Christmas Albums: Does Santa rock, Daddy?

'Tis the season for musical folly. But amid the hastily produced cash-ins, there are Christmas albums that are sincere, revealing - and funky! Nick Coleman sorts the festive crackers from the stocking fillers
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The Independent Culture

The Swedish jazz trombonist Nils Landgren had a terrific Christmas last year. He got to make a Christmas album. He recorded it in a beautiful Swedish church with a bunch of musician chums and called it Christmas with My Friends. "My idea with this album," he said, "is to show listeners what my Christmas is all about, for me and for us. It is about peace, love, joy, family, thankfulness, forgiveness, generosity to your fellow man and, one more time, peace." The record company had the event filmed for release on DVD.

The performance was staged in the 13th-century Odensala church near the town of Sigtuna, in front of an attentive congregation of woolies and kagouls. Outside, the darkness swirled. Inside, there was flickering candle light to see by, while the dynamic range of the music sustained itself a flicker either side of mezzo-piano. The atmosphere was sepulchral. Nobody clapped between pieces and nobody simpered when Landgren and friends got quietly stuck into "When You Wish Upon a Star", "White Christmas" and Mel Tormé's "Christmas Song". And it was clearly only by an act of surpassing congregational will that the sound of lamentation did not overwhelm the microphones during a beautiful arrangement for seven trombones of Rinaldo's aria "Oh, Let Me Weep", from the Handel opera. The piety on display was wholehearted and, you have to say, complex.

I love Christmas albums. You might think that this is because I am a sentimental fool, and that may be the case. But actually, what I find loveable in Christmas albums isn't the familiar tropes of the season, routinely trotted out in the interests of commercial ease, but that Christmas albums always present something of a struggle - a struggle in which rash, distasteful, brainless errors of artistic judgement collide with strange moments of revelation and lucidity.

"Oh, Let Me Weep" is not a Christmas tune; it isn't even church music. It isn't jolly. It represents the lowest point of a tragic story. Yet in this context, played thickly and gently by a choir of trombones, it is not so much dramatically heartbreaking as heartbreakingly consolatory. It might be music to accompany the birth of a child. It sits perfectly in Landgren's Christmas pick 'n' mix programme of secular/sacred goodies because its emotional frequency resonates with the idea of Christmas as something other than a consumer spendfest.

Most authored Christmas albums (as opposed to compilations; and let's not touch here on the subject of the Christmas single) represent a car crash involving the irresistible forces of sentiment, artistry, commerce and taste. The fuel is volatile. Remember, the idea of the Christmas album is a confined one. There is not much room for manoeuvre. A Christmas album must bring together, with some sort of a bang, a number of not-necessarily-compatible elements: God, Mammon (manifest as Shopping and Piety), myth, magic, sentiment, solemnity, joy, warmth, frostiness, sincerity, irony, home, charity, infantilism, twinkly camp and a sense of pagan energy so profound that, when you are listening to a really good Christmas album, you can smell the wetness of ivy. That's if a Christmas album wants to be taken seriously.

A proper Christmas album is, after all, an artistic statement, as well as a commercial one. Nobody makes a Christmas album unless he or she wants to. Why go to all the trouble of researching and recording a whole programme of music when you can satisfy the demands of the most voracious record company marketing department simply by knocking off a quick Yuletide single? No, I'm sorry. These Christmas-album people are artists and no musician of bottom ever made a Christmas album without wanting to say something with it.

Moreover, it's a fact that Christmas albums are not a great way of making money. Except in the rarest circumstances (ie. Phil Spector and Nat King Cole), they have a shelf-life of approximately one month, after which their commercial value drops like pine needles.

So why do it? After all, whether they realise it or not, all that musicians achieve when they make Christmas albums is the public exposure of their own taste, their pathology, their social background. Too often, Christmas albums turn out to be a Daddy-dressed-as-Santa moment, when the beard slips and the ho-ho-ho dissolves into stifled curses and dropped parcels. Nothing dismembers credibility faster than a duff Christmas record.

Which is why you don't find many British ones. We are naturally chary of worked-up sincerity in this country and unsure, given our cultural and class baggage, of what will and won't wash with our fellow Brits. An indie band might do a larky Christmas album to demonstrate their cool insincerity; a West End diva might grace us with a trilling delivery of "favourites". But by and large we just don't go there.

The only British-made Christmas album I ever play for pleasure is a Sixties recording of King's College Choir under David Willcocks doing carols in the Chapel. For me, Harold Darke's "In the Bleak Midwinter" is right up there for chilly kicks with Mary Margaret O'Hara's "Blue Christmas". Otherwise, you have to look to the folk tradition, where the pagan whiff of wet ivy abidingly clings (this year's most distinguished effort: Waterson Carthy's Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man).

You will see from the following list that, in my view, you have to be north-American to cut a Christmas album that ranks. And they keep on coming. This year's crop has two clear high points, Aimee Mann's bleak confection and Bootsy Collins's funk party. But why? Why is it that Americans can stuff sentiment, artistry, commerce and questionable taste into a tinselled sock and swing it round their heads as if this were an activity that goes to the heart of what it means to be human in winter? What can they see and feel that we can't? And how is it that they can express it so cogently? It can't simply be that Americans are unembarrassable, can it?

