Let’s face it, most Christmas songs are rubbish. Here are 10 that are actually rather good

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Can it really be 12 months since 10 Christmas songs that won’t make you think King Herod had the right idea after all? It surely can. If there hasn’t been much in the way of goodwill to all in the intervening 365 days or so, let’s hope for a little more peace, love and understanding in 2018. Meanwhile, it’s time for another selection of alternatives to the sickly slush on offer in shopping malls and supermarkets the world over at this time of year.

There’s plenty of choice. Just about everyone’s made a Christmas record, from The Kinks to The Who, from Pink Floyd to Radiohead, from Iggy Pop’s White Christmas to Marc Bolan’s It’s T.Rexmas. Trying to think of the unlikeliest artist to have produced a Christmas record, I came up with Jimi Hendrix. I was wrong. That leaves Charles Manson, and he’s probably left a posthumous Yuletide single somewhere in a recording studio’s archives.

The problem is that when credible artists record a Christmas song, they are often just messing about and their efforts are rarely heard in public. This leaves us at the mercy of Mariah Carey, Cliff Richard and the rest of the seasonal schlock merchants, which is about as welcome as a “Happy Nuke Year” message from Donald Trump to Kim Jong-un.

With so much Christmas fare, and so much of it rubbish, sorting the gems from the duds is quite a task – but as you’ve been good girls and boys this year, I’ve done it for you. Here, then, are 10 songs to bring genuine cheer this holiday season.

The 2017 festive countdown starts at No 10 with Godfather Christmas himself, James Brown, and Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto, from the 1968 LP A Soulful Christmas. Among a smattering of seasonal songs the album also featured one of his biggest hits, the Black Power anthem Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud. A great record at any time of year.

If Santa heeded James Brown’s advice, it may explain why he omitted to drop in on Canadian singer-songwriter David Myles; hence the lament Santa Never Brings Me a Banjo, at No 9, two minutes and 10 seconds of pure delight with a video to match. Spoiler alert: he does get a banjo in the end.

No Christmas carol service would be complete without Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and who better to perform it than The Fall, at No 8, from a John Peel session broadcast on BBC Radio 1 in December 1994. Mark E Smith is on fine form and there’s some nice guitar from Brix Smith. The same session featured a frenetic 70-second reading of Jingle Bell Rock that puts all other versions of that oft-covered ditty to shame.

At No 7, who should have dropped in on our musical office party but James White to sing Christmas With Satan, a deranged classic from the Ze Records compilations of the early 1980s that also gave the world such alt-Christmas joys as Cristina’s Things Fall Apart and Suicide’s Hey Lord. I love the band’s offbeat improvisations around seasonal favourites, effortlessly segueing from White Christmas to Hava Nagila. As for the lyrics – “All year we’ve been waitin’/for Christmas with Satan” – Christmas time, mistletoe and wine, it ain’t. James White, by the way, is better known as James Chance, a founder member of Teenage Jesus and The Jerks.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, Gloria Estefan is at No 6 with Christmas Through Your Eyes, a song that artfully demonstrates how to be sentimental without being schmaltzy. Beautifully arranged, performed and produced, this is the perfect Christmas record, with bells on.

I’m pretty sure Gloria would agree that it’s cliched to be cynical at Christmas. But don’t just take our word for it: punk satirists Half Man Half Biscuit (from Birkenhead, near Liverpool) are at No 5 with It’s Cliched to be Cynical at Christmas. If you like this, I recommend another seasonal classic by the same band, All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit. This, by the way, is what a working-class British Christmas looks like.

Time for an instrumental, and who better than vintage guitar virtuosos The Ventures, at No 4 in the list with Sleigh Ride (and a little taste of their biggest hit, Walk Don’t Run, thrown in for good measure). It’s from their excellent 1965 Christmas album.

