Apologies are probably in order for the lull in activity on Istanbul Notes recently. Keeping track of economic crisis in Ireland and the eurozone has been consuming much of my time, at the expense of Turkish affairs. Normal service will hopefully resume here over the next week so.
In the meantime, with Christmas now just a fortnight away, here’s a new mixtape to ease you into the festive season. I’ll move the music over to one of the ‘On my iPod’ pages in the coming days, but starting it out on a standard page allows me to include below it an article about Christmas music that I wrote for the Irish Times a few years ago.
I hope you enjoy.
01 It’s Christmas Time • Yo La Tengo
02 Just Like Christmas • Low
03 Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth • Bing Crosby & David Bowie
04 Star Of Wonder • Sufjan Stevens
05 Winter Wonderland • Cocteau Twins
06 We Three Kings Of Orient Are • The Beach Boys
07 Happy Xmas (War Is Over) • John Lennon & Yoko Ono
08 Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance! • Sufjan Stevens
09 I Heard the Bells on Christmas • Pedro the Lion
10 Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane) • Elvis Presley
11 Sleigh Ride • The Ronettes
12 What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? • Rufus Wainwright
13 Joy To The World • Sufjan Stevens
From the Irish Times, November 24th 2006
Mention Christmas music and you’re likely to think of artists like Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole—oldies whose festive crooning was always charming, often cheesy, rarely challenging. More recently, things have taken a dip and the seasonal warblings of middle-of-the-road shockers such as Celine Dion have become alarmingly prevalent. But quietly and gradually, the past 15 years or so have seen an interesting body of indie-alternative Christmas music start to take shape.
I don’t mean the familiar novelty tracks and compilation-contributions, but well thought out attempts to put a little bit of Christmas down on disc without necessarily succumbing to the sleighbells and saccharine formula that makes up so much of the usual musical idiom at this time of year.
A highwater mark was reached in 1999 with Low’s Christmas mini-album, of which more later. Other significant recordings have ranged from earlier EPs such as Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Christmas EP and the Cocteau Twins’ Snow to more recent releases such as David Bazan’s annual Christmas singles, Bright Eyes’ A Christmas Album and even last year’s The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, with its contributions from Rufus and Martha Wainwright.
This year’s addition to the canon of alternative Christmas music comes courtesy of Sufjan Stevens. He’s not a man to do things in half measures, so it’s perhaps unsurprising to see that his Songs for Christmas stretches to five discs’ worth of material. Even by his usual prolific standards, this is good going.
His epic project to record an album dedicated to each of the American states has so far managed only two releases since 2003. By contrast, his Christmas music has been recorded at the rate of a disc per year over the past six years, with a hiatus in 2004. Each year he’d record a disc at home and send it out to friends and family. (The commercial release is probably explained by most of the material spreading rapidly across the internet last year.) There’s a homely and intimate feeling to Songs for Christmas, but the set bears all the usual hallmarks of Stevens’s music. Besides the sheer scale of the release, there’s the customary eclecticism, the impeccable arrangements, and the unerring ear for a melody. The set has its weak moments, but as a whole it’s a festive tour de force, and one which reveals an admirable immersion in Christmas musical tradition. Alongside some of the standards you’d expect (‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ ‘Silent Night,’ etc), there are 16 originals, as well as some less obvious seasonal selections, such as ‘I Saw Three Ships’ and ‘Lo How A Rose E’er Blooming.’
Overall it’s a playful set, but unafraid of dwelling from time to time on the religious side of the Christmas season. Stevens doesn’t make a big deal of it, but he’s clearly a man with strong Christian beliefs. His 2004 album, Seven Swans, was shot through with biblical imagery and narrative, and there’s a sense of reverence and joy in much of Songs for Christmas that would seem to spring from a deep faith.
We’re used to thinking of alternative music as a thoroughly secular enterprise, but it seems that much of the best Christmas music of recent years has been made by alternative artists with strong (albeit sometimes ambiguous) Christian beliefs. In addition to Stevens, there’s David Bazan, a complicated character who began his career on Christian label Tooth & Nail, as well as Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, the Mormon husband-and-wife team at the heart of Low.
Does religious belief give these artists an edge when it comes to recording Christmas music? It’s hard to see how the intensity of some of their Christmas releases would be possible for artists who didn’t attach real significance to the religious side of the festive season. When they sing about the birth of Jesus, it seems to mean more to them than it probably does to many of us listening, at least on this side of the Atlantic.
Not that it’s all heavy-going by any means—there’s not much theology to be found in Stevens’s ‘Come On! Let’s Boogie To The Elf Dance !’or Low’s ode to the end of the Christmas season, ‘Taking Down The Tree.’
