In the realm of inevitable events, perhaps only Christmas music can challenge death and taxes for ubiquity in American life — particularly from Thanksgiving through December 26. As anyone who has suffered through Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” can attest, hearing the same old songs ad nauseum can be a bit much. So to what music can we turn if we’re not thrilled to be surrounded by cardboard Santas and blinking multicolored lights? Here are some humble suggestions for this season:
Glasgow’s Attic Lights bravely ask the question that is on many of our minds as we finish off the Thanksgiving leftovers and face another blue December. “Why Should Christmas Be So Hard?” appears on Elefant Records’ 2011 compilation A Christmas Gift for You. It’s a sensitive-but-not-sentimental take on holiday hardships and the search for an alternative to the crushing weight of tradition, finishing in a sort of Beach Boys-if-they-were-from-Caledonia bit of vocal loveliness. (Available on iTunes.)
If you’re looking for some Christmas détente give “It’s Clichéd to be Cynical at Christmas” by UK stalwarts Half Man Half Biscuit a spin. Released in 2000 on their album Trouble Over Bridgewater, this track manages to reconnect with the spirit of Christmas in very sweet way – delightfully unexpected from a band known for its unflinchingly satiric look at English culture. (Available on iTunes and Amazon.)
Optimism can take root in the absence of cynicism, and I don’t know a more optimistic Christmas song than the eels’ “Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas”. The live version — recorded in England in December 1998 and taken from their album Electro-Shock Blues Show — features sleigh bells played by a member of the audience (credited only as “Emma”), but she gamely keeps up with Mark Oliver Everett and his bandmates as they leave last year’s disappointing Yule behind. (Available on iTunes and Amazon.)
Fountains of Wayne’s 2004 Christmas letter to Santa shows optimism of a different sort. “I Want an Alien for Christmas” is a cheery burst of power pop confection that barrels down the chimney with all of the enthusiasm of a kid tearing into a pile of presents on December 25. (Available on iTunes and Amazon.)
Be careful what you wish for, though. Canadian band the Rheostatics’ “Aliens (Christmas 1988)” looks at the flip side of wanting an alien for Christmas. First released on their 1991 album Melville, it may trigger uncomfortable flashbacks for any of us who’ve spent a Christmas being examined by extraterrestrials, and, as you might expect, it contains strong language and adult themes. (Available on Amazon.)
The Lilac Time’s “Family Coach” (from Looking for a Day in the Night, released in 1999) is another non-traditional Christmas song that involves an extraterrestrial adventure (in the most literal sense possible). Chronicling Apollo 8’s circumlunar orbit over Christmas 1968 and juxtaposing it with songwriter Stephen Duffy’s childhood remembrances of that same Christmas the song becomes an affecting (and effective) examination of the delicate nature of life on our planet.
One final song for those of you who spend 364 days celebrating that it is not Christmas, courtesy of brothers Ron and Russell Mael — better known as long-standing cult pop stars Sparks. “Thank God It’s Not Christmas” sits midway through their 1970 album Kimono My House, and cuts through any romantic ideas about Christmas like a chainsaw through gingerbread. (Available on iTunes and Amazon.)
So there you have my Christmas presents to you. If you find yourself wanting more I’d recommend tracking down a copy of the 1991 holiday compilation “A Lump of Coal” released by Australia’s Dead Line Records in cooperation with the American record company First Warning. It’s a terrific mix of artists known and unknown singing Christmas songs traditional and untraditional – including punk legend Henry Rollins reading ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.