Bill Adler has been making a holiday mix since the early 1980s. His 2016 version includes 28 tracks from various genres, among them soul, waltz, jazz, merengue and zydeco. Sasha Maslov for The New York Times
“Are you ready?” Bill Adler shouted with the joyful enthusiasm of a teenager about to set off a firecracker in his living room. Instead of lighting a fuse, Mr. Adler, 64, hit play on his home stereo in his Flatiron district apartment. Blasting out of the speakers was Calypso Rose’s upbeat “Oh Christmas,” one of the 28 tracks on Mr. Adler’s latest annual holiday mix, upon which he is putting the finishing touches.
It was suddenly Caribbean carnival meets Christmas, as the horns, steel pan, strumming guitars, maracas, bouncing bass and lilting vocals filled every crevice in the room.
“BOOM!” Mr. Adler yelled in his radio D.J. voice when the track ended. “Pure joy! It’s a party, isn’t it?”
Since 1982, Mr. Adler has been making a holiday mix — which he calls his “Christmas Jollies” — as a gift for his growing legion of friends, family and associates. It started as a mix tape for about a dozen people, and in 1999 it went digital; this year’s 55-minute CD will go out to 500 people.
close story-body close supplemental
Mr. Adler has worn more hats in the music industry than he can remember: critic and journalist, author, publicist, record executive, radio D.J., archivist. But the one constant in his life, besides his wife and two grown children, is this mix CD.
“It’s pure pleasure,” he said. “It’s not work. It’s bigger than I am.”
This is not a collection of Bing Crosby and Andy Williams standards, with some “Frosty the Snowman” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” novelties thrown in.
“I don’t do cheese,” Mr. Adler said. “People don’t realize how much terrible music I listen to to get to the good stuff.”
This is serious business, a heartfelt, carefully curated collection of mostly soul, R&B, Latin and Caribbean music, jazz and blues that takes nearly a year for Mr. Adler to compile. He dives into record store bins and haunts city flea markets, enlisting family to do the same; takes recommendations from trusted friends; searches iTunes; calls record store owners around the country; and spends hour upon hour surfing YouTube for the perfect, rarest of tracks.
This year’s mix begins with an introduction from a Bobby Bland record that Mr. Adler happened to have in his 3,000-album collection (he also has about 1,000 CDs and 500 45s). “Ladies and gentlemen,” the voice says, “Here’s the man ——” the voice switches to Mr. Adler, dubbed in, who announces: “Santa. Santa Claus.”
The CD skillfully winds through a variety of genres and spoken-word segments, including some fast-talking Christmas banter from La Mega, a New York Latin radio station. Mr. Adler recorded several hours of the station last year in preparation.
A Dominican group, Alberto Díaz y Sensación, performs a lightning-fast merengue, “Navidad con Lechon,” which translates roughly as “Christmas With Suckling Pig.” (Mr. Adler may not do cheese, but he does do pork.)
Mr. Adler will happily detail the provenance of each and every track on his mixes.
“You go looking for one record,” he said of his YouTube searches, “but then there are two dozen other records you didn’t even know about.”
The challenge every year is to find enough great music to fill up that year’s lineup. “Luckily,” he said, “there’s a ton of new Christmas recordings released every year, and there’s a continent of previously recorded Christmas songs still to be discovered. Most of it is damn near unlistenable, in my opinion, but I always manage to sift out 50 to 55 minutes of gold.”
There’s rockabilly, electric blues guitar, Cajun music, a Christmas waltz, some soul and a “Sleigh Ride” through the honking horns and revving motors of Los Angeles with El Vez, known as the Chicano Elvis.
It takes nearly a year for Mr. Adler to compile. “People don’t realize how much terrible music I listen to to get to the good stuff,” he said. Sasha Maslov for The New York Times
As a palette cleanser, Kent Brockman, the news anchor from “The Simpsons,” makes an announcement about global warming: “Meteorologists warn there will be no snow this Christmas anywhere in America, not even in Alaska, where the Eskimos now have 100 words for ‘nothing.’”
This year, Mr. Adler discovered a Christmas zydeco tune by Rockin’ Sidney through a new friend he made in Rayne, a small Louisiana town in Acadia Parish — Christine Stelly, the owner of No-Name Vinyl. “She has stacks and stacks of old 45s,” he said. “She’s just the nicest woman, and she signed onto my quest.”
Ms. Stelly digs through the 45s, takes photos of the labels and emails them to Mr. Adler, who decides what to buy and sends her a money order.
The pièce de résistance is “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’,” by Mack Rice. “Santa’s at home the night before Christmas,” Mr. Adler explained, “trying to get ready, but he also wants to be able to spend some time with his wife. Are you married? Dig this.”
There is also the occasional Hanukkah song, though not as many as Mr. Adler would like. “I look every year,” he said, “but there are very few wonderful Hanukkah songs.” This year, it’s Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings’ “8 Days (of Hanukkah)”: “Cooking up the brisket the kosher butcher sold my Uncle Saul.” It was poignant good luck the song made the cut; Ms. Jones died at age 60 last month.
Mr. Adler was born in Brooklyn out in Sheepshead Bay a few days before Christmas but never celebrated it growing up. His bris was held on Jesus’ birthday. “A nice Jewish fellow himself,” he says.
He grew up in Detroit, where he said he was spoiled by amazing radio, and one of his earliest jobs was as a D.J. there. He then landed a job as the music critic at The Boston Herald, quit and made the move to New York with the chef and cookbook author Sara Moulton — “my high-earning wife,” he calls her.
After marrying Ms. Moulton in 1981, he was pulled into her family’s Christmas celebrations. He loved everything but the music. “It was typical and shopworn,” he said, “so I started to put together my own Christmas soundtrack.”
In New York, he worked as a freelance journalist and eventually met Russell Simmons, the hip-hop impresario behind Def Jam records. Mr. Adler offered to work at the label, which didn’t have a publicist at the time. “I had never been a publicist, but I’d spoken to enough of them,” he said. Those years, Mr. Simmons, Slick Rick and Grand Master Dee made cameos on Mr. Adler’s Christmas mixes. Even Julia Child, Ms. Moulton’s mentor, made an appearance.
During his time at Def Jam, Run DMC recorded “Christmas in Hollis,” one of the best-known Christmas rap songs. Mr. Adler, who came up with the title, let Jam Master Jay rifle through his collection of soulful Christmas records. He picked out Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa,” whose sample became the musical basis of “Christmas in Hollis.”
Every year on Mr. Adler’s mix, there is a bonus track dedicated to Ms. Moulton: this time a jazz rendition of “It’s You or No One,” with a trombone solo by J. J. Johnson that’s so beautiful “it tears your heart out,” he said.
And at the very end of the mix is a repurposed holiday greeting from the Obamas. “This is something I planned anyway,” Mr. Adler said, “but in the wake of the recent election….”
Mr. Adler’s 30-year-old daughter, Ruthie, who lives at home with her 26-year-old brother, Sam, has designed the covers of the CD for the past five years. The one this year is drawn from an old Mickey Mouse lobby card from 1932, culled from a calendar.
Mr. Adler just handed over the records and digitized files to his audio engineer, Jacob Burckhardt, who edits some tracks, improves their sound quality and sequences them in seamless fashion. Finally, the master is sent to a CD plant to be pressed.
This week, Mr. Adler will mail them out. “If I send it to somebody and I don’t hear anything over the course of several years, they might drop off my list,” he said, sounding like a rather severe Santa.
Ruthie Adler, when asked if she tired of her father’s Christmas tunes, shook her head. “My mother and I migrate from different parts of the house to dance to it,” she said. “It never gets old.”