For music fans, Christmas is the season from hell. Any innocent trip to the supermarket finds one harangued by the handful of annoying jingles that constitute the Xmas playlist. Which says nothing of Christmas albums, which —save the awesome A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector— have a long tradition as artless, crass commercial cash-ins. But, recently, an array of renegades have been attempting to reinvent the Christmas record as a vehicle for artistic expression. Meaning, with the records below, humbug hipsters stuck at family gatherings can commandeer the stereo and not upset the seasonal apple-cart.
1. Banjo or Freakout 'XA2010'
If you ever found yourself wishing you could find an Xmas record that was a little less Céline Deon, a little more Animal Collective, here your dreams come true. In 2010, Banjo or Freakout —a London-based Italian named Alessio Natalizia— turned out a free Christmas record that instantly became the most interesting and experimental seasonal set ever assembled. His radical reworkings of the most tired standards were mind-altering: swimming electronics, pulsing noise, shoegaze guitars, and chillwave warp turning noxious jingles like "Frosty the Snowman" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" into wild sonic storms of shape-shifting nature.
2. The Boy Least Likely To 'Christmas Special'
The Boy Least Likely To are an English duo lingering at the twee-est end of twee, so it's no surprise their Christmas Special is all tinkly glockenspiels and unalloyed wussiness. Almost entirely originals —including a semi-inspired novelty number, "George and Andrew," which imagines a sweet seasonal reunion between estranged Wham! founders Michael and Ridgeley— it's a suite of songs about being a broken-hearted, pure-at-heart boy ("I still believe in Santa Claus, even if no one else does," Jof Owen whimpers) during that most sentimental of seasons. Which leads to plentiful seasonal puns ("Jingle my bells, it's Christmas time/I'll jingle yours if you jingle mine," "I can ding-dong merrily/around the stupid Christmas tree") and frowny faces.
3. Bright Eyes 'A Christmas Album'
As if in thrall to delusions of Xmas togetherness, Bright Eyes' A Christmas Album is, unlike the band's regular LPs, not some work-of-ego for frontman Conor Oberst, but a gathering of the Bright Eyes 'family.' At times the record's every bit as bad as you'd fear —flaccid alt-country versions of hardly perennials and/or noxious carols, with Oberst drawling the words like a drunk uncle— but there are moments of genuine frosty frisson. Like "Away in a Manger," where Maria Taylor sweetly whispers its lullaby over an eerie audio-collage treatment inspired by Simon and Garfunkel's "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night," or "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which is rendered as ironic slowcore dirge, loaded with the tragedy of time passing.
4. The Concretes 'Lady December'
Lady December is more a Christmas single than a Christmas album, but it's undeniably awesome. The Concretes issued the EP in 2004, AKA: right at the peak of their powers, coming in the wake of their awe-inspiring debut, self-titled LP (one of the very best albums of the decade, no less). The title track finds the Swedish big-band at their most swelling, most thrilling, most utterly romantic; with huge sweeps of strings, weeps of violin, hugs of organ, yelps of flute, and a vocal from Victoria 'Taken by Trees' Bergsman (hear her make the phrase "forgive and forget" just ache with feeling) that highlights how much The Concretes have missed her since she was booted from the band. It's not super-Christmasy, either, which is always a bonus.
5. Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler 'This Is Christmas'
Sad songsmith Emmy the Great and her boyfriend Tim Wheeler —former frontman of Ash— combined for a snarky seasonal satire that still functions as Christmas record. Chiefly because there's an earnest love in the arrangements: all epic string swells, chiming sleigh-bells, and crooning vox. That supermarket-friendly veneer masks the smart-ass words, where "Sleigh Me" is an explicit euphemism for sex and "(Don't Call Me) Mrs. Christmas" is a scorned-woman ballad sung by Mrs. Claus. Yet "Jesus the Reindeer," in all its zany blasphemy and loaded cultural commentary, doesn't, weirdly, seem anymore idiotic than "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" itself. And when the set closes with the sweet "See You Next Year," This Is Christmas feels like a Christmas special: you've had a few laughs along the way, yet been touched, too.
