Back in the days before The X-Factor there was something known as “the Christmas single”, usually a novelty season-themed release by an established artist which guaranteed santa hats, fake snow and sleigh bells.
But with the Christmas singles market now a battle between various reality TV people, new Christmas-themed music output has shifted to albums. Even the Pope lends his vocals to a long player this year.
Donning the requisite hats, Ben Hogwood and Christopher Monk set about uncovering who’s getting festive with carol interpretations, cover versions and that rarest of things, completely new Christmas music…
The comedy supergroup Bad News had it sussed. “Cashing in on Christmas,” they sang, “hear those cash tills ring, jingle bells make money, everybody sing!”
It’s a route down which many artists travel, either in the name of commercial gain, artistic exploration, or an attempt to do both. While the occasional release transcends the season’s in-built perishability (Phil Spector and Low are two of the first that come to mind), most Yuletide-themed releases provide a brief burst of seasonal warmth before being filed away for another 12 months. Or, more likely, forever.
But as another year draws to a close, once again Santa’s sack is weighed down with Christmas releases – some of them unreasonably heavyweight. Can any of the seven releases we’ve has pulled from under the tree prove themselves as anything other than utterly inessential?
• Bob Dylan – Christmas In The Heart (Columbia)
We go straight in at the deep end, with Bob Dylan – not an artist you imagine indulges in too much brandy butter with his mince pies during the Yuletide season. Then again, Christmas In The Heart suggests he might have overdone it. As Here Comes Santa Claus drifts in, it feels like Scrooge himself has knocked on the door, the jaunty guitar lines disrupted by the gravelly voice of Christmasses past.
Yet there is an undoubted charm and affection in Dylan’s versions of seasonal classics. When he sings “Later on we’ll conspire as we dream by the fire” in Winter Wonderland, there’s a devilish glint in the eye, while Christmas Blues is authentic Dylan. His takes on staple carols O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark The Herald Angels Sing have to be heard to be believed, and if “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” in O Little Town Of Bethlehem, the comfort is cold indeed. Trust Dylan to offer a totally unique and somewhat curmudgeonly take on the season, with the roguish charm just about winning through.
• Sting – If On A Winter’s Night… (Deutsche Grammophon)
Sting, on the other hand, has few such redeeming qualities. If On A Winter’s Night… finds him taking a stroll with his dog in the snow, and falling head first into the trap set for rock stars of a certain ego at this time of year. The whole record is way too earnest and self-righteous, its copious liner notes detailing just how much winter means to the author, even though he doesn’t celebrate Christmas. That doesn’t stop him putting in a few carols – just to cover all bases – but these are often sung as if his ribcage is being squeezed in the middle of every note. Not only that, his accents are curious to say the least, Scottish, West Country and even American influences abound, and none of them are complimentary.
This is Christmas at its indulgent worst, from the shots of the singer in his bearded winter plumage, sitting round the fire with friends, to the strange vocal delivery of 11, where he actually sounds like he’s yawning, while a soft snare drum sounds like an over-excited bird has flown into the studio. And yet, there are some comforts beneath the vocal horrors in some beautiful instrumental arrangements, and Soul Cake, for all its lyrical pomposity, takes root in your head and stays there for a very long time indeed.
• Thea Gilmore – Strange Communion (Fruitcake)
Thea Gilmore has released a staggering nine albums in the last 11 years, and her first Christmas record Strange Communion exhibits the musical diligence that has fuelled her prolific output. For this is no lazy collection of sleigh bell-enhanced cast offs, including eight originals and covers of songs by Elvis Costello and Yoko Ono.
This is an eclectic work, too, encompassing blues (Cold Coming), pretty balladry (Old December), a spoken word monologue (Book Of Christmas) and a duet with the vocalist of the late lamented Shirehorses, with Mark Radcliffe cropping up on Costello’s St Stephen’s Day Murders. A novelty twist to a nicely thought out record, though don’t expect to emerge from this listening experience full of Christmas cheer. An underlying grumpiness rumbles beneath the songs at times, and even the most upbeat number here, That’ll Be Christmas, wears its figurative Santa outfit reluctantly. Gilmore suggests that Christmas represents “afternoons with the blinds pulled down”, “a tired waiter in a stupid hat” and “me missing you again”. Mince pie, anyone?
• Slow Club – Christmas, Thanks For Nothing (Moshi Moshi)
Slow Club, wearers of excited ‘ones to watch’-type notices for what seems like forever, are quick off the blocks with their seasonal fayre. Christmas, Thanks For Nothing might not advance their career very far but is nonetheless a pleasant EP comprising seasonal covers and originals. Silent Night gets a post rock instrumental makeover, while It’s Christmas And You’re Boring Me and the title track perform convincing musical impressions of bedroom-confined teenage sulks. By far the best track, however, is a full-blooded cover of Darlene Love‘s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), on which the generally demure singer Rebecca Taylor belts out her vocal like she’s having the time of her life.
