The thing with alternative is that it covers much of what is left once you go beyond the mainstream. In other words a whole lot of music, so on leaving the planet of the same ol’ Christmas compilations you can pretty much land on a star awash with alternative Christmas songs. Especially so when Christmas appears to the target for the snark brigade, with irony and sarcasm all wrapped up in the environs of a sleigh-bell heavy tune. But that is only a small subset of the broad range of alternative Christmas music that is available. In other words if you want your alternative artists to give the old chestnuts their interpretation there is at least 12 days’ worth of options available. For example you can take your pick from Death Cab for Cutie, the Ravonettes or R.E.M.’s ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ with offering subtle nuances to a song that will forever be the domain of Darlene Love.
You can trace the emergence of alternative Christmas songs back to the beginning of recorded media, songs that deviated from the straight and narrow and approached Christmas from a cynical or twisted point of view. Clarence Carter’s 1968 ‘Backdoor Santa’ would certainly fit this description and such was its original view on things that it inevitably emerged a couple of decades later in the form of a sample on the equally bizarre ‘Christmas In Hollis’ by Run-D.M.C. Elmo & Patsy’s ‘Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer’ from 1984 is as novelty as Christmas gets but that hasn’t stopped this song from becoming a family favourite each December (funny that given the unfortunate kindly lady who tragically meets her comeuppance via one of Santa’s loyal lieutenants).
For the most part though we will keep our discussion very much in the contemporary as each new Christmas reveals a multitude of songs from the underground. And just because they are alternative doesn’t mean they are not palatable, quite the opposite in fact when you hear one of Britain’s brightest talents Laura Marling and her softly focused ‘Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)’. This is a real heartbreaker framed within the context of one of the best Christmas songs to emerge in recent times. Equally lush is Badly Drawn Boy’s ode to Santa’s forgotten reindeer backup team ‘Donna & Blitzen’. Other notable original from the alternative sphere include Glasvegas’ tender ‘A Snowflake Fell (And It Felt Like A Kiss)’, the Flaming Lips psychedelic ‘Christmas At The Zoo’ and 1980’s favourite. but only recently trumpeted by a wider audience. ‘Christmas Wrapping’ by the Waitresses.
Even folk behemoths such as Bob Dylan have turned to the season for arty expression and though his voice is entirely ragged it doesn’t stop his 2009 composition ‘Must Be Santa’ from sounding like the best hoot of the season. Punk band the Ramones may have inspired a million t-shirts but their ‘Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)’ is perhaps the most honest song ever written about the Christmas experience. Another punk band, California’s the Vandals were perhaps a little more tongue in cheek on their confession ‘My First Xmas (As a Woman)’ which can be found on their 1996 album ‘Oi To The World!’ Vegas band the Killers were equally fantastical on their ‘Don’t Shoot Me Santa’ which is one of their by now annual festive releases.
For the most part alternative artists tend to release Christmas material in small doses but there are a handful of winning alternative Christmas albums that should nestle in your collection. The most ironic Christmas album in the world ever arrived in 2008 courtesy of US television host Stephen Colbert. His ‘A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!’ is dressed as a homily to the season, right down to the charmingly rendered classic toned artwork, but is a genuine wolf in sheep’s clothing. The standout is definitely the opening track ‘Another Christmas Song’ which takes a pot at the artists who write Christmas songs for their own cynical ends (i.e. the royalty cheque that refuses to wither). Other smirk inducers include ‘Little Dealer Boy’ and ‘Can I Interest You in Hannukah?’ and a song co-written with Elvis Costello called ‘There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In’ which goes to prove that behind all of Colbert’s little digs lies a man who still is in love with the season.
Sufjan Steven’s is likely the most prolific contemporary (if not all time) writer of Christmas songs. Not only that but he has fashioned so many of the old standards in his own image that his music could play all day and all night over the season without you ever becoming bored. His songs are available on a couple of massive anthologies called ‘Songs For Christmas’ and ‘Silver and Gold’ so if you want a folk, Christian but altogether alternative Christmas music experience then songs such as ‘Put The Lights On The Tree’, ‘I Saw Three Ships’ and ‘Come On! Let's Boogey To The Elf Dance!’ will provide sustenance for your every need. Two albums that were released within days of each other in 2011 have that boy/girl dynamic down to a T. So if that is your festive bag then ‘A Very She & Him Christmas’ (featuring Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) and Emmy The Great and Tim Wheeler’s ‘This Is Christmas’ could become your favourite new Christmas albums. If you want something a little more understated then 1999’s ‘Christmas’ from slowcore act Low is perfect, even if they caught the wind and majestically flew on ‘Just Like Christmas’ this is an album to listen to while curled up on the couch beside an open fire. And when that finishes Bright Eyes ‘A Christmas Album’ will offer you the requisite lullabies to send you to sleep.
With so many songs from so many disparate artists doing the rounds each year it is always great to take stock and listen to a compilation of the best of them. And in the alternative world there are plenty of amazing compendiums to feast on over each Christmas. Our favourites include the Ron Sexsmith inspired ‘Maybe This Christmas’ series, 2012’s ‘Holidays Rule’ which includes a great version of ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ by the Shins’, 1996’s ‘Just Say Noël’ wherein slacker Beck Hanson rambled on about his ‘Little Drum Machine Boy’ and ‘Not Another Xmas Album!’ which opened with the Pretenders classic ‘2000 Miles’. We’ll save the last word though for a turn of the century collection called ‘It’s A Cool, Cool Christmas’ which is pound for pound the best alternative Christmas compilation ever produced. Why so, well because it includes Grandaddy’s ‘Alan Parsons In A Winter Wonderland’, the Dandy Warhols ‘ Little Drummer Boy’, Low’s ‘Just Like Christmas’ and Teenage Fanclub’s ornate view of Gorky Zygotic Mynci’s equally quiet-as-a-mouse ‘Christmas Eve’. Ah, bliss.