By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Dec 23, 2020 at 11:33 AM

If you’ve had it up to here with Mariah Carey and Nat “King” Cole by now – both talented, of course, but by no means the only artists to record Christmas music – roll your radio dial over to 88.9 Radio Milwaukee, where the holiday cheer is aroar with great Christmas tunes that rarely get any radio play, even at a time when that music is everywhere.

Here’s a sampling of some of what’s hit the airwaves in the past 24 hours or so via the Radio Milwaukee transmitter:

  • “Jingle Bells” by William Shatner and Henry Rollins
  • “Another Lonely Christmas” by Prince
  • “Merry Christmas Everyone” by Shakin' Stevens
  • “Christmas Is” by Run DMC
  • “White Christmas” and “Sound the Trumpet” by the ska-era Bob Marley and The Wailers
  • “Christmas at the Zoo” and “Little Drummer Boy /Peace on Earth" by The Flamin' Lips
  • “Aires de Navidad” by Willie Colon
  • “Winter Wonderland” by Tony Bennett
  • “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” by James Brown

Though the station has dabbled in holiday music in the past, this year it’s focused on it all week, and will play it uninterrupted from 6 p.m. Christmas Eve all through Christmas Day.

“We had this library of weirdo oddball stuff that we would play on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day every year and it was always my favorite,” says music director Justin Barney. “This year I felt like we really needed like the Christmas season or just some joy and to forget the year.

“It’s been so hard and holiday music is comforting and we wanted to provide as much of that as we could. So this is the first year we are doing more than one day of holiday programming.”

Though most stations are content to cycle through a few dozen tired old chestnuts ad nauseum, Barney says there’s actually a ton of great holiday music to be had, if you look for it.

“It’s definitely not a challenge to find holiday music and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it, too,” he says. “So many of the bands we play make holiday songs and they are funny or tragic and they never get any play anywhere.

“So it’s been an absolute joy to scour weird playlists online and find songs like ‘Soul Santa’ from the band Funk Machine, a band that released exactly one song in their existence as a band, the song ‘Soul Santa.’”

But, Barney admits, there are some out there that deserve their obscurity.

“There are definitely a bunch of clunkers in there, I played a song from Joe Pesci the other day that sounded like a good idea, but was really not a great song. But I love the novelty aspect of Christmas songs so I feel like there is a higher tolerance for the weird, though that could be just me.”

As for the response, Barney says it’s been great. He was especially pleased with the input from listeners when he asked for unconventional holiday song suggestions.

“I had a woman call and request a song called ‘Santa Skips Cudahy’ by (Milwaukee’s) Couch Flambeau,” he says. “They’d heard it in the early ‘90s and had remembered it since then. It’s a punky and really funny song about Santa skipping Cudahy.

“A bunch of other people called, too, with weird stuff and I love it. I think we all have our secret Christmas songs that we feel like no one else knows and everyone should hear, so we are finally getting to play all those.”

Frankly, the annual return of Christmas music is often met with a groan, but spend a little time listening to Radio Milwaukee this week and you just might change your mind about holiday tunes.

“I really love holiday songs,” says Barney. “There is a template there: the season of joy. So songwriters get to play with that expectation. A sad song can be really sad and a happy songs can be silly. A lot of rules go out the door.

“Most stations play the same 10 Christmas songs and they stop pretty much with Mariah Carey. But there are so many great ones out there.”

 

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.