Thursday, December 03, 2009

Songs for December

It's here.

December: the twilight of the year, autumn's dead end, winter's gorgeous prologue, and a season unto itself. It's chilly but warm, wintry yet inviting. In December, the weird rainy autumn of November dissolves, but all of its heady magic amplifies; it should be a time to wind down, but winds itself up instead.

Because December's the last month, it's also the climactic month. You unconsciously tally the year's successes and failures, crunch those heartening numbers, and start a final, mad, lovelorn bumrush at making four weeks count. It's as though your loves, or losses, or your life might expire with each year's final breath. It's closing time. The clock's ticking.

Rather than the bleak, cold, emotionally desolate realities of winter, December's brings polar opposite. You don't just want to make things count; you want to make them right. You want to finish strong. Your heart swells like the Grinch. You have a newfound appreciation for Lifehouse. You can't stop watching Love Actually. It's cliched to the point of Hallmark cards, but it's true: the holiday season is a season of giving. People embrace each other--literally (as November's FOM dubbed it the "Snuggle Belt"), and figuratively (glad tidings, good will toward men, etc.)--without fear of reproach or rejection.

So here, now, are 31 songs for closing time. Songs that sound like the last winded sprint toward the finish line. Songs that sound like a hopeful end and a brave new beginning. Songs that sound like a trumpet's clarion call or a sax's rainy lament. These are songs that go all-in, for better, for worse, and for the best.

They are 31 Songs for December!

(Plus the Random iTunes Pick)

Be sure to tell me your Songs for December in the comments section...

Green Day, "See the Light"
The sequel to "21st Century Breakdown," it's the album's final chapter, and marks the beginning of the end. It rhymes nicely with my Songs for October, which begins with "21st Century Breakdown," its companion piece. Here, the song is properly sped up, the lyrics more hopeful but more urgent. It fades out into a great unknown, ready for anything.

The Killers, "Losing Touch"
Multiple December themes at work here:
1) Going home, and ensuing headiness.
2) Reaching a tipping point in relationship.
3) Needing resolution, one way or another.
Bonus points for two musical traits I associate with the month: horns, metallic percussion (triangle/bell sounds), and keys.

The Thrills, "One Horse Town"
Though the album (So Much For the City) resides in spring/summer, I discovered it in December 2006. So, I always associate the rhythmic hustle and bustle and melodic warmth of "One Horse Town" with a Christmastime homecoming. Lyrically, it also describes those homecomings aptly.

Bob Dylan, "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry"
So much middle-60's Dylan has a wintry quality to it--something about the key-driven, starkly percussive production, matched with his cold-weather imagery, set that scene either explicitly or implicitly. "It Takes a Lot to Laugh..." has always been my favorite of those piano-led blues shuffles, and it takes place as "wintertime is coming." Its mood is lyrically wistful, but musically upbeat; it's the perfect combo for the month.

Otis Redding, "That's How Strong My Love Is"
Some artists, or even albums, are just made for a certain season. Phantom Planet is a summertime band. The Beach Boys are a summertime band. The Counting Crows Hard Candy should've been titled This Is What October Sounds Like, And Deal With It. And there is no artist I listen to more in December--every December--than Otis Redding. Part of it's the sound (e.g. aforementioned horns). Part of it's the mood. Part of it's his approach to the songs themselves: even the sad love songs are still generous of spirit. They're down, but they're not out. And the cheerful love songs enact the joy of having loved ones to share the holidays with.

Whiskeytown, "The Ballad of Carol Lynn"
This song sounds like one long, sustained, doubtful sigh. It tries to put something unresolved into perspective; you can practically hear the two people exhaling after a big fight. If this isn't Whiskeytown's best, it's certainly one of their prettiest.

Beatles, "Norwegian Wood"
And the trials and turmoils of our autumn relationships continue. Maybe it's the girl depicted, maybe it's the story in full, or maybe it's the strange and stark production, but this song just sounds cold, and not in a good way. Not everything can be "snuggly" in December.

Bumpercrop, "Sinking Stone"
Bumpercrop wins the award for "biggest gap between a band's notoriety and the number of times they're mentioned in my Monthly Playlist." Still, I had to include "Sinking Stone." It was my introduction to Bumpercrop in November of 2002, and I listened to it on multiple trips home from school that December. For a mid-tempo song with little changes or dynamism, it's never dull, and always gorgeous.

Avett Brothers, "Laundry Room"
Ah, there are those keys again. And there's that homecoming imagery again. And there's that lyric: "tonight I'll burn the lyrics/cause every chorus was your name." Uh...busted.

Stereophonics, "Lying to Myself Again"
To really do December right, you've gotta take one long, hard, merciless look in the mirror. Then, start moving.

