Just for the record: Xmas music that won't make you bring up your turkey
A fortnightly vinyl review
It’s a sign, I suppose, of the approaching winter: each year the lists of the year’s best releases grow more opaque and mysterious. What was once hipness is now, alas, happenstance. Who the hey are Khruangbin? (Texans tossing out Thai pop-vintage surf-instrumental lounge mash-ups.) Or Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever? (Not an Eskom Christmas, but apparently the best new act of 2018 with three guitars.) Sons of Kemet? (British jazz with a black feminist bent.) Soccer Mommy? (Cited by the New York Times in their wrap-up to prove they’re big on indie.)
Time was, maybe 2002 or 2003, I’d trawl through the round-ups in Mojo and Uncut magazines or, with extra time permitting, renowned Durban critic Richard Haslop’s exhaustive annual overviews, and discover (a) that I had heard maybe 25 of the albums cited and (b) had at least heard about maybe 90% of the rest. (Or, in the case of Haslop, heard about maybe 60%; his ears hang out in locales that have yet to be mapped, he’s that knowledgable …)
It’s true that these days, streaming can change all that. But, for vinyl junkies of a certain vintage, it’s good to see new releases from veterans jostling for space in there among the youngsters: Paul Weller’s mellow, mainly acoustic True Meanings (Parlophone), Low’s mournful but gorgeous Double Negative (Sub Pop), Cypress Hill’s return to form with Elephants on Acid (BMG), Ry Cooder’s gospel and blues back to basics Prodigal Son (Fantasy), grizzled folkie John Prine’s desolate, yet moving The Tree of Forgiveness (Oh Boy), Cowboy Junkies’ serene All That Reckoning (Latent/Proper Records) and Calexico’s rather lush The Thread That Keeps Us (Anti-) are all personal favourites.
Two further releases worth looking out for are Cat Power’s folk-bluesy Wanderer (Domino), Chan Marshall’s tenth and her first release in six years, and Wilco founder Jeff Tweedy’s first solo album of original material, Warm (dBpm Records), which a critic has described as being “the equivalent of a warm hug from a good friend in a time of need”, and we can’t argue with that.
As for the reissues of 2018, well, they’ve all turned up in this space in one form or another this past year: Bobby Gentry’s The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters (Capitol/UME), The Kinks’ … Are the Village Green Preservation Society (UME), Bob Dylan’s More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Volume 14 (Columbia/Legacy Recordings), Tom Petty’s An American Treasure (Reprise Records), The Beatles’ The Beatles (“The White Album”) (Parlophone), John Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (Impulse!), Neil Young’s ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live 1973 and Songs For Judy (both Reprise Records), The Rolling Stones’ On Air (Polydor), Love’s Forever Changes (Rhino), and Primal Scream’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up: The Memphis Sessions (Sony).
Despite what you may be hearing in the malls, there’s more to the seasonal jingling of bells than Boney M’s joyless assault on our favourite chestnuts. It’s a rich and festive tradition: no matter how risible and cheesy the Grinches may find the Christmas releases, they do strike a responsive chord and — go on, admit it! — sometimes melt an otherwise cynical heart. They do come and go, but over the years rock critics return to a favoured few as being the all-time greatest Christmas records ever.
The Godfather of Soul’s 1995 album, James Brown’s Funky Christmas, is usually up there at the top of the charts, which is cheating a bit as not only is it only available on CD but it’s a compilation of the best songs from three earlier albums: 1966’s James Brown Sings Christmas Songs (Pye International/King Records), 1968’s A Soulful Christmas (King Records, reissued on vinyl by Polydor in 2014), and 1970’s Hey America, It’s Christmas (King Records).
As expected, Brown throws his all into heartfelt ballads (Please Come Home for Christmas and Merry Christmas Baby), funky soul-power workouts (Soulful Christmas and Go Power at Christmas Time), blasts to stir social conscience (Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto) and righteous sermonising (Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year and Let’s Unite the World at Christmas.) The three albums’ cover art does suggest a radical shift in Brown’s outlook as the ‘60s progressed.
