Spotify playlist: Christmas advent calendar
- 1 December 2009
Some of the best alternative Christmas music for each day of advent
Ah Christmas. So much good music, and none of it is really deemed acceptable listening for the other 11 months of the year - although what you do within the confines of your own iPod in July is your business.
Join us in counting down the days until Christmas with our Spotify Advent Calendar, where each day we'll be adding a seasonal song as selected by List contributors. These selections might be a bit off the beaten track, a bit tenuous or a bit indulgent, but we can guarantee that they will all be good, or at least interesting.
To add to the advent calendar feel, why not combine listening to each day's new track with eating some chocolate, or even a mince pie.
Winter 1977. David Bowie, (aged 30), has been holing up in Berlin for a few years to escape from demons of LA (and from his own) writing and recording Low and Heroes, two albums showcasing a dark, sparse, futurist sound set to become the blueprint for post-punk and new wave. In a bid to reintroduce Bowie's career to polite society, a slot on a Christmas special with Mr White Christmas himself Bing Crosby (aged 73), is arranged by his label RCA. It could be an awful and forgettable piece of TV inanity, but, thanks to some brilliant pre-song banter and a new arrangement of a Christmas classic, it results in this piece of cultural gold. Bowie performs his new single 'Heroes' later in the show. Bing Crosby died within a month of the original broadcast.
If you've never heard this before, I envy the next four minutes of your life. Watch the video.
Low redefined modern festive music in 1999 with the release of their Christmas album as a gift to fans. Firstly, remember this is Low we're talking about here, the American indie institution whose brilliant music is usually characterised by a chilling twin vocals, a single-figure-bpm tempo and migraine inducing intensity and for whom the term slowcore was coined.
Secondly, as if the disbelief the band about as far removed from the vacuously joyous sentiments as you can get had released a Christmas album wasn't enough, it's also brilliant. Sadly not all of it is in Spotify, but one track is, and luckily it's one of the best tracks on the album. The soundtrack to countless indie hipster christmastimes of the last decade, and those in the future.
If you're allergic to sleigh bells and curse the annual descent into mawkish madness that is the general norm for Christmas music, December can feel like a very long month. For a Scrooge like myself, who resents anything resembling tinsel or a tree before December 24th, there is salvation from the usual carols and one hit wonders in the form of Mark Lamarr's Rhythm & Blues Christmas album. This subtly seasonal selection of 1950s novelties is a genuine alternative to the relentlessly upbeat fare that is usually served up at this time of year.
This song - from their second album Come On Die Young - has as much to do with Christmas as it does tennis, knees or jelly, but is still a much under-rated example of why Mogwai's music is so very evocative. 'Christmas Steps' has a cinematic quality that bears any visual conceit you care to draft onto it. The obvious one here would be something meteorological, the slow pitter-pat of guitar notes like the first flakes in the wind, building into a defiant stomp through the heavy drifting snow, only to meet a swirling, disorienting bluster head on. The storm is quick to pass however, leaving the world engulfed in white and barely audible. Beautiful and filled with longing.
Not strictly a Christmas song, but it was released at Christmas, as it was on the soundtrack of the 1988 update of Dickens' A Christmas Carol – Scrooged, in which Bill Murray stars as a TV executive being visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future and learns to mend his cynical and selfish ways.
It's one of my favorite seasonal movies (along with the bizarre 1949 romance Holiday Affair starring Robert Mitchum – who also plays Murray's unhinged boss in Scrooged). It doesn't really feel like Christmas until I've seen it, preferably late on Christmas Eve. The tune, a cover of Jackie DeShannon's 1969 hit, is full of keyboard flourishes, harmonies and irresistible finger clicks but avoids yuletide clichés. As a childhood Eurythmics fan it introduced me to the wonders of Al Green, and I still treasure the 7 inch that I bought from Woolies with my Christmas money.
To many, Mathis is an prime slice of post-60s, American croonerism who had neither the swagger of Jones or Presley nor the cool of Sinatra or Martin. And that might feel like the case 11 months of the year, but come December, he stands beside Cole and Crosby as one of the three kings of Christmas. His album Merry Christmas is a work of festive magic: warm, silly and sweet, in love with the traditions of the season, its cup frothing over with good cheer. Opener, 'Winter Wonderland' is a veritable glazed ham of a song, where Mathis over enunciates at every possible opportunity - especially when referring handing round the 'caw-feeeee an' tha Pump-Kin-Pieeeeee' - turning this genteel, sleigh-bound jaunt into something of head spinning winter hay ride. Guaranteed to make your chestnuts pop.
