Like it or hate it, the carols of yesteryear and a handful of modern classics will dominate the airwaves until Christmas Day ends.
It’s hard not to crack a smile when Vince Guaraldi or Frank Sinatra hits the ears, but where are this year’s the new tunes?
Don’t worry, RIFF has you covered.
With the most wonderful time of the year around the corner, the focus of this installment of Tuesday Tracks will be, you guessed it, Christmas Songs!
From YouTube covers and fireside jams, to trap bangers and heavy metal romps, let these hidden gems add some pizzazz to your holiday playlist.
MNEK, “Stopped Believing In Santa” — While my all-time favorite hip-hop Christmas music will always be 2007’s self-aware “Ludacrismas”—if you don’t know why, listen to it—London’s MNEK definitely takes the cake in terms of compelling musicality and a relatable spin. Over an immaculate combination of modern trap production and ’90s R&B, Uzoechi Osisioma Emenike’s agile trills and potent melodies generate an immense sound. “Why can’t December just be over real, real soon/ Instead I got pain, wrapped in heartbreak,” he sings in heartbroken rejection of holiday cheer. “Stopped Believing In Santa” is hardly a glum affair, complete with a punchy beat and swelling crescendos, but in the end it boils down to glossy guitar and keyboard. If the current generation needed its own Christmas song, MNEK may have provided it.
Jessie J, “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” — Big band jazz has become as synonymous with Christmas as peppermint and ugly sweaters, and Jessie J knows it. Released along with an entire holiday album called This Christmas Day, her take on this time-tested anthem makes up for its fairly played-out approach with sheer charm and spunk. The instrumentals maintain an authentic straight-ahead swing groove with shouting choruses and explosive bridges. The hi-hat sizzles and brass blasts will satisfy any fan of Count Basie or Duke Ellington, but Jessie J avoids cliches by injecting some melodic detours into lyrics. Yes, the timeless quality is there, but some unexpected modulations and even jubilant shouts give this classic take her own personal touch. The purposely amateurish animation in the lyric video only adds to the evident joy that went into the song.
Z Berg featuring Ryan Ross, “The Bad List” — Angeleno Z Berg paints a painfully vivid picture of a love untrue in this heartbreaking ballad. She enlists the help of ex-Panic! At The Disco frontman Ryan Ross as they take turns singing verses before uniting for a passionate chorus: “It’s Christmas Eve/ We set the house on fire/ It’s snowing on palm trees/ The river has run dry.” While it’s piano chords aren’t particularly involved, the matter-of-fact execution works in the unmistakable lyrical imagery. Watching the music video does contain a glimmer of hope when its timeline is perceived in full, but its depressive gloom becomes disarming alongside the Tom Waitsian storytelling. This is a song for those who can’t escape harsh realities through frivolous festivities.
August Burns Red, “Winter Wilderness” — After an LP filled with covers of everything from “Oh Holy Night” to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” August Burns Read has had to get more creative. The band’s Winter Wilderness EP contains a few unexpected gems like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and even the Home Alone theme. But this cut represents something else entirely. This is one of two original tunes on the EP, and it’s just as fun, melodic and blood-pumping as the covers. August Burns Read isn’t known for deviating particularly far from its progressive Warped Tour-style metalcore, which this song’s bouncing breakdowns and dexterous thrashing exemplify. What’s remarkable in this case is how “Winter Wilderness” maintains a genuine wintery vibe without the backdrop of rearranging classic songs. August Burns Red may have transcended joke songs and come up with a legitimate yuletide metal amalgation to call their own.
Josh Homme and C.W. Stoneking, “Silent Night” — Queens of the Stone Age founder Joshua Homme has joined forces with acoustic blues powerhouse C.W. Stoneking for a wonderful cover of “Silent Night.” The song’s rustic production value sounds like it came from the musician’s living room, and the in-song banter between the two of them only adds to the personable vibe. The song is decidedly rooted in the blues traditions of Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters, from its long-winded intro to its propelling shuffle. The bare-bones arrangement is compelling enough, but the harmonies between Homme and Stoneking are the real standout on this cut. It’s wholesome enough for the carol, but gritty enough for Robert Johnson.
Max’s Pick: I went into this Tuesday Tracks installment expecting to like very little of what I found, but I ended up having a hard time choosing which song to choose as a favorite. I’m partial to the August Burns Red tune, if only to reminisce about Warped Tour, but MNEK really blew me away with “Stopped Believing In Santa.” It’s a solid contemporary R&B song, with all the melodramatic singing and shimmering production anyone could want out of the style, but that’s only a third of the picture. It’s also a convincing Christmas song that could very well become a modern classic while subverting the traditional feel-good vibe.