You’ve got to go see your family sometimes. You’re not a monster. Even if you’re a monster, you’ve got other monsters you need to go see, once a year or so. Chances are, in a year like 2016, those other monsters are just as scared of you as you are of them. And, even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, you’ll almost certainly have December 25th off from work, so you might as well end the year with the family.
One of the reasons the Applebee’s corporation is so successful is it nicks, bits and pieces from all the other major theme park restaurants, and Frankensteins together this menu that a kind of completely mediocre hodgepodge of world cuisine. If you want a hamburger, but your wife wants a quesadilla, and your brother wants chicken and broccoli pasta alfredo, the good news is no one has to bend to anyone else’s taste. You can go to Applebee’s and get substandard versions of all of those things.
No one is suggesting you go to Applebee’s on Christmas, not unless you have some masochistic relationship with mozzarella sticks. The point is, you have to find commonality with your family, if you’re going to survive. One of the simplest–and yet most crucial–elements of any family gathering is the background noise. If your idea of holiday entertainment is to get wide-eyed in front of the Big Game, you’re on your own. If music is what you’re looking for, here are seven great secular holiday albums to keep the family together this season.
7. Nick Drake, Pink Moon
Somehow frail and stoic, at once, Nick Drake’s elegant guitar playing and reedy wisp of a voice could melt the ice around even the coldest of hearts. There’s some quality to his final record that makes the listener long to scoot closer into the people they love. It’s not the nature of his death, nor is there a cry for help anywhere in the lyrics. It’s neither the songwriter’s posh English upbringing, nor the sense that a Nick Drake album feels more like a master recital than a piece of pop music. And, yet, it is all of those things, and more. The chilliness of Nick Drake’s masterwork is not that he was cut down in the prime of his career, it’s that he consciously knew he was turning in his last record. There’s no indication he intended to die so young, he’d just reached the natural conclusion of his life’s work, everything after a big “etc.” No better time for revisiting Pink Moon, then, than at year’s end: a time for reflection, in anyone’s year. As much as the author loves this record, it never seems appropriate to listen to it before October and, really, not before Thanksgiving.
6. The Evens, S/T
Unpopular opinion alert: Ian MacKaye is one of the rare artists whose best work is their current work. There’s just something about Minor Threat that I can’t grab onto, not having first heard them in fifth grade. The cool deal about The Evens is that they’re a family band: MacKaye and Amy Farina are real life spouses, and parents. And their music is perfectly suited for a family engagement. Your uncle, who claims that every homosexual in the world was “made” gay by being molested as a child, will never pick up on a lyric like “When things should work but don’t work, that’s the work of all these governors.” He’ll only hear MacKaye’s angular baritone guitar and Farina’s skittering, George Hurley-esque drumming. It’s a subtle call to arms, but it’s a call to arms, nevertheless.
5. Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood
Neko Case’s fourth album is her crowning achievement. “Country” in the way Johnny Cash’s American albums were country. “Gothic” in a rural Brothers Grimm sense. Case sings wintry, tear-jerking ballads about jealous trailer park girls (“Margaret vs. Pauline”) and true losers holding on to their lone true love, for fear that they’ll never find anything better (“Star Witness”). Throw in a little religion (“John Saw That Number”), and your cousins, the ones that never left, will feel right at home.
4. Eef Barzelay, Bitter Honey
It’s unclear if Clem Snide split up acrimoniously or were just on hiatus, when Eef Barzelay released this lone, gorgeous solo acoustic record in 2006. Clem Snide were a smart, snarky band that was a little too country to be punk, and a little too punk to be pop, who hit their zenith on “Mike Kalinsky,” a dreamy ballad that dives unexpectedly into a hardcore breakdown in the last twelve measures. Little idiosyncrasies like that are all over Bitter Honey, the title track of which is a simple acoustic ballad that chronicles a hood girl with a big butt and a bigger heart, struggling to find her niche in life. Later on, “Thanksgiving Waves” and “Well” are deliriously rhythmic folk songs, heavy on the phaser and heavier on the bitter sentiments toward adopted home states and ex-friends. And, for Boxing Day morning, when your head is pounding and you’ve got a lot of explaining to do, “I Wasn’t Really Drunk” sounds like Tom Waits’ “The Piano Has Been Drinking,” updated for the MySpace age.
3. The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs For Bumpy Wagon Rides
At the height of its lineage, Chicago’s Bloodshot Records–the self-described home of “Insurgent Country” music–had an amazing roster of artists and an even more amazing discography. Not only home to Ryan Adams and Neko Case, Bloodshot released records by several former Mekons, as well as then-modern cowboy outlaws like Devil In A Woodpile, Split Lip Rayfield and The Meat Purveyors. Many of those artists came together for this 2002 compilation of songs for children, not the least of which include Kelly Hogan’s take on “Rubber Duckie,” and the Cornell Hurd Band’s “Don’t Wipe Your Face On Your Shirt.”
2. Adam Green and Binky Shapiro, S/T
Heavy on the reverb, both singers seeming to always be reaching forlornly toward each other, yet remaining forever out of reach. Adam Green’s album of duets with Little Joy’s Binki Shapiro evokes the atmosphere in what passes for winter in central California. Never cold enough to freeze, but cold enough to keep you indoors, reaching out to a loved one, never quite connecting. “Just To Make Me Feel Good” beats Nancy and Lee at their own game.
1. Original Soundtrack, A Mighty Wind
The attention to detail in Christopher Guest’s series of fake documentaries is what sets he and his ensemble cast far and above any of their comedic contemporaries. For A Mighty Wind, the members of Spinal Tap reconvene as a past-their-prime folk trio, reuniting with two other groups to pay tribute to a recently-deceased folk music promoter. Played completely straight-faced, and written largely by the cast themselves, the songs from A Mighty Wind stand shoulder to shoulder with the old records they emulate. The Folksmen a reverent tribute to The Kingston Trio, for example. It’s a certain kind of inoffensive folk music, here, one that breeds nostalgia for an era that never existed: one in which protest singers wore primary colors and sang inoffensive tales about Native American history. The perfect (hilarious) NPR-style album to add to a holiday playlist.