There is a school of thought, and it’s not one that I subscribe to, that great Christmas records are a thing of the past. Having the Christmas number one certainly doesn’t mean what it once did; the record companies would rather have their song featured on the John Lewis ad. It’s certainly true that the days are long gone when singers and record labels would have to plan their strategy in July to have any chance of Christmas chart dominance. Even the week of release was carefully planned as part of a closely co-ordinated campaign. Slade actually had to record ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ in a sweltering July heat-wave in New York while on a US tour, to be certain to have it ready on time.
I first realised things were going badly wrong when I heard Simon Cowell boast that he could tell you in August what the Christmas number one record would be, as he’d already recorded it. All he needed was the winner of X-Factor, cynically scheduled to be crowned a few weeks before Christmas, to provide the vocal. Shameful in my eyes, but that’s the way the music industry is now. No wonder there have been download campaigns to try to halt this type of nonsense.
But before you reach for the egg-nog to drown you sorrows and tell your kids that no-one makes records like ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ anymore, be assured that there are still some artist prepared to have a go at a Christmas album. Here are a few that will make it worth your while winding up the old gramophone for this year.
She & Him: A Very She and Him Christmas
They are in reality they are Zooey Deschanel and renowned producer M Ward, and they had a go at a Christmas covers album in 2011. Their love of the 50s/60s/70s sounds has almost inevitably led to them producing a Christmas album like Elvis, the Beach Boys and the Carpenters had done before them. It’s stuffed full of covers of ‘classic’ seasonal tunes but don’t expect too much Christmas cheer. Bing Crosby this ain’t. Their covers are dark, bleak and fairly cold arrangements of carols and songs, but who said we were meant to be happy all the time eh?
Tim Wheller and Emmy the Great: This is Christmas
If covers aren’t for you try this one. Christmas flavoured songs, all originals, made by the Ash front-man Tim Wheller along with his girlfriend, singer/songwriter Emmy the Great. Unashamedly schmaltzy, but clever and witty with it. Christmas Day (I Wish I Was Surfing) is a power-pop classic, and if you ever wondered what Mrs Santa thought about being left all alone on Christmas Eve, when the rest of the world is snuggling up with a loved one, now’s your chance to find out. And where else would you find a song called Christmas Zombie? Almost too good to be saved just for Christmas.
Sufjan Stevens: Songs for Christmas/Silver and Gold
Regular readers (if we have any) will be aware of my Sufjan obsession, and it was never more obvious than around Christmas time. Every year he recorded seasonal songs to give away as presents to his family and friends, and obsessive fans like me all wanted to hear them. Inevitably a few of them were shared on the internet, and thankfully we can now count ourselves as his friends by getting hold of the lavish boxed sets he’s made available. There have been two collections of these so far, and they’re wonderfully and odd in equal measure. The cover versions are mainly hymns and carols, all sprinkled with that Sufjan magic, but the real delights are to be found on the original songs such as ‘Christmas in the Room’ or ‘Sister Winter’. The Americans see the whole Christmas story as one event. Nobody would think it odd to see a nativity scene containing both baby Jesus and Santa, and so it with Sufjan. He sings about Santa, Jesus, and odd, magical things like the Christmas Unicorn all in the same song. Weird and wonderful. And with the essential addition of Christmas banjos.
Bad Religion: Christmas Songs
This has somewhat spilt the fans. Some see it as a sell-out to get some airplay and revenue, other see it as an ironic stab at giving some traditional songs the BR treatment. For the uninitiated, Bad Religion are regarded (by the Americans) as the most successful punk-band ever, having made almost an album a year since forming in 1979. Their attack on songs such as White Christmas might leave some people aghast, but I like it, and in the context of the other songs, it’s a winner for me. Try to treat it as ‘an album’ of songs which are meant to be listened to as a sequence, and you might start to see why I like this.
Alexander O’Neal: My Gift to You
Back in my soul-boy days, I liked nothing more than a new offering from Alex, and I was thrilled with this one. A mix of traditional and original, it was underpinned by that Jam and Lewis sound that was so fresh and new back then. It didn't receive much of a reception at the time, but I loved it, and listening to it again, it still has a part in my fireside ritual of wrapping presents and putting up the tree. Not one for the masses, and it often went straight in a remainder bin back in the days of buying CDs in a shop, but an indulgence for me.
What of the future? Well, there are a few decent things around if you care to look. I quite like Kelly Clarkson’s latest single. Well, at least it’s an original song! I’ve no time for the lazy cover version served up as something new, so whatever you think of her, and I’m not averse to a bit of cheese at this time of year, here’s her Christmas offering. It’s somewhat derivative and formulaic, but it does rock.
Happy musical Christmas to you all, and all the very best for a groovy New Year.