Christmas mixes -- outside of hip-hop's now-branded "mixtapes" -- are the last bastion of compilation cool.
Be they digital playlists, burned CDs or (bless your lil' hearts) an actual homemade, hand-lettered cassette, some of us still get our holly jollies over Thanksgiving weekend gleefully selecting and cruelly excising nice and naughty tinsel-stuffed tracks with which to score the perfect holiday occasion.
The roots of mix-making lie in personalized party soundtracks, so it's no surprise that the twilight of the craft still glows between Turkey Day and Boxing Day. Christmas parties still need music, after all, either as conversation pieces or excuses to dance. All it takes is one Santastic slow jam to remind someone why that wad of shrubbery is hanging over the doorway.
The Christmas canon is a crucible, a schmaltzy Santaland that tests an artist's melodic mettle and thematic fortitude. As a musician, you can approach a Christmas song or album a number of ways. You can go for irony ("Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope" by Sonic Youth, "The Little Drum Machine Boy" by Beck) or comedy ("The Man in the Santa Suit" by Fountains of Wayne, "Holy Sh-- It's Christmas" by Red Peters). You can explode the concept ("Christmas at the Zoo" by the Flaming Lips) or attack the institution ("Christmas Griping" by R.E.M.). If you're a very good songwriter, you can pen a new holiday standard ("Merry Christmas From the Family" by Robert Earl Keen, "Christmastime" by Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, "Maybe This Christmas" by Ron Sexsmith).
It's not for everyone. Enter the North Pole at your own risk, and abandon all hope ye who do so. The vast majority of Christmas albums are, with apologies to the sanctity of the occasion, God-awful.
Whither "Hung for the Holidays" by third-season "American Idol" reject William Hung, the 1996 hip-hop comp "Christmas on Death Row," David Hasselhoff's straight-faced "The Night Before Christmas" or [fill in that album your dad loves putting on every year here]?
Christmas music can redeem an artist -- the Rod Stewart album this year is finally a venue in which his schmaltz makes sense -- or merely keep accounts afloat. After all, Christmas comes but once a year, but it comes every year.
"An artist can always keep a Christmas album in their back pocket," says Andy Cirzan, something of a Christmas music kingpin in Chicago. "It's become part of the career trajectory for most artists. But, generally speaking, most of them are so awful. The list of classics is small. Singles are usually best. James Brown's Christmas albums are compilations of singles. NRBQ's, too. It's difficult to make an original Christmas album that you want to spend a lot of time with. Most of them are, 'Here's me singing "White Christmas" for the thousandth time.' Great, turn it up! One good single, though, can be great. Line those up, you've got a great party mix. That's my game."
Cirzan isn't just another Christmas mix maker. In these parts, he's the Christmas music maker.
For 25 years now, Cirzan, vice president of concerts at local promoter Jam Productions, has been gifting friends, co-workers and very lucky hangers-on with CDs -- and now downloads -- of seasonal tracks drawn from his lifelong cache of weird and wonderful vinyl records.
"The Christmas mixes started as just another mix among the many I would make," Cirzan says. "I'm old enough that I already had a pretty large vinyl collection 25 or 30 years ago, and I noticed at sales that people were just throwing their records away. Just for me! ... When I'm buying a pile of 30 45's from some dude, it's nothing to pick up an extra Christmas single just to check it out. I kept doing that, and then I'd be going to Christmas parties, saying, 'You gotta hear this song!' Now I don't make other mixes so much anymore, but the Christmas one's a must."
The arrival of Cirzan's holiday mix each year is an occasion celebrated on an entire episode of WBEZ's "Sound Opinions" show, and the legend of his tunes and taste have reached far and wide. The day last week I spoke Cirzan about his habit, he'd just finished an interview with The Washington Post about it and was preparing to speak to the BBC. A documentary about holiday music collecting, "Jingle Bell Rocks," which includes Cirzan's wintry wisdom, is in the works.
After some recent jazzy years, Cirzan's 2012 mix, he says, is all soul.
"You can imagine all the different genres that exist within Christmas music," he says. "In this one moment, they're all smushed together. It's a bizarre, parallel party universe. It helps to pick a theme in order to find your way into it."
Ted Cox, a former Chicago-area TV and radio critic, throws a Christmas mix together every other year or so. Like Cirzan, he believes in the power of the theme.
"There's such an overabundance of Christmas stuff to draw on, a theme helps you focus," Cox says. "When stuff is really good and runs against the stereotype, it's worth it. I tend to like the old dirty Christmas songs, like Jimmy Butler's 'Trim Your Tree' or Amos Milburn's 'Let's Make Christmas Merry, Baby.' That's a dirty one, but at the same time sincere!"
"With most of my stuff, people can't get it any other way," Cirzan says, being pragmatic, not boastful. "So much of my favorite stuff is on regional labels and existed only for a moment in their little microenvironments. I look at it from an archival perspective. I'm saying, 'Reconsider these songs as part of the really cool world of Christmas music,' and hopefully by putting them on these mixes they live another life."
He's a Numero Group gift box waiting to happen.
For now, though, Cirzan will burn another 400-plus discs and upload his A-sides and B-sides to the web. Check christmas.soundopinions.org soon for the tunes, as well as information on when Cirzan will be spinning favorite Yuletide platters on the air there, and watch for news of his annual appearance on WXRT's "The Eclectic Company" show.