No Slade! An alternative festive playlist

Sick of the usual Christmas hits? Radio 1 DJ Huw Stephens selects his favourite Christmas tunes
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The Independent Culture

No Wham!. That's the first rule. After that, pretty much, if it's a Christmas record, festive in its melodies, lyrics, sound and sleeve, then count me in. Every year in record shops, wherever I go, I'm always on the hunt for Christmas tunes. During, say, March, in an unsuspecting indie store (if I can find one), it does seem a bit weird hunting down the "X" section, but I know that at the end of the year it'll be worth it. That's when all my festive tunes come out to play. And there are a lot of them.

From religious gospel choirs praising little baby Jesus to hip-hop oddballs rapping over a vaguely tinsel-strewn beat, it's always good to have an alternative Christmas soundtrack ready to blast out of your speakers. In 2006, Sufjan Stevens set music fans' hearts aglow with the news that he was releasing a five-disc festive box set, a compilation of tunes he'd recorded for friends. It came with stickers of robins and reindeers and everything, adding to the alternating instrumental, traditional and tongue-in-cheek indie Americana numbers. Maybe it tired him out, but a new album, festive or not, must surely be on the cards soon.

Fellow American cult heroes The Flaming Lips have recorded more than a few Christmas songs over the years too, both original and of the traditional variety, culminating in 2008's Christmas on Mars, a film that's as odd and as psychedelic as you'd hope from these masters of music and creativity. While the beautiful soundtrack thankfully stays away from sleigh bell sounds and reindeer scurrying in the background, what the music lacks in festive spirit is made up for by Wayne Coyne starring as a green alien in a Santa suit.

But really, why bother? What more can a band, solo artist or producer offer the music world in the form of Chrimbo tunes? Surely we've all suffered enough? Surely Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift For You originally released in 1963 was where the buck stopped?

Thankfully not, as bands and artists can't resist taking to the studio all year round in preparation for the big day. When it comes to punk rock bands, it seems, sadly, that playing a traditional song a little bit faster while turning it up to 11 is enough for them. It isn't, because the end result usually sounds like a traditional song being played a little bit faster and turned up to 11. Original songs sometimes stand out, as heard on the Santa Cause: It's a Punk Rock Christmas compilations.

You need to hear Low's mini-album, the one-worded Christmas album, truly to get into the alt-guitar festive spirit. A collection of traditional and original songs, it will melt the snow from your window sill and make you wish the turkey (or nut roast) was a staple all year round. The Minnesota band even let Gap use their dreamy cover of "Little Drummer Boy" (a much covered favourite by so many bands) on a television advert. Elsewhere on the album, "Silent Night" is covered stunningly, a little bit like Glasvegas's version on their Transylvania recorded Christmas album, A Snowflake Fell (And it Felt Like a Kiss) that was released this year. This latter version features the Concentus Choir from Romania; titled "Silent Night/Noapte de Vis", it's a highlight on an ethereal and downbeat Christmas collection worthy of Renton from Trainspotting.

Lesser known bands are into it, too. The wonderful Slow Club, a duo from Sheffield, set to release their debut album on the Moshi Moshi label next year, have gone the sensible route and recorded an original song as a single – and one not about the joy and happiness and wonderfulness of the month, but about Christmas television. It's simply called "Christmas TV". And it is beautiful. Swedish siblings First Aid Kit have gone the other route and recorded the heartbreak-during-the-Christmas-holidays song "Blue Christmas", to breathtaking effect. It bodes well for their forthcoming album, Drunken Trees, on their new home of Wichita Recordings.

Probably the most indie label in Europe, Manchester-based DIY-label Cherryade Records have got into the spirit over the last four years with A Very Cherry Christmas, an annual compilation that brings together some of the most DIY and indie performers who, in a parallel universe, would be No 1 on Top of the Pops. Hotpants Romance, Ste McCabe, The Seven Inches and Detox Cute and the Beauty Junkies are among those who feature. Hey, it beats hearing Mariah Carey for the billionth time.

As much as I love Johnny Cash's The Christmas Spirit, The Kingston Trio's The Last Month of the Year and James Brown's A Funky Christmas, it always pays to enjoy a weirder Christmas soundtrack on your headphones while searching for bargain gifts. Christmas on Death Row brings a certain thugness to the proceedings, with more bling than tinsel thanks to Snoop Dogg and friends. Carol singing this most definitely ain't.

Mr Hopkinson's Computer, a laptop from Bristol with its own MySpace site, does a mean version of the evergreen "Fairytale of New York", arguably the most unlikely and brilliant festive song of all time. Sample-slicing maestro Cassetteboy's Festive Christmas album is a true gem. Making Cliff Richard say unspeakable things, mashing up "Stop the Cavalry": 25 December will never be the same again after hearing this.

So that's a peek into my Christmas collection. Admittedly dusty for most of the year, it's nice to show them daylight in December. One more rule, though: no downloading. That's cheating.



Listen to Huw Stephens on Radio 1, Wednesday nights 9pm-10pm and 12midnight-2am, and his 'Weird & Wonderful Christmas on Christmas Day Morning', 12midnight-2am, www.bbc.co.uk/radio1

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