Indie Christmas songs

Sick of Slade? Here's a selection of alternative festive treats that will rescue your stereo from the tyranny of Noddy.

This is obviously not a complete or definitive list -- comment below with your suggestions for what I should have included!

 

Low - "Long Way Around the Sea" (1999)

The slowcore pioneers Low issued the album Christmas in 1999 with little fanfare; the collection has since become a minor classic. Eschewing irony, it's a gentle celebration of the Christmas story -- the band members are Mormons, after all -- and "Long Way Around the Sea", about King Herod, Jesus and the wise men, is a powerful piece of music that sounds simultaneously ancient and thrillingly new.

 

Camera Obscura - "The Blizzard" (2009)

"Listen to that northern sigh. If we don't get home we'll die." So sings Tracyanne Campbell's rider to her lame pony, Dan, in this cover of the Jim Reeves standard. Like many songs of winter, the theme here is homecoming -- a lover waits seven miles away for the travellers to return as a snow blizzard descends, with the wind howling "mighty like a woman's screams". Contrasted with the unfeeling coldness of nature are "hot biscuits in the pan" (for the rider) and "hay so soft and warm" (for Dan). When Bing Crosby sang, "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams," the pathos was derived from knowing that, in reality, he probably wouldn't be. Reeves's lyric takes this further and (spoiler alert) has both rider and pony die, just a hundred yards from their destination. Glasgow's Camera Obscura began as a Belle and Sebastian-endorsed tweecore band; over ten years, they have grown in stature and ambition with each record. "The Blizzard" is a cover version but it's a good showcase for their classic pop sensibility, which delivers all the more impact for its restraint.

 

Trembling Bells and Bonnie "Prince" Billy - "New Year's Eve Is the Loneliest Night of the Year" (2010)

Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy) has long cultivated the persona of the scatological romantic: his grimy narratives are often violent and sexually explicit but always full of passion and real emotion. In this respect, he resembles both Charles Bukowski and Shane MacGowan -- and he seems to channel the spirit of the Pogues singer here. "New Year's Eve . . ." is a seasonal song of the old school, complete with horns, strings, a big chorus ("It had to be in winter!") and vocal harmonies. Most of all, it evokes the Pogues hit "Fairytale of New York" and matches its sense of unbridled celebration.

 

Flaming Lips - "Christmas at the Zoo" (1995)

By the mid-1990s, the Flaming Lips were on their seventh album (Clouds Taste Metallic) and going from strength to strength, their preoccupations with aliens, the universe and animals still fresh and free from any hint of self-parody. A decade later, they would release Christmas on Mars -- a bizarre sci-fi movie that was one part Tarkovsky to two parts Ed Wood. "Christmas at the Zoo" was a taste of what was to come. Like Jeffrey Goines in Terry Gilliam's film Twelve Monkeys from the same year, the protagonist of the song decides to "free the animals all locked up in the zoo". The snakes, seals, llamas, birds and kangaroos, however, refuse to accept his help: "All of the animals agreed they're not happy at the zoo/But they preferred to save themselves." Wayne Coyne's lazy, drawling vocals are, as ever, a joy and the arrangement is perfectly off-kilter.

 

Quasi - "Merry X-mas" (2006)

Quasi's Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss are better known as members of Heatmiser and Sleater Kinney, respectively; both were members of Elliott Smith's touring band and they have served individually as members of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Bright Eyes, Wild Flag and Jandek's live band. Perhaps because of this, Quasi has unfairly been regarded as a kind of side project, even though their seven official albums (mostly released by Domino) are among the best alternative pop records of the past two decades. They are also one of the most visceral live acts around - this despite Coomes's sugar-coated melodies that recall Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney and the Flaming Lips in equal measure. "Merry X-mas" is a barbed, five-minute exercise in self-loathing disguised as a piece of festive fun. "I was a crab, dragging claws through the mire/Down below in the murky depths of nowhere," Coomes sings. And that's just in the first two lines.

 

Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler - "Home for the Holidays" (2011)

Of the year's indie Christmas songs, this collaboration between Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler stands out in large part for its unashamed sentimentality. It's like a John Hughes movie in song form and the video (imagine EastEnders, as scripted by Nick Hornby) adopts seasonal clichés with good humour. "Did you ever write that book? Did you ever make it out of here?" sings Emmy -- questions that most of us do our best to avoid.

 

Gorky's Zygotic Mynci - "Christmas Eve" (1999)

Gorky's was always a modest group -- a delicate Welsh band that folded just as the nu-folk movement they helped to inspire was entering the indie mainstream -- and this brief twinkle of a song captures them at their most understated. Where other Christmas songs (not least several of the above) tend towards Spectorised bombast and kitsch, "Christmas Eve" only announces its subject in its final moments, after an extended, vaguely Spanish-sounding instrumental: "The star you fell in love to comes out on Christmas Eve."

 

Grandaddy - "Alan Parsons in a Winter Wonderland" (2000)

Last year, Jason Lytle, formerly of Grandaddy, gave away a set of piano instrumentals on his website as a Christmas present to his fans. The collection's simplicity was in keeping with the aesthetic of Lytle's first solo album, Yours Truly the Commuter (2009), which stepped back from the spaced-out eccentricities of his band's output while retaining the imaginative flourishes we have come to expect. Such flourishes are amply on display on "Alan Parsons in a Winter Wonderland", which reworks the old Christmas chestnut as a tribute to the prog-rock producer and engineer Parsons (best known for his work with Pink Floyd and his own group the Alan Parsons Project). What could have been an industry in-joke is redeemed by its deep affection for its subject, which permeates both the warm, synth-based production and the lyrics: "In the meadow, we could build a snowman/And pretend that he is Alan Parsons . . ."

 

Dump - "Another Lonely Christmas" (2001)

It's easy to forget that, as well and R'n'B and hip hop, Prince has cast a long shadow over alternative rock -- compare Ryan Adams's "Hotel Chelsea Nights", say, with "Purple Rain". James McNew, bassist for Yo la Tengo, surprised fans and critics alike with his 2001 album That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice, issued under his Dump moniker. Skinny consists entirely of songs by Prince, reinterpreted as lo-fi, post-rock doodles, and McNew's versions bring to the surface the exhilarating melancholy of the originals (an aspect of Prince's writing that is all too often overlooked). This is no truer than on "Another Lonely Christmas", a movie in miniature about love, death and loneliness. I couldn't find a YouTube video online, but it can be streamed here.

 

Bright Eyes - "Blue Christmas" (2002)

Like Low, Bright Eyes released a whole album of Christmas songs in collaboration with his Saddle Creek label mates and their cover of "Blue Christmas" was its highlight. The lead singer, Conor Oberst, opts for an impassioned but straight-ahead performance that manages to capture the spirit of the season without resorting to sleigh bells or any other Christmas gimmick.

That's my list, off the top of my head. So -- any other suggestions?

Finally, I couldn't resist doing a new one of my own. I've done a few before, including "Yo Zushi's Christmas Story", which appeared on the 2005 album Songs from a Dazzling Drift, and the 2009 song "Another Song di Natale" (both on Pointy Records); in a (festive) spirit of competition, here's "Merry Christmas", which you can download for free on Soundcloud.

Yo Zushi works for the New Statesman. His music is released by Pointy Records.

 

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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