Wallflowers, "Invisible City"
For reasons I can't define and certainly can't explain (there is no tangible link here, just trust me), this song reminds me of "Silver Bells." If "Silver Bells" had a non-holiday-related, morose, evil step-cousin. Let's move on.

REM, "Electrolite"
I could write all day (and nearly have in the past) about how REM manages to speak some unreal, intangible language of the soul...but I won't now. Suffice it to say that "Electrolite" is everything a great December song should be: intimate, superficially mellow yet full of weird chemical intensity, piano-laden, generous, unabashed, honest, and cheerfully vulnerable.

Augustana, "Twenty Years"
You heard me. They wrote something after "Boston," and guess what: it's really probably maybe not bad at all. Not even a little. It's full of piano-powerchord-operatics and anthemic orchestral swells and totally-menial-yet-strangely-affecting lyrics. Don't ask me why a line like "fall asleep with the TV, darling" would matter this much. It just does; in December, everything matters this much.

Coldplay, "Fix You"
And just when you thought it couldn't get any more piano-laden or anthemic, welcome to Coldplay's four-part harmony and gorgeous otherworld, where lovers can just love each other, man, perpetually walk the streets just seriously, soul-crushingly, loving each other, pining for better days with the innocent and earnest hearts of newborn babes, all while the soft and symbolic rainfall of a Hemingway novel punctuates the scene. This isn't Coldplay on a good day--this is Coldplay on their best day. It's gorgeous, and disarming, and undeniably powerful.

Craig Armstrong, "Glasgow Love Theme"
Like November before, the middle of December gets an instrumental that wordlessly says it all. This piece from the Love Actually soundtrack calms the story, lends "peace on earth" to this piece of musical earth. It sets the stage for a turning point, a homecoming, the last gasp, and--maybe--a happy ending.

Band of Horses, "Is There a Ghost"
Maybe it's the cold, haunting production. Maybe it's the orchestral power of the song's latter half. Maybe it's the fact that I listened to this album a lot last December. Maybe it's just pretty. Anyway, it sets me moving.

Beach Boys, "God Only Knows"
And the Love Actually soundtrack has its second credit! An amazingly generous song that both gives everything to its subject and gives no credit to its narrator. It's intensely vulnerable, honest, and winning; the sound of a man who barely trusts himself, but trusts love so much that he's fearless.

Delta Spirit, "Strange Vine"
Re: keys.

(Side Note: I know I'm incredibly late to this part, but I got Ode to Sunshine a month ago and have really enjoyed it. This will probably sound insane, but it sounds like Phantom Planet and the Avett Brothers' lovechild to me. In all the right ways.)

Raconteurs, "Intimate Secretary"
Personal memories attached to this one, involving me, my car, Belle Meade Christmas decorations, and Kroger. Sort that out.

Lucero, "Goodbye Again"
Chalk this up as reason #2,081 why 1372 Overton Park is Lucero's best album yet: they channel Otis Redding. "Goodbye Again" is a nod to a different strain of pop songwriting; from the square, slow backbeat to the horn arrangement, to the way the chord progression provides space for the musicians to fill or leave empty. Ben's lyric and vocal might be Lucero, but everything else pays a beautiful homage to a Memphis original.

Wilco, "Was I In Your Dreams"
In terms of arrangement, this is the Wilco version of Lucero's departure: a slow, boozy, cocksure, barroom shuffle. From the jazzy piano and organ trills to the light horn accents, everything about this song musically sets the scene of a man walking home from a Christmas party at 2AM. He's telling himself what he needs to tell himself, and he feels good even though he shouldn't. He's alone, but he's cool with it.

Dr. Dog, "100 Years"
As we march toward one year's end, we look forward to looking back.

Pawtuckets, "Broken Heart"
Usually, December's a time for cheer, festiveness, time with loved ones, and happy endings. Sometimes, all that seasonal love can turn sour. If it does (and I hope it doesn't), this is what it sounds like, and this is what you should listen to. "Broken Heart" won't cheer you up, but it'll give you company when you're down.

Cory Branan, "Darken My Door"
One of my all-time favorites from Branan's unreleased catalog, "Darken My Door" is an incredibly intimate song about physical distance. Even when our narrator's alone, the girl stays with him, and in the song. It's a gorgeous, simple melody, an impeccable lyric, and its vulnerability makes it at home in December.

Lyle Lovett, "Christmas Morning"

The Temptations, "I Wish It Would Rain"
In classic Motown fashion, "I Wish It Would Rain" makes a lament sound like a celebration. To me, that's true for this month: even the bad times aren't that bad. There's too much to celebrate, too much to enjoy, too much good out there. Even if you have a bad day, you can glide above it.

(Side Note: Yes, I realize this song lyrically does the opposite: tries to make a positive into a negative. But musically, it does the opposite. Hence, multi-dimensionality. The lesson, as always: Motown was good.)

