Baby It’s Cold Inside: A Second Wintertime Stroll

Ah, December 24th: the first and last shopping day of the holidays for so many of us. The day we crowd into the olfactory wasteland between the Body Shop and the Electronics Boutique, the Best Buy and Golden Age Collectibles, the vast human sea of the Wal Mart beckoning as the clock ticks toward midnight. I’m excited, you guys! Excited for such couplings as presents and mincemeat tarts, pajamas and Jimmy Stewart, rum and eggnog, alcohol and Alastair Sim, yuletide and muppet babies, Celine Dion and Michael Buble AND HANSON AND ANDRE BOCELLI AND YOUNG MICHAEL JACKSON AND BABY IT’S COLD OUTSIDE AND

Woah. Blacked out there for a minute.

See that’s the thing, isn’t it? Christmas music, for all its dubiously noble intentions (here’s looking at you, “Santa Baby”), is a yuletide disaster.

It’s the music industry hitting CLEAN OVEN when they meant PREHEAT on that musical Christmas Turkey Dinner.

It’s Christmas Morning Coffee without four ounces of rum.

It’s Chevy Chase’s career after National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

It’s a well-intentioned but woefully undercooked Christmas quiche delivered unannounced and uninvited, year after year, by a very sweet but very confused relative. Through the doggy door.
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It is the laziest pastiche of 50s and 60s songwriting tropes since, well, “Jingle Bell Rock” – which is not a rock song (but features the bonkers “Captain Santa Claus (and His Reindeer Space Patrol)” as its B-side).
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If you don’t believe me, and I’ve been on this rant before, take it from the brilliantly eloquent John Roderick of the Long Winters: Christmas Music is a real mess, and we put up with it because we’re conditioned to. Because it’s comforting and traditional and familiar and it’s on at my mom’s house – and for as much as there’s nothing wrong with that, it leaves a santa-sized hole in my heart, every year, as I snake through the mall buying my tributes to Krampus.
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Phew, okay, that’s enough festive negativity – I’ll leave that to Mr. Roderick and every person that’s ever been offended by “Baby It’s Cold Outside”. Which ought to be “each”.
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And so, on Christmas Eve 2015, here’s some more music for those of us that are more ‘Batman Returns’ than ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ – round two. In no particular order, the second collection of music I enjoy around the holiday times. Some are albums that make me think about the Christmas season in particular, others are soundtracks dedicated to living in the sort of frozen, morose city that I inhabit during the coldest months. Some are cold and hard and aggressive. Some are warm and relaxing, others nearly smothering. Some are lonely, others comforting in their loneliness like the uncanny stillness of a snowy winter evening. One is a black metal concept album about watching moss grow.
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So here’s my holiday gift to you, one and all: a very Merry Whatever, a wonderful holiday season spent with relatives, and at least a little music that doesn’t feature Santa. Let’s be independent together.
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Ho Ho Ho.
(Really I just wanted to be a dentist.)
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Nujabes – Spiritual State

Nujabes-spiritual-state

The last time I did this column, much more of the music was typically winter-y; there were more actual Christmas albums, some literally winter-themed works, whatever Colt 45 Christmas is. But I still did a double-take when I realized I’d forgotten to include Spiritual State. Nujabes was a Japanese R&B producer turned hip-hop producer turned anime culture touchstone, following his work on Samurai Champloo‘s landmark hip-hop soundtrack. He spent his career making gorgeous, lush beats, frequently featuring guest rappers but more often focusing on a clarinet loop, a snare sample, a guest pianist. Nujabes made jazz-infused beats the influence of which is still rattling out among producers today. Then, at the age of 36, he died in a car crash. Cobbled from his leftover recordings and cell-phone notes(!), we get Spiritual State. Grounded in R&B but with influences stretching frequently into hip-hop, samba and jazz, Spiritual State is the rare producer showcase that features guest jazz musicians as much as it does rappers. The album’s production as a whole is almost stiflingly warm, with hazy reverb blending piano loops into the horn showcases into the vinyl-static hiss – it would be a great summer album if energy were ever a priority. Spiritual State – as much a farewell to Nujabes as the summertime chillout it yearns to be – cradles the listener with the immediacy of its production and the intimacy of its subject matter. Simultaneously comforting and mournful (see tracks: “Prayer”, “Island”), Nujabes’ farewell is a perfect winter-night’s relaxation.
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Miss Red – Murder

