The Bargain Bin



Working at a record store taught me a tragic truth; no matter how much you love your favorite albums, they’ll never be as popular as they deserve to be. Each month at Merry-Go-Round Magazine, I dust off some long-overlooked records, revisit my pretentious past, and explore how this music forever etched itself into my history. Eventually, all your memories get marked down and thrown into The Bargain Bin.

There are only a handful of Christmas songs I ever need to hear leading up to the holiday. The Kinks’ “Father Christmas,” The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping,” and They Might Be Giants’ “Santa’s Beard.” I can usually avoid most of the rest since I no longer work in retail… other than when our upstairs neighbor blasts Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” while she decorates her trees. I’m not bothered by hearing carols and multiple versions of every classic song written millions of years ago; I just rarely, if ever, seek them out on my own.

But growing up, it wasn’t the change in weather or the colorful lights lining the gutters of every other house in town that signaled the arrival of the holidays. You knew Santa was coming to town soon when Mom popped in the A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS compilation into the tape deck and The Pointer Sisters merrily listed the generic children’s toys they were hoping to get from that jolly, rosy-cheeked man who sneaks into most homes. As soon as Thanksgiving was over, VOLUMES 1 and 2 would be on constant rotation in her clunky white Saturn through the end of the year.

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Conceived as a fundraiser for the Special Olympics, each volume of the compilation series features a different color cover with the same iconic Keith Haring artwork. It introduced me to yuletide hip hop with the RUN-D.M.C. classic “Christmas in Hollis,” gave me the gift of a lifelong indifference to Bruce Springsteen, and ensured we always left room under the tree for Tom Petty and U2.

Mom told us that Santa Claus wasn’t real when we were very young because the idea of someone breaking into our house in the middle of the night freaked me out. She recently told me that alleviating my anxiety was more important to her than keeping up the magic. While I had accepted the truth, my sister, Aubrey, was a year-and-a-half younger, which felt like a lifetime to a kid, and I didn’t want her to lose out on the joy that comes with all those bold holiday lies we’ve agreed to tell children whether they are naughty or nice, so each year we recreated that magic even if I was still a bit uneasy thinking about running into a bowl full of jelly in the middle of the night.

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The year that officially broke Aubrey’s faith in the legend of Kris Kringle wasn’t long after our parents divorced. Mom found a gift from Santa he somehow left in her bedroom closet: a copy of the board game YAHOO BUCKAROO! The goal is to fling plastic cowboys from their little bendy horse-catapults onto the back of an angry bucking bull. This event was the final straw for Aub; her face turned red as she balled her hands into little fists of protest. Aubrey refused to touch the game, holding a grudge against it for ruining the magic of Christmas, though our stepdad and I ended up playing it fairly often. YAAAA-HOO!

In September of 1997, we welcomed my baby sister Malorie into the world, and winter of that same year brought us a copy of A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS 3. With the inclusion of bands like The Smashing Pumpkins and No Doubt, this one felt more contemporary, considering the previous two were five and 10 years old at this point. The No Doubt cover of The Vandals’ “Oi to the World” was, much like the original, particularly cringeworthy, but I liked hearing how Billy Corgan felt about the holidays. Plus, where else are you gonna hear Chris Cornell sing “Ave Maria”?

Since the divorce, our parents worked out a fair and amicable custody agreement, which included holidays. We’d always spend Christmas Eve at Mom’s, then Aubrey and I would head to our father’s house on Christmas Day. The tricky part was finding a way to keep up the illusion of Santa as Malorie got older.

For her, presents never arrived for Christmas morning; instead, they would magically appear around the tree after we three siblings hid upstairs in Malorie’s room. We would giggle together as we heard “Santa” shuffling around the living room, leaving a pile of presents under the tree and an empty plate where we’d left an offering of cookies for St. Nick and carrots for his hoofed friends.

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Christmas Eve 2003, Santa left a perfect cube wrapped in holiday paper for a six-year-old Mal. She started to tear into it, but when she saw the Nintendo logo on the box beneath, she stopped.

“Aw, no, this is for Jack!” she said with a small sigh of defeat.

“No, it isn’t,” I told her. “It’s a brand new Nintendo, just for you.”

It was magical to see her little face light up with excitement. As a kid who once announced that her favorite kind of animal was “baby animals,” Mal spent the next few years playing games like SUPER MONKEY BALL and ANIMAL CROSSING.

Towards the end of the 2010s, Mom decided we all needed a set of every volume of A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS on CD, so she asked me to order them at the record store, including the volume that advertises all the songs performed by “Today’s Top Christian Artists.” We are not a religious family, but instead are much worse: a group of devout collection completionists.

After revisiting the first three volumes this winter, I realized only a handful of songs still hold any special meaning for me, and the rest just made for excellent background music as we hung out under the tree. But when I see that iconic cover, I’m hit with these waves of nostalgia for snowier Christmases and piles of presents under the tree.

Jack Probst
Jack is a freelance pop culture writer living in St. Louis, Missouri. His writing has also been featured in Pitchfork, Paste Magazine, CREEM Magazine, NME, and The Riverfront Times. He appreciates the works of James Murphy, Wes Anderson, and Super Mario. He also enjoys writing paragraphs about himself in his spare time.

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