In 2007, one half of former indie favourites Arab Strap, Malcolm Middleton, put Santa's head on a spike with the brutal but genius 'We're All Going To Die'. A song about as far removed from Christmas spirit as physically possible, Middleton's gloriously bleak record was a direct retort at the commercialisation of the season and the X Factor effect on the once-coveted number one single.
It reminds that the festive season isn't always a happy one, but does so in a cynical and funny manner, and when accompanied by the comical video featuring a disgruntled Père Noël wreaking havoc in the city, it becomes the benchmark by which anti-Christmas songs should be judged.
How much does everyone love the 80s? It's a strange nostalgia that this song fills you with. It makes Christmas jumpers, bad ski resorts and being in the closet for too long kind of acceptable. It's got a history too - a backbone of struggle and near failure. Sadly, 'Last Christmas' never made it to number one - our loss - but in the Christmas spirit, and in a festive act of kindness/cynical publicity, all the royalities went to Band Aid's Ethiopian Famine Appeal. They released it a second time, and then a cheeky third time in 1986, but by this point George and Andrew had gone their separate ways so it lingered just outside the top 40. Think of this more of an endearing underdog story, rather than one of it not actually being that good.
Despite this history of unsuccessful chart climbing, you don't see over 60 cover versions of any old song, so please, let's hear it for the original classic version by Wham! and not that by Cascada, Atomic Kitten or the dreadful Crazy Frog.
In 1981, if you were taking bets on a band to write one of the most joyous, festive and best-loved Christmas songs of all time, you probably wouldn't have picked out struggling New Wave one-hit-wonders The Waitresses, famous only for their snidey, sneery single I Know What Boys Like. Neither would the band themselves: on their last legs, they were pushed into the studio in the middle of a Brooklyn heatwave by their label ZE Records, who'd decided to boost their struggling profits with a Christmas album. Unfortunately, ZE mainly represented punk bands, and The Waitresses were the only ones who took the assignment seriously. It still sounds brilliantly fresh today, paint-smart and totally contemporary.
What The Waitresses did best was create fictional worlds, written by Chris Butler and acted out by splendidly disdainful lead singer (and real-life waitress), 25 year old Patty Donahue. In Christmas Wrapping, Donahue turns busy single girl around town, disappointed in love and determined to sit Christmas out this year, however she's hooked back in at the last minute by a little festive magic and a devastating horn section on the chorus.
It's about looking back over your year, it's about believing in the joy of it all in spite of yourself, it's got a great riff, some dodgy Blondie-esque white girl (w)rapping and a truly wondrous bit of 80's sax on the end. Listen to it on headphones, rather than just in passing on the radio, for full festive glory.
(NB. We are not talking about the joyless, overproduced Spice Girls cover, with the words bastardised to cover Mel B's baby bump and name drop a major UK supermarket. Nor are we talking about the rumoured forthcoming Jedward cover version. In fact, we're not even thinking about that.)
Read a great article on the making of Christmas Wrapping.
19 years ago, when child protection in the USA seemed a little too lax, a young boy named Kevin McCallister was left all alone at Christmas in a big house. That's right - Home Alone. Comic hilarity ensued, and for those of us who were kids at the time – envy. I'm sure I'm not the only one who drew up their own plans for booby trapping the house should the 'Wet Bandits' come knocking.
Think Dinosaurs and you think of the Jurassic Park theme, think adventure and you've got Indiana Jones, think space – Star Wars. There's no denying that John Williams has a special way of capturing a theme within his music and his compositions for Home Alone do just that for Christmas – with bells on!
The whole soundtrack is suitably Christmasesque, my personal favourite being the Choral rendition of Carol of the Bells and if that's just a bit too Christmassy for you - dare I get away with a double whammy for the Advent playlist? I do - Check out this version Savatage – Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24) - Instrumental
Yes, I know – it's Aled Jones. I may as well include a Cliff Richard song. But we've all seen The Snowman and it's a Christmas institution. The Songs of Praise presenter may not have sung the original in the TV short, but this is the version we all know best.
However, the reason this is a must for the Spotify Advent Playlist is because of one advert - the new Scottish Christmas institution that rivals the Coca-Cola lorries as the advert that heralds in the festive season – the genius and beautiful Irn-Bru parody. If you love Irn-Bru and you love Christmas, what is not to like? Purists said it bastardised a Christmas classic – I say it reinvented it for a new generation.
So once you're done listening to the (almost) original, be sure to check out the new classic. God bless ye Barr. Watch it here.
There is a tendency for alternative Christmas songs to be a bit miserable, to concentrate on the worst aspects of the season and to be about loneliness. Yet this song from Eels is full of optimism.
Songwriter Mark 'E.' Everett, son of a quantum physicist, has had a tragic life. His father, his mother and his sister had all died by the time he was in his mid-twenties. He has every reason to feel desolate at Christmas time - a family time of year - but in 'Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas' he sings about hope, anticipation and joy.
