• courtesy of the artist
  • August Darnell

I’m as bruised by the onslaught of canned Christmas music pumped out in retail joints this time of year as anyone else, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy holiday music. In fact, back when I was in college I was kind of obsessed with unusual Christmas music—although in retrospect I was an utter novice compared with someone like Chicago collector Andy Cirzan, whose annual mixes are something I always look forward to—and a couple of compilations I bought back then still hold a close place in my heart.

In 1981 the quirky New York indie label Ze Records released A Christmas Record, which contained a bona fide modern holiday classic (“Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses) and featured wonderfully twisted gems from the likes of James Chance (aka James White), Suicide, and Cristina. But the one track on that Ze collection that has always worked for me is “Christmas on Riverside Drive,” an ode to celebrating the holiday season in New York by August Darnell (the song was later credited to the singer’s best-known guise, Kid Creole & the Coconuts). Over an infectious, funky guitar riff—embroidered with a nice jazzy lead—Darnell waxes nostalgic for both subway rides and sleigh rides. That tireless signifier of sleigh bells is the only holiday sound present, but the melody and groove have proven hooky and durable enough to burrow their way into my memory in a way that always triggers visions of this time of year. The song is today’s 12 O’Clock Track.