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 sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Excitement, hatred and belonging: why terrorists do it

A new book by Richard English suggests that killing can bring its own rewards.

Like most questions about terrorism, why large numbers of people join terrorist organisations can only be answered in political terms. However terrorism may be defined – and disputes about what counts as terrorism are largely political in their own right – we will be ­unable to understand how terrorist groups ­attract members if we don’t consider the politics of the societies in which the groups are active. But terrorism’s appeal is not ­always political for everyone involved in it. Richard English, in his wide-ranging new book, highlights some of what he calls the “inherent rewards” of terrorism gained by members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). According to some former members, involvement in PIRA operations brought adventure, excitement, celebrity in local communities and sometimes sexual opportunities.

Terrorist activity also brought other intrinsic benefits. As one Belfast ex-PIRA man put it, “You just felt deep comradeship.” Or as another said, regarding involvement in the Provos: “Now I felt I was one of the boys.” Yet another reflected tellingly: “Although I was ideologically committed to the cause, for me, in many ways, being in the IRA was almost the objective rather than the means”; conspiratorial “belonging” and “comradeship” were, in themselves, rich rewards. Friendship, belief, belonging, purpose, community and meaning. One ex-Provo described his PIRA years as “days of certainty, comradeship and absolute commitment”. A bonus was that PIRA members’ actions could gain them influence and standing in their own communities; one ex-PIRA man reflected on how he saw himself after having joined the PIRA, in the simple words: “I felt important.”

English is a professor of politics and director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. He has studied political violence in Northern Ireland for many years and, for him, these inherent benefits are one of four ways in which terrorism can “work”. The other three comprise strategic victory in the achievement of a central or primary goal or goals; partial strategic victory, which includes determining the agenda of conflict; and tactical success, which may lead to strengthening the organisation and gaining or maintaining control over a population.

Understanding terrorism, English writes, requires taking it seriously: “treating it as the product of motivations and arguments which deserve serious, respectful engagement; and also assessing it as something worthy of honest, Popperian interrogation”. He is sanguine – surprisingly so, given the conflicts with which he is concerned – regarding the practical results such an inquiry might bring. Finding out how far and in what ways terrorism works has “practical significance” – indeed, its importance may be “huge”. As English makes clear, he “is not arguing that if we understood more fully the extent to which terrorism worked, then everything would have been fine in the post-9/11 effort to reduce terrorist violence”. He is convinced, however, that understanding how far terrorism works can greatly improve the struggle against it. “It does seem to me strongly possible that if states more fully knew how far and in what ways terrorism worked (and does not work, and why), then they would be able to respond much more effectively to it in practice.”

With all its caveats, this is a strikingly bold claim. It assumes that the failures of the post-9/11 “war on terror”, which no one can reasonably deny, were largely due to intellectual errors. But was it a lack of understanding that rendered these programmes ineffectual or counterproductive? Or was it that some of the West’s allies – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and, more recently, Turkey – have been less than unequivocal in taking a stand against terrorism or may even have had some complicity with it? If so, it was the geopolitical commitments of Western governments that prevented them from taking effective action. Again, much of the current wave of terrorism can be traced back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Voicing a long-familiar consensual view, English criticises the US-led occupation for being “ill-planned”, leading to the destabilisation of the Iraqi security situation. But it is not clear that more forethought could have prevented this result.

If Western leaders had thought more carefully about the likely consequences of the invasion, it would probably not have been launched. With the regime and the state so closely intertwined, topping Saddam Hussein always risked creating a power vacuum. It was this that enabled al-Qaeda and then Isis and its affiliates to emerge, gain control in parts of the country and then project their operations into Europe.

Errors of analysis may have played a contributory role in this grisly fiasco. When British forces were despatched to Basra, it may have been assumed that they could implement something like the pacification that was eventually achieved in Northern Ireland. But the kinds of allies that Britain made in Belfast – and before that in the successful counterterrorist campaign in Malaya in the 1950s – did not exist in that part of Iraq. Like the overall programme of pacifying a country whose governing institutions had been dismantled abruptly, the mission was essentially unachievable. But this was not accepted by either the US administration or the British government. The invasion was based in ideological conviction rather than an empirical assessment of risks and consequences. In this case, too, high-level political decisions were far more important in unleashing terrorism than any failures in understanding it.

As has become the usual way in books on terrorism, English begins with his own definition of the phenomenon:

Terrorism involves heterogeneous violence used and threatened with a political aim; it can involve a variety of acts, of targets and actors; it possesses an important psychological dimension, producing terror or fear among a directly threatened group and also a wider implied audience in the hope of maximising political communication and achievement; it embodies the exerting and implementing of power, and the attempted redressing of power relations; it represents a subspecies of warfare, and as such can form part of a wider campaign of violent and non-violent attempts at political leverage.

This is a torturous formulation, not untypical of the academic literature on the subject. English tells us that his book is intended for readers in “all walks of life”. But the style throughout is that of a prototypical academic text, densely fortified with references to “majority scholarly opinion” and buttressed with over 50 pages of footnotes fending off critics. As a storehouse of facts and sources, the book will be a valuable resource for scholars, but its usefulness to the general reader is more doubtful.

