Christmas is a strange time for lovers of alternative music as it’s never been particularly fashionable for any self-respecting indie artist to crank out a few Christmas hits for a quick buck. As much as I want to see Death Grips tackle ‘Silent Night’, it just won’t happen. No matter how many emails, twitter messages and hastily put together ransom notes I send to MC Ride and the boys, the chances are rather slim and I’ve got to make peace with this fact. What a downer. Regardless of the hypothetical what-ifs and could-have-beens, there are still a few festive corkers out there that’ll warm the hearts of even the most cynical indieheads. So, without further ado, here are six Christmassy tunes to warm you right up this December.
Fleet Foxes – ‘White Winter Hymnal’
Although more of a vaguely-defined autumn/winter 2ksomething banger, ‘White Winter Hymnal’ is perhaps Fleet Foxes at their festive peak. The track has been part of their live sets since forever, and continues to be a highlight of their discography to tempt people into the neo-folk worlds of Robin Pecknold and the gang. The rich imagery within the lyrics, of a “Pack all swaddled in their coats / with scarves of red tied round their throats / To keep their little heads / From falling in the snow” has been unpicked by roughly a million Genius.com writers as to what exactly they mean – some suggesting a childhood memory, others a more detailed story about gang culture. Regardless of its deeper narrative flavour, ‘White Winter Hymnal’ achieves exactly what Pecknold wants it to be – “a song to hum along to as you do the dishes”. Hearing this song in a warm kitchen with steamed-up windows after an arduous Christmas dinner session is absolutely one of the cosiest, most wholesome Christmas experiences known to humankind. Studies show it cures Scrooge-ism with 100% effectiveness, and increases snug factor by 10; the musical equivalent of hot chocolate with a little Baileys to boot.
Marvin Gaye – ‘Purple Snowflakes’
I remember vividly the stark blue cover of A Motown Christmas: Volume 2 sitting in a charity shop window on a freezing November night, and feeling compelled to own it there and then. Thank you, Oxfam Music in Reading, for giving me one of the best Christmas compilation albums out there. This thing has all the hits you never thought you needed – from The Funk Brothers to The Supremes to my personal favourite, Marvin Gaye. His contribution to the compilation, ‘Purple Snowflakes’ condenses my adoration for his other work into a unique and charming, short but sweet Christmas song. The track glides along with jangling piano and peppy backing vocals in tow, a lightly danceable and instantly recognisable piece of joy that deserves a place on any good Christmas playlist. The slightly fuzzy nature of the production here is admirably ‘woolly’, giving the whole thing a very intimate and nostalgic vibe that suits the event in question perfectly; evocative, but in the simplest way possible.
The Flaming Lips – ‘Silver Bells’
For a more mellow and downtempo angle in your Christmas mix, why not throw in the sensitive and relaxed ‘Silver Bells’ from alt-rock weirdos The Flaming Lips. One of many off-kilter seasonal tracks from their festive album Imagene Peise – Atlas Eets Christmas, ‘Silver Bells’ reuses motifs that are interpolated across the tracklist. From the vinyl-cracked piano to what sounds like a singing saw [?], Wayne Coyne and the gang create a sonic landscape unlike most of their discography, let alone their later work with Miley Cyrus (of all people). There’s something comforting, yet otherworldly here – not exactly a track to place at the forefront of your carefully curated Christmas dinner playlist, but maybe towards the end, when everyone’s had a bit too much mulled wine and stuffing and now urgently want to go to bed.
Sufjan Stevens – ‘Christmas In The Room’
A personal highlight from the enormous Silver and Gold carol extravaganza, ‘Christmas In The Room’ is pretty much the distillation of every good Sufjan Stevens song out there, wrapped in festive gift wrap and delivered into your waiting hands. The song’s icy synthesisers link arms with gently fingerpicked acoustic guitar, creating a delicate yet warming winter ballad that fills the room upon reaching its rousing chorus. Silver and Gold itself one of the more left-field projects Steven has curated throughout his musical career – recorded over six years and nearly three hours long it represents a mammoth undertaking for the artist and thematically lingers in the spaces just off to the side of festivity. Throughout the album we’re confronted with themes that perhaps aren’t ‘very Christmassy, Mark’ – reflections on the artist’s depressive nature in contrast to the joys of the season. A complex, compelling work of art, but perhaps not one to be listened to in one go if you’re feeling under the weather this Christmas.
Los Campesinos! – ‘When Christmas Comes’
One day I’ll write an article for this publication that doesn’t include a reference to Best Band Of All Time™ Los Campesinos!, but today is certainly not that day. ‘When Christmas Comes’ is by far the best track from their joyous A Los Campesinos! Christmas EP, featuring aching strings, choral vocals a-la ‘Avocado, Baby’ and a rousing final chorus to top the whole thing off. Gareth’s lyrics are rewarding as ever despite their festive wrapping paper, vividly depicting ‘LED avenues’, ‘plucking stars from out the sky’ and taking part in an audition for ‘ass-end of horse in village pantomime’. That classic brand of Los Campesinos! sadboy-ism is evoked vividly in the song’s tense pre-chorus ‘Christmas Eve, torrential rain / One single snowflake on this pane / I held you in gloved hands and I’m not letting go’. All of this melancholy is coated in a thick layer of festive instrumentation that hides those more troublesome thoughts to only those listening in. It’s classic Los Campesinos! in a festive wrapping, and for me, that’ll do just fine.
The Blue Nile – ‘Tinseltown in the Rain’
I’m fairly certain ‘Tinseltown in the Rain’ has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas aside from including the word ‘tinsel’ in the title, but nevertheless I will brazenly include it on this list due to a burning desire to write at least something about sophisti-pop legends The Blue Nile. Forming in 1984 and with just four quietly-released albums to their name, the band have carved out a truly unique niche – creating slightly uneasy pop that evokes early China Crisis and Prefab Sprout at the same time. ‘Tinseltown in the Rain’ is the second track from their debut album A Walk Across the Rooftops – and is their most popular hit for good reason. Paul Buchanan’s powerful vocal performance wavers periodically as it reaches to hit high notes at the song’s peak – crying out ‘Do I love you? / Yes, I love you / Will we always be happy go lucky?’ for no-one but himself. There’s a truly special atmosphere created across ‘Tinseltown in the Rain’ – managing to transmit feelings of isolation, hope and wonder through its layered instrumentation and desperate vocals. It’s a strange choice of Christmas song, but certainly worth exactly that reason. Bonus points here for playing Destroyer’s ‘Tinseltown Swimming in Blood’ immediately afterwards for a sinister (yet oddly funky) counterpart.