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.