Tales from The White Box

In my office, under a table, has been sitting a white cardboard banker's box for several years. It contains assorted comics, magazines, and graphic novels or collections that I want to get rid of but that I can't bear to throw out till I've read them first. Marie Kando would say, "If you haven't read them by now, you never will. You've already gotten enjoyment from them. If they're not bringing you joy now, then say good-bye to them."

But ... I just don't want to say good-bye to them yet. Since I don't have a reading project or writing project at this time, why not use this box and this blog to give myself both?

So, no order or theme to these reviews. Just taking them as they come out of the box, and as I finish reading them.

11 favorite Christmas albums

We have a strict rule: no playing of Christmas music until we're driving back from my Aunt Carolyn's Thanksgiving dinner. From then until the evening of December 25th, Christmas music plays pretty non-stop at home. The music we listen to may be good only to our ears; we've had some of these CDs for so long that they're old friends. It's hard to hear them anew. Still -- Christmas is a time for familiar, cozy comforts, and the music we enjoy reflects that. (Although streaming tons of new-to-us music off of Amazon Prime is tilting the balance these days...)


A Charlie Brown Christmas (Vince Guaraldi Trio, 1988) How can you not have this CD? A classic, of course, that stays listenable, always fresh, and with a children's chorus that sound like real children. Love that. "Christmas is Coming" always gets my attention. This is one of the few CDs Liz and I both had in our collections when we merged households.

Nomad Christmas (Various Artists, 1997) I remember buying this as a cassette from a music store on Ninth Street in the late '90s, I think. (Local bassist Robbie Link appears on it.) I love the more exotic and jazzy versions of some well-known carols, along with songs and melodies from other countries I'd not heard before. All instrumental, a great low-key sound when you're decorating the tree. This was one of our first forays into "world music" for the holidays.

A Very Reggae Christmas (Kofi, 1994) I remember we bought this from the gone but not forgotten Carrboro branch of Nice Price Books (secondhand books and records). He surrounds familiar old melodies with heavy beats and exciting arrangements so that I hear them fresh every year. Kofi transforms two of my most hated Christmas songs -- "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" -- into music that I actually enjoy. And, God, he makes "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" sound like a true celebration of joy and not a prim, tasteful dirge.

Holiday Songs and Lullabies (Shawn Colvin, 1998) This was an impulse purchase while I waited in line at the gone but not forgotten CD Superstore at Brightleaf Square, and one of the best I ever made. There are familiar Christmas songs alongside ballads, folk songs, and lullabies -- the cold night, the child in its crib -- plus several carols that were unfamiliar to me, such as "Little Road to Bethlehem" and "Love Came Down at Christmas". It's a record for winter that makes you want to sit in a dark room, watch the lights glint on the tree, and listen to the understated arrangements and Colvin's gentle voice.

Christmas Caravan (Squirrel Nut Zippers, 1998) The Zippers were a local band who flared brightly for a few years before burning out and disbanding. But not before making this CD, which we did not like at first, but that has grown on us over the years. (And isn't Christmas music all about familiarity?) More than any other CD on this list, Christmas Caravan is an acquired taste -- many of the songs are originals or tunes little known to me, Katherine Whalen's vocals take getting used to, and Jimbo Mathus' arrangements make each song so different the album as a whole lacks a unity. But tucked into this CD are some great one-of-a-kinds: "Christmas in Carolina," "I'm Coming Home for Christmas," "Hanging Up My Stockings,"  and a kick-ass "Sleigh Ride."

American Folk Songs for Christmas (Mike, Peggy, and Penny Seeger, 1989) We usually wait until we start our annual drive to Florida before listening to this 2-CD set. This is a respectful, lovely collection of folk and Appalachian hymns, carols, spirituals, shape-note, and songs clumped together to tell the Christmas story: the stars, the shepherds, the birth, the joy of Christmas day, and too the excitement the day brings to a poor household: jokey songs, counting songs, high spirits. The sound is of a family gathered with their instruments around the hearth -- almost painfully spare and austere, and beautiful in its directness to the ear and heart.

The Bells of Dublin (The Chieftains, 1991) A great smorgasbord of traditional and British Christmas tunes, with really great guest turns: the McGarrigle Sisters on "Il Est Ne/Ca Berger" and Nanci Griffith on "The Wexford Carol." But as comforting and charm-laden as Celtic-flavored Christmas music could be, the Chieftains keep their eyes on today and so the album layers in some tartness: Elvis Costello on "St. Stephen's Day Murders" and my favorite, Jackson Browne's "The Rebel Jesus."

Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity (John Rutter, The Cambridge Singers, The London Sinfonia, 1987) -- We have several of Rutter's Christmas CDs, but this is the first I bought (thank you, CD Superstore) and the one I like best. As with all his productions, the sound is crystal clear, the choral singing full and lush, and Rutter's arrangements restrained yet full of emotion. I like the selection of carols here, and the mood of it all -- faithful, in all senses of that word.

In the Christmas Spirit (Booker T. & the MG's, 2011) -- If you are of an age to have heard the first airings of David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries on NPR back in the late '80s-early '90s (produced by a young Ira Glass), then this music is what you heard in the background. Low-key, funky, and could have been recorded yesterday. It can play in eternal rotation.

A Putumayo World Christmas (Various Artists, 2000). As time goes by, I find myself favoring international holiday music over the American pop holiday standards. Part of it is the attraction of new sounds and songs, part of it the aliveness of other traditions. I always enjoy the Putumayo collections and this one is hot; I love every track on it. (The Putumayo's Cajun Christmas CD? Not so much. Hardly at all, in fact.) I cite the year for this CD, as a later reissue removed some of the tracks that were my favorites. Amazon has several Putumayo Christmas collections, but this one looks to be out of print.

