Let’s face it. Christmas is a fairly strange time of the year. Let’s forget about the Christian tradition of ‘borrowing’ celebration dates from other faiths and the whole story about a child being born to a virgin and being visited by three wise men. That is another argument for another day. Christmas comes once a year but is there any other holiday that demands such attention? Shops stay open longer, children demand more for presents, stress increases and inevitably tears and tantrums occur. And yet, within 24 hours all the panic will be forgotten about until the following year.
The ideal Christmas is one that is almost impossible to replicate. Certainly not the version that Hollywood sells us. And one of the main things rankles with me is Christmas songs. The ones blasted at us in every store and radio station. And if you work in such places over this period, it becomes even worse. We all know what they are. Pick up any version of ‘Greatest Christmas Hits’ and you can almost reel off 80-90% of them without seeing it. The level of imagination is low at the best of times but it plummets to incredible depths around now. Many of the songs are perfectly fine and decent numbers but are incredibly overplayed.
To counter all of those, it is time for a set of alternatives. For some of us, Christmas is rarely perfect. You have to incorporate the bickering, the over-indulgence, the panic, and for some the sense of loneliness. Not everyone can be with each other for that day. Due to work and other reasons, people can be separated from those they want to be with. Here are my choice of ten anthems people should listen to this festive season.
10. ‘Christmas Duel’ – The Hives & Cyndi Lauper.
It may have seemed a particularly strange link-up between the Swedish punks and the eighties pop star. The former were infamous for their raucous live shows and blitzkreig songs. The latter for karaoke pop favourites. On the face of it, the combination seemed odd. On record it makes perfect sense. The Swedes were always devout followers of the Ramones and they seized it on their chance to go all out ‘End of the Century’ era Phil Spector. The sound is quintessential wall of sound pop with a difference. ‘Baby I Love You’, this is not. Setting up with lyrics such as ‘I bought no gift this year and slept with your sister’ to be retorted with ‘I bought no tree this year and slept with your brother’. They rebelled against the likes of ‘Silent Night’ being snotty punks but wanted to recreate something for themselves. Catchy, infectious and entirely singable, it ticks all the boxes that both parties made their names with.
9. ‘Baby Jesus Blues’ – Marc Burrows.
It can’t be easy being Jesus. The future deity, rather than the lad from San Sebastian you went to college with. (Surely they couldn’t be the same?). It is your birthday and the start the celebrations in which your life’s worth is remembered. Of course not. Some fat, beardy lad from the North Pole gets to claim all of the credit for the most renowned day of the year. I for one, would be pretty hacked off. English comedian, Marc Burrows, sets the scene of a typical festive dinner where all the family is sitting around the table tucking into their dinner. A religious song comes over the airwaves which is immediately turned off. Not for them. An angel drops down and proceeds to inform them of the fact ‘You can’t have Christmas/without the baby Jesus’. Any refutes to this are immediately repudiated with ‘Everytime you try/You make the baby Jesus cry’. Wonderfully sacrilegious, irrelevant and insanely catchy. Play it and try not to sing along.
8. ‘Just Like Christmas’ – Low.
Sometimes it is hard for those born into the Christian tradition, to understand what it is like for those of other faiths at this time of year. The day seems so universal that to not celebrate in the same way as we do just seems bizarre. As much as the world has gotten smaller and more compressed together, perhaps the need to accentuate our differences needs to be respected. Born into the Mormon and Church of Latter day Saints faith, Low perhaps embody this. The faith does not celebrate on a set day in December but sticks to individual family traditions. (Can someone verify this?). The most upbeat and poppy of all their 1999 Christmas EP, this is an absolute delight. The lyrics tell of leaving Norway in the snow but it not being Christmas. Sometimes the life of a band on the road means that you lose a sense of what time of year it is. But ‘The beds were small/But we felt so young’ captures the excitement we all felt as a child to see snow outside and get the sense of Christmas.
7. ‘Christmas’ – Jesu.
Justin Broderick is not a man especially known for easy listening. Having cut his teeth during the recording sessions for Napalm Death’s Scum, he then went on to form the equally unsettling Godflesh. Groundbreaking stuff, but not likely to crop up during the broadcast of morning radio. It was therefore, expected that when his new outfit Jesu were releasing this in 2010, it was going to be anything but intense. Over almost nine minutes of sweet delicious post-metal and drone, Broderick is high on sound but low on lyrics. Those few are not likely to be sung along at too many parties this season. ‘What will Christmas bring for you this year?/Everything and nothing just the usual tears’ are some of the sentiments expressed over the music. The vocals are just audible enough to make themselves know. The bell lead section that leads into the heightening of guitars and drums towards the end is simply gorgeous however.
6. ‘Christmas Was Better in the Eighties’ – The Futureheads.
