It’s the night before Christmas and all through the house, er, the world, there’s … chaos. Our fearless leader’s Twittery old chestnuts are roasting by California’s Thomas fire, as Palestinian protesters toast pictures of Pence and Amtrak authorities clean up a derailed train. It’s all about as peaceful as Led Zeppelin leading Midnight Mass.
Music, however, can be a great salve. Here are five albums and a hearty playlist meant to help distract and, perhaps, bring a little cheer. While listening, wrap up a joint, light that proverbial Christmas candle, take a deep inhale, and remember all the positives of this special holiday, like the ability to burn dank trees instead of just put gifts under one.
No time to dig into all these hearty LPs? Check out The Cannabist’s SmokeSongs Christmas playlist featuring strong rips from each featured record.
“Die Hard (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack),” various artists
Since its release in 1988, there’s been a pointed debate over whether or not “Die Hard” is truly a “Christmas” film. Metrics from Dish Network say “yes,” given that more than one million subscribers peeped the pioneering action flick last Christmas Eve. The plot revolves around John McClane (Bruce Willis, in his first action role), a hard boiled, wisecracking cop who has to save his wife and her coworkers after their holiday party gets hijacked by a scheming terrorist. Okay, it’s no Miracle on 34th St. But if the film’s atmosphere doesn’t make it a “Christmas” movie, the soundtrack might. It’s fully loaded with round after round of holiday hits (“Winter Wonderland,” “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow”) that blast between action-packed interludes. Chamber a half-cocked hybrid and play hero as you protect your presents under the tree or, at least, get up from the couch in slow motion.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Vince Guaraldi Trio
Because the current state of things warrants a Charlie Brown-level “arrgh,” put a flame to some relaxing strain and slide the needle onto one of the best holiday albums ever composed: “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Technically, the album is a soundtrack for the 1965 animated television special of the same name. Although Peanuts’ creator Charles M. Schulz wasn’t a fan of jazz, producer Lee Mendelson commissioned virtuosic pianist Vince Guaraldi to score the cartoon’s foray into TV. The refined stylings of Guaraldi and his humble trio encapsulate the wholesome whimsy of Peanuts. Rather than offer up annoying covers, Guaraldi features a children’s choir singing melodies, interspersed with original instrumentals, like “Linus and Lucy.” First heard on 1964’s “Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown,” the rollicking, upbeat number quickly became the main melody of Peanuts. Still, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” could easily be the theme of December 25.
“Christmas Spirituals,” Odetta
Grind up a transcendent strain for Odetta’s 1960 collection, “Christmas Spirituals.” Here, the lauded folk singer presents a handful of stark-but-beautiful gospel songs that highlight the measure of faith behind Christmas. Like many of her releases, Odetta takes a minimal approach. There’s no orchestra or exultant choir. Just a few ruddy bass lines (played by none other than Spike Lee’s dad, Bill), a sparse guitar and, of course, Odetta’s booming voice. Her passionate delivery, combined with imagery from the old hymns, should remind us that this holiday is about recognizing something bigger than us.
“Christmas on Death Row,” various artists
In December 1996, Death Row Records was considered one of hardest labels in West Coast rap. The FBI deemed it dangerous. Founder Suge Knight was in jail for violating probation. A few Death Row rappers, including 2Pac, were also hindered by legal issues and beefs with other emcees. Enter “Christmas at Death Row,” the label’s only holiday album. The irony of bonafide gangstas like Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg getting into the holiday spirit is palpable, but it’s still tight. Lil’ Flip, 816 and others lead listeners through a hip-hop Advent calendar of refreshingly surprising cuts, flush with a bounty of holiday puns. A few tracks, like Danny Boy’s version of “The Christmas Song,” are smooth R&B ramblers. Others are groovy bangers, like “Party 4 Da Homies” by B.G.O.T.I. Tip a forty (or a cup of fresh egg nog) toward the ground to pay respects, then grab a blunt wrap and a chill strain.
“Songs for Christmas,” Sufjan Stevens
From 2001-2006, Sufjan Stevens recorded and released five holiday EPs. While he grew as an artist, so did his output of holiday music. With Christmas being such an Americanized holiday, though, this collection is a perfect celebration. Every EP holds a diverse musical hodgepodge that can really only be described as Americana. The tunes range from twee pop songs to heart-wrenching folk ballads and beyond. A touching rendition of “Amazing Grace” is followed by a random 46-second version of “Angels We Have Heard on High” played on a xylophone, then a rousing original by Stevens’ band drops down the chimney. Instead of a fast sleigh ride, with reindeers being so hard to find, just pack a bowl and listen to the indie songwriter rhapsodize about Christmas for a while. It’s quite the adventure.
“Holidays Rule,” various artists
Although it’s been played many times, many ways, holiday music will always mean easy money for for record labels. The fattest cash cows are compilation albums of standards played by hip and agreeable artists of the day. For those who know nothing about music, these albums make great background noise at a party. And lazy gift buyers can use them as a catch-all present for almost anyone (because only Scrooge would refuse Christmas music). In 2012, Concord Music Group and Starbucks’ own label, Hear Music, released one such collection called “Holidays Rule.” Created for forgetful caffeine addicts, scrambling to find a stocking suffer while they white-knuckle a salted caramel mocha, the songs are actually pretty good. Paul McCartney, The Shins and Rufus Wainwright all belt suitable renditions under the slick production of The Decemberists’ Chris Funk. But rising acts The Civil Wars, Fruit Bats and Y La Bamba are like cookies in the milk. They each add a touch of darkness, twang and Latin flavor to the oh-so-typical holiday glee. On that note, there’s no need to go against the strain. An old standby will compliment the classics.