I’m a total sap for this time of year. What can I say? I get all soggy with nostalgia over the brightly colored leaves, mulled ciders, and communal over-feasting. This is a time when we bask in the glow of our nearest and dearest, saving up all that human warmth for the fast-approaching winter.
I savor every second of it.
I decorate my kitchen with gourds.
I rake leaves even though I live in the city and don’t actually have a yard.
I step outside in the morning wearing dungarees and a cardigan sweater, I wink at the glinting sun, and I breathe in the crisp autumnal bouquet, invigorated like a man in a soap commercial.
Autumn is my happy place, and I think a big part of it is the promise of Thanksgiving, the great harvest feast, the climax of a season already sweetened by costumes, candy, and cranberry sauce. It’s about more than the holiday, the family, the friends, the football, and all the things that I’m endlessly grateful for.
It’s also about the fact that Thanksgiving is a four-day oasis in the midst of your busiest season, the extended weekend that gives you the juice you need to get through the rest of the semester. My apologies to those of you who have to work on Black Friday. Your employers are jerks.
If I could bring every one of you a plate of stuffing and a slice of pumpkin pie at work, I would. It’s just not logistically possible. There is one thing I can do for you though. I can make you a mix.
I know what you’re thinking. You can’t eat that.
No, but you’ve got four days ahead of you (plus Wednesday night, and I know you have plans). Anyway, four days off probably means at least one late night out with friends, some amount of time spent prepping food, maybe a friendly game of “rough-touch” football with some old high school mates, at least one (possibly two) massive family feasts, and—if you’re into this sort of thing—bargain hunting in the midst of holiday-inspired retail pandemonium.
There’s a lot to cram into your precious time off. And you really should find a few minutes to relax too. The last month of the semester looms ahead with the promise of finals just around the corner.
You need the right music to make it through your holiday weekend, and it should simultaneously strike a balance between the inspiriting tint of autumn, and the sheer variety of sounds needed to accompany you through your cornucopia of holiday activities.
I made you just such a mix, with a few notes on why this is the perfect playlist for your Thanksgiving break. But in the spirit of the season, I’m not just handing you a frozen turkey and leaving you to your own resources. It comes with all the trimmings, which in this case, is a really forced metaphor about the following tips for making your own holiday mix. What follows is the perfect recipe for your long weekend soundtrack, along with the massive, gorge-worthy playlist to back it up.
A Marvelous Night for a Moondance
There are a few key themes that you absolutely must hit on for the perfect autumn mix. The moon is a big one. The Harvest Moon, the full moon which occurs closest to the fall equinox, rises early on the evening of its arrival, and it looks so big and low that it feels like you could drive right into it. If you plan to at least attempt this feat, you’ll need a good helping of lunar tunes, including Nick Drake’s impossibly graceful “Pink Moon,” King Harvest’s bonfire classic, “Dancing in the Moonlight,” and obviously, Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.”
Do your best to avoid celestial bummers. Nobody wants to hear Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage/Eclipse” at your Thanksgiving dinner. Things will turn sad and one of your uncles—the one who really “experienced” the ’70s—will start drinking hard and telling depressing stories about how being a roadie for Molly Hatchet made him the man he is today.
Oh, and don’t you dare make an autumn mix without Van Morrison’s “Moondance.”
For that matter, you should probably have at least three other Van Morrison songs on your list. Van Morrison is basically an autumn theme until himself.
Van Morrison is the sound of your feet crunching leaves on the patio. He’s the sound of geese squawking from the grey sky overhead on their way to where it’s warm all year ’round. He’s the sound of Ireland’s finest tunesmith serenading the early setting sun. (Sorry. I warned you that I get gooey this time of year.)
Anyway, the hard part is narrowing it down to the right set of songs. It’s your call but I’d start with a few tunes off of landmark Van records Astral Weeks, His Band and Street Choir, or St. Dominic’s Preview. Honestly though, you really can’t go wrong. The only mistake you can make is not having enough Van Morrison.
“Autumn Leaves” and other Jazz Standards
It’s not just about Classic Rock on Thanksgiving. This is also a time for classy jazz that feels like leaves gently fluttering to a quiet city street. You’ll need dinner music, the kind your shrill Aunt Heddie won’t have to yell over to be heard. She’ll still yell, but not because she has to.
Start with a few fireside piano pieces by guys like Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, or Bill Evans. You should also have a half-dozen Vince Guaraldi songs in there. He’s the piano jazzer who did all the music for the Peanuts movies and, honestly, he just sounds like the holidays. “Linus and Lucy” is a Christmas Classic, but it’s exactly like gift shopping. You have permission to start listening to it as of this weekend.
A few of the spritelier guitar virtuosos can add a touch of genteel chill to your weekend. I like Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, and Les Paul for just such an occasion.
Add some upbeat vocal tunes by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong and maybe a few comforting crooners. Start with Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, and the ultra-cool Lou Rawls. Pretty much everybody in the world has done a version of “ Autumn in New York” —composed by Vernon Duke in 1934—and “ Autumn Leaves,” which was adapted into English from a 1945 French composition called “ Les Feuilles Mortes,” literally translated, “ The Dead Leaves.” Anyway, you are legally obligated to include at least one version of each, but which version is entirely up to you.
On the general subject of vocal jazz, avoid sour dirges. The right track by Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan is an autumn breeze. The wrong tune is winter sludge, the kind that soaks through your shoe after all the snowy charm has melted away and what’s left is blackened by motor oil.
Choose wisely. Only good vibes this weekend.