This is an upbeat, forward-looking Yuletide groove that celebrates friendship and contains the single coolest lyric of any Christmas song ever; "Baby Jesus, born to rock!"
OK, we've had our fun, our post-rock, our indie pop and our 80 chintz, it's now just 12 days until Christmas day - most people with any heart of us have some kind a tree up - and it's about time we had some of yer actual genuine Christmas spirit, and this is the real deal. With a voice as smooth as melting caramel, Nat King Cole paints pictures in your mind by presenting a series of festive scenes. You know the routine: 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose'.
Hundreds have recorded this song - Cole himself recorded it four times - with the first as a very simple arrangement, and each version increasing in production until one using a full orchestra. This is the second recording, a lo-fi but more intimate affair with only a harpist and small string section filling out the guitar/piano/bass/drums group.
Like most Christmas songs, it's not music you ever listen to intently. Always ingested in snippets; as aural wallpaper in shops, as background in a TV advert selling mince pies or as a Christmas signifier in cartoon or TV drama, it works best as exactly that - instant mood music. In fact it's a great example of a piece of music that doesn't reward close scrutiny. A lot of the words are a bit rubbish, the message is trite, and the vocal delivery is over-done - so best treat it instead as ambient music according to Brian Eno's 1970s definition - music ideally experienced at very low volume and that exists 'on the cusp between melody and texture'. You'll find that that the introductory jazz guitar slide, those abrasive 1940s strings, the 'Jingle Bells' outro and those first two lines are all you really need.
The Beach Boys were, in image terms, every bit the all-American surf band, replete with suntans, tales of carefree teenage wave-chasing and surfboards - although famously lacking in the surfing skills bar Dennis. Christmas with the Beach Boys would probably be spent hanging on on the sand, with protective winter clothing amounting to little more than a pair of chinos and a v-neck. In short, about as far from a Scottish winter as possible - yet there hasn't been a winter in my adult life when I haven't reached for Pet Sounds album. Why?
Well, the songs on it are laced with melancholy, reflection, longing and hope - classic Winter sentiments. In musical terms, like the rest of the album, the sonic palette of 'God Only Knows' - harpsichord, accordion, flutes and plaintive French horns - is a combination of instruments more commonly found in 17th century Baroque music that emerged from Germany and Italy, two countries separated by the Alps, an area surely the beating heart of central European Christmas traditions.
If that wasn't enough to transport you to an alpine lodge with a warming mug of Glühwein, there are sleigh bells all over it - and it even mentions God in the title. At under 3 minutes, it's a fleeting and intense encounter with the essence of the season - from the most unexpected of sources.
Christmas, as we know, is a time for presents, Christmas pud, crackers and mulled wine. Christmas, as we know, is about friends and family, giving, sharing and caring. It's a time when we all come together and hopefully put aside our differences, at least for just one day. All this is all down to the birth of one boy. That boy was not Santa but baby Jesus - who's life, and death, went on to change the world. Whatever your religion, whatever your beliefs we mustn't forget that Christmas is a significant religious ceremony for many across the world.
But that doesn't mean we can't still get some great music to enjoy! As it happens, the Church likes to sing – a lot. At Christmas we even get the pleasure of these songs being brought to our very doorstep in the form of Carollers, providing an essential soundtrack to the festive period. However, there are quite a few carols to choose from, not to mention the hundreds of different renditions. So, in the selfless spirit of Christmas, I have, entirely selfishly, plucked for a particular favourite of mine - O Come All Ye Faithful, a gloriously uplifting hymn. And in the name of tradition I have gone for an unadulterated version as sung by the famous Choir of King's College, Cambridge. A choir who in their own rights have become a Christmas institution as they can be heard every year on the BBC. Enjoy.
At Christmas we reflect on the year gone by. As we reflect on 2009, of all the major events, and all the people we lost, one can't help but spare a thought for the greatest entertainer the world has ever seen – Michael Jackson. And what kind of two-bit operation would we be running here if he didn't get a look in for our advent playlist?
But what song? Sure Jacko had a Christmas number 1, but that was with Earth Song – and somehow that just doesn't quite fill me with festive joy. And the Jackson Five did release their very own Christmas album. So maybe one of those? But me, I do like to be a bit avant-garde from time to time, so I've gone for his cover of Rockin' Robin because for all your avian Yuletide needs, look no further than the humble robin – adorning Christmas cards from here to Timbuktu.
And you know what? As it is Christmas, a time for giving, I'm going to give you a gift. This a cappella demo of Beat It is just, in my opinion, sheer musical joy and a great showcase of Michael's vocal talent. If you haven't heard it before, you're in for a treat. Michael, you will be missed.
