get this one out of the way early: a lot of you are excited for Christmas next week. And Christmas time means Christmas Music, and Christmas Music means Michael Bublé. Music to fall asleep slammed on rum and eggnog to – so let’s put this one straight on the table:
Christmas music is terrible.
Christmas Music is some of the laziest pop of the last 60 years.
And I’m not kidding about the last 60 years – you’re aware that most of the beloved Christmas hits are eery utopian 1950’s fantasies articulated through some of the laziest songwriting in history… right? And let’s not get me started on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” or “Coercion in C Major” whatever that song’s original title must have been. It’s like 5 days til Christmas, Transylvanilla readers, and if you’re anything like me you’re headed to the mall like right now to get that shopping in before the inevitable last-day all-out beatdown at the local Toys’R’Us over whatever Adventure Time gear is in vogue right now. It’s cool, you can do this, you’re Saint Nicholas, you’re Santa you’re… well maybe you’re Krampus. I’m not your boss.You’re gonna march right in there and buy the hell out of that Blood On The Dance Floor album for your inexplicably tone-deaf little nephew. Yes you are.
But you’re going to wear headphones.
Because you’re sure as heck not doing it to the mall’s terrifying menagerie of Christmas Muzak, you’re better than that and you know it.
And hey, maybe I’m better than that and maybe I’m not – but I know what I like, and I’m an irreligious East Van Music Guy. Maybe you are too, or maybe you just want to see me faceplant into some of my more embarrassing musical selections. So what do we play around here at Transylvanilla Publishing a.k.a. The Crow’s Nest a.k.a. The Krampus Den when it’s freezing out? Glad you asked. Introducing:
Transylvanilla’s 2013 Christmas Throwdown: Baby, It’s Cold Outside (but I understand and respect that you’re more comfortable going home, so maybe another time)
Some of it is even gonna be Christmas-themed! Fun!
Disclaimer: This list comes with the knowledge and assumption that you know I’m kind of about to embarrass myself. This also isn’t a Christmas List: these are the things that take me to Winter, when I’m feeling Wintery, and I think we might all benefit from knowing what music makes me feel like it’s snowing out. ‘Tis the season etc. and so on!
水田直志 – The Final Fantasy XI Piano Collections
Okay, so maybe I’m starting a little weird, but this is by far my favourite Christmas-season album of all time. And of course it has nothing to do with Christmas – this piano collection is nothing more or less than two Japanese pianists wandering through solo (and duet) piano performances of several of Final Fantasy XI’s more memorable tunes. It’s absolutely gorgeous – it’s the kind of thing I can’t properly put a label on, but I can say I’ve been listening to this thing for years on end, every winter, and that I bought it at an Asian music store at least 7 years ago. Please, give it a shot and you’ll see what I mean – this is simply some of the most gorgeous contemporary piano stuff I’ve heard in a long time. So there’s something solitary and uniquely rhythmic about a solitary piano performance that I’ve always equated to long evenings spent inside watching the snow fall outside – and no doubt this falls back to my own childhood, shackled to the piano as I was. Regardless, weirdly enough this thing is my quintessential christmas album. But don’t worry – we’ll get weirder.
Agalloch – Marrow of the Spirit
We’re going to do a lot of genre meandering here, but I can’t stress this next part enough: if you’re into the weirder, more subtly artistic side of black metal, I cannot advocate Marrow of the Spirit heavily enough for winter listening. And of course Black Metal (and, really, metal of all varieties) plays so wonderfully during winter – the queer calmness of the landscape, muted by snow. The flurry of snowflakes. The bitter cold. This album, maybe more than any other I’ll show here, was explicitly recorded to sound like winter, and I’ve rarely heard an album that portrays that Pacific-Northwestern soggy cold quite as well. Look at that cover! Listen to this nine-minute song about a lake! Agalloch writes winding, massive opuses spanning dynamic range, musical influence (Folk Black Metal!) and… a lot of time, clearly. Discovered a few years ago, Agalloch quickly became my gateway into a lot of Black Metal’s weirder impulses, a surprising amount of which are being exercised right here in the Pacific Northwest. They’re a fantastic band, and if this happens to floor you, I quietly and fervently gesture in the direction of Wolves in the Throne Room’s Celestial Lineage as well. Which is a concept album about, apparently, moss.
