There’s no escaping Christmas music this time of year, and for some of us, that’s no bad thing. I’m still charmed by the deadpan dub-a-dub-a-dums of ‘Stop the Cavalry’ and the squelching synth intro of ‘Wonderful Christmastime’. (Could the latter have inspired the primal electronic wallop which opens Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’? Probably not.)
But even for listeners raring to whack on their Now That’s What I Call Xmas CD for the hundredth time, it’s nice to hear something different now and then. Here are five tracks which make a little change from the standards that flood the radio whenever December swings around. Fear not, Christmas fans – despite sitting slightly outside the Top 40 landscape, these songs are as festive as they come.
‘Just Like Christmas’ – Low
Ask any indie kid to name the genre’s definitive Christmas song and odds are decent they’ll respond with this one. ‘Just Like Christmas’ is a propulsive, swishing sleigh ride, underscored by insistent jingle bells and punctuated by booming kettle drums which whip up the production’s lo-fi slush into an avalanche of comfort and joy. It’s ironic, then, that it comes from Low, a band best known for their glacial pace.
What’s more, despite its sonic snowstorm the lyrics are a nicely understated rejoinder to the ‘White Christmas’ myth. ‘By the time we got to Oslo, snow was gone,’ Mimi Parker sings, but ‘it was just like Christmas’. For lovers of sweetly skewed pop music, it’s as clear a sign that the season has started as Noddy Holder in ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ bellowing the news to everyone within a three-mile radius.
‘Donna and Blitzen’ – Badly Drawn Boy
This is a bold claim and one which doesn’t make an awful lot of sense on paper, but the lolloping doo-wop phrase which runs through Badly Drawn Boy’s ‘Donna and Blitzen’ might just be the most Christmassy bassline of all time. The Boy and co. don’t merely leave it at that to carry the mood, mind you. Beginning with a swirl of strings which gives way to shuffly sleigh bells, finger clicks, and piano, ingredient after ingredient gets added to the mix until we’ve got a song as rich and warming as a brandy-soaked Christmas pudding.
But what of the laughably illustrated lad himself? Well, his voice here is a treat, taking on a heartfelt descending flutter which would do Jonathan Richman proud. If it doesn’t get you in the spirit I’m not sure anything short of a Scrooge-style conversion can.
‘Christmas Eve’ – Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci
Speaking of which, some bands reckon it’s not too hard to get their listeners feeling festive. A fairly common get-out clause (Claus?) is simply to bung some bells on and be done with it. But capturing the spirit of Christmas Eve? That’s a good deal trickier. For those of us not in a last-minute panic, the night before Christmas often brings with it a very particular quality of reflective peace which no amount of ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-dinging can hope to convey.
Enter the psychedelic pride of Carmarthen: Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Through lilting, folkish guitars and fiddles, their ‘Christmas Eve’ evokes all the magic of the evening without a single chime along the way. The mixture of contentment and anticipation, the calm that settles once the final present has been wrapped, the heartstring-tugging inevitability of the final scene of The Snowman – all these feelings are communicated in fewer than two (largely wordless) minutes. In its wistful, lightly drawn simplicity, it’s worthy of Raymond Briggs.
‘Christmas Will Break Your Heart’ – LCD Soundsystem
Half Man Half Biscuit once sang ‘it’s clichéd to be cynical at Christmas’, but it would be remiss to expect anything less from James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. Thirteen years after the band’s first single, though, Murph is a long way from the bullish record-collector satire of ‘Losing My Edge’.
His usually sarky delivery is much gentler on ‘Christmas Will Break Your Heart’, slaloming in and out of a weepy falsetto over 70s bleak-pop piano chords before the whole thing ratchets up into ‘Perfect Day’ orchestration. The end drops back to the song’s opening waltz drumbeat, making the whole thing more than a little reminiscent of David Bowie’s ‘Five Years’. After all, it wouldn’t be LCD Soundsystem without the gang doing a couple of impressions for us. There are worse songs to cry into your eggnog to than this – a work of winningly downbeat sentimentality with a star of hope gleaming at its heart.
‘Thanks for Christmas’ – XTC
With their interest in the changing seasons, it makes sense that XTC have a Christmas song to their name. And that’s not just because they’re fronted by Andy Partridge (in a pear… yes, all right).
Conceived by Virgin Records as a promotional single for the label, ‘Thanks for Christmas’ sees the band (credited under the pseudonym ‘The Three Wise Men’) accepting their mission with gift-wrapped gusto, from the song’s opening fanfare to the yule logs and reindeer which crop up in the lyrics.
‘Thank you for the winter friendliness that’s snowing down’ may not be the most inventive line Partridge has ever penned but the middle eight has something of a darker undertone: ‘It’s such a shame it’s only one day every year / Three hundred and sixty-four days full of doubts and fear’. And, in counterpoint to all the twinkling, the chorus sees a welcome injection of jangle-all-the-way guitar which couldn’t be any more XTC if it tried.
As with any list of this type, there are thousands more songs which deserve their place on here. (I haven’t even got into the wealth of stunning seasonal funk, soul, and hip hop, or Cherryade Records’ excellent annual DIY Christmas pop compilations.) But one thing’s for certain – that there’s a winter wonderland of overlooked Christmas music waiting to be discovered. Glad tidings, rock on, and Merry Christmas!