This year I have acquired only one Christmas CD I care to play from beginning to end, but several others that add zip to the season's musical broth, so long as the iPod is set on “shuffle.” Here, then, is my list of suggested new(ish) ingredients for a tasty Christmas playlist.
Eban Schletter's A Cosmic Christmas (e, A): I recently heard William Shatner defend his early performance of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” as an intentional joke. When the interviewer suggested that Shatner's performance sounded a little too earnest for this explanation to be convincing, Shatner protested. “It's one of the first rules of acting: if an actor plays it like he knows it's funny, the joke falls flat — it's not funny to anyone.”
I think Shatner is bluffing late in the game, but his larger point is absolutely right. And man oh man, did it ever haunt me through my first few spins of A Cosmic Christmas by Eban Schletter. Even now I can't declare whether the man who scores Spongebob Squarepants is playing it straight or if he's really buying the entire Universal Santa Package. No matter: whether the final effect is intentional or not, what you'll hear is by turns eccentric, weird and/or hilarious. There is an undercurrent of bizarre charm to the orchestration, but nothing that's likely to elevate your mood as you search in vain for a parking spot. Please trust me on this: I am convinced Schletter's manipulation of the Theremin during “Christmastime Is Here” hones in on the exact note that sent Brian Wilson spiraling into his 19th Nervous Breakdown. You'll probably want to weed out the spoken word tracks that tie together the album's theme, but otherwise this electronic noodling is just the thing for those of us whose friends no longer arch their eyebrows whenever Esquivel comes on.
The Good Lovelies' Under The Mistletoe (h): my mother-in-law loves these gals. “That's real old-time music,” she said when she first heard them. Indeed it is: these ladies have the tight harmonies — and skirts — that brought the boys home from Europe in '46. Their sassy approach to a once-musty tradition has made me a fan, too. Although I'm not always up for a straight hour of their recorded material, their addition to the Christmas playlist generates endless goodwill, and I hope to see them perform soon.
Sam Phillips' Cold Dark Night (e, A) — I can't imagine what an entire album's worth of Christmas material might sound like as rendered by Sam Phillips, but this year's single is a very welcome anchor to a playlist that frequently threatens to spin into the ether. But you knew that already.
Finally, my wife can't get enough of Over The Rhine's Snow Angels (e, A), a 2007 recording that finds the duo in a slightly more rambunctious mood than 1996's The Darkest Night Of The Year (which I really dug last year). When she isn't playing her seasonal standards, she alternates between this disc and the Verve Remixed Christmas (wp), both of which rest pleasantly on my ears as well.
So that's what's spicing up the Christmas Musical Broth in our house this year. If I'm missing anything, alert me now for next year.