The Three Wise Men are at No 3 with Thanks for Christmas, and if it sounds remarkably like XTC, that’s because it is XTC’s 1983 Christmas single (despite the songwriting credits: Kaspar/Melchior/Balthazar). The prince of off-kilter English pop, Andy Partridge, revealed: “I have a soft spot for Christmas songs. I wanted the female staff at the Virgin Records office to sing it and we’d put it out under the name The Virgin Marys but they thought it would be sacrilegious, so the band did it under the name The Three Wise Men.”

The Sonics were one of the great mid-1960s garage bands, and highly influential: Kurt Cobain, The White Stripes and Bruce Springsteen were all fans. Here they are, recorded on a two-track tape machine, and sounding as if they were playing in an actual garage, at No 2 with Santa Claus. Among various covers of this song, The Gruesomes did a good version in the 1980s but nothing quite captures the thinly veiled menace of the original.

To make a great Christmas record takes an unlikely combination of dignity and a sense of the ridiculous. Irony is fine; taking the piss isn’t. All the songs I’ve chosen, however different, maintain a certain optimism in the face of the inevitability that Christmas will almost certainly fail to live up to expectations. If there’s one artist who really gets this, it’s Sufjan Stevens, ticking every box with Songs for Christmas and Silver & Gold, five-EP box sets released in 2006 and 2012. A collection of carols, Christmas classics, obscure folk songs and original compositions, the songs are variously devotional, inspiring, sacred, profane, funny or sad, sometimes a mixture of all those things. That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!, perhaps the best song, is too unbearably poignant so to cheer us all up I’ve gone for Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!

I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Facebook: @ultimatebandnames

Twitter: @AAA_Band_Names

 

 

 

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Death, destruction, pain and depravity: yes, it’s the perfect gift for the metal fan in your life

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Dan Nelson’s epic 243-page book All Known Metal Bands is full of death, destruction, pain and unspeakable acts of depravity. You won’t find any graphic descriptions or wordy explanations, however, just a list of more than 50,000 bands that the author claims are associated with the endlessly fascinating metal genre.

Nelson, a conceptual artist from Oregon, spent a significant amount of time researching the names before printing them inside a beautifully designed book, which features gothic typography on the cover and silver print set against black pages inside. It should be noted that most of the names could be found on the website Encyclopaedia Metallum long before All Known Metal Bands was published in 2008. Nelson acknowledges this, but as he explained on his website, no one else had the idea of publishing the names in such an elegant fashion in a book that he considers more of a work of art than a mere encyclopaedia.

Dedicating so much time to compiling such a list might seem unfathomable to non-metalheads but there’s something deeply captivating about Nelson’s labour of love. Leafing through page after page of bleak-sounding names such as Bound by Entrails and Premature Autopsy on a cold winter’s night is much more fun than it should be. Plus, you can’t help but be intrigued about the stories behind the names.

The most entertaining way to view the book is as a study of the bizarre naming conventions and recurring themes found throughout the mixed-up world of metal. For example, there are 170 bands featuring the word “dead”, 68 beginning with the word “goat” and nine bands that share the name Scum. More than a whole page is taken up by bands featuring the word “blood” somewhere in their name.

So what does All Known Metal bands tell us, if anything, about its subject matter? In the book’s endnote, Nelson states: “The names in this book are invisible tokens to be uttered aloud, each conjuring a group of humans formed to play rock in its extreme form – with the greatest impact of sound, in which the floorboards shake and walls quiver, and ears split and leak blood.”

As terrifying as that sounds, it doesn’t ring entirely true. There are plenty of acts featured in All Known Metal Bands that purists would refuse to accept as true metal bands. Perhaps the most obvious is Led Zeppelin, whose music is loud and occasionally ear-splitting but not particularly extreme (except for those 12-minute drum solos). Meanwhile, the fact that Guns N’ Roses are notably absent, despite their keen embrace of various aspects of hair metal during the 80s, is sure to raise a few pierced eyebrows. Nelson does not provide his reasoning, but perhaps it doesn’t matter.

