Christmas Music: Saint Etienne, Mariah Carey, Tuscadero, Mary Timony

by Maura Johnston

I wrote a Christmas song once. It’s been lost to the sands of time and warped cassettes, but it was a track that was not-very-vaguely about a dude I’d been seeing at the time. He lived in another state and liked Star Wars, which I had last seen when I was three, so I took the melody of the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria,” wrote a few lyrics about lightsabers and plane trips, and asked a four-track-enabled friend to assist with guitar parts and recording. Et voila, a holiday love song, sung by a totally twee me. Sweaters and cocoa for all! Oh, and the guy and I broke up about two weeks later.

Which is to say that it’s probably better that my addition to the holiday canon is unfindable (at least for now) — especially in the Internet age, making a Christmas song and disseminating it to the world is almost too easy. My good friend Jon Solomon has hosted a 24-hour holiday show on WPRB for the past 23 years, and I think he could probably fill out a second installment of the show just based on this year’s slew of seasonally themed songs alone. (NB: I am not advising that he do this.) Here are four female-fronted songs that I hope crack his playlist.

The British dance-miserablists in Saint Etienne compiled their past holiday-themed tracks into the limited-edition album A Glimpse Of Stocking, which was only available last month. (Too bad I just found out about it, but hey, maybe a generous friend got me the £150 deluxe package that includes a personally dedicated holiday song sung by the icy cool Sarah Cracknell.) Saint Etienne’s holiday songs of yore are packaged with seven brand-new songs; one of them is the upbeat, yet downcast “No Cure For the Common Christmas.”

I spent a lot of this weekend trying to right my brain in front of an endless loop of cable, and as a result I saw a lot of perfume ads. The one where the still-under-conservatorship Britney Spears declared that she controlled her own destiny gave me a frowny face of the soul, but my spirits were quickly buoyed by the ads for Mariah Carey’s suite of fragrances, which were soundtracked by “Oh Santa,” a track from her just-released Christmas album Merry Christmas II You. (Yes, the play on “to” and “two” is intentional — it’s her second holiday-themed record!) “Oh Santa” probably won’t enter the Yuletide canon the way that the ebuillent “All I Want For Christmas Is You” did, but it has a nice dose of pep and a cheering section worthy of The Go! Team.

For those of you who feel like you’re humbugging out (OK, sorry), the Washington, D.C. act Tuscadero wrote one of the greatest songs about seasonal anomie all the way back in 1994. “Holidays R Hell” is a punky, bratty rundown of the many ways that greetings bestowed during this season can go horribly awry. Here is a clip of the band performing the track during their July reunion show at the Bell House in Brooklyn. (They opened for Unrest, one of the greatest bands of all time.) Tuscadero also wrote the twitchy, wonderful “Angel In A Half Shirt,” which might be the only justification in the history of the world for cutoff tees on the male form.

In a similar vein (although the gloom is more atmospheric than lyrical) is Mary Timony’s 2006 track “Hapi Holidaze,” which showcases her at her witchy best. Timony, former leader of Unrest’s fellow GBAOT Helium, is a fantastic guitar player and will be touring the U.S. with Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss and Rebecca Cole next year as part of the jaw-dropping supergroup Wild Flag. The mere fact that the band’s debut album is on the horizon (it’ll be released by the fantastic folks at Merge) is more than enough reason to think that 2011 is going to be even better, music-wise, than the past 12 months were.

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“The Smartest Thing She Ever Said” is a Tumblr based digital storytelling art project featuring four teams of two-one artist and one story editor-between now and the end of the year. For three weeks each, the teams were asked to interpret the phrase, “The Smartest Thing She’s Ever Said.” The final team featured writer Sarah Pachelli and photographer Stephanie Gonot with support from project curator Alexis Hyde. and its artists are entirely supported by Ann Taylor in collaboration with Flavorpill.

Maura Johnston likes music.