You either embrace the music of Christmas with an abundance of, admittedly ironic, joy or you end up resisting and looking like a poor man’s Scrooge. But is there a middle way? Well probably not but these are our picks to begin your alternative Christmas playlist.
Merry Christmas From the Family – Robert Earle Keen (1994)
If you’re finding the festive season a little sickly sweet, Merry Christmas from the Family by Robert Earle Keen is a joyous palate cleanser. Its honest depiction of an American family Christmas is both banal and beautiful and it’s (as far as I’m aware!) the only Christmas song to make reference to a box of tampons. Its country lilt and Keen’s Texan drawl are brought firmly back into the familiar festive sound with references to traditional songs and carols. A wry family favourite.
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day – The Civil Wars (2012)
I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day is a traditional American carol based on Longfellow’s poem ‘Christmas Bells’ of 1863. It was a festive reflection on the horrors of the American Civil War and beautifully combines a deep sadness regarding the state of humanity with the hope and redemption at the heart of the Christmas spirit. The Civil Wars was the relatively short-lived, 4 Grammy award-winning partnership of American singer-songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White.
A Christmas Carol – Tom Lehrer (1959)
In our family no Christmas is complete without a bit of Tom Lehrer. The extraordinary comedian singer-songwriter (and mathematics professor) brings his dry wit to the festive genre – short, hilarious and delightfully cynical. With lyrics like this, how can you resist?
“Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens,
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.”
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies – Béla Fleck and the Flecktones (2008)
If you’re looking for a Christmas album that is immensely listenable combining awesome musicianship and familiar tunes, there are far worse choices than ‘Jingle All the Way’ by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. This is my personal favourite as Tchaikovsky’s beautiful, precise ballet is turned into a marvellously manic virtuoso battle of banjo and bass clarinet.
The Cherry Tree Carol – Jean Ritchie (1961)
This is a wonderful a cappella rendition of a traditional Christmas carol that also appears in the Child Ballads, a collection of English and Scottish ballads (and their American variants) published by Francis James Child in the 19th century. The carol describes a rather bizarre event recalled in the Apocrypha, when, during their journey to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph stop for refreshment in an orchard. When Mary asks Joseph to reach up to pick cherries for her, he refuses suggesting that the child’s father should do it. The infant Christ, from the womb, then lowers the branch. The miracle forces Joseph to repent. Jean Ritchie’s clean Appalachian voice is both stark and sweet. This carol is a pure festive treat.