As the the title acknowledges, providing a definitive list of every metal band in the world is an impossible task. Metal is made up of many constantly evolving sub-genres from the relatively well known (thrash metal, melodic metal) to the utterly obscure (dinosaur metal, goblin metal). This contrasts with the persistent myth that metal bands are stuck in the past, unwilling to innovate or embrace technological change. Metal’s huge breadth of variety, coupled with a longstanding tradition of boundary pushing, is what makes it a truly fascinating subject, but also one that can never be truly defined.

Much like metal itself, All Known Metal Bands isn’t for everyone, but it holds up well as a celebration of some of the most daring, absurd and amusing band names to be found in any genre – and, if nothing else, it will look absolutely beautiful on your coffee table.

Twitter: @Tola_o

All Known Metal Bands, described by Rolling Stone as “the best bathroom book ever”, is still in print (although Amazon in the UK says it is currently out of stock). You can get it online from The McSweeney’s Store for a bargain $15.

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You were in a band that once supported Eddie & The Hot Rods at the Hope & Anchor? Me too

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I used to be in a band. Impressed? Don’t be. Many of my friends have also been in bands, as have lots of people I follow on Twitter and Facebook. In fact, who am I kidding? You’ve probably been in a band, too.

My son’s in one. His friends, their parents, his school teachers and his driving instructor – they’ve been in bands, too. The bloke who runs the corner shop; Alex the dreadlocked postman; Angela the goth next door; and both Stuart and Freda, who I met on holiday in Spain last summer – all in bands.

Yet even though there’s nothing special about being in a band, no matter how brief a person’s musical career is, you can bet that they’ve got a story to tell about when they were in a band. And tell it they will, at length.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet some quite successful musicians, whose stories are worth hearing. But with heavy heart, I can report that (unless they’re being interviewed) the more successful the musician, the less likely they are to tell you all about it. And vice versa.

The most vocal, the ones who’ll tell you chapter-and-verse about it, were in a band for a few weeks when they were at school. They played mostly covers. But they’d also written a couple of their own, called things like Total War and Let’s Destroy Everything, damning indictments of the capitalist system. Decades later, they can remember every word. Sometimes they actually sing bits of these compositions to me, to illustrate just how hilarious they were. No, they hadn’t got as far as playing any gigs, but did rehearse a few times. Actually, they did once tape one of their rehearsals, and would I like to hear it?

Then there are those whose group did get as far as playing three or four gigs to their mates at the school disco or local pub. It was 30 years ago, but they can – and will – still recount every detail at length. Which member of the band broke a string; the wrath of the pub landlord when their set went on too long; the backstage recriminations.

Others took things a bit more seriously. Maybe their bands had played some out-of-town gigs, or some support slots at central London venues. They’ll spin well-rehearsed tales of how they once played at the Hope & Anchor with Eddie & the Hot Rods, or third on the bill at the Dublin Castle, where they’d met the bass player from Suede, who was really a great guy.

Some, of course, are active in bands now. Men – again, they are usually men – playing pointless 12-bar blues in bands with names like Tumblin’ Dice and The Penge Po’ Boys. (What is it with those apostrophes?) They insist on recounting how they used to go and see Alvin Lee “back in the day”, and how he’d been the equal of Eric Clapton.

OK, I concede that there are people who’ve been in bands – pretty good bands – and who don’t go on about it. My friend Kev, for instance. I’ve known Kev for years, but discovered only recently that he’d been in a skinny-tied band called The Aerosols (“everyone used to call us The Arseholes”) who released a single in 1978 on the Jet label. I was impressed. Not just with the single, whose monochrome paper picture-sleeve oozes new-wave cool, but with Kev’s modesty in not mentioning it.

The trouble is, I made Kev up. Because, let’s be honest: if you had such a string to your bow, you’d tell everybody you met for the rest of your life, wouldn’t you?

I do understand the impetus to relive these youthful glories. Because, you know – being in a band was kind of fun, sometimes. I like to think that I’ve recovered from the many disappointments and setbacks I suffered during my musical career. Still, I find it hard to sympathise with those less successful than my band, or to share their glee in their lack of ambition. And the many musicians who were more successful and ambitious than my group probably don’t need my approval.

So yes, I was in a band. But I won’t bore you with the details.

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