No matter who we are, it always seems that the entire season made most sense to us when younger. Things just made a lot more sense. You finished school on the culmination of a school play that seemed to be channeling the poise of Robert De Niro into your role as a donkey and that was it. The world was your oyster and all you had to do was to see your friends, hang up decorations and watch classic movies. The days of working until Christmas eve and facing the shopping rush did not exist. Sunderland’s Futureheads know all this. They plugged into the post-punk scene to play homage to the likes of Television Personalities, Wire and then Kate Bush. It starts with a low-key piano lead tribute to headier days before jumping into their more familiar explosive hallmarks. Albeit enhanced by festive bells and ‘la, la la’s’. It strikes the ideal balance between being sentimental for times of pure joy whilst not being too smaltzy.
5. ‘Everything’s Going To Be Great This Christmas’ – Eels.
Mark Everitt is not a man to strike you as being overly festive. Since beginning Eels in the early nineties, his default was a sardonic, withering view of the world. The usual themes of broken relationships, mental illness, family issues and death all have arisen in his music over the years. Born of one of the most famous physicists of all time, and growing up an agnostic, you would expect that Christmas would mean nothing to him. Assumptions have a habit of making asses of people however. It is ridiculously upbeat and rocked out for the entirety. His message of telling a friend ‘Remember when you were alone last year’ and later with ‘If I could have a friend like you in my life/Then I guess I’d be doing just fine’. No matter who you are, the sense of trying to reach out to those around you remains strong. The mid-section of ‘Baby Jesus rocks’ over the usual tinny Eels keyboard is just perfect.
4. ‘That Was the Worse Christmas Ever’ – Sufjan Stevens
There is excitement about Christmas and then there is Sufjan Stevens. From the early part of his recording career in 2001 to 2006, he released an E.P around Christmas every year. When this was finished, it was all released as a box set. Some of this involved various different covers of traditional songs and more had his own original material. This is especially appropriate. The recording is bare and stripped back with mainly his vocals and a banjo. When contrasted against the dark lyrics, it somehow seems to work. Simplicity is the key here. It tells of a fight at home where he questions if you can ‘be what you want to be’. The subsequent fall out sees gifts being thrown on the fire and his sister running out of the house. Despite him being a devout Christian, he has always striven to avoid pushing his beliefs onto others. The closing couplet of ‘Silent night/Holy night/Silent night/Nothing feels right’ matches the theme of the song. Tension and anger around the household will make any season period will diminished.
3. ‘All I Want For Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit’ – Half Man Half Biscuit.
Despite the popularity with a certain audience, there was a feeling that indie music had become a parody of itself by the mid-eighties. The initial rush of excitement in the early stages had led to a vast amount of bands who were inferior musically and sounded exactly the same as each other. A few managed to break free from the cliches and one of these were the Birkenhead outfit, Half Man Half Biscuit. Not aligned to a particular scene due to the geographic isolation, they were able to poke fun at the whole movement and benefit from it at the same time. I hasten to use the phrase of scouse humour, but in this case it fits. The song circulates around a visit to a friends house who’s scalextric set always fails to work. The fallback option was a game of Subbuteo with broken figures for you. This resulted in a massive and controversial defeat to the visitor by the child wearing said kit. The resulting actions were ‘So you smash up the floodlights/And the game was abandoned,/And the dog would bark/And you’d be banned from his house’. One can always identify with that child who has to deal with the friend with the fancy toys and then gets blamed. It makes all the worse when revealed that the subject has to receive his dole from his rival in the present tense. Madness to think this was only a B-side at the time. And the kit? Not something to particularly treasure judging on it’s appearance
2. Christmas Vacation: Descendents.
There are certain expectations when you are approaching the Christmas break from college. One of them is the chance to let loose after the exams and party out. The other is to catch up with friends and loved ones. Pound some beers, share recent stories and generally unwind. And one of the main people to spend some quality time with is the lad/lady you have your eye on. What better way to share the festive spirit than getting some. Since everyone is going to be returning back home and attending the same functions, this should be a breeze to arrange right? Wrong. You get back fueled with holiday joy to find that your crush have gone off on a holiday instead. And seemingly on purpose. ‘But you didn’t let me know/I wasn’t invited to go/Christmas vacation you took a vacation from me’. In just over two and a half minutes of pop punk majesty, they summed up the misery and despondency felt at being shut out and left alone at Christmas.
1. Like a Snowman: Tracey Thorn.
Sometimes it is necessary to offer some advise to the downbeat and brokenhearted. Particularly from one of those more experienced in the matters of love and loss. Tracey Thorn remains an inspiration for indie kids everywhere from her beginnings in The Medine Girls, through to her solo career via the monumental Everything But the Girl. She created an album for those looking to fall back in love with the Christmas season. For this to happen, it seems obvious that they fell out of love with it at one point. This album contained many well sculpted cover versions including this one. Steven Merritt of Magnetic Fields was originally responsible for penning it. Thorn just makes it her own however. Her voice remains undiminished and reminds like a warm comforting blanket to this day. When you are overwhelmed by the commercialism of it all, she will help sooth it over. ‘As all the broken-hearted know/There’s only one way back to spring time/Dancing naked in the falling snow’. Good advise.
So lets all get together and have a wondrous time for it. No matter how you spend it, who you spend it with and whatever you get up to.