Whether you’re religious or not, Christmas involves the renewal of tradition. Ever since Bing Crosby first crooned about the ones he used to know (“White Christmas” topped the Billboard chart 70 years ago this month), pop music has played its part – for better or worse. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, Andy Williams tells Americans ... every holiday season. Our stocking of festive sentiment is stuffed with song. If we’re not carousing with “Mistletoe and Wine” (Cliff Richard), we’re “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (Brenda Lee) or out building “Frosty the Snowman” (The Ronettes).
Familiarity is all very well, but doesn’t the soundtrack get a bit tiresome? Although the major record labels annually add to their slush-pile of schmaltz – this year Rod Stewart, Lady Antebellum, and John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John have released Christmas fare – the same few “classic” songs repeat on us more than Aunt Sally’s sprouts. But hark: you can have a cooler musical yule.
A host of indie artists have recorded Christmas tunes, both covers and originals, deliberately hokey or genuinely heart-warming, raucous or tender. Or they can be all those things and more, as with “Fairytale of New York”, by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl; the song is marking its 25th anniversary but joined the official Christmas canon long before now.
The bar for “alternative” acts was raised in 1999 by the Minnesota “slowcore” trio Low, with their gorgeous, melancholy collection simply entitled Christmas. Today, the chief altar boy must be the eclectic Sufjan Stevens, who has just delivered Silver & Gold, five festive EPs to go with the five that he made between 2001 and 2006.
The best of this year’s offerings is Tracey Thorn’s Tinsel and Lights. The former Everything But the Girl singer is currently tweeting an ecard advent calendar linked to the album. The key for her when choosing songs is to explore broader “seasonal” themes. Alongside covers of the likes of Joni Mitchell (“The River”) to The White Stripes (“In the Cold, Cold Night”), Thorn has penned a “secular carol”, “Joy”. It’s a touching account of why, while not a believer, Thorn values Christmas as “a time to set aside the crappy things of life and just celebrate stuff together”.
Then there have always been a sleighful of genre twists on Christmas: Motown extravaganzas; Latin selections (it’s not just about José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad”); the folk treasure trove MidWinter; the self-explanatory Mambo, Santa, Mambo; blues, reggae and rockabilly cuts; and, as retailers say, “many more”. You’d have to be a proper Scrooge not to find something to enjoy.
In fact, it’s hard to know where to start. Who better to consult, then, than self-confessed “Christmas-music missionaries” Jay Varner and Patrick Culliton? A prose writer and poet respectively, they blog about their obsessions at Talus, or Scree. Varner’s Merrymaking Mix 2012 runs to six volumes. Other blogs with excellent seasonal-pop pickings include Songs: Illinois, Cover Lay Down and Christmas A Go-Go.
“One man’s schmaltz is another man’s jam,” says Varner. “You hear things like sleigh bells in songs because those are shorthand references that tap straight into the well of a collective, accepted memory of Christmas.” But that doesn’t mean that “during a time of year that’s often fraught with sadness and struggle”, as Varner notes, Christmas pop can’t handle serious emotions. “Tom Waits, who has a fantastic holiday tune called ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’, once said that music is our emotional weather report. As a society, we’re immersed in music nearly all the time. So, of course, pop should deal with everything related to the human experience of Christmas.”
By way of illustration, one of the songs Varner and Culliton recommend is Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December”. It’s as relevant today, Varner says, as it was in 1973. “With the loss of a steady paycheck, the masculine narrator feels downright impotent. December is more than just ‘the coldest time of winter’ to him. It’s the type of woeful, rueful message that sums up Haggard at his very best.”
For something completely different, try Emmy the Great (aka singer-songwriter Emma-Lee Moss) and Tim Wheeler (from the band Ash) and their shlocky horror Christmas show. “We wanted to throw a party worthy of the potential last Christmas ever, according to the Mayans,” says Moss, referring to the prediction that the world will end on December 21. “It was either going to be Zombie Christmas or Last Christmas, and since we’d just made a zombie film and released the single ‘Zombie Christmas’, we went with that. We’re hoping George Michael can still make it.”
Three such gigs will pillage the pair’s This Is Christmas album, which they released last year. “Sometimes I think the entire project exists as a vehicle for our seasonal puns, and so we can hang out and have stupid fun,” says Moss. “At Christmas, I like songs to be cheesy but also kind of tongue-in-cheek.” Seeing Santa impaled by a Flying V guitar, as in the “Zombie Christmas” video, is some tongue in some cheek.
My own favourites are influenced by an early 1990s youth and, latterly, the Christmas special of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. With thanks to my interviewees, the compilation accompanying this article is an alternative Top 20. It could easily have been a Hot 100. When it comes to Christmas pop, borrow the advice of a certain upmarket watch brand: build your own tradition.
Tracey Thorn’s ‘Tinsel and Lights’ is out now on Strange Feeling/Merge; For Zombie Christmas dates and tickets, visit www.ents24.com
Choice cuts: Not a turkey among them
Jay Varner and Patrick Culliton’s picks:
Marvin Gaye, “Purple Snowflakes” – A beautiful flurry of drift-bound soul
The Band “Christmas Must Be Tonight” – Country-rock visits the manger
The Flaming Lips, “Christmas at the Zoo” – The animals choose to stay: wonderfully sad
Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns, “All I Want for Christmas (Is a Little Bit of Music”) – The New Orleans legends crank it up
Merle Haggard, “If We Make It Through December” – The oil crisis hits Bakersfield at Christmas
Emmy the Great’s picks:
The Waitresses, “Christmas Wrapping” – A brass-pumped, Blondie-esque new-wave stomp
John Prine, “Christmas in Prison” – The ultimate insider ballad
The Killers, “Don’t Shoot Me Santa” – Serially humorous hitmen on target again
Julian Casablancas, “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” – The Strokes singer hustles down the chimney
Smith & Burrows, “This Ain’t New Jersey” – Twinkly stoicism from the Editors frontman and the former Razorlight drummer
Tracey Thorn’s picks:
Dolly Parton, “Hard Candy Christmas” – Hankies out as she battles through
Ron Sexsmith, “Maybe This Christmas” – Faith, hope and wistfulness
Harry Nilsson, “Snow” – Buried dreams, as written by Randy Newman
Low, “Taking Down the Tree” – Fragile reflections on Twelfth Night
Sufjan Stevens, “Sister Winter” – Lovelorn and, at first, icily delicate
Richard Clayton’s picks:
The Staple Singers, “Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?” – A shot of gospel-soul righteousness
Brave Combo, “Must Be Santa” – Rock-polka mayhem, endorsed by The Simpsons
Lord Nelson, “Party for Santa Claus” – Calypsonian chips in for the fat man
Saint Etienne featuring Tim Burgess, “I Was Born on Christmas Day” – A perfect dance-pop marriage
JD McPherson, “Twinkle (Little Christmas Lights)” – A new song that sounds like an old Little Richard one