The most interesting and informative of the book’s four main sections – on jihadism and al-Qaeda; Ireland and the IRA; Hamas and Palestinian terrorism; and Basque terrorism – is the one on Ireland, where English’s knowledge is deepest. Extensive interviews with people who had been involved in terrorist campaigns in the province led him to what is perhaps his most instructive generalisation: those who engage in and support terrorism “tend to display the same levels of rationality as do other people . . . they tend to be psychologically normal rather than abnormal . . . they are not generally characterised by mental illness or psychopathology . . . the emergence and sustenance of terrorism centrally rely on the fact that perfectly normal people at certain times consider it to be the most effective way of achieving necessary goals”. Terrorists are no more irrational than the rest of us, and there is no such thing as “the terrorist mind”. In many contexts, terrorism has functioned principally as an effective way of waging war.

As English notes, there is nothing new in the claim that terrorism is a variety of asymmetric warfare. The practice of suicide bombing has very often been analysed in cost-benefit terms and found to be highly efficient. The expenditure of resources involved is modest and the supply of bombers large; if the mission is successful the operative cannot be interrogated. The bombers gain status; their families may receive financial reward. (Religious beliefs about an afterlife are not a necessary part of suicide bombing, which has been practised by Marxist-Leninists of the Tamil Tiger movement and in Lebanon.) An enormous literature exists in which asymmetric warfare has been interpreted as demonstrating “the power of the weak”: the capacity of militarily inferior groups using unconventional methods to prevail against states with much greater firepower at their disposal. Understood in these terms, there can be no doubt that terrorism can be a rational strategy.

Yet there is a problem with understanding terrorism on this basis, and it lies in the slippery word “rational”, with which English juggles throughout the book. Terrorists are not always rational, he says; they are prone to overestimate the impact of their activities, and they make mistakes. Even so, what they do can be understood as rational strategies, and in these terms terrorism often works, if only partly. Here, English is invoking a straightforwardly instrumental view of reason. What terrorists do is rational, in this sense, if there is an intelligible connection between the ends they aim to achieve and the means they adopt to achieve them.

This means/end type of rationality typifies much terrorist activity, English maintains. But some of the ends achieved by terrorism are internal to the actual practice. “Inherent rewards from al-Qaeda terrorism might potentially include aspects of religious piety; the catharsis produced by revenge and the expression of complicatedly generated rage; and the remedying of shame and humiliation.” In this case, “hitting back  violently and punishingly at them [the US and its military allies] has offered significant rewards in terms not merely of political instrumentalism but also of valuable retaliation in itself”.

The inherent rewards of terrorism also include the expression of hatred. “The vengeful, terrorising punishment of people whom one hates, or with whom one exists in a state of deep enmity,” English writes, “might be one of the less attractive aspects of terrorist ambition. But it might also (perhaps) be one in which we find terrorists repeatedly succeeding fairly well . . .” Here, he may have understated his case. Killing cartoonists, customers queuing at a Jewish bakery in Paris and families celebrating Bastille Day in Nice will be a rational act as long as it succeeds in venting the terrorists’ hatred. Even if the operation is somehow aborted, the attempt to inflict mass death and injury may still serve as a type of therapy for those who make the attempt. If “hitting back at people whom one holds to be (literally or representatively) responsible for prior wrongs” can be rational on account of the emotional satisfaction it brings the terrorist, how can terrorism fail to work?

Clearly something has gone badly wrong here. Without mentioning the fact, or perhaps without noticing it, English has switched from one conception of rationality to another. Much of what human beings do isn’t the result of a calculation of con­sequences, but more an expression of their sense of identity. Philosophers describe this as expressive rationality, an idea they use to explain why voting in circumstances where you know your vote can make no practical difference can still be in accordance with reason. But is expressive rationality beyond rational criticism? In order to understand terrorism in Israel-Palestine, Ireland and Spain, English tells us, we need to understand the national context in which the terrorists act. This doesn’t imply “a comfortable acceptance of any single national narrative”, given that various terrorist groups “have done much to open such narratives to a very brutal interrogation”.

But is the terrorist narrative exempt from questioning? The reader might think so, as there is nothing in English’s account that fundamentally challenges the narrative of Hamas, for example. There is no discussion of the endorsement in the Hamas Charter of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and no examination of the influence on Hamas’s policies of the delusional world-view that this infamous anti-Semitic forgery articulates. If this is a Popperian interrogation of terrorism, it falls short of the impartial critical rationalism that Karl Popper recommended.

An analysis of the intrinsic rewards of terrorism may be useful in considering the outbreak of Isis-affiliated ­terrorism in Europe. In contrast to that of the IRA, including its ultra-violent Provisional wing, this cannot easily be understood in terms of instrumental rationality. Even when compared with its predecessor al-Qaeda, Isis has been notable for making very few concrete demands. No doubt the present outbreak is partly a reaction to the jihadist group losing ground in Iraq and Syria. But as English suggests, we need to ask for whom terrorism works, and why. When we do this in relation to Isis, the answers we receive are not reassuring.

Nothing in human conflict is entirely new. There are some clear affinities between anarchist terrorist attacks around the end of the 19th century and jihadist “spectaculars” at the start of the 20th. However, there are also certain discomforting differences. Anarchists at that time made public officials, not ordinary civilians, their primary targets; they attacked state power rather than an entire society; and they never acquired a mass base of supporters and sympathisers. Bestowing identity and significance on dislocated individuals and enabling them to discharge their resentment against a hated way of life, terrorism by Isis is of another kind. Against the background of deep divisions in European societies, these rewards could become an increasingly powerful source of the group’s appeal.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom” (Allen Lane)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue