As the last hour of October 31st passes by, radio stations across America already cue up the first of several hundred or even thousands of Christmas songs. I don’t want to seem like a Scrooge or a Grinch, but I never understand this strategy of the media. We wonder aloud about how fast this year has gone by, but we want to speed things up to December 25th. I scratch my head constantly in confusion.
In response, I have curated 13 slightly unconventional and underground tracks for your Thanksgiving playlist this week.
“Nothing Short of Thankful” by the Avett Brothers, Mignonette (2004)
This call and response tune from North Carolina’s The Avett Brothers reflects on the idea of travel and work, two things entrenched in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. A burst of punk rock screaming, acoustic guitar, banjo and upright bass comes and goes in three-and-a-half short, furious minutes invoking conversations between family members that ultimately end with a cry for independence. “We choose our battles one by one” is probably a thought most people entertain during those tense moments of the Thanksgiving meal when your sibling argues with your grandmother about politics, religion and/or potential dating partners. Near the end though, the Avett Brothers suggest breaking “down the walls built around us” even if we choose our own paths at the end of the day.
“Cooking Up Something Good” by Mac Demarco, 2 (2012)
This may seem like an odd choice for an American Thanksgiving playlist given that Demarco is Canadian and their holiday celebration was last month. But the verses about momma in the kitchen and daddy on the sofa for a family gathering is nonetheless appropriate. The music is a laid back melodic haze that is perfect for that post-turkey nap and dreamy contemplation of letting things go especially when you can’t help but compare or be compared to more successful family members who stop by the house. Plus, Demarco made headlines for inviting fans over for coffee in the summer of 2015; he seems to enjoy fellowship and conversation as much as the rest of us.
“Young Pilgrims” by the Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (2004)
It has been over 13 years since Garden State and Natalie Portman told us that the Shins would change our lives. In this track from their sophomore release Chutes Too Narrow, James Mercer and company recount the folly of modern thought and choosing a path that may make us struggle in the end. The pilgrims in the song succeeded in Mercer’s mind, even though we may not know the exact trail they were taking in the course of American history.
“Chill in the Air” by Amos Lee, Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song (2013)
This song references both weather and loneliness against the spare backdrop of an acoustic guitar, drums and Lee’s aching vocals. The protagonist admits that he does not want to see his lover again, but at the same time, he acknowledges that his spirit will be the constant chill that she will feel even as she tries to move on to the next stage of life. As the year comes to a close, this song perfectly soundtracks beginnings and endings for all sorts of relationships.
“Autumn Sweater” by Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (1997)
Formed in the mid-80s as the American alternative rock scene was starting to define its pre-Nirvana ethics, Yo La Tengo always gave some melodic courage to the introverts and the wallflowers in us all. With a drumbeat that kept a consistent rhythm referenced in the album title (I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One), “Autumn Sweater” is a visual collage of falling leaves, November chills and the incoming holiday chaos. “We could slip away, wouldn’t that be better?” And we will all nod in agreement.
“The Thanksgiving Filter” by Drive-By Truckers, Go-Go Boots (2011)
Southern traditions and cinematic storytelling comes naturally for Patterson Hood, one of the chief songwriters of the Drive-By Truckers. Like the aforementioned Avett Brothers song, Hood’s tale of family meals that fourth Thursday in November are a mix of appreciation and sardonic wit, seen immediately in the first verse (“Grandma’s wheelchair is sitting in the corner/We all sure love her, but the little ones avoid her”). Hood’s protagonist is no doubt thankful for the blessing of family, even if it’s complemented by a strong drink as he listens to his aunt praise Palin, his niece support Obama and the rest of the family screams and curses at each other with turkey on their plates.
“Vagabond” by Wolfmother, Wolfmother (2006)
This song does not necessarily limit itself to Thanksgiving, but the idea of travel and “living free” is all over the verses and chorus. As we launch our cars out of our driveways and planes into the sky, the brash display of guitars and drums helps us get lost in the monotony of the journey.
