Jesus in a UFO:
by Nathan Midgley
It's that time of year again. The C-List celebs have traversed Britain in an orgy of festive switch-flicking, and the land is aglow with neon. Over there a buzzing snowflake adorns a telegraph pole, and here -- come see! -- a two-dimensional Santa is performing a kind of epileptic Cossack dance in the sky above Woolworths. Joy to the world!
Except, of course, that something is missing. For what good is this heartwarming tableau without an appropriate soundtrack? Only the magic, emotive power of music can express the swell of seasonal pleasure one feels when opening presents, say, or having one's glass refilled. But what to choose? Here, to shepherd you through the maze of yuletide sounds, is AnotherSun's guide to Christmas music.
Ah, the traditional choice. Those who listen to carols this time of year fall into two main categories; the religious, and the socially deluded. The religious would have you think the whole festive ritual's their gig, but carols are just one of the many traditions they nicked off the pagans in the middle ages. Banned in Britain during the Reformation, these aren't so much seasonal hymns as appropriated drinking songs.
Originally their modified lyrics focussed on the narrative of Christ's birth rather than religious devotion, but as carols grew in popularity - especially during the renaissance they enjoyed in the Victorian era - they broadened to address the imagery associated with modern Christmas celebrations as well as ideals of family and togetherness. Structurally, carols depend on one or two repeated lines; think 'God rest ye merry gentlemen,' or 'Silent night, holy night.' This is a technique inherited from the folk tradition, and probably served to prevent the original carol singers - booze-addled peasants, mainly - from forgetting the words.
The socially deluded include at least one of your relatives. Overindulgence in the Sunday Times Style supplement has convinced them that they live in a delightful village in the arse end of Oxfordshire, as yet untouched by gaudy things like coloured lights, alcopops and Robbie Williams. At Christmas they long to appear tasteful, obscuring the reality of their featureless satellite town with an impractically large real tree and a host of faux-Victorian ornaments. Symptoms of this deeply English disease can be as mild as bursts of 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,' or as severe as Gregorian Chanting. In this eventuality immediate treatment should be sought, the delusions having advanced so far that the patient equates 'taste' with being fucking miserable.
Chosen by: Vicars, My Mum
Glam rock is my personal favourite come December. To be frank, you're on a pretty sticky wicket at this time of year; the business of writing a song for a festive season is at best corny and at worst downright cynical, so there's little sense trying to apply a veneer of class (see: General Balladry). Christmas will never be cool; it's a time of hideous excess and relentless kitsch, so go with the genre that has nothing to lose. If you're going to don a bright purple paper crown at the dinner table, you might as well go in for face-paint and platform boots as well.
There are two festive perennials we can't pass over here. Roy Wood, a fearsome cross between an evil clown and a warlock, should have had his target audience burying their tear-stained faces in Mater's apron back in 1973, but thanks to the sheer lunacy of his timewarp fantasy and some well-placed raspberry-blowing he and Wizzard saw their I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day shoot to number one. The track also got spliced with 1974's Wombling Merry Christmas last year, the less said about which the better. Joining Roy at the top are brummie fruit-loops Slade and Merry Xmas Everybody (1980), which, as well as featuring the imaginatively-sideburned Noddy Holder bellowing 'It's Christmas' in the style of a turkey being stuffed alive, saw the band dangerously close to spelling a song title correctly.
Also including Elton John's fine piano-driven stomper Step Into Christmas (1973), the advantage of Glam Rock is its cross-generational appeal. Those too young to have developed critical faculties just dribble happily, while the mature audience jigs about with a knowing look. Those born before irony was invented feel suddenly closer to the grandchildren, having discovered the missing link between Limp Bizkit and The Birdie Song.
Chosen by: Students, anyone with kids, the irretrievably drunk.