6. Gruff Rhys 'Atheist Christmas'
Christmas and depression go together hand-in-hand, the 'magical' season being a black hole of despair and suicidal thoughts for so many. Even bastions of unimpeachable Christmas cheer acknowledge the fact; after all, that most touching of seasonal weepies, It's A Wonderful Life, begins with Jimmy Stewart contemplating suicide. Though it boasts gallows humor in its delivery, Gruff Rhys' EP Atheist Christmas sounds plenty depressed itself. "It was 1987/and you'd just been diagnosed with manic depression," Rhys laments, over mournful piano, on "Slashed Wrists This Christmas," which counters its comedy with tender, tearful delivery. It's a stark musical tonic for those who hate the "light entertainment" of the season. Or, y'know, Christmas itself.
7. Josh T. Pearson 'Rough Trade Christmas Bonus'
Josh T. Pearson's acerbic, solemn songwriting and vivid, son-of-a-preacher back-story have made him a figure of mythical Americana in Europe. The sparseness of his discography has fed the myth: Pearson only released one (double) album with his Lift to Experience, 2001's The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, then disappeared for a decade, returning with a stark, soul-baring solo debut, The Last of the Country Gentlemen, in 2011. Rough Trade Christmas Bonus was, as its title suggests, a five-track bonus disc affixed to his solo LP in Rough Trade shops, but it stands as one of the most moving Christmas albums committed (live) to tape. Here, "Angels We Have Heard On High" is a six-minute, fingerpicking epic in which Pearson's honeyed, cracked country croon makes every syllable into a sob.
8. Low 'Christmas'
When it was released in 1999, this Christmas disc for slowcore pioneers Low seemed revolutionary. At the time, no one of any credibility was attempting to author Xmas records of genuine substance, which made hearing the trio's artful interpretation of seasonal sounds a jaw-dropping experience. After kicking off with Phil Spector sleigh-bells and optigan on "Just Like Christmas," Low play "Little Drummer Boy," "Silent Night," and "Blue Christmas" as hypnotic, minimal, glacial studies in seasonal sadness. In some ways, the tone is more of an Easter record, especially in the originals; "Long Way Around the Sea" loaded with Son-of-God gravitas, "If You Were Born Today" lamenting that a 21st-century Christ would be slain whilst still a child.
9. My Morning Jacket 'Does Xmas Fiasco Style'
If you were to go by the artwork —which shows the band in bad haircuts and second-hand suits, posed cheesily— and self-mocking title, you'd guess that this Christmas record from My Morning Jacket was but a big joke. But put on the six-song, 34-minute set, and all such irony and/or pessimism is washed away under the waves of Jim James's glorious voice. Released in 2000, and recorded whilst the Kentuckian combo were at work on their classic At Dawn LP, this Fiasco finds one of the band's best-ever jams, "Xmas Time is Here Again"; six minutes of glinting guitar harmonies, sleigh bells, and yearning vocal harmonies. "Bring out the joy, light up the tree," James sings, his voice so big and beautiful even the grinchiest of us can feel the spirit.
10. Parenthetical Girls 'Christmas'
Zac Pennington, leader of Smiths-obsessed Portland out-pop outfit Parenthetical Girls, has called his Christmas-record obsession the product of a perverse fascination with the "weird sense of warmth mixed with the crass commercial cash-in." Even if his band's obscure, self-released records —all oddball originals, not tired traditionals— were anything but cash-ins, Parenthetical Girls unlikely annual EPs found them getting genuinely swept up in the season. Gathered together as a single Christmas volume, these bizarre labors-of-love —defined by the couplet "thank god it's not Christmas/when there's just you to do"— stand as nothing less than a towering achievement: Pennington making rich artistic cake from so much seasonal treacle.