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18 Hours of Christmas Music: My Holiday Hellride

I've always enjoyed hearing new Christmas music, but there's just so much of it. Every fall, I receive dozens of new holiday CDs — countless hours of music to sift through in the long, agonizing buildup to Christmas.

This year, shortly before Thanksgiving, I decided to save them all for one epic binge during a 1,000-mile road trip to see family — to be captivated by the holiday spirit while held literally captive.

Pulling out of the driveway, I started — as one does — with A Swingin' Christmas, by Michael Bolton. And thus began 18 of the longest hours of my life. Bolton's "swingin' Christmas" was my "ploddin' Christmas," a tensely endured soundtrack for a holiday hellride through D.C. traffic.

Still, I would get through 21 CDs before the journey's end. Some actually evoked the joy of the season. The Staple Singers made a glorious gospel record back in 1962: Now on CD after years out of print, The 25th Day of December exudes grace and reverence.

That wasn't the only treat. Over the Rhine and Mindy Smith each played songs of gentle beauty. Rock bands Relient K and Sister Hazel tried out new songs that were sincere, lighthearted or both.

But at times, my voyage seemed like an exercise in punishing gonzo journalism. In my worst moments, I felt like Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but with Josh Groban songs instead of mescaline.

Someone had sent me a new version of A Twismas Story, a 1983 album on which the late country singer Conway Twitty performs holiday favorites alongside a character called Twitty Bird. Nine hundred miles into my trip, I may have hallucinated this album into existence. But suddenly, during its final track, I found myself loving the oddball sincerity of A Twismas Story.

Just then, as Conway Twitty told Twitty Bird the story of Jesus' birth, a gentle snowfall graced the skies over Manitowoc, Wis. In that instant, surreal as it was, I felt the season arrive in a literal flurry — a moment as beautiful as it was bizarre.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)