Thanks for the Memories
Of course, gratitude is another of the holiday’s key themes. As long as you have a few days off, you’re advised to spend them reflecting on all the things for which you’re grateful: the family, friends, and comforts in your life; the rare experiences you’ve been privileged to have and the unforeseen opportunities yet ahead; the sheer fact that you’re alive, that you have a fridge full of leftovers, that you can listen to music at top volume while driving with your windows down, that you have this time off, and even that you have obligations that you must return to when vacation is over. (Obligation is good. Otherwise, what are you even really doing?)
Whatever you’re thankful for this season, celebrate it in song. A few of my favorites for the occasion: Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You,” Natalie Merchant’s “Kind ” Generous,” and William DeVaughan’s “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got.”
This is also a good place for songs about home. After all, this holiday is all about heading home to be with those for whom you’re most thankful: friends, family, and the dog you haven’t seen since you left at the start of the semester. For this theme, I’d pitch Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes’ “ Home,” Simon ” Garfunkel’s “ Homeward Bound,” and the Talking Heads “ This Must Be the Place.”
Though historical records are sparse on the earliest American Thanksgiving observance, it seems likely that it began as a religious celebration in which the pilgrims and Puritans of Plymouth colony (in modern-day Massachusetts) held a feast to thank God for a particularly bountiful harvest. Thus a tradition was born, one that gradually developed into a secular harvest celebration. So our gratitude for all things began simply as a show of gratitude for the opportunity to eat corn, squash, sweet potatoes, and all the other things we were just figuring out how to grow back then.
While documentation of the inaugural 1621 harvest celebration is limited, it’s well documented that Neil Young released the landmark country-rock record Harvest back in 1972. This is a good starting point if your playlist is to properly reflect your gratitude for the harvest, be it actual or metaphorical.
After you’ve pulled a few tunes from Harvest—maybe the title track and “Ready for the Country”—consider adding any song that you might enjoy listening to while bedecked in flannel, chewing on straw, and lounging in a haystack—should you happen to find yourself in such an enviable position.
A few good examples: The Band’s “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” and Sting’s “Fields of Gold.”
As long as you’re on the subject of harvest, anything that is specifically about the season itself will also fit in nicely. A few of my favorites here are Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater,” The Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather,” and—recommended with no small amount of hometown pride—Hall ” Oates’ “Fall in Philadelphia.”
Turkey in the Straw
There are actually more songs about turkey than you probably realize. It’s up to you to decide which ones fit the vibe of your celebration. The Ohio Players “Jive Turkey” is a good way to funk up your weekend. Bob Dylan’s “Turkey Chase” is an infusion of high-mountain bluegrass. “Turkey Trot” by Little Eva is about as thematically on-the-nose as it gets.
Obviously, turkey’s not the only thing on your table, hence the inclusion of tunes like Cracker’s “ Sweet Potato,” Louis Jordan’s “ Beans and Cornbread,” Jay ” the Techniques “ Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie,” and—since I know a bunch of you plan to kick off the weekend with a late Wednesday night out—Beck’s seamy “ Nicotine ” Gravy.” I actually couldn’t find any good tunes about cranberry sauce, so I just threw something by the Cranberries on there. If you have a better idea, I’d love to hear it.
But most importantly, you must put aside eighteen minutes and thirty-six seconds for Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre,” the single most important composition ever created on the subject of Thanksgiving. If you’re interested in a deeper history on this piece, check out Alice’s Restaurant: Classic Rock’s Thanksgiving Tradition.
This tune is pretty narrative-heavy (and absolutely hilarious), so it’s best to play during a calm moment while you’re prepping something for dinner.
Winter Is Coming
So here’s the real secret to a great Thanksgiving playlist. With the approach of winter, nothing warms quite like happy memories, including those you’ll make during this Thanksgiving holiday. This means that half the point of your Thanksgiving playlist is to pull manipulatively at the nostalgia-strings of your loved ones.
All the songs recommended above are meant to provide thematic substance. The rest is up to you, but with one crucial bit of advice. Play heavy on the sentimentality of your friends and family. Flesh out your playlist with those comforting and familiar delights that conjure the spirits of seasons past.
If you’re an oldies family, fire up a few sturdy horses like Sam Cooke’s “Havin’ a Party,” the Ronette’s “Be My Baby,” and “Stay” by Maurice ” the Zodiacs.
If you come from the ’80s, you’ll want a few synthy Delorean time-warpers like Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” and something from the cheesiest corner of Rod Stewart’s catalogue, maybe “Rhythm of My Heart.”
This is where personal preference makes your playlist special. Whether your Thanksgivings have been soundtracked by Motown’s greatest hits, hip hop’s Old School heroes, the best one-hit wonders of the ’90s alterna-boom, or just the Beatles, this is the stuffing. Jam it on up there, as much as you can fit.
Indeed, this is a long weekend (though not necessarily long enough, I think we can all agree). Point is, you’ll need a lot of music. This plateful is just a starting point.
Feel free to steal my playlist, add to it, subtract from it, and make it your own. Thanksgiving is all about your family’s tradition. If your family’s tradition is to blast Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba” at top volume while you carve your turkey with a hedge-trimmer, who am I to judge (out loud, anyway)? So, yeah. If this playlist does the job for you, listen as is, either straight through or on shuffle. If you have your own ideas about what should and shouldn’t be here—and the near-constant debate surrounding my list of the 100 Best Rock Bands of All Time suggests that you do—take this playlist and its accompanying instruction manual as a starting point for your own perfect holiday mix.
And of course, Happy Thanksgiving to all! Get some rest, eat way too much, say hi to your Aunt Heddie for us, and we’ll see you after the break.