The Alternative Christmas Top Twenty (No Turkeys).
We’ve all fallen prisoner to a limited range of Christmas songs at times, especially those of us who work in retail, where the festive musak loop encircles us in its ponderous orbit every tedious hour. Jon Kean wishes to free our minds from this tyranny.
Here’s a top twenty rundown of the songs you won’t hear on commercial radio, or whilst trudging through crowded shops and failing to find anything suitable or reasonably priced for your loved ones on the High Street this Christmas. Joyeux Noel (Edmonds)!
Before we launch into the top ten in detail, spare a mince pie and a glass of sherry for the ones that nearly made it:
20 Malcolm Middleton: We’re All Going To Die
19 Frank Sidebottom: Oh Blimey, It’s Christmas!
18 The Damned: There Ain’t No Sanity Clause
17 Peter And The Test Tube Babies: I’m Getting Pissed For Christmas
16 Bad News: Cashing In On Christmas
15 Slow Club: Christmas TV
14 The Fall: We Wish You A Protein Christmas
13 Gruff Rhys: Post-Apocalypse Christmas
12 RUN-DMC: Christmas In Hollis
11 The Residents: Santa Dog
Hold on to your party hats, Pop Pickers, here’s The Alternative Christmas Top Ten Countdown:
Band Of Horses: The First Song
It’d be even more Christmassy if they were called Band Of Little Donkeys, but Ben Bridwell and (recently-diminished) company remade The Snow Fall from their 2005 Tour EP as the first song on 2006’s Everything All The Time, cunningly entitled The First Song. This makes the top ten not only for its grandeur – they really scaled up the arrangement from what was a moody demo in 2005 – but also because there’s not a sleigh bell or kiddie-choir to be found.
Nor is there any of that faux jollity particular to tracks usually laid down somewhere in March; it’s properly like December, especially as climate change (it exists, Donald) lays on ever more inclement shows to reward our contribution to the global picture. It kicks off with, “I’m shaking awful,/ I’m shaking ass cold,/ The weather remote.” I suggest a woolly jumper with a glittery bauble pattern, or a reindeer onesie, Ben.
Clarence Carter: Back Door Santa
Possibly the forebear of a particularly crude joke in that festive cinematic epic, Bad Santa, Clarence Carter’s Back Door Santa brings a new perspective to what everyone’s favourite trespasser might deliver on Christmas Eve. Let’s assume it’s not about gaining more appropriate access than coming down your chimney, so as to fill your stockings with goodies, but that there might be a some seasonal innuendo at play. This is definitely one to put on your turntable when those dull, puritanical visitors come round that you haven’t see for ages, and you realise that there’s a good reason why you’ve not seen them, so you make sure they leave quickly and don’t come back in a hurry.
If you like what you hear, get stuck into the great Black Crowes, John Popper and BB King, and Cud covers. Then play Clarence’s song Strokin’ at full volume and closely observe the reaction of the nearest teenage boy for signs of embarrassment.
Sufjan Stevens: Christmas Unicorn
What Christmas phenomenon lasts twelve-and-a-half minutes and involves a prominent horn? That’s right – it’s Christmas Unicorn, by Sufjan Stevens, the title track of his 2010 EP, the tenth EP in his Songs For Christmas series. Sufjan’s all over Christmas, even more so that his Uncle Shakin’. How many jaunty, jingly, jangle-ballsy, tinselly tunes do you know that also cover concepts of “pagan heresy” and “mystical apostasy”?
Who knew that we’re all the Christmas unicorn in our own special way? And who’d have expected Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart to be slipped seamlessly into a Christmas song, replete with chiming bells? Did you just suggest that Christmas unicorns don’t exist? How very dare you. You’ll be telling me that Old St Nick’s just a figment of our collectively delusional imagination next.
Echosmith: I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day
The Sierota family – Noah, Sydney, Jamie and Graham, are from Chino, California. As their home town’s name suggests, they look nearly as clean-cut and sta-prest as a perfect pair of preppy pants. Despite their eminently respectable appearance, I suspect that in a rock-relatives-wrestling-rivalry-ruckus, they could take down Hanson or the Corrs (by numerical advantage alone, plus on noise grounds). Jedward wouldn’t last a single round.
Their Christmas classic takes the words of 19th Century American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. They are hugely apt in a 21st Century setting, in which we can be excused for turning up the volume on Anton du Beke’s Christmas album, merely to help us forget about the precarious world order outside. It begins with, “I heard the bells on Christmas Day/ Their old, familiar carols play,/ And wild and sweet,/ The words repeat/ Of peace on Earth, good-will to men.” Lovely sentiments! You’d raise a glass or three to that.
Then, like Charles Dickens egged on by Robert Smith, it veers into the sort of jaded grump that usually sinks in on December 25th, when the After Eights have run out and you’re trying to metabolise a kilo of poultry. “And in despair I bowed my head;/ ‘There is no peace on Earth,’ I said:/ ‘For hate is strong,/ And mocks the song/ Of peace on earth, good-will to men!'” How does it end? Click below to see.
LCD Soundsystem: Christmas Will Break Your Heart
James Murphy sang this to himself for eight years, consistently forgetting to get his shit together, year on year, to record it. The band itself split in 2011, following their farewell concert at Madison Square Gardens. The stars really aligned in 2015, therefore, when Murphy managed to get the members of the band in one place at the same time again. They got this track in the bag and released it as a surprise comeback track.
