JC: The Three Guys have long been fans of what they’re doing over at Unbridled Books. We’ve hosted Fred Ramey writing about UB, and we’ve spilt gallons of digital ink on Emily St. John Mandel over the last couple of years. Now Unbridled Books has graciously sent a holiday present to 3G1B and our readers: Colin Dickey is the author of the wonderfully macabre Cranioklepty – Graverobbing and the Search for Genius, featuring the skulls of the talented and famous dead. Colin has been kind enough to provide us all a holiday playlist for a less-than-White Christmas.
Colin Dickey’s Holiday Playlist
CD: Long before Halloween became the cultural force that it is today, it was Christmas that was the traditional time for ghost stories and other macabre traditions. Besides the oft-neglected fact that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is, at its heart, a ghost story, there’s also Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which is a story told on Christmas Eve, as well as the song, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” which features the lines, “There’ll be parties for hosting / Marshmallows for toasting / And caroling out in the snow / There’ll be scary ghost stories / And tales of the glories of / Christmases long, long ago.”
The Victorians were completely obsessed with death and mourning, and so even at Christmas, with all its emphasis on family, gift-giving, religion, etc., there was still this dark undercurrent. So holiday music for me is always a slightly moody affair, particularly since I don’t have too much use for the awful crap that gets blasted in malls and coffee shops this time of year. So, in honor of that earlier tradition of ghostly Christmases, here’s a somewhat darker holiday playlist.
1. Salem: King Night. Part of a burgeoning genre that’s going by the name of Witch House (which to me is not so much a new genre as it is just creepy ambient music). Regardless, I’ve been listening to a lot of it—Salem, Balam Alcab, oOoOO, and other weirdo music. It’s slow, mostly dark, not quite gothic but still fairly unsettling. It’s great music for dark nights and storms.
2. Avro Pärt: “Te Deum”. This year I realized how under appreciated choral music is, most of which never gets heard outside of a religious or holiday setting. Avro Pärt’s music fits in that choral tradition perfectly, and yet also feels somehow sui generis, like a genre unto itself. It’s stirring without being clichéd, sweeping without being cheesy—the kind of music that fills the entire space of your head. For people who can only listen to Handel’s Messiah so many times, this is a great next step.
3. Leonard Cohen, The Songs of Leonard Cohen. I was seventeen when I first got this on cassette, and it was Christmastime, and ever since then I’ve always equated it with winter. It was a dark time for me, it was dark music, it had a lot of reverb, it was Christmas, it was perfect.
4. Pentangle: Sweet Child / Fairport Convention: Liege and Lief. A friend of mine recently got me Rob Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (which unfortunately won’t be out in the US until spring); I was so blown away by it that I immediately ordered another copy from England for a different friend. Sprawling and epic, it tracks the evolution of Britain’s musical renaissance (I mean, the one that didn’t involve the Beatles) through its folk origins and its subsequent explosion into rock. I was totally captivated by this book—which ranges from The Incredible String Band to Pink Floyd—and it drove me back Pentangle’s Sweet Child, which turns out to be a great CD for winter. If you need something more electric, go with Fairport Convention.
5. John Denver & the Muppets: A Christmas Together. What can I say? I grew up on this, and it’s impossible to hate it, even when it’s sappy. Some Christmas traditions truly are timeless….
Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius now available in paperback from Unbridled Books.