The Top Ten Christmas Albums

1. Phil Spector, A Christmas Gift for You (EMI)

Post-Disney America distilled in one extraordinary, season-specific commodity by a Jewish record mogul with a hairpiece, an eye for a pretty girl and an ear for a wall of sound. There is no argument about this. Darlene Love, the Ronettes, the Crystals and Bob B Soxx participated in a cultural gesture which shall ring down the centuries for the exquisitely rowdy way in which it secularised a religious festival without losing a mote of its "magic". A work of untrammelled genius.

2. John Fahey, The New Possibility: Guitar Soli Christmas Album (Takoma)

Those of a more sober disposition may well prefer this to Spector's Wall of Teenage Girls. Fahey made two Christmas albums, in which his extraordinary solo guitar in the medieval-folk-blues mode chimed its parallel fourths like bells over the seasonal repertoire. Extraordinarily beautiful, if you have the head for it.

3. Rotary Connection, Peace (One Way)

The Connection was formed in the late Sixties by Marshall Chess to give a bit of chunk to the racially inclusive black 'n' white hippie imperative. The result: an uneasy but sometimes fabulous psychedelic R&B, in this case dedicated to singing up the world-peace vibe in a seasonal stylee. One of the singers was Minnie Riperton - her "Christmas Love" should have been a smash. Sadly, the album is hard to find now.

4. Mary Margaret O'Hara, Christmas EP (Virgin)

Not strictly an album, there only being four songs on it, but O'Hara's EP is nevertheless a masterpiece. Minimalist country-weird arrangements frame the anxiety in Mary like saints around the Virgin. She goes for it as if Loretta, Patsy and Tammy had only got half way there and it's time someone went the full distance.

5. The O'Jays, Home for Christmas (EMI)

Who'da thunk the Philly-soul gods of yesterdecade might come out with an authentic classic at the dawn of the Nineties, a record so warm, sexy and huggable that you just don't know where to put your sense of seasonal irony. There is no pretence at piety, just big voices and monster versions of "Merry Christmas Baby" and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?". If Santa got soul, he'd sound like Eddie Levert.

6. Various Artists, Rhythm & Blues Christmas (Ace)

It's possible The O'Jays grew up with this stuff - the world of Forties and Fifties "race" music and its pragmatic address to the Christmas holiday as, above all, a social event. Hear Little Willie Littlefield, Smokey Hogg, Hadda Brooks, The Nic Nacs, Riff Ruffin et al give it some good-timey genre welly. Yes, I know - it's a compilation, so it doesn't speak with a single authorial voice. But just listen to it: these are different people speaking as if with one voice. "Get it on!" is what they're saying.

7. Aimee Mann, One More Drifter in the Snow (Superego)

Christmas as a time of quiet loneliness, disappointment and anxiety, against a seething background of joy to the world. The true wonder of the Christmas album is revealed here by the bleak genius of our Aimee: you can say anything you want with the form if you're talented enough.

8. Marah, A Christmas Kind of Town (Yep Roc)

"This record is for anyone and everyone, regardless of religion and race, who just likes it when December rolls in," say the Springsteenian Bielankos brothers of Philadelphia, PA, buttering their toast on both sides. Baby, it is indeed cold outside and, yes, New York is indeed a Christmas kind of town. All your favourite issues tackled with wit, wisdom and a measure of encrusted rock 'n' roll brio.

9. Bootsy Collins, Christmas is 4 Ever (Shout Factory/Evangeline)

Everyone round to Bootsy's, then. The P-Funk crew will be there, plus Buckethead, partying like Christmas is just another excuse to be funky. And who can argue with that? Features a great, slippery "Jingle Belz".

10. Nat King Cole, Merry Christmas (EMI)

Oh, go on then, if you must - though Cole's "sophisticated" vibe sounds prim next to Ace R&B, Bootsy and The O'Jays.

...and three turkeys

1. Al Green, White Christmas (Hi/A&M) Al Green is a great soul singer partly because of his beautiful voice, partly because everything he does is fraught with ambiguity. This is great when he's making like Laocoön with the serpents of sex and sanctity; not so great in the context of Bing Crosby and "What Christmas Means to Me". This horror came out in 1983 and has stood since then as the most chillingly insincere gift you can give at Christmas.

2. Elaine Page, Christmas (WEA)

A 20th-anniversary reissue of the Tony Visconti-produced sparkler which teamed the doyenne of the musical stage with every shopping-mall staple you can think of, from "Walking in the Air" to "I Believe in Father Christmas", complete with kiddie choir, each note of it twinkling like a high-street window display at dusk.

3. Blackmore's Night, Winter Carols (AFM)

Ritchie Blackmore and Candice Night are the former guitarist in Deep Purple and his Rapunzel-haired princess. They dress in Renaissance clobber and play shawms, hurdy gurdy, recorder and guitars. Imagine the Carpenters doing Christmas at the court of Henry VIII. Huge in Germany and Japan.