Pop and General Balladry
Pop, by nature ebullient, has furnished us with some true seasonal treasures - the trick is to filter out the glossy stuff and go for the slightly oddball or totally half-arsed. My highlight is Jona Lewie's Stop The Cavalry (1980), in which Lewie's vocal dispenses with the tradition of sounding excited and opts for a monotone worthy of Lou Reed, while tackling the peace-on-earth issue far better than Paul McCartney's almost wilfully nauseating Pipes of Peace (1984). A special mention should of course go to Band Aid's 1985 Do They Know it's Christmas for reminding us that we're lucky bastards despite the pile of unwanted Totes Toasties, as well as for being the only remotely listenable charity record ever released.
And so, with a visible shudder, to Ballads. As always I'll try to be objective and open-minded, but you really shouldn't be playing this stuff during party season. The desire to piss everyone off at Christmas is stronger than you'd think, and has inspired a whole host of frostbitten whinges about absent lovers and cheating hearts. Main offender is Wham's ubiquitous Last Christmas (1984), one of those faintly crap but inoffensive hangers-on we call 'institutions.'
Bottom of the pile, and clearly the Worst Christmas Record Ever, is Chris de Burgh's lamentable A Spaceman Came Travelling (1975), conceived as a rousing allegory to the nativity but executed as an overblown breast-beater complete with mortally offensive New-Age sound effects. I know of nobody that likes that record; if you do, e-mail the editor and we'll arrange to have you devoured by wolves. Equally inexcusable is 1994's huge-selling Stay Another Day by East 17, a sap's paradise of arbitrary bell-ringing and earnest, pained expressions. Honestly, what are you people thinking? Avoid at all costs.
Essential Track: You want it to be Wham, don't you? Well it's not. It's Jona Lewie.
Chosen by: Supermarket music co-ordinators, the heartbroken
Last Christmas my house resounded to Andy Williams (no, really), and even my hard heart started to thaw. Again, there's a native jollity to Easy Listening that can be perfect for this season - with sharp, poppy arrangements and vocals as warm and confident as a Mafia godfather, these good folks have delivered some crackers over the years. In fact, leather-faced ladymagnet Tony Bennett is still at it. Oblivious to the fact that modern audiences can only stomach the Rat Pack act as a semi-ironic tribute to days gone by, he released Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album just last year. Bless.
Top track here is Irving Berlin's brandy-butter smooth White Christmas. It originally appeared in the 1942 Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire vehicle Holiday Inn before lending its name to a semi-remake in 1954, Crosby this time appearing alongside Danny Kaye. Resplendent in pipe and smoking jacket, this tune stands tall above everything that came after. Bing's dulcets ooze log fires, mulled wine and the smell of pine needles; very traditional, very comforting, and old enough to be filed under 'nostalgia' rather than 'cheese.'
A great start, then, but Easy Listening gets difficult when it comes to the more modern stuff. Christmas is schmaltzy enough as it is, and although the likes of Sinatra and Dean Martin are good for the odd upbeat number - both have put in decent versions of Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow, and Sinatra does a good Santa Claus is Coming to Town - too much of their puppy-eyed charm could put you in rehab. And to be honest, the festive joy in their voices isn't nearly as convincing as Crosby's paternal croon. Close your eyes and picture Sinatra in the studio, banging out the big sellers conveyor-belt style. Realistically, is his mind on Christmas pudding and turkey or on the equally substantial cheque waiting at the door? And don't you dare suggest that lovely old Bing's motivation was equally suspect. Stop it! La la la. La la. Can't hear you.
Chosen by: Ageing showbiz fantasists, cynical twentysomethings too mired in irony to know which level they're enjoying it on.
That's more or less it; Carols for the deluded, Glam Rock for all the family, Pop for the heartbroken and the unhinged, and Easy Listening for misty-eyed nostalgia junkies. Your best bet is probably to dig out a good compilation with a bit of everything, especially if the whole family's coming over.
Or, if you fancy something more off the beaten track, try last year's It's a Cool Cool Christmas, an Xfm-sponsored compilation featuring twenty-one achingly cool alternative rock acts recording classic covers and specially written pieces in support of The Big Issue charities. When I tire of Slade and Roy Wood, that's what I'll be sticking on. Have a Merry Christmas; and choose wisely.
(c) Nathan Midgley 2001