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Music Aficionado On What To Listen To This Holiday Season

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right, we all have our own family traditions during the holiday season. And for the pop star Carly Rae Jepsen, accidentally touching off a family feud is one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S NOT CHRISTMAS TILL SOMEBODY CRIES")

CARLY RAE JEPSEN: (Singing) It's not Christmas 'til somebody cries.

CHANG: Our next guest, Chris Klimek, has a tradition of obsessively putting together a holiday mix every single year. And he is here to tell us about some new songs that made his list this year.

Hey, Chris.

CHRIS KLIMEK, BYLINE: Hello, Ailsa. Ho, ho, ho.

CHANG: (Laughter) All right, so I need to hear more about that Carly Rae Jepsen song we just heard. It's called, "It's Not Christmas Till Somebody Cries."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S NOT CHRISTMAS TILL SOMEBODY CRIES")

JEPSEN: (Singing) Grandpa ate the gummies that we meant to hide. We tried to play it off like it's a holiday high.

KLIMEK: Yeah. Well, I think this is a new entry in kind of my favorite subgenre of Christmas songs, which addresses our inflated expectations for this holiday, the pressure that attends a gathering of relatives who may not be together very often, if at all, during other times of the year. And I like that it wraps up this kind of resigned message that this is going to be conflict and stress for a couple of days in a buoyant melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S NOT CHRISTMAS TILL SOMEBODY CRIES")

JEPSEN: (Singing) It's not Christmas...

CHANG: This has been a really weird year. I mean, if anything, we do need some holiday cheer more than ever, but there are a lot of people this year dealing with isolation and loneliness. And I'm wondering, like, has there been any holiday music this year talking about that?

KLIMEK: There has. And actually - you know, again, the songs that I think I respond to the most in this genre, they kind of kick against that expectation that everyone's going to be happy, that everyone's going to be satisfied and we feel like there's something wrong with us if we can't reach that state of calm.

CHANG: Totally.

KLIMEK: The new Andrew Bird song, "Christmas In April," which was written early in the lockdown, where he's kind of contemplating eight months into the future - what's it going to be like if I can't see my elderly parents during the holiday time? This is a year where so much feels strange and wrong. And the lyric in the song is actually, I'm hoping these songs don't ring so hollow when you hear me sing Merry Christmas and Happy New Year - you know, these familiar phrases that often feel inadequate, and maybe particularly so this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS IN APRIL")

ANDREW BIRD: (Singing) And I'm hoping these words don't ring so hollow when you hear they say merry Christmas and happy New Year.

CHANG: Oh, my God. This is conjuring up so many memories of myself drinking a glass of wine alone in my living room in April on a Friday night thinking, yay, it's the pandemic.

KLIMEK: (Laughter).

CHANG: Well, there also have been some holiday songs out this year that could have come out any year, right? Like, I'm thinking about Leslie Odom Jr.'s song, "Snow."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNOW")

LESLIE ODOM JR: (Singing) Oh, happy feelings everywhere. We're dancing in the Christmas cheer. The kids are waiting in their beds for Santa, oh, Santa.

KLIMEK: Leslie Odom Jr. releasing his second Christmas album in four years, so he's really planting a flag here. And this one has some original songs on it, which I - you know, I appreciate the standards, but I appreciate people who try to make a new entry in this very exclusive, tough-to-crack canon. It's upbeat. I'm always looking for those because I always have plenty of sad ballads.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Got to mix it up a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNOW")

ODOM: (Singing) Say you won't go 'cause I'm so happy to spend this time with you.

CHANG: All right, well, before I let you go, I know that something you do a lot is not just think about all the cool, new holiday songs of the year, but you also like to bring back some weird, obscure, old songs. What have you got for us?

KLIMEK: I spend most of the year digging for these, these songs that failed to become "All I Want For Christmas Is You."

CHANG: By Mariah Carey, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

KLIMEK: Yes. Yes, that's right. And "Prancer's Got Some Red Spots"...

CHANG: Oh.

KLIMEK: ...From the mid-'60s.

CHANG: Not just a red nose - wait, no, that was Rudolph.

KLIMEK: No, no, that's a - no, and actually, Rudolph is kind of the antagonist in this song because he is lobbying Santa, like, we got to get Prancer off the team because this guy is a vector.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRANCER'S GOT SOME RED SPOTS")

THE SHADES: (Singing) Santa, said, why not? Why not? Rudolph said with fright, Prancer's got some red spots. He can't prance tonight.

KLIMEK: This little Indiana record label called Fujimo Records issued a couple of versions of this in the '60s. The one that I am choosing is by a girl group called The Shades that has this kind of playground-at-recess-taunt kind of quality to it. It's really cruel. (Laughter) So...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRANCER'S GOT SOME RED SPOTS")

THE SHADES: (Singing) Prancer's got some red spots. He can't prance tonight.

CHANG: Well, thank you, Chris. This was so much fun.

KLIMEK: Oh, it was wonderful to talk to you, Ailsa. Thank you.

CHANG: That is Chris Klimek breaking down some new additions to the holiday music canon and a recently resurfaced one. Happy holidays.

KLIMEK: Happy holidays to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS WANTS")

HANK SNOW: What do you want for Christmas? Ah, the truth, the answer to no other questions so completely serves as an index... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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