Home for the Holidays & A Guide to Surviving (Mixtape 001)
by Steven Spoerl
Well, it’s been a brief but substantial fifty day run and this, the 50th post, seemed as good a place as any to celebrate something so small and meaningless. To that end, Heartbreaking Bravery is offering up its first official mixtape; Home for the Holidays. Look for one every fifty posts. Some will have themes, some will just serve as reviews for the past near-two-months of coverage the site provides.
Home for the Holidays was a unique challenge. For the songs to qualify they had to fit within the general aesthetic of what Heartbreaking Bravery would normally cover- they would also have to mention Christmas without being a Christmas-specific song. All of these songs are here for a reason and deserve to be heard. A welcome alternative to the endless barrage of the same twenty songs getting played in seemingly every location. Both the mixtape and the accompanying guide to surviving are below.
1. Tenement – Spit in the Wind
Did anyone honestly expect this list to start with anything else? It’s no secret how this site feels about this band. They’ve mastered the exploration of lower middle-class difficulty and it really comes through on the chorus of this Napalm Dream standout. “Father pissing on the Christmas tree, suicide for the family” is a masterclass in both explicit and implicit imagery as well as tone-setting.
2. The Wombats – Moving to New York
Sleep-deprivation, needless excitement, and suspecting disappointment. “Looks like Christmas came early” has never sounded so true.
3. Sundials – Christmas Day
One of 2013’s most exceptional compilations was the collection of Sundials songs from 2009 to 2012. “Christmas Day” closed the collection out with flare, emphasizing how ugly financial situations can be made ten times worse by the holidays with a surprising amount of verve.
4. The Weakerthans – Exiles Among You
The Weakerthans were (are?) one of the most consistently impressive bands on the circuit and released a few records that qualify as classics. On their standout sophomore effort Left & Leaving was this gem, that included a heartbreaking moment where the protagonist shoplifts for Christmas and ignores her family. A perfectly executed example of estrangement.
5. Titus Andronicus – No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future
On Titus Andronicus’ masterpiece The Monitor, the band managed to cover an endless arsenal of subjects. One of the strongest moments in a record full of them was “No Future Part Three” with its rapid shifts in pace and tone. There’s anger, there’s grim determination, a palpable sense of sadness, and a devastating Christmas list.
6. Neutral Milk Hotel – Two-Headed Boy
One of 2013’s biggest moments was the return of Neutral Milk Hotel, prompting many to revisit In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea and “Two-Headed Boy” in particular. That song contains a fierce ending of bitter abandonment set under Christmas trees, elevating the importance of the act. Brutal, harsh, and brilliant.
7. Waxahatchee – Rose, 1956
There are very few records as pointed and barbed as American Weekend, a record that’s only managed to grow stronger with time. “Rose, 1956” stands out for a variety of reasons but the mention of Christmas Eve at the song’s opening drives home how specific it is, which makes it more revealing in turn.
8. Bon Iver – Blood Bank
Bon Iver is almost too obvious of a choice for this but it’s hard to look past the muted elegiac title-track of the band’s sole EP. Not only do the levels of wistfulness feel appropriate but the song nicely underscores the possibility of truly understanding difficult moments. One of Bon Iver’s most stunning moments.
9. Why? – The Fall of Mr. Fifths
Why? have always managed to effortlessly evoke very specific feelings with their arrangements alone. Yoni Wolf’s lyrics generally accentuate that feeling masterfully and “Mr. Fifths” is no exception. There’s an underlying theme of fear and obsession here that touches on the rising death rates that surround the holiday season.
10. The Hold Steady – One for the Cutters
Quite possibly The Hold Steady’s most inventive moment, this harpsichord-driven tale paints the most realistic portrait of the sort of culture that exists in the shadows the band has managed in years. An absolutely stunning achievement that culminates in the central character’s defeated-beyond-reason return to her family at Christmas.
11. Sparklehorse – Little Fat Baby
Mark Linkous’ penchant for subtlety resonates throughout this song, in part an understated allegory about (seemingly) the prominence of Christmas. It’s a subdued-yet-jarring yarn that feels intensely personal.
12. Belle & Sebastian – I Don’t Love Anyone
Fleeting moments of self-doubt and occasional resentment spring up in early winter more than anyone would like to admit. Self-evaluation becomes a bitter process and all of the potential disappointment can manifest itself outwards. The best way to deal with it is just to acknowledge it and move on.
13. The National – It Never Happened
“We look younger than we feel and older than we are” is a beyond perfect way to describe the holiday hangover that’s constantly present, lingering around the corner. The easygoing pace of “It Never Happened” mirrors the pose some people will themselves into just to survive the rougher patches.
14. Okkervil River – Where the Spirit Left Us
The first of of two Okkervil songs on this list, “Where the Spirit Left Us” pinpointed a certain kind of well-informed nostalgia that was brought to life in a dazzlingly vivid manner. There’s a small-town longing that matches up nicely with the resigned minutiae surrounding any large family gathering.
15. The Weakerthans – My Favorite Chords
John K. Samson does environmental setting better than almost anyone penning lyrics today. The fact that The Weakerthans can often be described as wintry only heightens the reason for this song’s inclusion.
16. Tom Waits – Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis
A wildcard among these 21 tracks, “Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis” qualifies based on the title, not a lyric contained within the song. One of Waits’ most towering achievements and one of the best moments on his classic Blue Valentine.
17. Ben Folds Five – Brick
Did you really expect this not to make the list? It’s a song about the aftermath of a Christmas Eve abortion. One of the most frighteningly realistic songs in recent memory. At the very least, let this one invoke deep sympathy.
18. Palace Songs – Christmastime in the Mountains
Okkervil River artist Will Schaff brought this song to the list as it was experiencing a rough draft dating back to last December. “Christmastime in the Mountains” is stark, beautiful, and nicely summarizes the empty feelings that can occasionally hit at this time of year.
19. Why? – Kevin’s Cancer
Yoni Wolf has been operating in his own territory for a long time now. This is the second Why? song to be included but the way Wolf and company operate only furthers situational reality.
20. Elliott Smith – King’s Crossing
From A Basement on Hill bafflingly exists simultaneously as one of the most personal and impersonal records to be released in the past 15 years. It’s posthumous status elevates the impact of searingly revealing songs, yet those involved with it say that the record was far from finished and released with only the mixes Elliott had left behind when he tragically passed away. “King’s Crossing” stands out as one of the record’s most personal (and most biting) moments, reflecting the holiday’s darker spirit.
21. Okkervil River – Calling and Not Calling My Ex
This is the song that inspired the idea for this collection several years back. It’s Sheff at his most pointed. Sleigh bells in the background offer up an ever fuller world-building experience for an environment surrounding the introspection that often hits hardest towards the end of the year.