As the old song goes, there's no place like home for the holidays. And no matter how far away you go, there's nothing like Vermont-made holiday music. (In certain cases, literally nothing.) With that in mind, we've dug through decades of Vermont music to put together a playlist featuring the best — and sometimes strangest — local holiday music we could find.
Physics Club, "It's Christmas"
Any true discussion of Vermont-made holiday music — and thus any playlist —should start with Physics Club. The Swale-related trio has produced three original Christmas albums: A Very Special Time Together (2007), A Physics Club Christmas (2008) and CHRISTMAS (2011). They're all local classics.
Don't expect to find sentimental chestnuts such as "White Christmas" or "Baby, It's Cold Outside." What makes the PC records great is their blend of idiosyncratic humor and minimalist production, which serves to create a gently dysfunctional take on the holidays. Think A Charlie Brown Christmas if Chuck were in his early thirties and still, well, Charlie Brown. With little more than keyboards, a drum machine, singsong melodies and the occasional sleigh bell, the trio riffs on less celebrated holiday traditions, such as being penniless ("Broke," 2007), being drunk at the Christmas Eve late service ("Tipsy at Midnight Mass," 2008) and, as on this cut from the 2011 record, hitting the bars with old friends when you go home for the holidays.
Jazzin' Hell, "Sleigh Ride to Heck"
James Kochalka is Vermont's reigning king of puerile rock. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that he's been responsible for some quirky Christmas classics. "Sleigh Ride to Heck" actually predates his Superstar status, as it was written with his old band, Jazzin' Hell, in the 1980s. "The elves are full of cheer / The kids are tucked in bed / But Santa ain't comin' / We're on a sleigh ride to heck," he sings over sleigh bells and the kind of rudimentary Casiotone beat that would become a Kochalka signature.
Diane Zeigler, "December in Vermont"
Not all Vermont holiday music is weird. In fact, some of it is beautiful. Exhibit A: "December in Vermont" by Diane Zeigler, from her 2004 holiday album of the same name. The song is a rootsy, evocative ballad made for cozying up in the warm hearth of kith and kin.
Francesca Blanchard, "Petit Papa Noël"
Speaking of beautiful Christmas music, it doesn't get much prettier than "Petit Papa Noël," from bilingual chanteuse Francesca Blanchard. Released on the 2014 Putumayo comp French Christmas, the tune bears all the elegance and grace of a French-language carol, with none of the grating Celine Dion-ness.
Eastern Mountain Time, "Not on Christmas Eve"
If you're sad and lonely — and tipsy — at Christmas, this alt-country tearjerker could be the perfect gift for you. Or the worst possible gift.
Woods Tea Co., "The Waterfall"
"The Waterfall" is one of two songs recorded by local folk icons the Woods Tea Co. for a holiday album that never materialized — both tunes appear on the end of WTC's 2008 album, The Passage. Fun fact: Late WTC founding member Chip Chase kept a fully decorated Christmas tree in his house all year long. Meaning he probably would have liked this next one...
Amber deLaurentis & Tom Cleary, "All Year Long"
This jazzy little pop tune captures the excitement of waiting all year for Christmas to come. Given deLaurentis' soaring delivery and the near-orchestral arrangement, we could see spinning this one in July.
The Plastic Billionaires, "Baby, It's Cold Outside"
If you really listen to the lyrics of the original "Baby, It's Cold Outside," the song becomes a little, well, unseemly. ("Say, what's in this drink?") So maybe try this 2009 version reimagined by the Plastic Billionaires, in which the predatory wolf-mouse dynamic of the original is set to financial, rather than sexual, coercion.
Swale, "Snow Angel"
Swale's recently released Christmas EP, Kiss Mess, is in some ways precisely what you'd expect from the revered local art-rock band. It is by turns gloomy, pretty, sad and slyly funny. On "Snow Angel," vocalist Amanda Gustafson, backed only by sparsely plucked banjo and ghostly chimes, delivers a haunting turn that evokes the beauty and desolation of a bleak midwinter. (Disclosure: The author's brother, Tyler Bolles, plays bass in Swale.)
Victor Rudolph Gittens, "Christmas Everyday"
This calypso-tinged number from Barbados native Victor Rudolph Gittens is like Vermont's answer to "Feliz Navidad," but with way more sleigh bells. It also takes a Christmas miracle to find.
Electric Halo, "O Holy Night"
"O Holy Night" is easily one of the most frequently covered devotional Christmas songs in history. And from "South Park"'s Eric Cartman to Josh Groban, the variety of ways it's been performed is mind-boggling. But we'll take Electric Halo's version, from the duo's 2012 album, A Very Electric Halo Christmas. Why? Because the famous melody is played on Johnnie Day Durand's spooky musical saw, that's why.
James Kochalka Superstar, "Beautiful Christmas Lights"
This twinkling little gem comes from JKS' 1997 major-label record Monkey vs. Robot. (Spotify erroneously lists it as "Beautiful Christmas Girls.") Like Kochalka's best work, the song juxtaposes his singular brand of childlike innocence with darker undercurrents and more adult urges. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife / But you sure have beautiful Christmas lights," he sings.
Myra Flynn, "Harvest"
There's nothing explicitly Christmasy about "Harvest," the 2010 single from Myra Flynn, until about halfway in. That's when Gregory Douglass drops in and the song becomes sort of like a modern postscript to "Baby, It's Cold Outside." "Christmas means I've already moved on," sings Flynn as Douglass responds, "So goodbye for now. I've already lost you." It's actually way more uplifting than that sounds.
Scott Mangan & Joshua Glass, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"
Another well-covered classic. But where more famous versions by the likes of the Jackson 5 and Bruce Springsteen anticipate Santa's impending arrival with glee, Vermont expat Scott Mangan does something else entirely on this selection from the Joshua Glass-orchestrated 2012 record Merry Christmas From Burlington. Adopting a sinister Tom Waits rasp over Glass' minor-key arrangement, he growls the line "Santa Claus is coming to town" not as celebration but as threat.
Terri Conti, "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)"
Merry Christmas From Burlington is a goldmine for local holiday music. So here's another cut from that compilation: accordionist Terri Conti's take on the high-pitched classic from Alvin, Simon and Theodore. It's instrumental and actually way less grating than sped-up singing chipmunks.
Strange Manor, "Weez Wish You a Merry Christmas"
This mashup of Weezer's "My Name Is Jonas" and the traditional "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" comes to us from California by way of Vermont expat Arthur Adams (the Lazy Songwriter) and his band Strange Manor. Featured on their recently released Strange Manor Christmas Volume 9, it sounds exactly like what would happen if you fused those two songs together. (Hint: like a goddamn Christmas miracle.)
The Mountain Says No, "Christmas Sled"
"Christmas Sled" is actually the first recording t´he Mountain Says No ever released. It's sweet and sentimental and rockin'. It's also a fine dissection of the varying steering mechanisms available on sleds these days. It's especially recommended for Lemonheads fans. "A sled without a rudder's like a sled without a rudder..."
Guster, "Carol of the Meows"
It's "Carol of the Bells" sung in cat meows. By Guster. Meowy Christmas!