Christmas songs are as big a part of the season as crowded shopping malls and spiked eggnog, but there are only so many times you can hear “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” without wanting to wretch just a little. Here are some suggestions for compiling a Yuletide playlist that perhaps isn’t quite so musty. Much of the music can be purchased or ordered locally at Guestroom Records, Size Records and the like.
Record Store Day (RSD) has become an audiophile’s Christmas since its inception in 2008, celebrating independently owned record stores with exclusive titles and limited-edition releases from everyone from The Beatles to Arcade Fire.
I’ve got a huge respect for anybody who, at 70 (or more) years old, still gets around and plays shows, and I approached these four albums — his fifth through eighth solo records, all released on Warner Bros. — with due reverence. They’re newly available in remastered editions, each with a bonus disc of rarities. The lone Grammy winner among them — the five-times-platinum “Graceland,” of course — still stands out among the bunch, as vibrant and engaging now as it was when public ears first heard its South African mbaqanga cyclic dancing style in 1986. The sound is pervasive throughout this series of discs, starting with 1980’s “One Trick Pony,” the soundtrack to the film of the same name, in which he starred. His big hit from that record, “Late in the Evening,” could be misconstrued as reggae-influenced, but it’s definitely an earlier harbinger of what would grown into the full-blown tribal roots-pop of “You Can Call Me Al.”
Nowadays, most people point to Simon when discussions about Vampire Weekend arise, mainly for his Afro-pop melding. Imagining Rostam Batmanglij’s parents playing “Proof” for him is just all too easy. I think that the joyful, optimistic tones of these songs get omitted too often from these conversations, and that it takes a pretty talented guy to foster a such hope in songs like “Homeless” that have really dire, tragic lyrics.
Simon, of course, was also well-known for writing lyrics better than most anybody else, and there are a few handfuls of terrific ones in here. I’ll list a few:
• “Negotiations and love songs are often mistaken for one and the same.” —“Train in the Distance,” from “Hearts & Bones”
• “In the bottles and the bones of the night / I felt a pain in my shoulder blade / Like a pencil point? A love bite?” —“Can’t Run But” from “Rhythm of the Saints”
• the story about drinking and playing songs with some guy in a bar when they’d heard John Lennon died. —“The Late Great Johnny Ace” on “Hearts and Bones”]
• “Free to wander wherever they choose / Are traveling together / In the Sangre de Cristo / The Blood of Christ Mountains / Of New Mexico” —“Hearts and Bones”’ title track
There’s also something to be said for the increased clarity of these remastered CDs. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s opening a cappella on “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” is so much more distinct that it almost feels like your brain is translating the act’s South African language for you.
A great touch to a great American treasure in “Graceland,” and the same applied to a few really solid Simon albums. I think “Hearts and Bones” really ranks up there with some of the greatest pastoral stuff he ever recorded, and “The Rhythm of the Saints” is definitely a good listen all the way through. “One Trick Pony” is definitely passable and possessive of highlights (“That’s Why God Made the Movies” and “God Bless the Absentee”) ,but it’s a bit behind the rest here. Afro-folk-pop-rock on, Paul.