Imagine, if you will, trailing around the shops with your infinitely-more-up-for-aimless-browsing other half, whilst being serenaded with, “Christmas can wreck your head,/ Like some listless, awkward sex,/ So you refuse to leave your bed/ And get depressed when no-one checks.” Murphy does have a point. And if Christmas doesn’t break your heart, it’ll either break your liver, or break the bank.
Half Man Half Biscuit: It’s Clichéd To Be Cynical at Christmas
You could make a good HMHB Christmas EP, with this, All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit and Tonight, Matthew, I’m Gonna Be With Jesus. HMHB’s anti-humbug anthem tops their Yuletide tree. It’s probably the perfect antidote to the previous track in our list – the line, “All the boys and the girls/ Say it’s clichéd to be cynical at Christmas,” a reminder that we can embrace the child-like side of life.
HMHB have made a career out of that sense of curiosity and wonder. On this, they promote the admirable ethos, “Make a noise with your toys and ignore the killjoys.” I’d love it if High Street shops up and down the land would play Fuckin’ ’Ell, It’s Fred Titmus or Joy Division Oven Gloves most days of the week. I’d frequent them more if they did.
The Business: Bollocks To Christmas
This Christmas, we’ll no doubt be festooned with DJs playing Wham’s Last Christmas and reminding us that George Michael died last Christmas. I’d be confident in a festive wager that fewer links will be made between Status Quo’s It’s Christmas Time and the equally sad passing of Rick Parfitt the day before George.
The odds are longer still that Shart FM’s Advent Cheesefest will play The Business’ Bollocks To Christmas, or mourn the fact that their lead singer, Micky Fitz succumbed to cancer in December 2016, leading to them disbanding after a 37-year career. Originally formed as a bunch of shirty, socially-aware schoolmates from Lewisham, they grew quickly into an eminent Oi! band, renowned for their anti-racist stance.
Part of a Secret Records EP, along with tracks from Max Splodge, The 4 Skins and The Gonads, they took what has to be one of the most welcome, wholesome and admirable Christmas staples in its own right (and I would fight you to defend that assertion), and amended the key phrase somewhat. Same scansion, slightly different implications.
The Futureheads: Christmas Was Better In The 80s
In 2010, The Futureheads took us back to those halcyon days before the average Christmas family scene involved a room full of people together alone, all engaged with separate electronic devices, while the telly displays the Queen’s speech to a sleeping elderly relative, with the sound off. They also conveniently pointed out that it was better in the NINETEEN-eighties, just in case we mistakenly take it as a cue for nostalgic Victoriana and a general hankering for repression, gruel and tuberculosis.
Barry sings, Ross, Jaff and Dave provide angelic harmonies. Childhood photos in the video make the band look even more cute. They do point out that “snow was deeper in the eighties and everybody used to play/Outside on Santa’s sleigh, living dreams and holidays.” This is also true. There are now bureaucratic, numerical restrictions on Santa’s sleigh due to Health and Safety regs.
In their trademark ‘Can you tell we’re from Sunderland?’ voices, they make it clear that when it comes to Christmases, they don’t Mackem like they used to.
Tom Waits: Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis
I am unfamiliar with ladies of the night, but I’m willing to wager that very few sound like Tom Waits (I imagine it might limit one’s clientele). Sounding more like someone who ought to play in the front row of a scrum must turn on a very small niche of kerb-crawling fetishists. If only Tom had tried a falsetto voice, like Terry Jones in The Life of Brian. As it is, he gives you his usual, ‘I’ve just barbecued my vocal chords’ permagrowl.
In this track, from 1978’s Blue Valentine, the hooker in question is writing a long message to ‘Charlie’, telling him that everything is rosy. The reality, pregnancy included, is clearly not quite that way. It has everything you associate with modern Christmas at the heart of it – dishonesty, extortion and desperation.
Frightened Rabbit: It’s Christmas, So We’ll Stop
There are several Christmas crackers to pull when you sit at Frightened Rabbit’s table. Their version of The Snowman theme is not so much Walking In The Air, as Talking On The Beer. In our unfestive number one, “The wine on our breaths puts the love on our tongues,” depicting a temporary cessation of hostilities between a warring couple. It’s hardly Merry Christmas, War Is Over (mercifully) or Stop The Cavalry (please, no more). It’s much more of a Glasgow kiss under the mistletoe.
In lieu of that radio tradition of phoning up the proud artist who holds the Christmas number one spot, where they shriek and it comes out as white noise (sometimes preferable to how they sound on the radio, depending on which artist we’re talking about), Scott Hutchison gave us his views on being Christmas number one by the exciting modern medium of electronic mail:
“Always an honour to be featured in Louder Than War but to be the CHRISTMAS NUMBER ONE?! This news has made my year and certainly increased my enthusiasm for the season by a notch or two. I’m not ecstatic about Christmas generally, which is probably why I find it such a good subject to write about. The saving grace is that the day includes one of my favourite (though thankfully more occasional) pastimes: eating and drinking until I feel quite unwell. I’ll be sure to raise my glass to LTW this year. Cheers!”
So, that’s your festive chart. Get it into a playlist and get it pumping on your stereo as you prepare the gluttonous feast for the big JC’s birthday (no – not John Craven). Let’s not forget that there are so many great Christmas songs that are still waiting to be made. Personally, I live in hope of hearing a cover of Mistletoe and Wine by Sleaford Mods or Mastodon’s iteration of Frosty The Snowman.
Featured illustration by Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit.