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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Cultural Manifesto: An alt-Christmas Playlist

Posted By on Wed, Dec 19, 2012 at 8:24 AM

No matter how hard you try, it's impossible to hide from the ceaseless assault of Christmas music during the month of December.

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I'm not a grinch and I don't exactly hate Christmas music, but I've grown profoundly tired of hearing the same handful of holiday selections endlessly recycled over and over again each year. With that in mind, I've created a playlist of some of my favorite alternative holiday classics.

Miles Davis - "Blue Xmas" In 1962, Columbia Records asked Davis to contribute a track to their Jingle Bell Jazz compilation. His response was to phone vocalist Bob Dorough (Schoolhouse Rock) who composed the ultimate Christmas protest anthem decrying holiday greed. Lyrics like "When you're blue at Christmas-time, you see right through all the waste, all the sham, all the haste and plain old bad taste," or "lots of hungry, homeless children in your own backyards. While you're busy addressing 20 zillion Christmas cards" sum up the vibe here.

Woody Guthrie - "1913 Massacre" Guthrie's 1941 ballad documents a tragic incident in American labor history. As the song tells it, a group of striking copper miners had gathered for a Christmas Eve celebration when a band of hired anti-union "thugs" invaded, yelling "fire" into the crowded dancehall. The false warning created a panic and 73 people (mostly children) were trampled to death in the ensuing stampede.

Leroy Carr - "Christmas In Jail (Ain't That a Pain)" This 1929 classic from famed Indianapolis blues super-duo Blackwell and Carr, finds Carr begging Santa to "bring someone to do my bail." The Christmas in jail motif would be repeated in many more in pop music compositions like John Prine's "Christmas in Prison" and The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York."

Louvin Brothers - "Shut in at Christmas (Shut In Prayer)" Country music duo the Louvin Brothers were famous for their plaintive, heartfelt ballads. This 1952 example finds the brothers asking Christmas revelers not to forget the shut-ins - persons confined indoors by illness or disability - during their holiday celebrations. A strange, but touching Christmas obscurity.

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Caetano Veloso - "In The Hot Sun Of A Christmas Day" From Caetano's 1971 English language album, this was recorded in London during his exile from Brazil - Veloso was banished from the country for his artistic opposition to the ruling military dictatorship. Introduced by a mournful orchestral arrangement of the traditional "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman," "In the Hot Sun of a Christmas Day" is a somber meditation on a regrettable fact: war, torture and repression don't take a holiday on this holy Christian day. "Machine guns in the hot sun of a Christmas Day. They killed someone else in the hot sun of a Christmas Day."

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James Brown - "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto" A brilliant example of James Brown's ability to use pop music and pop culture to create simply understood statements of social commentary.

Tosin Martins - "Silent Night" Ever wondered what it would've sounded like if afrobeat revolutionary Fela Kuti converted to Christianity and recorded an Christmas anthem? This 2010 recording by Nigeria's Tosin Martin answers your question. Not a version of the familiar Xmas classic, but an original and funky meditation on the birth of Jesus.

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Jorge Ben - "Natal Brasileiro" Simply one of the most joyous and soulful Christmas party songs ever. Recorded in 1978 by the tremendously talented Ben, a Brazilian singer-songwriter on par with American artists like Stevie Wonder or Bill Withers.

Willie Colon - "Esta Navidad" This song is pulled from salsa legend Willie Colon's two volume set of Puerto Rican-inspired holiday tunes, Asalto Navideño. In my opinion, it's the greatest Christmas-themed collection of music ever released by a single artist. Asalto or parranda refers to a late night caroling tradition popular in several Hispanic-Caribbean cultures.

Lara Brothers - "Rio Manzanare" A wonderful example of traditional parang music, a Venezuelan variation on the parranda. The Latin music style migrated from South America to Trinidad and Tobago where it mixed with regional musics like soca, chutney and calypso resulting in of the most infectious genres of Christmas music you'll ever hear.

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