So around this time of year, a compilation of tracks is dusted down for a season’s intense airing at every given opportunity, leaving the public gorged, satiated, and, quite frankly, sick to the back teeth of it all come the start of January, not to be heard for another ten or eleven months or so. I’m talking, of course, about Christmas music.
Wandering round my hometown of Derby, the familiar selection has been laid on thickly at every turn: battling through the local shopping Leviathan, having a coffee in a café, even in Parksafe car park, a multi-storey once voted one of the ten most secure locations in the World. You all know what I’m on about- "Fairytale of New York" (singer Shane MacGowan was born on Christmas day, y’know!), "Stay" by East 17 (which isn’t actually that Christmassy, despite a few bells), Wizzard, Slade, Mariah et al. Rinse and repeat and repeat and repeat ad nauseam. The thing is, to someone like me, who isn’t all that fussed about Christmas, these songs only serve to irritate and simply heighten everything I dislike about this season: the consumerist greed, the swarms and hordes of people everywhere, the forced jollity, and the way everything seems to start just slightly earlier and be just that little bit more commercial than it was the year before.
That said, there are some real gems you are unlikely to hear on the radio (and, thankfully, not for the reason that Another Rock and Roll Christmas has fallen off the mega-pop Christmas A list….) So, without further ado, I’d like to take you through ten of my favourite , slightly offbeat Christmas tunes I hope you’ll enjoy. In no particular order…..
1. Saint Etienne- "I Was Born on Christmas Day"
Saint Etienne occupy an odd space musically. Often bewildered-sounding lyrics of life as a grown up in a big city, with more London-based references than, well, the Tube map, paired with indie credibility, yet somehow still SO danceably, unashamedly pop. This one is no different with Tim Burgess from the Charlatans providing backing vocals, with some classic Christmas bells making an appearance.
2. Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters- "Mele Kalikimaka" (Hawaiian Christmas)
The Andrews Sisters hold a special place in my heart. When I was a very young child, my Grandma used to put their records on and I used to stand on her feet whilst she danced me round her dining room. The utter deliciousness of the close female harmonies, probably owing in no small part to them sharing their genetic material, took me back to a different time, then as now. This one has Mr Christmas, Bing Crosby, on it, so you think you’d hear it a bit more. I suppose the green, leafy evocation of Christmas surrounded by palm trees, summed up by the slide guitar introduction, is somewhat at odds with Bing’s usual "White Christmas". But at least you know how to say “Merry Christmas” in Hawaiian now!
3. Half Man Half Biscuit- "All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit"
A yarn about a schoolboy who goes round to play Scalextric at his mate’s house, and ends up playing Subbuteo instead. It all, inevitably, ends in tears and tantrums, and, as a cautionary note, our protagonist ends up collecting his benefits from his mate as a grown man. This song really has nothing to do with Christmas, bar the title, so, as a bonus fact, I will tell you that the game Subbuteo takes its name from the Latin word for the bird of prey the hobby, Falco subbuteo.
4. The Knife- "Reindeer"
A dark, chugging slice of electronica from the Swedish duo’s eponymous first album. This song tells of Christmas from the perspective of the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, travelling through moonlight and shadows with their heavy burden.
5. Laura Marling- "Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)"
I struggle to fathom the maturity of Marling’s songwriting for one so young. Released when she was just 19, this song paints a timeless pastoral image of rural England covered in snow finishing on a reminder that all things must pass. Simply beautiful.
6. James Brown- "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto"
Christmas Day 2006. I woke up all alone in a bedsit flat above a fish and chip shop in Durham, hopped in my L-reg Mark III Ford Fiesta to drive to my family, and turned on the radio to the news that the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Mr James Brown, had died that day. James recorded a whopping three Christmas albums during his career, including 1968’s A Soulful Christmas which contains this funky piece of Christmas social commentary.
7. Julian Casablancas- "I Wish It Was Christmas Today"
This one’s got bells on it too. Casablancas is most famous for being frontman and lead vocalist for the indie band The Strokes. A riotously fun track, with a Ramones-esque rock ‘n’ roll chorus, and absolute bags of energy.
8. The Fall- "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"
Mark E. Smith manages to characteristically rob this Christmas carol of any joy and triumph with a sneering, disinterested vocal. Recorded for a John Peel session in December 1994, surely the epitome of alternative Christmas tracks….
9. Prince- "Another Lonely Christmas"
A really, really sad one. Somehow, I periodically seem to forget just how sad this song actually is, before listening to it and succumbing yet again to the horrible, gut-punch realisation half way through of why Prince is so lonely in this one. Here Prince mourns the death of his lover from pneumonia seven years ago on Christmas day. A classic, anguished rock vocal, married with the diminutive genius’ searing guitar work and explosive piano runs give a dark twist to this Christmas song by the Purple One.
10. Darlene Love- "All Alone on Christmas"
Probably the least “alternative” of the songs on this list, but you don’t hear it all that much so I’m including it. The song was released in 1992 as part of the soundtrack to Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and the video features Macauley Caulkin’s hapless Kevin McCallister character fiddling about in the recording studio whilst Darlene belts this number out. Darlene Love is famous for her inclusion on Phil Spector’s 1963 classic album A Christmas Gift for You, and so it is no accident that Bruce Springsteen’s backing bands the E Street Band and the Miami Horns lend a nice Spector-esque “Wall of Sound” quality to the production. Lyrically, the song includes a delightfully meta reference by Darlene to dancing to her hit "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" from the aforementioned Spector album.