Elvis Presley’s 1957 release, Elvis’ Christmas Album (RCA Victor), remains another firm favourite. One of the singer’s more inspired early outings, it mixed rocking, bluesy numbers like Blue Christmas and Santa Claus Is Back in Town with more traditional fare like Silent Night, White Christmas and I’ll Be Home for Christmas as well as gospel standards like Take My Hand, Precious Lord and Peace in the Valley.
The release was not without controversy. Irving Berlin, composer of White Christmas, was so outraged by Presley’s version of his song that he tried to get it banned from airplay. Silly man, Elvis’ Christmas Album sold a ton and earned Berlin a small fortune in royalties.
Interestingly, and depending on the country in which it was sold, it appeared in a variety of different covers. They all look pretty kitsch by today’s standards, but the German edition (with its gothic print) is a yuletide train smash.
The number one spot year in, year out goes to A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records (Philles Records). Released in 1963, it was subsequently retitled, and with considerable justification, A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector. It featured the producer’s famous “wall of sound” in its prime on tracks from his early stable of artists, Bob B Soxx & The Blue Jeans, Darlene Love, the Crystals and the Ronettes. Simply put, it is the greatest holiday album of all time, and the one by which all others had to be judged.
While A Christmas Gift For You went on to inspire a host of imitators, most fall way short of the mark. But things do get interesting when the sleigh bells and saccharine are left out of the production. Bob Dylan’s left-field, love it or hate it 2009 release, Christmas in the Heart (Columbia Records), is a case in point: gravelly-voiced, unforced fun shot through with an element of nostalgia. The video for the album’s Must Be Santa is a hoot, with John Cusack causing mayhem at a drunken house party.
For psychobilly freaks, the Reverend Horton Heat’s twangy, reverb-drenched 2005 release, We Three Kings (Yep Roc Records), takes some beating: a dozen Christmas classics plus an original, Santa on the Roof, all whipped into frantic shape with rocket-fuelled country guitar licks and a thunderous rhythm section.
We Three Kings includes a blistering take on Chuck Berry’s Run Rudolph Run, which coincidentally was also Keith Richards’s only foray into holiday music. His version of this holiday classic (Rolling Stones Records), was released as a single, bizarrely enough, in February 1979. Either Keef was getting in early to avoid the Christmas rush, or he’d missed the boat altogether. Judging by the cover, he didn’t seem too bothered about it all anyway. You can hear it below.
Many argue that the greatest Christmas song of the 1980s and ’90s is the Pogues’ A Fairytale of New York, and that may well be. But the brilliant album it’s off, 1988’s If I Should Fall From Grace With God (Pogue Mahone Records), is not, alas, a holiday record. But we’ll come back to the Pogues at a later stage.
Lastly, some mention should be made of Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? (Phonogram). Recorded in a single day in November 1984 with a large cast of stars to raise awareness of the famine in Ethiopia, the record became the fastest selling single in UK chart history, selling a million copies in the first week alone. It was a number one in 13 other countries as well. But we needn’t hear it again. Here in Africa, we get the picture; we know it’s Christmas.
PETE SHELLEY, 1955-2018
The death last week from a heart attack of guitarist and songwriter Pete Shelley came as a shock. Along with the Clash and the Sex Pistols, his group, the Buzzcocks, formed in 1976, were in the vanguard of the British punk scene. Importantly, as an act from Manchester, they proved that punk was not just a movement confined to the London scene.
Predominantly a singles act, the Buzzcocks were inspired by the Pistols’ energy, but they eschewed punk’s angry political stance for intensely energetic tunes with alternately funny and anguished lyrics about adolescence and love. The melodies and hooks in Shelley’s songs were concise and memorable and among the smartest of the new wave era, and the group’s earlier singles, like 1977’s Orgasm Addict (United Artists Records) and 1978’s Ever Fallen In Love … (With Someone You Shouldn’t've?) (United Artists records), remain perfect examples of his craft.
The best album of their earlier period is perhaps A Different Kind of Tension (United Artists Records). Released in September 1979, it reveals a group determinedly, if desperately trying to push against type and become more musically adventurous.
For neophytes, though, the 1979 compilation for the American market, Singles Going Steady (IRS), is the place to start. Sixteen flawless cuts of power-chorded punk-pop; all attitude, no posing.