One of the inescapable realities of Christmas is that one person’s tinsel is another’s trash. Unless, of course, you’re talking the great John Waters, who quite rightly believes nothing is more worthy of one’s adulation than insanely gaudy trash. Like, for example, a shit-ton of tinsel, preferably covering every square inch of the plastic Christmas tree.
Make sense? If not, no worries, we’ll come back to it later, when it’s time to sing the praises of “Santa Claus Is a Black Man”, “Fat Daddy”, and “Happy Birthday Jesus.”
In the meantime, let’s talk Christmas music. A lot of people hate it, and quite understandably.
There are many things in this world that aren’t right—Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” ranking as the most popular seasonal song of the past three decades being at the top of the list.
Equally offensive is how, right around the time pumpkins are being carved for Halloween, stores across North America tend to shift focus. Hands up if you’ve walked into Shoppers' Drug Mart or Walmart looking for Pennywise-the-Clown-brand greasepaint or Walking Dead–sanctioned fake-blood capsules only to ask yourself why the fuck “Frosty the Snowman” is playing on the sound system.
October is when you want to be doing your animatronic-Frankenstein shopping to Leo Carpazzi’s “Monster Fuck”, not stockpiling mini Mars bars while horrid shitkicker Toby Keith mangles “Little Drummer Boy”.
For the better part of two solid months we’re bombarded by syrupy-slick shit that makes Donny and Marie in Las Vegas seem like GG Allin covering the Plasmatics. Think Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe”, Wham!’s “Last Christmas”, and Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”. And that’s just the tip of the North Pole iceberg.
The insane thing is it doesn’t have to be that way. Despite what the shopping-mall and big-box stores of the world would have you believe, Christmas doesn’t start and end with the major-label likes of Ariana Grande, Pentatonix, Kenny Rogers, John McDermott, Mannheim Steamroller, Céline Dion, Barry Manilow, Paul Anka, LeAnne Rimes, KC and the Sunshine Band, Sara Evans, Rod Stewart, Mary J Blige, and/or Barbara Streisand.
Instead, thanks to the ever-affordable magic of Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal, you can make your own Christmas playlist, one that proves Christmas music can be greater than the year you not only got a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve bourbon from Santa, but an import-only carton of Marlboro Reds and the collected works of Quentin Tarantino on LaserDisc.
Ease into things gently with the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”—the “you scumbag, you maggot” one, rather than the version cleaned up so as not to offend the churchgoers of Abbotsford. There’s no reason to steer clear of everything that’s ever hit big on commercial radio—Bing Crosby remains essential listening for his impeccable retro appeal, as do the seasonal works of Burl Ives, the Rat Pack, Vince Guaraldi, and King Elvis Presley.
A single spin of A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector will make you forget that nine out of 10 West Coast Decembers look like all but the last 10 minutes of Seven, and Kacey Musgrave’s A Very Kacey Christmas shows that maybe the future of country music isn’t as bleak as it seems when you look no further than Nashville.
And then there’s the gold. If you can get 10 seconds into Sufjan Stevens' “A Lumberback Christmas” without promising to take up the fiddle, you’re obviously dead inside. The American iconoclast’s Sacred Harp reading of “Udumea” will actually make dying seem like a blessing, even on December 25.
Great starting points for unearthing the best of the season are compilation records. I’ll Stay ‘Til After Christmas offers up an embarassment of Xmas treasures, the star on the tree being Parenthetical Girls’ dazzlingly weird “Festive Friends (Forever)”.
Want classy? Reach for Pink Martini’s gold-standard Joy to the World. Thoroughly retro, but in the most modern of ways? Skip over everything ever recorded by Brian Setzer and hop on the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Christmas Caravan.
And then there’s trashier-than-a-tinsel-loaded-fake-tree, which is to say greater than a Pink Flamingos/Hairspray double bill. You don’t have to live in a trailer to love A John Waters Christmas, which contains everything from warped love letters to some kid born in a barn (Little Cindy’s “Happy Birthday Jesus”) to blue-streak rants against Santa (“Fatty Claus” by Rudolph & Gang).
Instead, all you need is a sincere belief that there’s something out there—anything really—that will wash the stench of Mariah Carey off the most holy, and endless, of holiday seasons.