There’s a lot to like about the holiday season: time spent with family and friends, plentiful food and drink, groovy twinkling lights. But one thing I hate about it, and don’t seem to be able to avoid, is Christmas music.

My policy on this is very simple. If it’s a holiday, then it’s meant to be celebrated and enjoyed, and that means listening to good music, not sucky music that happens to be seasonally appropriate. There is holiday-themed music that doesn’t suck, but not much; “Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong’s version of “Winter Wonderland,” and precious few others make my list. Of course you can get into the parody or anti-Christmas genres — or you can listen to Santa Doesn’t Cop Out on Dope six or seven times — but on the whole I’d rather just forget the whole thing and listen to whatever I’m going to enjoy the most.

With that in mind, I’m thinking I’m going to spend some time focusing on the year’s best music. But first, I’d like to talk about a few albums from 2004 that I was a little late in gaining appreciation for.

The Blues Explosion

On their last album, Plastic Fang, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion sounded tired. There were a couple of great songs, but for the most part it sounded like they’d run out of ideas and fallen back on the old Rolling Stones playbook.

So when I saw that they had released Damage — with their name now truncated to just the Blues Explosion — I was not optimistic. Fortunately, I was wrong. It is an authoritative, you might even say startling, return to form for a band that we really need. Because despite their name, and despite their fondness for hip-hop and electronica, the Blues Explosion are a good old-fashioned rock band at heart. The world needs a few of those around — and real, living rock bands, not just nostalgia acts.

Songs like the title track, “Burn It Off,” and “Mars, Arizona” are as satisfyingly noisy as anything the Blues X has ever recorded. The carnage is set off nicely by a few slower songs, and even the anti-war song (“Hot Gossip”) is pretty good. (When even Jon Spencer feels obligated to write a political song, you know things must be bad.)

With their mentor R.L. Burnside having passed away this year, the Blues Explosion are now elder statesmen of a sort. If this album is any indication, they are ready to rock into old age with youthful vigor.

Camper Van Beethoven
New Roman Times

Camper Van Beethoven split up back in… 1990 I think it was. Very long ago, by certain ways of reckoning. On the 10-point scale of acrimonious rock-band breakups, this one was at least an 8, so it was quite surprising when they started playing together a couple years ago, and doubly surprising when they announced they were recording a new album. A concept album, no less; the idea frightened me, and that’s why I couldn’t bring myself to buy New Roman Times for many months after it came out.

Surprise, surprise: It’s excellent. Camper plays rock’n’roll (“The Long Plastic Hallway”); they play country music that references Twin Peaks (“That Gum You Like Is Back in Style”); they play that crazy world music they always loved so much (“The Poppies of Balmorhea”); they cover Steve Reich’s “Come Out.” They do it all, and they do it with confidence, style and — what’s that word, now? — élan.

Sure, the concept of the album is pretty loose and hard to follow. It’s probably just as well. I am led to believe that the story ends badly, but puzzling that out from the textual evidence would require a highly developed sense of irony. And irony is so 1990.

To be continued