Akira The Don – Saturnalia Superman: Akira The Don Salutes the Majesty of Christmas
You knew I wasn’t getting out of here without bringing this dude into it, didn’t you? Though technically ATD-whichever, Akira’s Christmas album (and it is one, the first on this list) really stands apart from a lot of his catalogue – it’s well produced, well put-together and – oh, I’ve already reviewed it. And.. I liked it! Well that’s a relief. In all honesty, the album is a ton of fun, and he’s got it online so I’ll waste no time with links. Akira, a friend of the show, just knows how to have fun. He also knows how to keep Christmas in his own odd way – while simultaneously being a punk about Santa, poking holes in the myth of December 25th, wrangling a weirdly sexy duet out of fellow UK-rapper Envy, producing a beautiful, largely instrumental track with his Father-in-Law and telling us all about doing acid on Christmas. Yep. Naturally, this is a Yuletide hit around these parts – and would be even if it weren’t a blast, because at least it wasn’t written in the 50’s as a culture-vampirizing cash-grab, maaaan. I love my Christmas good and critical, which also largely validates our next choice…
Jonathan Coulton and John Roderick: One Christmas At A Time
Last Christmas I sat on the floor, listened to “Christmas Is Interesting” north of about 5 times in a row and just… thought about life. Recorded as a very intentional response to the crap pop music we’re all inevitably exposed to each winter, One Christmas At A Time is a fantastic little collection of odd christmas tunes written by odd Christmas men – and this is Jonathan Coulton of course, the man that wrote the Portal song and that track about being an evil genius, so yes the quirk level is fairly high. There’s a Johnny Cash tribute, “2600” about wanting an Atari, the tear-jerking “Christmas Is Interesting”, a song about a drunk family member – it’s really all here. This one’s basically impossible to look up online (that is, to youtube) so you’ll have to go on a recommendation and just grab it. I bought this one on a whim and was completely impressed; the songwriting ranges from laugh-inducing to eerily incisive (and that’s Coulton for you), the guitar-work (largely courtesy of the brilliant John Roderick) is gorgeous, and the whole thing just feels like a modern, appropriately critical Christmas. It’s grand.
Oh and there’s a track in which they just read out the Wikipedia entry for Hanukkah to a techno beat. So that’s pretty great.
Aivi and Surasshu – The Black Box
Here’s a fun one, and a project I’d really like to draw more attention to. The Black Box comes with a pretty piano music warning, but runs on a real neat premise: it’s a story about a girl making a robot friend, told simultaneously through a series of synthesizer/piano duets and the comic that comes with the album. It’s not complicated, and it isn’t going to blow your mind, but the musical direction behind these two pianists (as well as their musical chemistry) is simply fantastic. The synthesizer side will flip into chiptune influences, or squeak out some Sonic The Hedgehog-style casino-horns, just as the piano side will shimmer brilliantly and arpeggiate into a Mario quotation, or a Katamari Damacy one, or the Final Fantasy theme. It’s a really interesting, novel approach to making music – simultaneously telling their own story, writing their own jazz, and flipping perpetually to various videogame references – and it really sets the duo apart. Additionally, and this is aside from my propensity for loving piano music when it’s snowing, all of The Black Box skitters and dances; it never gets particularly heavy, invasive or bass-involved. Which is to say it’s perfect snowfall-music. It’s relaxing, it’s pretty, it’s available for whatever you feel like paying. So please do pick it up – I have a feeling these two independents need all the support we can give them – and the comic isn’t half-bad either.
GZA – Liquid Swords
I might have to do a lot of things on this site, but I know I don’t have to tell you why you need to be listening to Liquid Swords, right? Like, if you care about hip-hop at all there’s a pretty absurdly sizable list of reasons you need to have heard it. Aside from the lyrical acrobatics, the GZA’s centipede-consistent flow, the rock-solid consistency (and occasional weirdness!) of RZA’s production, the brilliance of Method Man’s cameos (and how his voice contrasts to GZA’s), the brilliance of imagery, the absolutely baffling final track “B.I.B.L.E.” – I’m not kidding. Rap fans can kind of sit around and evangelize Liquid Swords all day. Above and beyond all that, it just sounds cold, it’s an album that sounds amazing walking around at night, listening to Liquid Swords, grasping a hot rum and eggnog. If you haven’t tried it, do it. You’ll see what I mean. It’s just that simple.