homepage_large.4e5b7f2d While we’re clearing out summertime albums secretly destined for winter listening, here’s an especially weird one: icy reggae/hip-hop/dancehall from Israel, made by Miss Red, a woman who might be half squeaky balloon. Miss Red might also be only artist here I feel unqualified to talk about. She’s a rapper, yes, with a voice she can squeak into a stratospheric bark and back again in the space of seconds, but she’s also making reggae – in fact she identifies her genre as Acid Ragga. Alright, sure, great – and while Miss Red herself is the fascinating and peculiar star of the show, it’s the production here that places Murder square into wintertime territory. Despite reggae and dancehall beats, nothing escapes the speckling of distortion thrown across every track –  and Red’s voice meanders in and out of the mix, echoing and disappearing to reappear heavily distorted the next bar. The beats are danceable and bass heavy, sure, but also rife with hard-treble clashes and a peculiar sort of menace that never totally fades out of the mix. Murder is one of the strangest new things I’ve heard in a while, and it makes for great wintertime walking music: we won’t be hearing anything like it until the imitators appear. Oh it’s also Very Free.

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Ratking – So It Goes

14681-so-it-goesMy enthusiasm for talking about Ratking – from their Vonnegut-referencing album title to their lead MC Wiki, who at 23 is missing a full quarter of his teeth – was the catalyst for my forming this entire Christmas list, and for good reason. In interview Wiki claims his New York lifestyle is half hip-hop and half noise, and brilliantly their music follows the same formula: these are New York rap tunes for sure, but shot through with holes, bleeding noise from every verse. Wiki has an obsession with storytelling and an eye for detail that comes through on every track: from the details of living with his Mom to getting ripped off by junkies, every track is gripping in its sincerity. MC Hak never professes to be a rapper at all – and though he certainly raps, the construction of his verses points to a greater interest in poetry, in the deliberate construction of spoken word structures that he weaves through with alliterative ease. Ratking are peculiar, and not only because of Wiki’s gaptoothed flow and their white-noise riddled beats with their odd transitions and shouted refrains. They’re a rare rap reminder that the history of New York music is as much the story of Suicide and Dead Boys as it is Nas and Wu-Tang. From the King Krule cameo to the brilliant beat transition in “Snow Beach”, every track of So It Goes feels designed for listening in the frigid streets of your city of choice, at night. Highly recommended.

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The Trans-Syberian Orchestra – Christmas Eve and Other Stories

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Nox Arcana – Winter’s Knight

winter_animeAre you running a Dickensian/Lovecraftian DnD campaign in which Alastair Sim battles through past, present and future in order to learn an important lesson about not being a jerk to small children and also the Elder Gods? Are you having trouble sourcing background music that effectively communicates the simultaneous Christmas Cheer and Christmas Dread that that encounter would have to entail? How does “At the Mountains of Madness At The North Pole” sound to you? If you answered ‘what’ DO I EVER HAVE THE ALBUM FOR YOU. Also guaranteed to be a big ol’ Christmas Ham bigger than anything Ebenezer could ever have afforded.

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Drake – Take Care

5166i3PHK-L Take Care is so neat and so end-to-end encompassing of a particular moment in Drake’s career that it’s 4 years later and I still haven’t bothered with another Drake album – and this is comes from a guy that can’t stand the sort of commercial R&B that Drake’s largely known for. Casting my punk cred to the wind, I argued this same point 4 years ago: Take Care is brilliant in its seclusion and isolation, in the way its slower moments can suck the air out of a room, in the bread-crumb trail of weirdly personal details Drake feeds us. Everything about the album drips luxury and self-deprecation in equal measure and the production immediately takes center stage; Take Care would be genius if Drake never showed up (never mind Trilogy-era Weeknd). Everything sounds immediate and warm, it’s a comfortingly sad album – the highs are muted, the lows satisfying in their hollowed-out familiarity. There are no sharp edges on Take Care, but there’s so much more it than the sad album about girls that it initially appears. If you only do one sincerely narcissistic R&B album to yourself this holiday season, maybe take a chance on 2011 Drake: the rare commercial R&B album as likely inspire self-reflection as romance. Goes well with warm alcoholic drinks, quiet cold evenings at home, and reruns of Degrassi.

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Andrew W.K. – I Get Wet

51P6UDZNOYL

Come one come all, witness the human exhibition, the grown man as excited about everything as any kid on any Christmas! Now I could sit here and make everyone feel old as hell by reminding them that this album CAME OUT IN 2001, AND IS OLD ENOUGH TO BE IN GRADE 9, but the fact is it’s a modern classic. In its own bizarre way, Andrew W.K.’s brand of hyper-enthusiasm and maximalism (bang those pianos!) had wormed its way far into the pop culture landscape long before the birth of memes. Regardless of whether the whole thing was a joke and a satire (it was.), there’s undeniable sincerity to Andrew’s excitement about damn-near anything, and it’s completely endearing from start to finish. The perfect millennial Christmas house-party music is also the perfect pump-up music for just anything at all, and those perpetual piano staccato hits remind me of the holidays, every single time. Introduce Andrew W.K.’s maniac sugar-rush to your completely bewildered local relatives this festival season. Fourteen years later, it’s still the only music that sounds like sprinting down those Christmas morning stairs.

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Coheed and Cambria – Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through The Eyes of Madness [Part 2 – Souls Aflame; The Reckoning of the Seven Army Cat Wars]

good-apollo Maybe you were thinking, “I really like this list, but I want to feel like it’s 2004 and I’m in Highschool and I need a giant lavish and falsetto-infected pop-punk-prog-rock Space Opera because I live in a very small town and get bored over the holidays. Entertain me in my Brain Theatre with your intergalactic torch songs!” GOOD NEWS FRIEND, ALSO 15 YEAR OLD ME. I’m not here to fight the merits of Coheed and Cambria, or the fact that their album titles are complex enough to pass the Voight-Kampff Test, but if what you’re looking for is lavish and complex space fantasy covered in a layer of really, really accessible progressive rock, this is as interesting and varied as their songwriting gets (it’s their Black Holes and Revelations). Good Apollo I’m Etc. is another album on this list with no hard edges at all – even at a full scream Claudio Sanchez smartly mutes his production, lending the whole album a satisfying heft. Odd as it sounds, it’s another album that just feels warm. When I was a young kid growing up in a boring-ass town, this kind of over-ambitious storytelling stuff threw me for a complete loop and I loved every second of it. Give yourself the gift of unparseably dense lore and satisfyingly dense songwriting this chilly season, and don’t forget to pick up the companion comics so you can tell your Keywork from your Heaven’s Fence. Yep.

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Winterfylleth – The Threnody of Triumph

Winterfylleth-The-Threnody-Of-Triumph Do you remember everything I wrote last time about Agalloch’s Marrow of the Spirit, about how Black Metal plays so beautifully during a blizzard? About how the tumult and screech of blastbeats and heavy distortion can evoke the rush of winter wind, the beautiful freeze of a mountain snow, and other cool metaphors? All of that is true of Winterfylleth’s self-titled, and in many of the ways that also drew me to Agalloch: this is another heavy, heavy band that knows exactly when to pull back and let a track breathe. There are breathtaking moments of stillness on Winterfylleth, where everything drops away and the listener drifts through the eye of the storm before submerging back into another wall of noise. There are those cool moments of spontaneous folk as well, like on the unpronounceable “Жfterield Frйon”. If you’re the sort of person that’s drawn to this sort of music – or even if you aren’t – you owe it to yourself to give Winterfylleth’s self-titled a look. Like Marrow of the Spirit they find ways to secret passages of surprising beauty in the tumult, and that’s exactly what I need from my yuletide metal.

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Agalloch – The Mantle

R-382752-1154774672.jpeg Everything I loved about Marrow of the Spirit, but recorded before it and featuring a track that samples the actual sound of a dude walking through snow, to a cabin. If you like beautiful, uncanny black metal (or even if you think it’s insufferably pretentious), give this a shot. Think of it like Marrow of the Spirit: Begins. With less Ra’s Al-Ghul.

 

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Wolves in the Throne Room – Celestial Legacy

 

celestial-lineage Everything I wrote above is still true here, except with much more druidic leanings, and the advantage of being another wonderful Pacific Northwestern black metal band. Also this is the concept album about moss, so have at it.

 

 

 

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El-P – Fantastic Damage

51P1ysVHAAL The Definitive (Jux) soundtrack to inner-city paranoia fired through a filter of social commentary, frustration, and science fiction. Long before Run The Jewels El-P was the king of a very particular brand of underground hip-hop. Intentionally obfuscating his vocals, El-P draws attention to his sci-fi sampling beats (he’s his own producer), and the result remains like nothing else out there. You can see the influence of his work on Ratking, of all people: it’s a keenly urban claustrophobia, and El-P evokes rainy city cityscapes draped over a sort of creeping cyberpunk dread. Maybe his greatest virtue is managing all of this without pretension or condescension – there’s a morality to his work, and a political bent to the scenes he paints (“Stepfather Factory”), but there’s zero attempt to valorize himself even on a surface level. El-P remains one of the most compelling voices in modern rap because of the groundwork he lays down here. Step inside his weird paranoid head and see what New York will be like in a hundred years: new technology, same problems. Run the Jewels truthers start your journey here.

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Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein

Cannibal_Ox_-_The_Cold_Vein As much an El-P production showcase as a rap album, if you find Fantastic Damage creepy and a bit unlistenable, The Cold Vein is moderately more accessible, though just as comfortless. If you can overcome the high fence to accessibility, this is another bedrock moment for underground, futuristic hip-hop. Very strange, very paranoid, and very unique. Consider it a companion piece to Fantastic Damage, for those long nighttime trips through Vancouver’s 12 hours of rainy night. Cold, creepy and compelling space-station rap.

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The Roots – Undun

download Man, I love Undun. It feels like no one else liked Undun! The Roots first major move towards becoming inaccessibly weird is a hidden gem. All of 40 minutes long and a rap-culture opera in reverse, it follows the saga of our protagonist from untimely death back to his birth – and it’s gorgeous. Oh my god it’s so pretty. Black Thought’s in the house, sure, but the real stars here are the production and the guest spots: Big K.R.I.T. is perfect on “Make My’, Truck North and Greg Porn shine on “Kool On”, the ?uestlove-produced instrumental passages towards the end are melancholy to just the right degree. I’ve gushed about this album elsewhere on the site, but it’s the warmth of the production that keeps me coming back each winter. There’s a grandiosity to its street level narrative that matches the heightened emotion of the season, and an inevitable tragedy delivered so smoothly that it feels like a lullaby. The Roots are guilty of pretension here absolutely (though they’d get worse on later albums), but if you need to be told a street-level bedtime story with accessible hooks, downtempo choruses and some of my favourite Black Thought performances, look no further.

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Special Mentions: Albums I’m still bugging you about, 2013. Get it together.

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John Roderick and Jonathan Coulton – One Christmas At A Time

OneChristmasAtATimeBlog Do you need actual Christmas music that embodies everything I’m trying to do here? Seriously, just go grab this thing. It’s a delight. There’s sarcasm (Coulton), there’s self-deprecation (Roderick), there’s hilarity, and there’s the saddest Christmas song I know (“Christmas is Interesting”). It’s gorgeous, it’s religiously ambivalent, and it’s as noble an attempt as I’ve ever seen to elicit the feels – good and bad – of the holiday season without condescension and without covering #HolidayFavourites. It’s an all-time favourite of mine, and it’s difficult to track down online. Go buy it, I promise it’s worth it.

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水田直志 – Final Fantasy XI Piano Collections

s-l300 My obsession with acoustic piano music around Christmas time is well documented, and there’s a reason for that. The piano perfectly elicits the beauty of the season while as a solo instrument maintaining the solitude and often-times loneliness so many of us experience around the season. It’s beautiful in a very particular way, and although this is a soundtrack to a thirteen year-old online videogame I played as a teen, it’s a seriously gorgeous collection of etudes and sonatas. No prior knowledge of the franchise (or Linkshell) needed.

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Akira the Don – Saturnalia Superman

atd-xmas-sleeve-550Because it never stops being a blast.

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Vince Guaraldi.

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You did it, you made it to the end of my reverse Christmas List, in which I foist stuff upon you! Congratulations. I’m very proud. Thank you so much for reading, guys, and remember not to take my sarcasm too seriously. Get into whatever Christmas Jams make you happy, and share, why don’t you! I’m seeing a lot of crazy, subversive Christmas originals and covers popping up all over the place that will soon render my work here grumpy and ambivalent. Good.

Merry Christmas, one and all, see you next year.

 

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Ps. Did you need lists? Here’s a catalogue of the stuff I’ve covered this year and last time:

Last Year, 2013:

水田直志 -FFXI Piano Collections

Agalloch – Marrow of the Spirit
Akira the Don – Saturnalia Superman
Johnathan Coulton, Roderick – One Christmas At A Time
Aivi and Surasshu – The Black Box
GZA – Liquid Swords
Nightwish – Imaginaerum
Blind Guardian – Nightfall in Middle Earth
Amebix – Sonic Mass
Viktor Vaughn – Vaudeville Villain
Venetian Snares – My Downfall
Vince Guaraldi – Peanuts Christmas
DJ Shadow – Endtroducing
Afroman – Colt 45 Christmas
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This Year:
Ratking – So It Goes
Winterfylleth – The Threnody of Triumph
Nujabes – Spiritual State
Andrew W.K. – I Get Wet
Miss Red – Murder
Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein
Agalloch – The Mantle
Coheed and Cambria – Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV
El-P – Fantastic Damage
The Roots – Undun
Drake – Take Care
Trans-Siberian Orchestra – Christmas Eve and Other Stories
Nox Arcana – Winter’s Night
Vince Guaraldi.

 

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