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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.