Perhaps I’m wrong about the musical difference Christian belief might make. For instance, when I ask Andrew Beaujon, a journalist with US magazine Spin and author of Body Piercing Saved My Life, a book about Christian music in the US, he says he sees no correlation between Christianity and great Christmas music. “The greatest Christmas song of all time was written by a Jew,” he notes, referring to Irving Berlin’s ubiquitous ‘White Christmas.’
Written in the early 1940s, ‘White Christmas’ has gone on to sell a reported 350 million copies, making it one of the most important elements of the Christmas soundtrack over the last few generations. It’s one of a long line of one-off songs that have captured the Christmas imagination.
Not all such songs have been as rose-tinted as Berlin’s. The stand-out recent example is ‘A Fairytale of New York,’ but the archetype is probably ‘Blue Christmas’ from 1948. Originally a country-music song, Elvis catapulted it into the mainstream with his 1960 recording and it has since become a staple of alternative Christmas music, capturing as it does a very modern, very indie mix of seasonal festivity and romantic misery.
It’s perhaps fitting that the voice of ‘White Christmas’ nostalgia, Bing Crosby, also gets a look-in as a precursor to the alternative Christmas music of recent years. For there can have been few seasonal recordings more alternative than Bing’s unlikely appearance alongside a Low-era David Bowie on the television special ‘Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas’ in the late 1970s. After a few minutes of surreal banter the two men launch into a beautiful duet, Bowie’s crystalline ‘Peace on Earth’ soaring above Bing’s ‘Little Drummer Boy.’
The recent run of alternative Christmas music started with Mary Margaret O’Hara in 1992, followed a year later by the Cocteau Twins’ Snow, a single containing versions of ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman.’ The latter is a largely forgettable release, but nonetheless in 1999 Low worried that their Christmas mini-album would be seen as a copy of the Cocteaus’ earlier release.
Low’s concerns were misplaced. It may have been recorded and released in a hurry, but Christmas is the definitive seasonal release for anyone with an interest in alternative music. More than any of its peers it stands up on its own terms, both musically and lyrically, as a serious piece of work that bears favourable comparison with anything else its creators have done before or since. And it has deservedly been a huge success.
“We spent about two weeks on it and never expected the reaction it got,” says Sparhawk, the band’s lead singer and guitarist.
“It’s probably a good thing that we didn’t take it too seriously – if we knew how important it was going to be for the band, we probably wouldn’t have been able to approach it the way we did. It was like a really happy accident.”
Low’s Christmas covers more ground than most festive releases could dream of. From the jaunty sleighbells of the opener ‘Just Like Christmas,’ the album proceeds through some of the staples (‘Blue Christmas,’ ‘Silent Night,’ and a haunting dirge-like ‘Little Drummer Boy’) as well as a series of jaw-dropping originals.
‘Long Way Around The Sea’ retells part of the nativity story, where the three wise men change their route home from Bethlehem, to frustrate Herod. At the heart of the disc, ‘If You Were Born Today’ is a strikingly frank meditation on the failings, in Christian terms, of the contemporary world. “If you were born today / We’d kill you by age eight”, it begins, before building in a slow crescendo to a conclusion that can hardly be described as festive: “Deny the flesh / Deny all that’s evil / Tonight you’ll deny me thrice.”
In other hands, sentiments like these would sound preachy, pious, and out of place in a release by a respected alternative rock band. But Low make it work. It’s hardly a cheery song, but there’s no denying it’s a Christmas song. And listeners have clearly lapped it up.
“Looking back, it is one of the darker songs,” says Sparhawk. “We didn’t want to use Christmas to make a political or a social or a religious statement, and we didn’t decide to depict the heavier side of things. But we didn’t edit ourselves either. ‘If You Were Born Today’ was the first of the originals I wrote, but I didn’t think of it as a Christmas song at first. It just sort of fell from me, and when I put it together it was clearly a song about Jesus.”
Sparhawk seems genuinely touched by the response that Christmas has garnered over the years. He singles out John Peel for his help in promoting it, but adds that he feels a debt of gratitude towards all those who heard the music and contributed to the wave-like word of mouth it generated.
“We really wanted Christmas to be good, but it was hard. We had no real point of reference to gauge what might make it work. You kind of have to suspend your disbelief, and your ego, to step out onto the field of Christmas music. You try to forget what’s been done already, and you just hope the songs will come into light.”
Christmas seems to have become a significant part of the Low calendar, and Sparhawk holds out the tantalising prospect of another Christmas release. He notes that the band’s Christmas music is an “ongoing thing” and that they’ve already written a few new songs. Last year the band played a couple of Christmas shows in their home state of Minnesota, and this year they’ll be doing the same in Chicago and New York. They never planned it this way, but Low seem to have become alternative music’s ambassadors for Christmas.
“It’s weird. It’s humbling how people have responded. The Christmas record has been more of a gift to us than we could ever have imagined.”