A String Quartet Christmas (Arturo Delmoni, et al., 2010) When I'm making sausage balls or Liz is decorating the tree, then what's needed is some instrumental background music that sets a mood. This set of 3 CDs fits the bill. (They were originally released as individual CDs in the late '90s under the title Rejoice!) These short string quartet arrangements of carols, hymns, and traditional melodies stick to the classic selections; no secular guff like "Frosty" or "Rudolph" here, thank Festivus.

 

 

My quixotic smart Christmas playlist

In iTunes, I have assigned the genre "Christmas" to all my Yuletide music, albums and singletons alike. This makes it relatively easy to add them to my iPod or remove them at once with the click of a button. (Some sequester their Christmas music to a different iTunes library, but I haven't gone that far yet.)I have a few static playlists that group a series of albums together, for example, all of the Windham Hill Winter Solstice albums. My friend Bob has a static playlist containing only instrumental songs, for when he just wants background music. 

My own quixotic contribution to the world of Christmas playlists is a smart playlist that collects and sorts all of my Christmas songs in alphabetical order.

Liz prefers hearing her Christmas music by album; each album has its own personality, sound, and emotion that she enjoys. For myself, I rather like the randomness and juxtaposition of so many different songs in one place. I get a kick out of hearing nine different versions of "Joy to the World" -- community chorale, solo vocal, piano instrumental, surf guitar -- one after another. Or picking a letter of the alphabet and starting my listening there, just to see what comes next. 

Here's a screenshot of settings for this playlist:

xmas_smart_playlist
xmas_smart_playlist

When iTunes creates the playlist, make sure you click the Name column header to ensure they're sorted alphabetically. Then sync the playlist to your iDevice.

Denver, October 2016

Liz presented at the AMWA conference, so I tagged along and cavorted at will. From the mental grab-bag:

  1. I stayed pretty much in the 16th Street mall area, since we didn’t have a car. That’s OK – plenty to walk to from there, though like most malls, chain stores dominate the landscape.
  2. We stayed at the downtown Sheraton, the largest hotel in Colorado, we were told. Also, kind of staid. Nothing special here.
  3. We ate all our evening meals in the Yard House, a sports bar attached to the Sheraton. Loud and expensive, it nonetheless served excellent food and we were never disappointed. (I favored the Cobb salad and chicken tortilla soup.) Liz also liked their sour beer. We never could figure out what the phrase “yard house” meant.
  4. Thank God for the Peet’s Coffee just off the lobby – a life-giving Americano started my busy days.
  5. I spent almost my entire travel budget just buying meals on this trip. I settled on two meals for the day, with the occasional protein bar as a pick me up, and that did me fine.
  6. The Tattered Cover Book Shop is housed in an old railway warehouse and is a marvelous place to browse. City Stacks is a cozier, brighter bookshop where I had a very good peppermint tea and browsed the art books.
  7. Denver struck Liz as heavily male: young men in groups of three and more, bushy beards, tattoos, ear gauges. Lots of young men. Joe told us that Denver is in a tech boom and can’t hire programmers fast enough; that also answered the question of how all these young people could afford to hang out in this expensive area. Joe also said that “LoDo” (Lower Downtown) has become so infested with packs of guys and bros that the area is now called “BroDo.”
  8. The History Colorado Center had the Awkward Family Photos show alongside its own photos of turn of the 20th century Denver and Colorado. Interesting to note the similarities, differences, and reactions between the two shows. I did laugh a lot at the Awkward Family Photos, but I’d love to have a book of the older photos and just stare at them for long periods of time.
  9. Always take free walking tours. The free downtown tour took two hours and showed me places, like Larimer Square and the Blue Bear, that I’d overlooked wandering on my own.
  10. I spent a few hours in the Denver Art Museum. With exhibits in two buildings spread among 11 floors, I couldn’t hope to see it all. And besides, after a couple hours, I’m museum’d out. I went to the Glory of Venice exhibit, wished for more of the poster art exhibit, looked at the English and American art collections, the Western and Native American collections, and called it a day. Good for the soul.
  11. I walked miles and miles every day, and came back 1.5 pounds lighter.
  12. Was it the altitude or the desert environment that aggravated my allergies? I thought I was coming down with another cold before I hit on the right allergy meds that let me sleep without dying of post-nasal drip strangulation. Also: water (and lots of it), chapstick, and sunscreen!
  13. We totally missed the bizarre murals that decorate the Denver Airport and apparently form an apocalyptic story. Search on “Denver Airport murals” and a door opens to a new room of the internet that you didn’t know was there.
  14. We had a wonderful dinner and evening catching up with our friends Heather and Joe, the highlight for me of the trip.

Who's Working for Who?

I traveled with Liz to Denver CO for a few days while she attended a conference while I cavorted. For this brief trip, I carried a Chromebook, a Kindle Paperwhite, an iPod Touch 5g, a retro Tracfone-powered flip phone, a digital camera, multiple chargers, and 2 paperbacks.

This agglomeration of tech accumulated bit by bit over the years. It all works, it doesn't take up much room in the suitcase, it all does what I need it to do. I wish I didn't need a separate checklist to help me remember whether I've packed everything!

Am I on the road to being one of those old duffers who has drawers and closets full of perfectly good stuff that all sensible consumers have discarded? If this blog is still trundling on in 20 years, I hope to let you know.