Living through November and December in the United States means slowly but surely getting sick of the small handful of Christmas and holiday songs played endlessly throughout every public space. If it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, then all you can do is simply grit your teeth and accept that by the 500th play-through, even “All I Want for Christmas Is You” will begin to gnaw at your very soul.
But there’s another way. At least in your home, car, and other spaces over which you have control over the music you listen to (which is everywhere if you have headphones): the greatest Christmas music playlist ever conceived. It’s called FaLaLaLaLa GREAT BIG Christmas Variety Shuffle List, and you can find it on Spotify.
It’s curated by “the King of Jingaling,” a.k.a. Washington state-based teacher Brad Ross-MacLeod, a.k.a. the proprietor of FaLaLaLaLa.com, hands down the best online hub for the discussion of and collection of obscure Christmas music. It also serves as a hub, through its forum, that connects a bunch of other essential Christmas music websites, like Ernie, Not Bert and Hip Christmas.
Ross-MacLeod traces his love of holiday music first to Christmas music albums by the Hollyridge Strings and Mike Sammes Singers that his parents played when he was a kid. But his interest in the genre as a hobbyist he traces to the late 1990s, when the release of two CDs named Christmas Cocktails rekindled his interest in old holiday tunes.
“Those two discs really opened my ears to the world of Christmas music hidden from mainstream radio at that point,” Ross-MacLeod told me. “I started hitting the thrift stores where I was living in central Pennsylvania for old vinyl. ... When you have a weird passion like that, you really want to connect with others who share it. I couldn’t find anybody in nowhere Pennsylvania, so I started a website to bring them to me. The forums are still the most active part of the site and we’ve been going since 2004.”
Ross-MacLeod is one of the go-to names in the small but mighty community of people online collecting any and all Christmas music they can find; they all tend to be extremely nice people who will geek out over discovering an album of Burl Ives singing Christmas carols with spoken-word intros about how they were supposedly adored by various presidents.
When I first delved into this community in the mid-2000s, all involved were legitimately preserving albums and songs that had essentially disappeared. Digitizing this music existed in a legal gray area: It technically broke copyright, but since the albums were no longer available commercially (and since many of them had unclear situations in regards to who held the copyright to begin with), cease and desist letters were much more rare than they were for your average Limewire or Kazaa user. (Long live 2006!)
But the rise of these sites proved to many labels, both major and boutique, that there was value in the many Christmas albums just gathering dust in their vaults. With the rise of Spotify and other music streaming services, it was easy enough to place digital versions of those songs where any subscriber could listen.
But that made an already mountainous amount of holiday music even more mountainous. How was anybody to ever possibly find what was good in that enormous pile? Many listeners only checked out playlists containing the same handful of songs your average department store runs into the ground, further increasing those songs’ ubiquity.
Enter Ross-MacLeod and his playlist. With just under 4,000 songs and just under eight days of music, you could start shuffling the songs on the list right now, play it 24/7, and still have plenty of music left over by the time you went to bed on Christmas Day.
And these are not songs you’ve heard a million times before. There’s a rich diversity of genres and performers, but the playlist focuses on stuff that’s flown under the radar. There’s a disco-infused “Little Drummer Boy,” a variety of tunes from the Seeburg Library (an easy-listening competitor to the more famous Muzak), and even some songs from artists you have heard of, like the Jackson 5 and Perry Como and Harry Connick Jr.
“I want to hear a wider variety of Christmas songs than you’d hear on most radio stations. I want a mix of familiar and surprising,” Ross-MacLeod said. “So much of Christmas is about nostalgia, so there has to be some of the musical comfort food of the past. Even in my narrow field of interest there’s a lot of music that most people don’t get to hear. I’m a musician, and I think I have an ear for what’s good or at least interesting.”
Ross-MacLeod doesn’t entirely eschew songs you’ve heard before (Mariah’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is here, because how could you not), but there’s a definite skew toward music that will be new to you, even from the artists you know well. Yes, the list contains the Jackson 5 “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (a classic), which you might have heard before, but their takes on “Up on the Housetop” or “The Christmas Song,” both of which are great, aren’t as widely played.
“Given the number of songs that are Christmas standards, lots of songs are repeated,” he said. “But I look for versions that have something different to them — some instrumentation or an interesting new bridge or even a medley. Familiar and comfortable but also surprising and fresh.”
So are there any under-the-radar Christmas songs Ross-MacLeod hopes could become as big as “All I Want for Christmas Is You”? He points to the soundtrack for the 1970 movie Scrooge (a musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol) and several tracks off rock musician J.D. McPherson’s 2018 Christmas album Socks. But he also says there’s so much great Christmas music that it’s really, really tough to become a standard.
“These songs are only played for a few weeks a year, and they have to compete with decades, even centuries, of songs that have already become standards. Given that it took Mariah’s tune and ‘Last Christmas’ [by Wham!] a while to really become standards, I think it will be a while before we see another one,” Ross-MacLeod said. “Most likely it won’t be something that recent. It takes plenty of covers to make a song a real Christmas standard.”
So if you’re ready for something — anything — different to treat your ears to as Christmas approaches, fire up Ross-MacLeod’s giant playlist (or some of his other, smaller playlists) and find some new seasonal favorites. I can’t make it through December without it.
FaLaLaLaLa GREAT BIG Christmas Variety Shuffle List is streaming on Spotify. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.