Nightwish – Imaginaerum
Here’s another one I’ve already reviewed – though I don’t think that necessarily excuses me from including it here. Why not the other Nightwish albums, why not Oceanborn (your easy alternative if you, like many other fans, wholly-justifiably hate their new vocal direction). Imaginaerum is one of those albums I was reviewing a couple of Christmases ago – a time I spent a lot of time at home, playing Killing Floor near my window (like an adult.) and watching the snow come down. Lo and behold, what might otherwise have been something of a hammy record – if a brilliantly produced one – slowly grew on me, to the point that its Gothic theme-park aesthetic (intentionally wintery) gradually subsumed itself into my winter listening ritual-thing. “Taikatalvi” is still suitably eery, “Slow Love” still sounds like a sleazy(er?) Twin Peaks throwback, “Song of Myself” is still totally baffling. But there’s a grandiosity to its melodrama, and certainly to its production, that proves irresistible during this season. It’s very much Metal-if-Burton-had-gone-back-to-Disney, but in its own special way Imaginaerum is exhilarating and fun and oddly comforting – it’s a warm album, to contrast to nearly every other album on this list’s frigidity. To be listened to, preferably, while playing Killing Floor. Near a fireplace. To be avoided if you’re at all concerned about being kvlt.
Blind Guardian – Nightfall in Middle Earth
Not only more faithful to Tolkein than Peter Jackson’s intepretations, but actually more faithful to Peter Jackson than Peter Jackson’s interpretations, I completely understand if you’re giggling at me right now while my metal cred slowly drips away. That’s fine, because if you’re in on this one, you know, man. “Nightfall“, “Blood Tears“, “When Time Stand Still (At the Iron Hill)” – I’m not kidding, this thing is The Silmarillion‘s Beowulf-ian logical conclusion, Tolkein as epic power-metal rock-opera, complete with questionable voice-acting and a reverse-order telling of Tolkein’s most notoriously-unread work. Absolutely it’s silly, it’s also the ultimate speed-metal soundtrack to your next Dark Souls session. If Marrow of the Spirit wants to sound like gurgling brooks and falling snow, Nightfall in Middle Earth is Skyrim, complete with the blizzards and bloodshed. Falling directly at the point between Blind Guardian’s speed-metal roots and their transformation into Queen Tribute Band it can be argued this is the best they ever got, and certainly the single best album 14 year-old Lucas could ever have hoped to discover. Just check all seriousness at the door and pick up your shield. They aren’t kidding, and neither am I. Nightfall.
Amebix – Sonic Mass
Yep, this one again from once-crust-Punks Amebix, if you wanted metal to restore your faith in dead-serious metal after Blind Guardian’s Tolkeinian romp, here you go. As dark and heavy as it is ponderous and forceful, Sonic Mass has been a favourite since the moment friend Ryeburg and I discovered it. An album to be listened to on dark nights while walking, Sonic Mass is ominous and empowering, a dark time-traveling saga whose story I have yet to wholly parse. Laser-sighted to strike at the heart of a metalhead’s pride, “Days” is a mortality-based tearjerker, “Sonic Mass” is a metal soundscape in two parts, “God of the Grain” collects gods throughout history under one crushing, danceable banner (and is as close to anything Christmas-y you’ll find here). Not bad for a bunch of old Crust Punks turned heavy-metallers turned retirees. They came out of the blue to release this album, and disappeared just as suddenly. Heavily, unironically recommended for you metalheads that haven’t heard it yet, Sonic Mass will be a late-night favourite here at The Nest for a long time to come.