• Tori Amos – Midwinter Graces (Island)
It’s the kind of uninhibited fun severely lacking from Tori Amos‘ Christmas album, Midwinter Graces. Arriving just a few months after Abnormally Attracted To Sin, it is nonetheless a pretty substantial offering. Amos tweaks some of the credited traditional American folk songs on offer, giving them enough of a makeover to render them originals in their own right. The unexpected vocal inflections of the word ‘Nowell’ on opener What Child, Nowell are typical of her approach here.
It proves to be her most accessible album for some time. The horses-scaring approach of much of her recent work is abandoned in favour of a radio friendly musical palette consisting of pianos, strings and – on the brassy Pink And Glitter – a touch of swing. There are some lovely moments here, and the self-penned Winter’s Carol deserves a place on any future ‘best-of’ compilations. But at times the overwhelming tastefulness of the exercise can pall. There’s not a lot of joy to be found in Tori’s winter wonderland, though the accompanying booklet’s icon-like art is worth a look.
• Slade – Merry Xmas Everybody: Slade’s Party Hits (UMTV)
There’s certainly no lack of goodwill on Merry Xmas Everybody: Slade‘s Party Hits. Noddy Holder’s bellow of “IT’S CHRIIIIIISTMAAAAAS!” is now as synonymous with the season as Noel Edmonds’ ‘serious face’ and overcooked turkey. It’s perhaps understandable, then, that Slade’s entire oeuvre has now been co-opted into the Christmas spirit, explaining the inclusion of decidedly non-Christmassy hits Cum On Feel The Noize and Gudbye T’Jane.
To see Slade as simply a Christmas novelty act is to do them a massive disservice. At their best – on the likes of Mama Weer All Crazee Now and, especially, Coz I Love You – they combined the melodicism of The Beatles with the glam stomp of T-Rex. These early hits have dated surprisingly well, with Holder’s hoarse, Lennon-esque vocal a pleasure throughout.
But those in need of a proper Slade greatest hits collection will be disappointed. The whole enterprise would reside most comfortably in a Woolworths bargain bin (if Woolworths still existed, of course) and a number of big hits have been omitted for Yuletide stocking fillers. So, instead of Far Far Away or Look Wot Yu Dun, we get a chicken-in-a-basket cover of Chris Montez’s Let’s Dance, a queasy swing version of My Oh My and the horrible, synth-assisted ballad Do You Believe In Miracles (a number 54 smash in 1985).
• Various – In The Christmas Groove Strut
Joy to the world is very much the theme of In The Christmas Groove, a disc of classic soul and disco with which to dance off the Christmas pud. Compiled by Strut Records, it gets off to a cracking start with Jimmy Reed‘s Christmas Present Blues, before the sleigh bells introduce the scattered drum fills of Funk Machine‘s rather groovy Soul Santa and Milly & Silly‘s more subtle Gettin’ Down For Xmas, bringing in a nifty jingle bells melody on some vibraphones.
Of course these original pieces of rhythm and funk have rather less to do with Christmas customs as, say, the Queen’s speech or a death/torrid affair exposure in your favourite soap, but they create a warm, feelgood fuzz, some indoor warmth when it’s cold outside.
• Pet Shop Boys – Christmas (Parlophone)
It’s interesting to try and guess what Christmas would be like chez Tennant and Lowe (writes Michael Cragg). On the one hand, there are those that assume the duo would be sat on separate sofas, party hats slightly askew, with slippers on and a small glass of sherry in hand. For anyone who has seen them live, however, it’s obvious that they’re up for a bit of dressing up and partying, which, essentially, is what Christmas is all about, right?
The lead song on this five-track EP, the wonderfully camp It Doesn’t Often Snow At Christmas, reflects this dichotomy perfectly. Over chiming bells, rousing choir and cheesy synth strings, Neil Tennant bemoans the lack of snow, criticises the TV listings and chides us all for turning it into an excuse for a big shopping spree. It’s brilliant of course, in the way that so many Christmas-themed singles aren’t. For one, you can actually imagine dancing to it, perhaps with your Aunt Sylvia after a few too many Baileys.
The rest of the EP is a curious mix of covers (two versions of Madness’ My Girl and a stomping, drum-heavy mash-up of Domino Dancing and Coldplay’s Viva La Vida) and remixed versions of their own songs (Around The World from this year’s Yes album). So, Christmas is only mentioned the once, but the rest of the tracks should tell you all you need to know about a Tennant and Lowe festive holiday; basically, it’s party time.
Christmas, it is said, is the season to be jolly – and, as Andy Williams proclaimed, is the most wonderful time of the year. You’ll certainly find a lot to keep the pecker up over the holiday season with this little lot, but overindulgence (we’re looking at you, Sting) should come with a government health warning, whilst the other side of the coin (that’s you, Tori and Bob) is a rather more chilly affair. It’s down to you, but you have been warned. Yet we won’t love you any less if you end up playing it safe and going for Slade. Again.
Words by Ben Hogwood and Christopher Monk