Good Tidings & Bad Religion: 2013’s Christmas Albums Reviewed

Marc Burrows listens to one million seasonal releases so you don't have to

Christmas albums are odd beasts: they obey no genre rules, are only listened to for a couple of weeks of the year, and are often completely forgotten by the time the holy season rolls around again, left to go brown in the metaphorical garden like a used Norwegian Spruce. No one has added an original song to the canon of treasured classics since Mariah Carey in 1994, yet every year artists as diverse as pop music itself give it a crack. 2013’s crop is unlikely to produce a hardy perennial, but a little digging reveals a couple of worthy contenders to soundtrack your sherry come the big day. In the spirit of intrepid journalism we’ve listened to as many of them as we could stomach before our ears filled with tinsel and fire and we had to have a little lie down.

Way out ahead of the pack is Nick Lowe’s Quality Street: A Seasonal Collection For All The Family, in which the veteran songwriter forgoes schmaltz and sleigh bells in favour of warm, creaky old country, rockabilly and vintage ska. He dusts off some less appreciated oldies (his version of Eddie Arnold’s ‘Christmas Can’t Be Far Away’ is just wonderful) but it’s a pair of Lowe originals, ‘A Dollar Short of Happy’ and the witty, brilliant ‘Christmas In the Airport’ that make the whole thing worthwhile.

Elsewhere Bad Religion get into the Holiday Spirit with a set of tight, supercharged punk rock on Christmas Songs. The focus is largely on carols, and there’s a stupid, goof ball charm in hearing them rip through ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘Little Drummer Boy’. It’s hugely disposable, but should put a big grin on your face while it lasts.

This years sheer batshit-crazy award goes to Erasure, whose Snow Globe applies chilly, retro-futurist electronica to 13th Century Latin hymns, and with some style too, although they’re nearly pipped to the utterly sanity-deprived post by Susan Boyle’s Home For Christmas. A few years on from SuBo-mania we could finally acknowledge that she’s a lady with a lovely voice, singing lovely songs your granny likes and leave it at that, if it wasn’t for her beyond-the-grave “duet” with Elvis Presley on ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’, which climaxes with Boyle and the King of Gospel Rock ascending to the heavens on a childrens choir. It’s mad, but actually kind-of brilliant.

Just as odd, although less gloriously wacko is Kim Wilde’s Wilde Winter Songbook the highlight of which sees the TV gardener singing with dad Marty on, of all things, Fleet Foxes ‘Wild Winter Hymnal’. There’s also a duet with Rick Astley (‘Winter Wonderland’) and a reprise of her version of ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ in which the late Mel Smith is replaced with Nik Kershaw. It’s not one you’re likely to dig out again next year.

Over in proper-pop corner, Leona Lewis pulls out the big guns with Christmas, With Love. Her decision to go the full Phil-Spector on ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ largely pays off, though her habit of over-singing scuppers one of the most perfect melodies ever written in ‘Silent Night’. That said, her vocal on ‘Ava Maria’ is stunning. The nauseatingly titled new song ‘One More Sleep’ (this isn’t the Muppet Christmas Carol Leona) is punchy enough, and packs a whopper of a chorus, but it’s unlikely to achieve the Mariah-like ubiquity she’s clearly aiming for.

Leona does a better job than Mary J Blige though, whose A Mary Christmas is so concerned with properly honouring the greats in this season of goodwill, it forgets to have any fun. Elsewhere charismatic pop chappie Olly Murs makes a reasonable hash of ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ (better than Leona’s version, not as good as Nick Lowe’s) and Kelly Clarkson gives it some proper welly on ‘Underneath The Tree’ which has everything Darlene Love had except a tune. Clarkson’s album, Wrapped In Red throws every Christmas cliche at your face but never really adds anything of its own. Ballsy but unsatisfying.

Moving to the indie-schmindie sector, Bright Eyes’ 2002 A Christmas Album finally gets a proper release and is melancholic and rather beautiful, especially on an take on the King’s ‘Blue Christmas’.

Meanwhile former Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows, working with composer Ilan Eshkeri, is putting out his soundtrack to the animated The Snowman And The Snowdog film, its lead song ‘Light the Night’ and closing ‘Hometown (Flying Home)’ wobble perilously on the edge of an indie landfill, but Burrows’ lovely voice and an inbuilt twinkle and warmth make both a musical comfort-blanket on a cold December night.

The Killers’ tradition of Christmas charity singles enters its eighth year with a respectably mournful country ballad, ‘Christmas In LA’. It’s not the best of their festive offerings (that’s still 2008’s ‘Joseph, Better You Than Me,’ featuring Elton John and Neil Tennant, fact fans) but it’s up there. A worthy entry into a likeable festive tradition.

Indier still, Kate Nash continues her Riot Grrl-meets-60s-girl-group adventure with Have Faith With Kate Nash This Christmas, her secret weapon is the use of all-girl indiepop band The Tuts as a backing group, which backfires slightly as their token Kate-free entry ‘Christmas Is In The Air’ is actually the best thing here.

Even indier, and brilliantly so, Manchester’s PINS head up a charity compilation, Hymns put out through their Haus of Pins label. PINS themselves lead off with ‘Kiss Me Quickly’, which is properly lovely, ramshackle indiepop, though September Girls’ ‘I Want You Back (For Christmas)’ is the highlight. Naturally it’s coming out on cassette but not CD.

Also out this year: new Christmas releases from Jewel, the Polyphonic Spree, Kool and the Gang, Marcella Detroit and the cast of Duck Dynasty but, honestly, we’re about ready to put our head in a blender if we hear another version of ‘Silent Night’. Merry Christmas, pop pickers.

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