CHRISTMAS Day is like a wedding — we want ours to be a bit different from any that has gone before while at the same time there is along list of ingredients that it absolutely must include.
The same goes for the soundtrack. There have to be sleigh bells in abundance, ideally some Dean Martin, and something produced by Phil Spector will be in the mix, but there’s no need for Noddy Holder to be screaming at you yet again. The Christmas song canon is growing stale because it’s so hard to gain entry. There don’t seem to be any classics younger than Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You (from 1994) or a decade older than that, Wham!’s Last Christmas and that all-powerful Band Aid song. Low’s Just Like Christmas, from 1999, while lovely, remains a cult favourite at best.
Since the mid-1990s in the UK, first the Spice Girls and then the TV talent show winners took over the Christmas number one spot with non-festive tunes almost every year, offering little incentive for other musicians to write something tinselly. But it’s still out there if you dig a little deeper, being sure to avoid Rod Stewart and Michael Bublé on your way down. You shouldn’t be disappointed if you find any of these new releases under the tree this year.
PHIL SPECTOR: A CHRISTMAS GIFT TO YOU FROM PHIL SPECTOR (SONY)
Not even a murder conviction for its creator can dampen the appeal of this perennial favourite, remastered and reissued for 2012 with a second CD of more Wall of Sound hits from The Ronettes, The Crystals and Darlene Love.Love’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), a towering mix of sadness and bombast, is surely the ultimate December tune. Just avoid the creepy one where Spector speaks.
MADDY PRIOR AND THE CARNIVAL BAND THE BEST OF: A CHRISTMAS CAPER (PARK)
Steeleye Span singer Maddy Prior and early music group The Carnival Band first got together to sing Christmas carols in 1982. You might expect them to be ultra-traditional but they prove otherwise with a bouncy take on Angels from the Realms of Glory and a version of While Shepherds Watched with a completely different melody.
KOLACNY BROS: DECEMBER (PIAS)
The sound of Belgian brothers Stijn and Steven Kolacny and the Scala choir of around 20 female voices has become TV and movie shorthand for dramatic tension. Now they’re tackling Christmas songs and working hard to avoid the obvious. Heavy rock bands Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and Linkin Park are all in there, and they even do Prince’s When Doves Cry, presumably because of the line: “How can you just leave me standing alone in a world that’s so cold?”
SUFJAN STEVENS: SILVER AND GOLD: SONGS FOR CHRISTMAS — VOLUMES 6-10 (ASTHMATIC KITTY)
Detroit singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens is well suited to this season of excess – recent releases have included songs that are 17 and 25 minutes long. This collection is of an extraordinary 58 Christmas songs to go with the 42 he released on Songs for Christmas in 2006. He mixes moments of folk beauty with occasional electronic irritation, and there’s Prince again, on a cover of Alphabet St. Who knew the Purple One was a Christmas musician?
TRACEY THORN: TINSEL AND LIGHTS (STRANGE FEELING)
It perhaps goes against the true spirit of Christmas to release the most tasteful album of the season. The latest from the former Everything but the Girl singer is so bereft of sleigh bells that it might even be the Christmas album you’re still playing in January. Carefully chosen covers by the likes of Ron Sexsmith and The White Stripes couple with older fare such as Joni Mitchell’s exquisite River. It’s as warming as an open fire.
CEE LO GREEN: CEE LO’S MAGIC MOMENT (WARNER BROS)
That’s more like it. The extravagant singer of F**k You and Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy appears on the cover of his Christmas album in a pink fur coat, riding in a present-stuffed limo driven by a reindeer in a suit. The choices within are predictable (White Christmas, Baby it’s Cold Outside, Silent Night) but almost all delivered in a style so over the top it comes back around the other side. All I Need is Love features The Muppets, while Stevie Wonder’s What Christmas Means to Me is a brightsoul stomper. One for the impromptu kitchen dancing.
VARIOUS ARTISTS: CHRISTMAS RULES (DECCA)
This is far from the first example of the “indie” Christmas album on which songs you ordinarily wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot candy cane are supposed to become tolerable because they’re being covered by a cool band. Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime is no better for being tackled by The Shins, sadly, but The Punch Brothers do something darkly beautiful to O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
ILAN ESHKERI AND ANDY BURROWS: THE SNOWMAN AND THE SNOWDOG ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK (PLAY IT AGAIN SAM)
It seems odd that Razorlight’s former drummer could be the new Aled Jones, but so it is, for it’s Andy Burrows who gets to sing on Light the Night, the music from the Walking in the Air moment of Channel 4’s new Snowman sequel. The soundtrack, in download stores ahead of the television airing, is largely classical in feel but features alternative musicians in the shape of emmy the Great, Tim Wheeler of Ash and Dom Howard from Muse.