Viktor Vaughn – Vaudeville Villain
Remember everything I said about Liquid Swords up there? All still true. Vaudeville Villain by, ahem, Viktor Vaughn aka Madvillain aka King Gheedorah aka DangerDoom aka Zev Love X aka JJ DOOM aka Mr. Clean aka MF DOOM aka Daniel Duhmile (and I’m sure I missed a couple) as a deeply weird, swept-under-the-rug sort of hip-hop album. Viktor Vaughn (as in, Victor Von Doom, as in Dr. Doom of Marvel fame) is MF Doom’s young hustler persona, still learning the ropes, and existing in a sort of topsy-turvy version of gangland New York, a vaguely surreal place in which old ladies carry heat and stick up their would-be attackers. Viktor is sort of crap at this whole hustler thing, and that comes out through his lyricism – and of course no one can carry wordplay quite like Mf Doom. Along with his plethora of producer buddies, Viktor Vaughn is also Mf Doom’s multi-collaborative project, working with anyone that supplies him with a sufficiently icy beat to rhyme over. And I suppose that’s why this one comes out when it gets cold outside – I’m not looking for the basement-warm comfort of an Mf Doom joint, nor the murkiness of the King Gheedorah project, or Madvillain’s summery and hazy weirdness – I want a guy out on the streets, trying to make ends meet, and who kind of sucks at it. And so Vaudeville Villain worms its way into the Christmastime playlist for the same reasons Liquid Swords does: it’s a rock solid hip-hop album bolstered by a strong anchor in weird and an utterly unique lyrical attraction. It also sounds real good out there in the cold, y’all.
Venetian Snares – My Downfall (Official Soundtrack)
It’s difficult to describe exactly what Aaron Funk is up to with his Venetian Snares project without forcing you to listen to it, so I suppose I’ll just do that. Crushing in its precision, but gorgeous in the way it utilizes classical under and overtones alongside its crashing waves of breakcore samples, My Downfall is as beautiful as it is intimidating, and my favourite album of his (amongst other reasons, because the soundtrack structure forces Funk into a kind of concision and sobriety he usually avoids). Not an easy listen, but in its own strange way a beautiful one, My Downfall is better experienced than explained. Wintery for the same reason I obsess over piano music during the holiday season, I suppose – it gives me that classical edge I crave without necessarily polluting it with Christmas-guilt, or pop nonsense, or religious affiliation. Classical Music for the musical nihilist during this, the holiday season.
Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas
If you’re wondering why this is on here, shame on you. Duh. I don’t need to explain a damn thing about The Charlie Brown Friggin Christmas Album – aka some of the finest jazz interpretations of Christmas music we ever got, alongside absolutely beautiful original compositions. Bonus points for including “Christmas Time Is Here”, one of the most unintentionally(?) heartbreaking holiday-season songs of all time. Nothing like it, before or after. (Except maybe “Christmas Is Interesting”).
DJ Shadow – Endtroducing
Please, please listen to Endtroducing. This is almost on here as a charity thing, as I listen to it during long winter nights, yes, but also all other times of the year, provided the sun is down. Endtroducing is nothing more or less than my favourite album of all time, and I’m not kidding, and I won’t recall that for anything. Wait until you’re feeling quiet, calm, and maybe a little lonely. Let Endtroducing simultaneously exorcise and exacerbate your winter blues in the way only the best winter albums can. Cobbled entirely from samples, there’s nothing like it – take a look.
Afroman: Colt 45 Christmas
Like that relative you really don’t want to see, or that neighbour that just kind of… wanders over during your Christmas party, I can’t not include Colt 45 Christmas. I also sort of can’t explain Colt 45 Christmas. This is down here like a sort of gambit to see if you’ve read this far, to be honest (Hi Mom! Please don’t listen to Colt 45 Christmas, Mom!). It’s a classic, in its own awful way. I can’t not. I have to. And when I’m done, I whisper “I’m sorry” out into the world. To no one. To everyone.
So there you have it, friends and (now, no doubt) various foes! The sorts of things that end up on my ipod come Christmas, Holiday seasons. If it’s cold outside, so turns my taste to different sorts of music. Please, by all means, I advocate jumping on whatever your music-delivery service is and copping as many of these as necessary. Though far from exhaustive, I hope this list has given you people at least something new to chew on this Holiday season. Remember: just because you aren’t religious, just because you’re literally physically allergic to the sound of Michael Bublé’s voice, doesn’t mean there isn’t music out there that you can’t associate with the season. Because it’s still about the season, and maybe musical tokens, played annually, that can draw you back to that place – close to your family, dog, girlfriend, whatever – is a valuable thing.
Feel free to share your own, here or on the Facebook thing. We’ll be back to regularly scheduled programming as soon as the Holidays relent their icy grip on my time.
Happy Holidays 2013 y’all. Thanks for sticking around.
Oh I forgot to mention Chopin. Yeah, listen to as much Chopin as possible. Have a loved one nearby.
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