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 work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit