Despite a suspected need to intravenously inject holly and tinsel from a bright candy cane- colored syringe as prompted by flood of Christmas spirit burning ever since Halloween in the worst cases, it’s always possible to tone things down. Not to say that 24/7 broadcasts of the holiday hits are undesirable—but the more options, the merrier. Anyway, I won’t waste anymore of your time: here’s a roadmap outlining but twelve somewhat relevant, somewhat festive tracks from music’s smokiest chimneys and frostiest North Poles, playlist style. Merry Christmas, and happy holidays from everyone at KDVS!
1. “A Christmas Fucking Miracle” – Run The Jewels
The first song on our list is actually the closer on Run The Jewels’ self-titled debut. A treatise on urban decay tussling against sincerity and genuine artistic potency, “Miracle” is a heavy-handed salute to the hip hop grit that has since pushed Run The Jewels 2 to the top of most staff lists for 2014. The Christmas chic comes from the jingle of bells and faint chorus which lead the listener in and over a rumbling wave of sub bass. The sounds wed nicely and provide a proper, head-bobbing platform for El-P and Killer Mike to spit their last cinderblock verses.
2. “Cold Earth” – Boards of Canada
“Cold Earth” is massive and chilling. Not unlike a large portion of the rest of Tomorrow’s Harvest—Boards of Canada’s first full length release since 2005—the track’s size and gravitas is the main attraction. The pitter-patter of drums fall softly like snowflakes, and the grand synthetic backdrop can be compared to glaciers, clouds, and artic winds. In any case, the song would do well to dramatize an otherwise Santa’s incalculable journey across the world, weaving through the sky and scanning the every infinitesimal chimney.
3. “Winter Wonder Land” – Animal Collective
Off the back-end of cult-favorite Strawberry Jam comes “Winter Wonder Land,” seemingly told from the point of view of a reindeer lawn ornament. Our “mold of the fawn” sings frantically of snowmen that never melt and homes always covered in white with bubbling drums and tinkling cymbals bounding along happily. The most peculiar quality of this track is how the little snow globe world which it succeeds in creating emanates such warmth and energy—I’ll spare you any talk about the “true meaning of Christmas” though (at least this early on in the list).
4. “Bun N Cheese” – PRO ERA
Easily the jolliest lick from PRO ERA’s 2012 Christmas gift to the world, PEEP: The aPROcalypse, “Bun N Cheese” is a group effort. Kirk Knight, Ala Sole, CJ Fly, and the late Capital Steez all take a slice. But this track wouldn’t be worth one lump of Beast Coast Hip Hop coal if it weren’t for Bruce Leekix’s mesmerizing instrumental. Each verse alights and twinkles with a lucid New York flair, and the production never stops glittering after ten, twenty, thirty listens. Central Park strung up with multi-colored lights come to mind, or even the kindly bustle of Times Square a few weeks before the Ball Drop. But the hook always stays the same: forget the haters, and keep your friends in mind.
5. “Snowflakes are Dancing” – Kurt Vile
Kurt Vile’s guitar strumming evokes a dreamier, lo-fi version of Christmas. “Snowflakes are Dancing” toes the line of lo-fi rock production with the indescribable grace of a gentle blizzard. The noticeable subtlety of distorted noise and faint reverb pairs nicely with the confident rock melody and hazy lyrics. “Headphones are loud, chilling on a pillowy cloud / Comfort of codeine, and Springsteen pristeen” precede the last line: “You should sing just whatever.” But by now Kurt seems to have already relinquished himself to the comforts of the snowstorm and can only murmur the last few words and offer a sweet “oh oh oh” to wrap the song up.
6. “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” – De La Soul
It’s hard to imagine why Christmas tidings would make the typically quirky and playful jazz rap trio so bleak and dark, but the narrative styling of this track is so devilish and well-crafted that no one can really complain anyway. “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” tells the story of hapless Millie, victim of her father’s sexual abuses in between his time serving as the local Santa Claus at Macy’s. Each De La Soul member intimates one verse of the shameful tale at a time, coasting smooth and somber over a lovely mesh of Funkadelic samples until “Millie bucked him and with quickness it was over.”
7. “White Winter Hymnal” – Fleet Foxes
“White Winter Hymnal” is the lead single from Fleet Foxes’ 2008 self-titled debut and nearly topped both the Time and Pitchfork staff lists from that year, and for good reason. Emotional, artful, and even heartrending, this song is a pure example of Fleet Foxes grandiose instrumentation paying dividends. The vocal harmonies, steady tambourine, and eager guitars all meld together like snow falling on the countryside to deliver an undeniably heavy experience that’s always white as snow and red as strawberries in the summertime.
8. “Coldest Winter” – Kanye West
Although often overshadowed by the more eminent works of “Family Business” and “Roses,” 808’s & Heartbreak still offers “Coldest Winter” as another moment of clarity and somberness in Yeezy’ lengthy discography. The song itself is deceptively simple, a cloudy ripple of ascending and descending synths mixed with low, thumping drums. Here Kanye finds himself lamenting the loss of his late mother Donda West and lover Alexis Phifer (long before Kim was someone we even had to keep up with). The God is—for at least a moment—vulnerable, sadly and beautifully.
9. “Winter Fields” – Bat For Lashes
“Winter Fields” is a theatrical experience. Natasha Khan’s harrowingly beautiful voice aside, the production for this track is towering and lifts up Natasha’s calls of “Rows of white” to the high heavens, snowy and cold. In fact this is another case of musicality where the blisteringly cold can also appear warm and tepid as well. This time, however, the surrealism of “White Winter Wonderland” is traded in for a severe, divine gravity—attention and emotion no less demanded by Bat For Lashes’ performance.
10. “The Gift” – The Velvet Underground
The essential practice of gift-giving could be forever marred after this. John Cale’s easy-going recitation of one of Lou Reed’s collegiate short stories is pumped through the left channel; Reed, Morrison, and Tucker grind along through the right channel. “The Gift” is over 8 minutes in length, an experimental centerpiece on the first side of White Light/White Heat, and intimates the story of Waldo Jefers who mails himself to his long distance girlfriend only to be stabbed through the head in a botched attempt to be released from his cardboard confinement—hardly the true meaning of Christmas admittedly, but duly significant for protopunk and experimental rock.
11. “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” – Sufjan Stevens
From Sufjan Stevens’ ninth Christmas music collection (of which there are ten in total), “Let it Snow!” is but one of dozens of notable reinventions by the Illinois native. This reimagining in particular is keen on capturing the Stevens’ Chicago style. The vocals are a mere whisper, aided from behind by a gentle chorus and sparse guitar and tambourine. This muted rendition of the holiday classic, although much quieter, is suddenly far more emotional and captivating with its thin economy of sounds and familiar lyrics.
12. “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” – NSYNC
It’s no real surprise to see that we’d have to scour Justin Timberlake’s back catalog for the more accessible, cheery side of Christmas pop, but likewise it’s hard not to get caught up in the spirit. Home For Christmas, or The Meaning of Christmas as it was oh so predictably rereleased in the U.K. in 2002, is one of the most commercially successful Christmas albums of all time; only names like Celine Dion and Mariah Carrey topple it. And even then, the reliable piano slides, jingle-jangle production, and five-way vocal harmonies are hard to argue with. If anything, your parents are sure to like it, which is more than can be said for some of the musical road bumps we’ve hit along the way. Consider that—as well as the other 11 fantastic pieces of music—a gift.
by Dynn Javier