It's a nice thought – Christmas everyday. No work, gifts galore, endless amounts of food and booze, kisses under the mistletoe. But then there's possible present stress, disappointed children and adults alike who didn't get what they wanted, family members you don't quite like and smell funny, sprouts, dry turkey, washing up. Bill Murray didn't enjoy Groundhog day so much - imagine if he'd been trapped in the minefield of high expectations that is Christmas Day.
Nevertheless, that's exactly what Wizzard wished for with this classic back in 1973. But they did so in such a way that makes you think - "yeah, I really wish it could be Christmas everyday!" A tune that can't help but make you want to dance, sing along and think of how good Christmas actually can be. It famously missed out on the Christmas Number 1 to Noddy Holder and his gang, but thankfully it's this Glam Rock anthem still has us rocking 36 years on!
They may have looked like deranged giant Christmas elves. And thankfully, as Wizards, their magic was slightly lacking - ensuring their wish didn't come true. But everyday you hear this, you can't help but think of Christmas, so I guess it kinda worked.
Sometimes Christmas just doesn't feel grown up enough, and to be honest all those jingly tunes about giving, spirit and helping the poor and occasionally, and most bizarrely, religion are getting rather tiresome. We don't concentrate on the taking and asking for stuff anymore. Even when we spend our whole childhoods asking for shiny new things, sometimes it's a shame that we all have to pretend to be "nice" all the time.
Let's drag it back to being about indulgence; we need to get our festival sexy back. There's nothing like the gravelly, naughty voice from a time that you know you couldn't get away with such obvious sexual innuendoes - even if they are sung to us by everyone's favourite Cat Woman.
Speak out if you've been an awful good girl this year too - I certainly will.
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest acts of the moment is one Lady of Gaga. Her Fame Monster has stomped across our humble country with unstoppable force. But how does this shy and retiring pop curiosity spend her Christmas? What is life down at Gaga manor? One can only imagine.
But wait! Thanks to this ditty from 2008, we too can enjoy our very own Gaga X(rated)mas. Terrible play on words I know, but then Gaga herself likes to be non-too-subtle with her word play. And since it is Christmas, it's not her bluffin' muffin we're concerned with. Oh no – for this special time of year, the only place we'll want to be, is, apparently, underneath her Christmas tree.
Alice sang the praises of 'Santa Baby', 'from a time that you know you couldn't get away with such obvious sexual innuendoes' surely this could be a 'Santa Baby' for the 21st century? The sexual innuendoes aren't that obvious...
What can be said about Slade? 'Merry Xmas Everybody' is a pure Christmas classic, no doubt about it. In fact, what did people ever do without it? Was there even a Christmas? Because if there was, then it surely can't have been anything without this belter to infect your aural senses with festive fun!
This, the supreme winner of the '73 chart battle with Wizzard, is still considered to be one of the finest pop Christmas tunes ever and it's easy to see why. The song invokes all the images of a prefect Christmas, family, fun, snow and faeries keeping Santa sober for the day. On top of that, it's a perfect sing along, a modern day carol. Does your Granny tell you that the old songs are the best? Because if she does, then she definitely means this (newish) old song is one of them!
Al Jourgensen, lynchpin figure of industrial metal (Ministry, Revolting Cocks) and resonsible for making a good chunk of the noisier end of musical culture sound the way it does, would feature pretty low down on any list of musicians likely to make a Christmas record, probably between Yusuf Islam and Aleister Crowley. Yet, here he is, with Mark Thwaite, estwhile guitarist of The Mission in tow, with an appropriately reflective message ('I was an angry man.' 'I wasted my time, going round in circles') over an appropriately wistful chord progression - there are even tubular bells in there. Don't worry, there's enough throat-shred screaming in there to keep things on the right side of the the line.
James Brown's Christmas Album, bits of which are available in Spotify, is what I imagine it would be like to kick the family out of the house for Christmas and spend it with a case of Jack Daniels instead. The usual hallmarks of the great man are all there - funk, soul, debauchary. Other gloriously titled tracks in the Brown back catalogue include such as 'Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto' and "Let's make Christmas mean something this year, Parts 1 and 2'. An album that trapezes between the best Christmas ever and one where Santa drives his sleigh into a wall.
Though not well-known in the UK, José Feliciano's Feliz Navidad is one of the world's most popular Christmas songs. In this cover-version El Vez (aka The Mexican Elvis aka the Thin Brown Duke) rocks things up. For no easily-explicable reason he borrows the intro bars from Public Image Ltd's Public Image. And somehow it works. Taken from his Merry Mex-mas album this is 2½ minutes of Christmas silliness.
Watch a video of El Vez performing Feliz Navidad.