“I really like Christmas. It’s sentimental, I know, but I just really like it”.
So says Tim Minchin in his lovely song, “White Wine in the Sun”. I entirely agree, and just like him,
“I have all of the usual objections
To consumerism, the commercialisation of an ancient religion
To the westernisation of a dead Palestinian
Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer
But I still really like it”
I do like Christmas, almost in spite of myself and certainly in spite of any religious overtones. I especially like the songs.
For me, this time of year is about my friends and about the music. I like this time of year because people often seem a bit softer around the edges and a little more inclined to be nice to each other. I like the music because…. well, I’m not really sure why, to be honest. I just do, and I think I always have. Perhaps it is because I’m sentimental, increasingly so as I get older.
I’m resolutely atheist nowadays, but I had the traditional C of E education and was in the school choir from the age of seven. Perhaps as a result, I have been left with an abiding love of the beauty and dignity of much religious ceremony, especially at this time of year. I love the warmth of the spreading light of candles in the darkest part of the year you sometimes get in church services during advent, even if I have little time for the message itself. Whatever you might think of some of the lyrical content, God has sure got some tunes. I remember being mesmerised as a chorister when we learned to sing “Adam Lay Ybounden“, a fifteenth century carol.
Adam lay i-bowndyn
Bowndyn in a bond
Fowre thowsand winter
Thowt he not to long
It was my first introduction to Middle English and it’s a stunningly, beautiful song and slightly other-worldy song, as are others of the same ilk, like “Gaudete!” (covered by Steeleye Span, of course) or “Adeste Fideles”. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but still those songs somehow never fail to move me.
Of course, not long after that, I discovered Slade and Wizzard and Shakey and all the rest of it. They’re great up to a point, but I’m afraid that I’m heartily sick of them now. The basic problem is that there’s a selection of about fifteen to twenty songs that seems to represent for most people the total extent of Christmas. You hear them everywhere from about the end of September onwards; they’re in every shop as retailers desperately try to convince you to start your Christmas shopping earlier than ever before. No matter how good they are as songs – and some of them have endured for a reason – constant rotation will kill them. Even a song as good as “Fairytale of New York”, for many years everyone’s favourite alternative Christmas classic, has suffered because it has become a key part of the seasonal canon and is played as much – if not more – as the rest of them. It’s still a brilliant record, it’s just been hopelessly overplayed and I need a break from it. I actually worked for HMV in their York branch over the Christmas of 1996, and we managed to avoid putting on any Christmas songs until Christmas Eve itself. We had it off by lunchtime: half a day was more than enough, even when the alternative was some godawful Ministry of Sound compilation album.
For some years now, in an attempt to rediscover some joy in the music of the season, I’ve been on a quest to find some alternatives. You don’t have to travel very far before you find some real corkers. I really got started in 2000, when XFM released a charity album to raise money for The Big Issue. “It’s a Cool, Cool, Christmas” contains some classics by some really quite cool indie bands, from “Alan Parsons in a Winter Wonderland” by Grandaddy, “Everything’s Going to be Cool this Christmas” by Eels (“baby Jesus….born to rock!) through “Felix Navi-nada” by El Vez and “White Christmas” by the Flaming Lips. There are some pretty cool bands on here, and Jona Lewie this definitely is not. From here, I found Sufjan Stevens, Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler (who doesn’t love a Christmas song about the zombie apocalypse?), Smith & Burrows, Laura Marling, Zoey Deschanel (as part of She & Him), Tracey Thorn….the list is ever-growing There’s also masses of pre-Slade Christmas classics just aching to be rediscovered: James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin, the surf guitar of the Ventures, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, “A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector” (in its entirety, obviously).
It’s a veritable winter wonderland out there. The quest goes on too, this year’s new releases don’t look too promising (Leona Lewis, Kelly Clarkson, Susan Boyle…. Although Nick Lowe’s “Quality Street” looks like it might be worth a look) but there are probably some gems out there just waiting to be discovered. And if anyone knows how I can get hold of a copy of the Trojan Christmas Boxset or Weezer’s Christmas album, then please let me know.
Seasonal Songs – a personal top 10 (although this changes every year!)
10. “Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)” – Laura Marling (from “I Speak Because I Can”)
Not specifically a Christmas song, but one that conjures up a lovely image of a wintry England and wrapping up against the cold.
9. Seven O’Clock News/Silent Night – Simon & Garfunkel (from “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”)
I like my music with a melancholy edge, and I like my seasonal music just the same. It’s quite understated to put the beautiful harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel against some depressing and ominous news from 1966. Powerful, especially the way the carol fades down and the news fades up as the song goes on.
8. “Baby It’s Cold Outside” – Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting (single, released in 1949)
A standard, of course, and covered many times… but this is my favourite. Often erroneously attributed to Doris Day and either Dean Martin or Bing Crosby, this recording actually dates back all the way to 1949 and has just the right level of playfulness-without-creepiness that this song needs to work.
7. “Sleigh Ride” – The Ronettes (from “A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector”, although hat tip to the Ventures surf guitar version from “The Ventures’ Christmas Album”)
Not exactly alternative, but you really can’t go wrong with a little Phil Spector at this time of year, can you? Often covered, but never bettered. Do check out the surf guitar Christmas songs of the Ventures though: instrumentals with lots of wobbly guitars, thumping drums and intros that nod cheekily to other bands.
6. “Home for the Holidays” – Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler (from “This is Christmas”)
I adore this record, full of mostly straight-faced love of the holiday period. A mixture of covers and original material, there are songs on here about the zombie apocalypse, the imagined plight of Mrs Christmas stuck in the North Pole alone on Xmas Eve and this lovely song about meeting up with an old friend back home.
5. “White Winter Hymnal” – Fleet Foxes (from “Fleet Foxes”)
Perhaps this is a throwback to Adam lay ybounden for me… this is as much a medieval rondel as a modern rock song, after all. Not about Christmas, but definitely about winter and, for all that the harmonies are lovely, certainly delivered with a hint of menace and violence.
4. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” – Joseph Spence (from “Living on the Hallelujah Side”)
Ah, Sandy Claw. He sounds like a drunken muppet and he certainly doesn’t seem to know all the words to the song, but this Bahamian blues legend delivers my favourite ever version of this old standard. This song simply has to be heard to be believed.
3. “When the Thames Froze” – Smith & Burrows (from “Funny Looking Angels”)
A pairing of that bloke from Editors and the guy who drummed for Razorlight sounds distinctly unpromising on paper. Luckily, on record, they sound great. This song and “This Ain’t New Jersey” in particular are the best contemporary Christmas songs I have heard in years. In the anguished refrain, “Those same old songs, every single year“, they’re clearly men after my own heart.
2. “Joy” – Tracey Thorn (from “Tinsel and Lights”)
Thorn’s beautifully downbeat voice makes this whole album a delight. This song celebrates the season for the way it can bring people together and help us appreciate what we have:
“Because of the dark, we see the beauty in the spark
We must be alright, if we could make up Christmas night“.
1. “River” – Joni Mitchell (from “Blue”)
Ah, Joni. So sad, and so fragile. For me the best song of the season with nothing else coming near. Both CeeLo Green and Tracey Thorn covered this last year, but for me this is the only version that counts.
What’s your favourite? All suggestions welcomed!