“Changing of the Seasons” by Two Door Cinema Club, Changing of the Seasons single (2013)
Once again, this song is not directly about the holiday of Thanksgiving, but the lyrics and themes of “Changing of the Seasons” can have a two or even three-fold meaning (the changing of relationships, the changing of colors and environment, the changing of Thanksgiving into Christmas). The juxtaposition of the lyrics to the danceable, almost summer-esque melodic structure can also offer a kaleidoscopic journey of change.
“Family” by Noah Gundersen, Family (2011)
On his first full-length record, Seattle’s Noah Gundersen presents his thoughts and stark arrangements on the most personal of topics, family. His siblings have contributed to several of his subsequent albums. He pulls no punches when it comes to the subject of arguments, embarrassment and shame: “Someone lies bleeding/Someone got violent and did not think twice/And I watched you my brother make a fool of the moon tonight.” As with most achingly honest songs about family, we’re left with the choice of abandonment or acceptance. In Gundersen’s case, vices may or may not be the key for embracing the latter.
“Sonny” by New Found Glory, Sticks and Stones (2002)
New Found Glory’s Sticks and Stones came out when I was in 8th grade and I unfortunately missed the concert that came through Birmingham that year. However, I played the record constantly throughout my high school and early college years from boomboxes to iPods. “Sonny” has meant the most to me out of that 12-song collection. If I remember correctly, the song is about the loss of one of the band members’ grandfathers. I identify with the lyrics because I too lost my grandfathers, my dad’s father in 2007 (three months before my high school graduation) and my mom’s father this year. For the latter, I recently experienced the first birthday without him singing to me on the phone and I know I will miss his presence at the Thanksgiving table this year. But as Jordan Pundik sings: “I’ve lost the best part of my day/But it’s better where you’re going anyway.”
“Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” by The White Stripes, White Blood Cells (2001)
Whether you were trying to figure out if they were siblings or spouses, Jack and Meg White’s drums and guitar garage rock outfit is indicative of the familial bond that music can deliver. Containing one of the most visually appropriate titles for the autumn season, “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” is a classic musical assault of the senses with Jack’s guitar and voice accentuated by Meg’s thundering, tribal drums. “I didn’t feel so bad till the sun went down/Then I come home/No one to wrap my arms around/Wrap my arms around” is a fear shared by us all in these colder months.
“Styrofoam Plates” by Death Cab for Cutie, The Photo Album (2001)
On this song and “The New Year” (Transatlanticism, 2003), listeners get the impression that Ben Gibbard is not a fan of holidays, at least in the sense that things will get better for him. In this particular song, Gibbard or the protagonist is addressing his late father who apparently abandoned him at some point during his life. “Thirteen years old in the suburbs of Denver/Standing in line for Thanksgiving dinner at the Catholic church. the servers wore crosses/To shield from the sufferance plauging the others” makes you examine your own heart’s motives towards people in these particular situations. And the caustic bridge at the end of the song makes you sympathetic to his plight or grateful that you don’t have to experience it yourself.
“You’re a disgrace to the concept of family/The priest won’t divulge that fact in his homily/I’ll stand up and scream/If the mourning remain quiet/You can deck out a lie in a suit but I won’t buy it.”
“Thanksgiving” by Stephen Kellogg, Blunderstone Rookery (2013)
This ten-minute, choir-led epic is the tenth song on Stephen Kellogg’s first solo release in 2013, Blunderstone Rookery. After 2012 delivered to him the dissolution of his band (The Sixers), the deaths of several family members and several homeowner troubles, Kellogg’s meditation on this particular holiday is joyful, heartbreaking, revealing and hopeful. You have to listen to the song multiple times to get all of the details and “scenes”, but in light of present events, this particular set of lyrics near the end of the song is especially relevant:
“This year for Thanksgiving I’m keeping my list short
No one gets married, no one gets divorced
Can you imagine?
What if the world could stand still for even a day?
If there was no crime, no rape and no killing
Addictions suspended, no cutting or drilling
If everyone took the day off and hung out with their friends
Their favorite friends
I know what you’re saying, it’s not realistic
I’ve heard it my whole life, look at the statistics
But lucky for us, I’m not a guy that gives up
I never give up”
No matter who you have or do not have with you this Thursday, keep one, some or all of these songs in the background for your Thanksgiving playlist. Do not let the hustle of Christmas overwhelm a chance for gratitude. You never know when you’ll get these moments again.