Pearl Jam, "Low Light"
True story: when Yield came out, I was still playing catch-up as a Pearl Jam fan. That Christmas (98?), my brother and his friend were making some mixes to enjoy while driving around back home. They had written the tracklists, but those sheets had many changes and edits. For the purposes of cleaning up/consolidation, they wanted to type the track lists. I volunteered, because I was a humanitarian in 1998. Anyway, "Low Light" was on the tracklist. Because of sloppy hand-writing--and my Pearl Jam ignorance at the time--I typed, "Pearl Jam - Cow Light." And then was ridiculed mercilessly. For volunteering to type their tracklists.

So, this song (a Top 10 Pearl Jam Favorite of mine) always reminds me of 1) December and 2) cows. The mind is a wonderful thing.

Counting Crows, "Long December"
Layup! This song lives in December, but it also aligns with December in terms of personal connections. During the same time (98-99ish) as the "Cow Light" debacle, my brother's friends would come home from college and often hang out at our house. They'd stay up almost all night catching up, trading stories from school, and generally being relentlessly cool. Meanwhile, I had reached an age/level of acceptability that I was allowed to hang out. There was always music in the background--usually mixes or favorites people brought over--and one night Recovering the Satellites must've played 6 times consecutively.

And I'm fourteen, and I'm getting this intense, fly-on-the-wall education about my brother, and his friends, and College Things, and all coolness therein, and what it looks like when older kids like each other, and what it looks like when college girls flirt, and there's this never-ending avalanche of great pop music I've never heard before, and Recovering the Satellites cycles until the last car leaves at 5am and I'm still listening an hour later, by myself in the den, too wired to sleep...and then there's "Long December" again while this new sun comes up...and what I'm trying to say is this: that was a great night.

Sam & Dave, "Bring It On Home To Me"
This song is so pitch-perfect--so effortlessly winning and cheerful and warm--and its arrangement so in-line with the aforementioned December mood (keys, horns, etc.), it's destined to close a holiday-season rom-com with Sarah Jessica Parker, backing a final "party" montage of white people hugging each other and dancing uninhibitedly while wool and knowing glances abound. And when that happens, you think I'll be sad. But I won't. I will see that movie, twice, and I will love that montage, and I will nod my head and chuckle to myself like a crazy person. Because it's December, man.

Rolling Stones, "Shine a Light"
I think I've picked a song from Exile for most months of the year, so why not include its closer for December? Not much more to add, other than to point out the "light" motif running through this playlist. From Green Day to the Stones, I'm intertwining some serious imagery. Didn't think I was working on that level, did you?

My Morning Jacket, "It Makes No Difference"
The Band's original would give us an unhappy ending, but I prefer (and picked) MMJ's cover for this reason: it breaks free. While the lyrics are trapped in a state of unresolved heartache and turmoil, the music tells a different story. It pushes itself forward, explodes, and plows ahead with certainty, then some degree of contentment, then something like jubilation. While the Band's harmonies were mournful, MMJ's sound sunny and triumphant. In the song's climactic moment (the bridge's transition into the final chorus), the band drops out, only to be signaled by James's defiant final vocal for a last charge. The trading guitar and sax solos create a perfect dialogue, equal parts anguished and cheerful. It's a bittersweet and ambivalent song, to be sure, but it's also winning. It puts up a fight, and it's ready for more. It's proof that the right sad song can make you feel infinitely better than a happy one.

And the iTunes Random Pick for December is...
The Band, "Katie's Been Gone"

Oh, sweet irony.

What are your Songs for December? Hit up the comments and let me know.

Oh, and keep a lookout. I'm to do a special list later in the month: Songs for Christmas!

Until then,


Hillary Brooke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hillary Brooke said...

December is one of my favorite months...the preparatory month for a long cold-bitch winter. Music can be the only source of true inner-warmth for weeks on end. Music is crucial.

Right now I've got a few songs that are hitting heavy in the December repertoire...

Cold War Kids, Audience of One
It's off their latest EP and it's phenomenal. The piano chords alone pound desperation into my chest let alone the lyrics and their dizzying beauty. So basically, this song beat the crap out of me.

Hem, Half Acre
Again with the piano, but it's softer in this track the first snow, and the quiet excitement that moves you nearly to tears. Sally Ellyson's voice lays the imagery delicately with references to Michigan that cuts straight to my core. Throw in the glockenspiel and I'd call that a perfect song for the season!

Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Home
Whistling! A tricky way to intro, but they pull it off only to top themselves numerous times throughout the song. It's adorable, honest, and makes me ache for a home like that someday.

If you haven't heard, hear.


Michael said...

gentle annie by ollabelle is a good winter song - great gospel harmonies.

Chris Milam said...

Digging the Cold War Kids and the Ollabelle tune. They're very different, but both match December somehow. Thanks!

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