Christmas albums - Yule can be cool with these dudes

Seasonal albums are almost always a schmaltz-heavy, taste-free, zone. But this year, says Elisa Bray, we can rejoice

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The Independent Culture

The Christmas album is more often regarded as a means to generating cash flow and a quick pop hit than as a gateway to creativity. Judging by recent examples, the season seems to invite artists to make musical monstrosities of novelty and kitsch-ness all in the name of goodwill. Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan tried the format, both to near disastrous effect, in 2009, the latter's Christmas in the Heart a strange, unfathomable collection of blues takes on seasonal classics. Diamond has had several goes, the last of which, A Cherry Cherry Christmas, veered unpalatably from style to style.

With Michael Bublé's Christmas riding high in the charts, and the cast of Glee's The Christmas Album: Volume Two on the shelves, the cash-in continues. It's not a great time for indie-rock lovers – the last outstanding offering came from Sufjan Stevens in 2006 in the form of his five-EP box-set, and Low's Christmas before that, in 1999 – but this year the festive music calendar is enticing, with new albums set to raise both the calibre of Christmas music and the prominence of indie rock artists.

This festive season sees three albums from credible indie-rock artists (which officially makes a trend) and two out of the three are new collaborations. There's She & Him's A Very She & Him Christmas, while real-life couple Ash frontman Tim Wheeler and alt-folk singer songwriter Emmy the Great have teamed up to release the festive This is Christmas, with Editors frontman Tom Smith and Razorlight's former drummer-turned-solo-artist Andy Burrows's Funny Looking Angels completing the picture. And in addition, there's an EP from Gruff Rhys, Atheist Xmas.

With his band's penchant for the maudlin perspective on life, Editors' frontman would not be most people's first port of call for a jolly festive album, and Funny Looking Angels is, for the most part, a downbeat affair. Don't be put off by their uninspired moniker Smith & Burrows, which sounds more like an upmarket brand of paint than a rock duo; the album, including original songs alongside covers of Yazoo's "Only You" and The Longpigs' "On and On", is full of atmosphere. It also steers clear of naffness, even if it is dripping with classic Christmas-style backing vocals, strings, and jingle bells. Indie-rock fans would be delighted, if only the Christmas album didn't have such a bad reputation.

"I like the Editors but I hate Christmas albums. The only x-mas related release I can tolerate are the Killers yearly x-mas single and just because it goes to a cause", tweeted one fan. Smith and Burrows even found it necessary to stress in their press release that the album is neither a joke nor a bid for a quick cash fix, stating: "It is neither a naked grab for a hit nor a tongue-in-cheek joke. It is two friends and two very capable musicians trying to restore a sense of the community and joy of the season."

"It's funny how many people have asked, 'what the hell are you thinking?'" Smith sighs. "That's because 99 per cent of Christmas albums are rubbish. There's a whole side of Christmas that is horrible and sickening. There are also a lot of rubbish Christmas songs. But I'm very proud of the record. We've had a proper go with Christmas songs that people might want to listen to for years."

The Christmas angle was something that grew organically out of a long-time plan for the long-standing friends to work together on some music. He is pleased to see other bands take on the challenge of writing Christmas albums, especially if it results in an original song topping the chart, or at least giving X Factor contestants some competition. "When indie bands release Christmas songs it feels like B-side Christmas. Not many have a proper go. The last band that had an attempt was The Darkness and they did a good job of it. Wouldn't it be nice if someone would be up there with a new song? It's a bit sad that no-one's had a go", he muses. "I'm sure we won't be at the top of the charts, but we did our best. We've tried to be true to ourselves musically, but also to focus on what we liked about Christmas – looking back over what could have been a bad year and the hope for the next. That's what we wanted to get into the songs."

While Smith & Burrows have made an earnest tribute to Christmas, by contrast, Emma-Lee Moss and boyfriend Wheeler never expected their songs to see the light of day. With a mutual love of Phil Spector and the Beach Boys' 1960s summery pop in mind, they created the season's most enjoyable, upbeat album last winter when they were were snowed in.

"There wasn't anything to do so we watched black-and-white movies and we made ourselves Christmas dinner because we didn't think we'd get to our parents," Moss recalls. "We wanted to have a bit of fun – you can't pull yourselves out of the doldrums with a serious record. We didn't even know someone was going to put it out.We thought we could test the ground in a new way and people wouldn't hold it against us."

Treats and Turkeys: Festive fare from christmases past

Five best

* Low - Christmas

The American indie band created this glorious album of original songs alongside covers of traditional Christmas songs in 1999. Like Sufjan Stevens's offerings, it's a more sombre take on the season, with haunting harmonies, and the covers aren't of the season's typical upbeat core repertoire, but the more underplayed songs. And there's the most beautiful droning version of "Little Drummer Boy" I've ever heard.

* Phil Spector - A Christmas Gift for You

It has been called the greatest Christmas rock'n'roll album of all time. The producer applies his trademark wall of sound to 13 songs, layering piano, sleigh bells and percussion with typically lustrous harmonies on a 1963 gem of an album that lives on.

* Sufjan Stevens - Songs for Christmas

An antidote to the usual overplayed songs arrived in the shape of Sufjan Stevens's box set of five EPs in 2006, each previously available only to friends and family, catering perfectly to the indie reveller. His collection, boasting new songs with titles such as "It's Christmas! Let's Be Glad!" and "That was the Worst Christmas Ever!" alongside gorgeously arranged interpretations of traditional songs and carols, embodies warmth and melancholic spirit.

* Aimee Mann - One More Drifter in the Snow

Re-released in 2008, two years after its initial release, Mann's selection of covers and two originals applies a warm, jazzy sound, redolent of Dean Martin, with her gentle vocals' typical air of disappointment and loneliness. Mann ensures it has a unique feel with the use of vintage keyboards, light jazz guitar, banjo and harmonium, evoking, as she says sheintended, "the spooky beauty and mystery" of Christmas.

* Motown Christmas - Various artists

The 1973 double-LP showcases a who's-who of Motown's glorious Sixties and Seventies : Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Jackson 5...

Five Worst

* Cliff Richard - Cliff at Christmas

Not only does it include one of the most irritating Christmas hits of all time, "Mistletoe and Wine", but Richard's crooning renditions of "When A Child Is Born" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" are just too much.

* Mariah Carey - Merry Christmas II You

Mariah Carey's 1994 "All I Want For Christmas Is You" may have been the most played festive song of the past decade, warding off hits by Wham! and Slade, but her follow-up Christmas album, 16 years later, fared less well. Most misplaced is her duet with her opera-singing mother on a medley of "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Hallelujah Chorus". Say no more.

* Neil Diamond - Cherry Cherry Christmas

It boasts the most cringeworthy pun in its title, and that's not where the corniness ends. "White Christmas" is rendered in a doo-wop style while "Deck the Halls" is full-on barbershop quartet medley. What's more, most of the tracks appeared on former Diamond Christmas albums in the early 90s.

* Bob Dylan - Christmas in the Heart

Granted, there are worse Christmas albums, but this 2006 release is just odd. Dylan's husky blues vocals are an ill match for the seasonal jollities, and their sleigh bells and MOR backing-singer treatment, on such as "Here Comes Santa Claus", "The Christmas Song", "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing".

* David Hasselhoff - The Night Before Christmas

With Hasselhoff's cheesy grin staring back at you, the cover does not bode well. But it was never going to be about the music.