We wish you an alternative Christmas: Beyond the world of the cheesy festive album

Had enough of Teen heart-throbs, reality TV stars and cheesy crooners? Craig Mclean investigates the rise of the alternative festive album

In a shopping mall in London, a teenage messiah with 14 million disciples has descended from on high. In a helicopter. Justin Bieber is coming to town to switch on the Christmas lights at the two giant Westfield centres. The 17-year-old pop superstar is here as part of the promotional campaign in support of his new album. Under the Mistletoe – already dominating iTunes charts worldwide – is an all-conquering commercial juggernaut.

Giving him stiff competition in the pre-festive charts are all sorts of chancers: X Factor winner Joe McElderry is releasing Classic Christmas. The cast of Glee are punting The Christmas Album: Volume Two. The cast of The Only Way is Essex have – somehow – covered Wham!'s "Last Christmas". The list is witless.

Here comes Michael Bublé, too. His Christmas album – it's called Christmas – features covers of standards such as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". The Canadian crooner, to his credit, holds his hands up as to his motives: "I am the most festive sap. The truth is, I've wanted to do this Christmas record forever. You have to be pretty cynical not to like Christmas. Or Jewish. It sounds funny, but it's the most important record of my life so far. If I've done it right, when I'm dead I seriously doubt people will be listening to Crazy Love," he says of his last, mega-selling studio album. "But they'll be listening to this Christmas record every year. It becomes part of your legacy. Look at Bing Crosby – can you name me a bunch of Bing songs apart from 'White Christmas'?"

He has a point and, happily, Christmas 2011 has brought forth three seasonal albums worth sticking on your list to Santa. They were all made by duets. They all come from what used to be called the "indie" world. And they would all, to be frank, sound good at any time of the year.

"A lot of people have said, 'What are you thinking doing a Christmas record?'" admits Tom Smith, the Editors' frontman who has teamed up with ex-Razorlight drummer and now solo artist Andy Burrows on Funny Looking Angels. "But that perhaps is the reason to do it."

"A lot of those old songs actually have a lot of soul, and a lot of heart," says M (Matt) Ward. So he and actress Zooey Deschanel – aka She & Him – decided to excavate and rehabilitate some figgy-pudding-heavy classics.

"It's always a bit of quandary at party season – what do you play?" asks Tim Wheeler of Ash who, with girlfriend Emmy the Great, has made This is Christmas. "You end up playing Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift For You over and over. So there's been a bit of a gap for some more quality Christmas albums – which hopefully we've done!"

TIM WHEELER & EMMY THE GREAT

The indie Posh'n'Becks snuggle up for the pop-tastic 'This is Christmas'. Nine self-penned songs and one nod to the greatest Christmas album ever.

Why do a Christmas album?

Tim Wheeler: "We got snowed in at Emmy's family's house in Sussex and, just for fun, wrote three songs. Once we wrote those we thought they might actually be worth releasing, so we continued writing whenever we were together. I'd say doing it brought us closer as a couple. It's so rare to find people that you can really connect with – and even rarer to also really enjoy making music with them."

Did you fear the cheese?

Wheeler: "Not really, because I think you get a free pass with Christmas music. It can't take itself too seriously."

Emmy the Great: "Yeah! But I get in trouble with Tim because when we get asked to do playlists I'll always put 'Funky Funky Christmas' by New Kids on the Block on."

How did you create the festive atmosphere while finishing the album in Connecticut in summer?

Wheeler: "Emmy was going to buy decorations for the studio but we discovered that Christmas is all in your mind. So we were able to go there, without tinsel and shit."

What's the sleigh-bell quotient?

Emmy: "High! Tim says he sprained his arm playing sleigh bells. That's how many sleigh bells there are."

What is the essence of a Christmas song?

Emmy: "You could just do a cover of whatever and whack it out there. But that's not enough: if you don't care, the song lacks life. But if you do care, you can do one of the cheesiest, most kitschy Christmas songs ever, and people will like it. You've put your Christmas spirit into it."

How did you choose your sole cover, of Darlene Love's "Marshmallow World"?

Emmy: "Because it was the Phil Spector Christmas album that we listened to for inspiration. And Darlene Love just owns Christmas songs."

Wheeler: "The other criteria was we didn't have much time to mess around with covers. Christmas is a deadline that you can't move."

What's the best Christmas song ever?

Emmy: "The Waitresses 'Christmas Rapping'. It's got that kind of cool to it. It's obscure enough so that if you bring it out, people won't groan."

Wheeler: "'Fairytale of New York'. It captures the loneliness of Christmas, as well as being really uplifting. They're fighting, but you can tell they really love each other as well – which seems to encapsulate Christmas."

And the worst?

Emmy: "That spaceman song – is it Chris de Burgh? I had a teacher who used to do it in assembly in a really groovy way, and it just grates on my nerves."

Wheeler: "Christmas is a season of forgiveness, especially when it comes to music. Wham!'s 'Last Christmas' is my guilty pleasure. I saw Arctic Monkeys in New York last year, and [drummer] Matt Helders sat on a stool, put on some shades and did a karaoke version of it. It was the high point of the show for me."

SHE & HIM

Hollywood actress takes time off from hit sitcom 'The New Girl' (coming to C4 in January) to make third album with indie stalwart M Ward. 'A Very She & Him Christmas' contains 12 simple covers of festive fireside classics

Why do a Christmas album?

