Indie Christmas Songs
If there is one genre that is sure to throw up plenty of brand new Christmas songs each year it is indie. Today’s indie stars just can’t wait to get their frosty mitts on Santa Claus and his downtrodden elves with the result that the output from this particular section of the music fraternity is intent on the Snark rather than the Hark over the holidays. But this doesn’t stop the Christmas music on offer from being any less enjoyable because indie artists have a formidable reputation for turning out splendid new originals as soon as the bells of December toll.
In this short essay on indie Christmas music we will try and accumulate, into a compendium of sorts, the best indie Christmas albums and best indie artists that have stood apart from the mainstream and kept a cohort of knowing music fans happy over the holidays each year. To start with, and given that he has recorded over 100 Christmas songs that would only seem fair, we must mention his royal highness of indie yuletide Sufjan Stevens who has spent pretty much every Christmas since 2001 recording festive numbers. For years Stevens made a habit of releasing the songs exclusively to his fans over the holiday period before official releases in 2006 called ‘Songs For Christmas’ and 2012 as ‘Silver & Gold’ gathered them all up. Stevens’s idiosyncratic style, his Christian beliefs, an undoubted gift for festive compositions and a genuine love for the season means that there is hardly a duff track amongst the avalanche of Christmas material on offer. While few indie artists can hope to compete with Sufjan's frenetic Christmas release schedule there are quite a few that have genuine desires on giving the season a dash of their own individual colour. Take She & Him for example, the chalk and cheese duo of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward, who gave the world a quietly acoustic but generally personality filled ‘A Very She & He Christmas’ in 2011. Gentle lullaby’s like ‘Have Yourself A Merry Christmas’ are beautiful in their simplicity and you can be assured that nothing in the house will stir over its duration.
Much more demanding of your concentration but no less absorbing is Portland’s Parenthetical Girls Christmas forays. Normally overtly experimental on their pre and post-Christmas releases they displayed a twinkling listener-friendly side on 2010’s ‘Christmas’ LP. It still may frighten those intent on a diet of Cliff Richard standards but for the most part this was a 10-song collection to soothe your worn out senses. Equally slow moving and feted universally from its release date in 1999 is Low’s ‘Christmas’ EP which yielded the contemporary classic ‘Just Like Christmas’. With sleigh bells that sound as if they were freshly recorded on Santa’s sleigh this is a song that refuses to wither despite a gazillion plays around Yuleplay towers each Christmas. About as leftfield as you can possibly get is Julian Koster’s (of Neutral Milk Hotel fame) ‘The Singing Saw of Christmastime’ which is exactly what the title suggests, namely all your favourite Christmas tunes played on a singing saw. It sounds otherworldly at first but this odd instrument slowly works its magic on ‘Silent Night’ and 11 other classics.
Amongst the newest albums we mention here is 2012’s ‘Tinsel & Lights’ from ex Everything But The Girl chanteuse Tracey Thorn. This was a quiet delight of an album where the singer revealed a voice that has gotten better over the years. The album’s standout was a cover of the aforementioned Low and their poetic ‘Taking Down The Tree’. ‘This is Christmas’ featuring Emmy The Great and Tim Wheeler from Northern Ireland band Ash came out in 2011. A small indie supergroup if you will and they actually went on to prove that good things can indeed spring from collaborations. This album is heavy on irony, layered on cleverly by the call and response catchiness of the participants but at its core is a deep affinity for the season as evidenced by their classic in waiting ‘Home For The Holidays’.
It is hard to beat Christmas compilations and indie rock Christmas compendiums are no different. While new ones surface each December there are a couple of classic collections that we tend to gravitate towards each year. The first arrived in 2000 courtesy of UK indie radio station XFM. Not only did ‘It’s A Cool, Cool Christmas’ bring forth bona fide classic’s like Grandaddy’s ‘Alan Parsons In A Winter Wonderland’, the Dandy Warhols’ remarkable shoegazesque ‘Little Drummer Boy’ and Teenage Fanclub’s slight yet utterly engaging retake of ‘Christmas Eve’ but it also gave all the proceeds away to a homeless charity. We all agree that a Christmas album with a heart is the best kind. Also worth mentioning in the context of indie compilations is an ongoing series that has been named after Ron Sexsmith ‘Maybe This Christmas’. To date there have been 3 iterations and each one unearths brand new seasonal delights. In 2012 ‘Holidays Rule’ raised the bar for contemporary Christmas compilations and although it contained some mainstream acts it was the indie members in the collection that shone brightest. If you get time over December you should dine out on the Shins cover of ‘Wonderful Christmastime’, fun.s ‘Sleigh Ride’ and Agesandages retelling of Angela Lanbury’s ‘We Need A Little Christmas’.
Now you really know how to stay cool over Christmas!