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Whether you're merry or miserable, David Byrne's holiday playlist will resonate

Neilson Barnard; Jackie Lay
/
Getty Images; NPR

Singer-songwriter and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne tends to skip holiday gift exchanges, but he's making an exception this year for an old friend from Santa Fe whom he plans to visit over the Christmas break.

Byrne and his friend used to exchange faxes with each other back in the 1980s and 1990s. "And so my Christmas gift to him — he doesn't know this yet — is I'm bringing back to him all the faxes that he sent me for his archives," Byrne says. "They're very idiosyncratic and kind of funny."

Byrne has a gift for Fresh Air listeners, too: a playlistof some of his favorite holiday music. He describes it as "something that will bring a little joy to the holidays." Just don't go looking for anything by Talking Heads — Byrne says the band never wanted to make a holiday album.

"On one hand, Christmas songs are perennial ... so you're kind of you're set for your song royalties or whatever," he says. "But if it doesn't click, you've just got this embarrassing thing."


Talking Heads may not have a holiday song, but Byrne does: Last year, he released "Fat Man's Comin'," a slightly twisted take on the tradition of songs about Santa Claus, which he includes here.

Hear our chat with Byrne about his holiday playlist, as well some stories about each song, at the audio link above. Highlights from our conversation follow below, along with full streaming playlists of his picks.


Highlights from David Byrne's playlist

David Byrne, "Fat Man's Comin'"

I sometimes have a tendency to take things a little bit literally. So I looked at the whole Santa phenomena and said, "Well, what if I just described this exactly as what's happening?" Here's a stranger who's sneaking — breaking into your house, basically, leaving packages — and dressed in a rather strange outfit. I thought, "What if I just write that?"

The arrangement is by a guy named Jherek Bischoff that I'd worked with before, and his arrangement is pretty incredible, really kind of catches the flavor of what I'm getting [at], this sort of slightly ominous description of what Santa is up to.

The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, "Fairytale of New York"

It's a great song. [Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan was] a great songwriter. It's a duet with Kirsty MacColl, somebody that I worked with on a couple of records, and it's incredibly moving and kind of brings you to tears every time you hear it. He paints a picture of this bickering couple that actually love one another very much, immigrants who have come to New York and are finding a hard time of it, getting their footing.

James Brown, "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto"

It's a classic. This was during the period where James Brown was actually starting to make some social commentary in some of his songs. But even though he's making this kind of pointed commentary about economics and inequality, he can't help it but put it to a funky beat. There's a joy in the funky beat and how danceable it is that, in a way, is a response to the criticism in the lyrics.

LCD Soundsystem, "Christmas Will Break Your Heart"

I've had holidays where I've been completely alone, not exactly by choice. It wasn't like, "Oh, I don't want to see anyone." It was just like everybody was gone, and I was left eating a turkey TV dinner.

That happens to quite a lot of people. I don't know what it is; maybe it's just this kind of enforced joy that we're supposed to feel that [makes] people kind of feel like, "Wait a minute, you can't tell me to be happy!" And we have James Murphyand LCD Soundsystem doing a song called "Christmas Will Break Your Heart," which in some cases is very, very true.

Paul Simon, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day"

I'm a Paul Simon fan, especially his more recent records. The last five records or so, I think are some of the best things he's ever done. To my understanding, they're a little bit underappreciated; people go to the older stuff, and I think some of the newer stuff he's done is actually much better.

And this is part of a long and continuing tradition of Jewish songwriters writing Christmas songs: Irving Berlin wrote "White Christmas," andPhil Spector did a Christmas record. It's a song that starts off like, "Hey, we're all excited, we're getting ready for Christmas." And then it talks about somebody who got deployed to Iraq — quite sobering thoughts.

But those are the kind of things that people think about during the holidays. ... That's kind of his thing, to have these perky, peppy songs sometimes, and then the lyrics undercut it.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Daoud Tyler-Ameen adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.