Matt Ward: "Zooey and I have been talking about it for many years. And so many of these old songs were overproduced. We had the idea that if we left them to just vocals and guitar, it could bring new life to them. And we'd have a blast in the process."

Zooey Deschanel: "Some of my favourite records are Christmas records, and the Beach Boys and Phil Spector ones are my favourite. [On the track 'Christmas Day'], I liked throwing a song with a bigger production in a sort of intimate sounding record... It was so much fun doing the backing vocals for that one, too. Lots of stacked harmonies."

Did you fear the cheese?

Ward: "Yeah, there's so many cheesy versions of Christmas songs. The best antidote to the cheese is to keep songs simple and just sing with heart – and that comes very natural to Zooey. Just because it's a Christmas song doesn't mean you need a 12-piece bell choir."

How did you conjure the festive atmosphere while recording in sunny Los Angeles in August?

Ward: "I went to Pandora, the internet radio station, typed in 'the Beach Boys "Little Saint Nick"', and every morning woke up to a playlist of Christmas songs that have kinship with that song. It was a great experiment. No, I didn't wear a Christmas sweater."

How did you choose your covers?

Deschanel: "It was very organic: we picked the songs we liked best and that we had ideas for. I like singing the melancholy old Christmas tunes so we covered a bunch of those. We didn't plan on doing 'Silver Bells'. I just started playing ukulele and we recorded it in one take. It was the first time I had ever played it. I think Matt liked that it sounded tentative and so we kept it on the record.

What is the essence of a Christmas song?

Deschanel: "We wanted [ours] to feel warm and intimate. But we put our own stamp on it, so it's definitely She & Him. It feels like sitting in a living room at Christmas listening to carols by the fire."

What's the sleigh-bell quotient?

Ward: "I'd say one in four. Most studios in LA own at least one set of sleigh bells. She & Him have used sleigh bells on non-Christmas songs as well. It's become an instrument that doesn't require snow or sleighs to be used."

What's the best Christmas song ever?

Deschanel: "When I was little, I remember getting The Beach Boys' Christmas Album cassette in my Christmas stocking. And Phil Spector's Christmas record I'll literally listen to any time of year. It's a masterpiece."

Ward: "Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. I heard that a lot as a kid. Or, Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas. Those are both timeless classics."

And the worst?

Ward: "Do you guys have Wal-Mart? Well, the muzak versions of Christmas songs you'd hear in a supermarket, or when you're on hold to your credit card company."

SMITH & BURROWS

Editors' frontman and ex-Razorlight drummer apply heartfelt songwriting to tactical Christmas carolling and strategic 1980s covers. "There are uptempo moments, but this is a melancholic festive record"

Why do a Christmas album?

Tom Smith: "Last May we did a cover of Black's 'Wonderful Life'. That went well, so we decided to do Yazoo's 'Only You'. We didn't want to make an album of maudlin 1980s covers, but they sounded old fashioned and that got us thinking about doing a Christmas album."

Andy Burrows: "It's good that it didn't start as a Christmas project. Our voices are a good combination – Tom says that I provide this kind of heavenly topping to his deeper, slightly louder vocal. I'm the angelic frosting, apparently."

Did you fear the cheese?

Smith: "A little bit. We tried a couple of Christmas songs and most of them didn't work. So we thought, 'Let's write our own.' But you can make a complete arse out of yourself with that kind of thing."

How did you choose your covers?

Smith: "We did do the slightly cowardly thing of not covering too many well-known Christmas songs. But on the flipside we've tried to write our own to compete with them – which is equally perilous. After the 1980s ones, we thought the 1990s was an era that people are not really nostalgic for yet. But Andy suggested Longpigs' "On and On", which is genius. Rebecca Ferguson from The X Factor has covered it, but we're not bothered. 'The Christmas Song' was chosen by [guest vocalist] Agnes Obel – she wanted to do the Judy Garland/Mel Torme duet version. And 'In the Bleak Midwinter' – it's God's country, isn't it? But to me it's pretty dark and sinister..."

Burrows: "...and to me it's very Tom-ish."

How did you create the festive atmosphere while recording in London in fits and starts over six months?

Smith: "You just have to remove yourself from the rainy summer day you're confronted with. But I think that's the reality of every Christmas song you've ever heard."

Burrows: "I was in New York in a heatwave when I heard the final mix of [single] "When the Thames Froze". I never thought, 'This sounds weird.'"

What is the essence of a Christmas song?

Smith: "The best ones make you feel sad and happy at the same time. I wrote the lyrics for 'When the Thames Froze' last Christmas after seeing the student protests, shops shutting down and really feeling that people had less money. At Christmas you come together and go, 'OK, maybe that was a bit of a shit year' – but you have the perhaps naïve hope that next year will be better."

What's the sleigh-bell quotient?

Burrows: "Pretty high – but they're not sleigh bells, they're tambourines that sound like sleigh bells. We had stupid little sleigh bells and they didn't work. We couldn't be bothered walking 10 minutes up the road to buy more."

What's the best Christmas song ever?

Burrows: "'Fairytale of New York'."

And the worst?

Burrows: "Probably that Jive Bunny one. But Band Aid II – the Stock Aitken Waterman one – is up there."

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