This holiday season, consider me your mixtape therapist. Every week throughout December, I’ll be posting five songs to help you soundtrack various holiday season scenarios. And while you get your mixtapes ready, you can catch up on the insane abundance of quality music from this year, since all featured songs are from 2013. –Claire
I have a very clear dinner party music strategy: Boys and Girls by Alabama Shakes and Van Morrison (often Astral Weeks), on shuffle, with a smattering of delicious add-ins. Van Morrison guarantees at least one “Oh, I love this song” moment, hopefully simultaneously between possibly shy guests who just found happy musical common ground. Alabama Shakes always deliver the right amount of energy; Boys and Girls dips and expands perfectly, it’s great all the way through but doesn’t need to be listened to in order.
The add-ons? You have to trust them. They need to be a little timeless, even if they’re recent. Something that will either pleasantly fade into the background (not in a Muzak way, but in a “Everyone is having a good time and the soundtrack is perfect and the cheese plate is being scavenged in a delightful, friendship affirming way”… way) or will make someone say “Ooh, what is this?” and you can praise them for their excellent taste and start a little conversation and give them the lovely parting gift of some good music recommendations (and pie. Send people home with pie. I have few rules, but these two are ones to live by.)
Lucky for you, 2013 offered up some excellent new add-ons for your holiday dinner soundtrack. Here are my top five—meet me in the comments and let me know what’s on your holiday dinner playlist.
“You Put the Flame On It” by Charles Bradley
“This is from this year?” —universal reaction when I play this for people and call it one of my favorite songs from 2013.
Charles Bradley spent decades playing small gigs, periodically impersonating James Brown, and is now making sharp soul albums that sound like they’re fresh out of another time. “You Put The Flame On It” is a joyous insta-classic. Bradley’s gravelly voice and smooth backup singers, the Menahan Band’s sunny rush of horns followed by upbeat percussion, all come together in one great big love song.
“Stranger to My Happiness” by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings are back which is worth a holiday-level celebration on it’s own. Post-Christmas, pre-New Years, it’s Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings day and we should all celebrate by seeing them play with Valerie June somewhere next year (seriously, I think this will be an absurdly good show). Again, classic, but so fresh. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings have consistently produced bright, fresh soul that sounds brand new and timeless, a rare feat.
“Green Garden” by Laura Mvula
“Green Garden” is luscious and playful. Laura Mvula’s tremendous voice is carefully restrained, her delivery is reminiscent of Nina Simone. The playful childhood imagery and natural imagery is haunting and lovely: dancing in gardens, taking your shoes off, flying on the wings of a butterfly. There’s something simultaneously wistful and joyful about this track, and what’s a more spot-on note for the holidays than that combination?
“When I Knew” by Eleanor Friedberger
Eleanor Friedberger has the songwriting chops and voice of a classic 70’s singer songwriter. She was born in the late 70’s, but based on her excellent solo album Personal Record , she was meant to be the fourth singer in Girls Like Us. The chorus is peppy, borderline girl group cheer, and pairs well with the bouncy beat and vivid storytelling about falling in love. Sweet teenage images stand out: wearing overalls and playing records together, telling mean jokes and feeling bad, wearing bright white socks and antique roller skates. It’s teenage love with an old school beat. You need a few high energy tracks in the mix to keep everyone buzzing on holiday spirit and happily mingling. This is perfect for that.
“Seeds of Love” by Brianna Lea Pruett
It’s hard not to love Brianna Lea Pruett’s rich voice and delicious, expertly crafted folk. “Seeds of Love” sounds like an adventure with the windows rolled down. The rolling tempo and slide guitar, the insistent repetition of the lyrics—this is a perfect first song for your playlist. The sound opens and invites, promises something exciting around the bend, and introduces your guests to their new favorite folk singer, all at once.