In trying to recapture the golden age of Christmas songs, this mixed bag of hipsters and old-timers forgets the fun
The golden age of Christmas music is behind us. That’s why, at this time of year, radio stations turn into Dave Lee Travis-era Radio 1. Step forward Macca and your ‘Wonderful Christmastime’. Hello Slade, s’been a while! ‘Step Into Christmas’, Elton. Back away, Gary Glitter, your ‘Another Rock’n’Roll Christmas’ ain’t welcome no more. People have tried Christmas songs since the ’70s and ’80s, of course, but never with quite the same gusto. Meekly adding the cheerful tinkle of sleigh bells to a tune does not a Christmas corker make. New comp ‘Christmas Rules’ tries to set the record straight, charging a mixture of current artists, oldies and the ubiquitous Macca with the task of recording a Christmas cover each.
Probably assuming that people will listen after Christmas dinner and fall asleep halfway through, it’s toploaded with the bigger names. Up first are capital-letter-evading popsters fun., doing ‘Sleigh Ride’ – which they manage to make sound far less fun than an actual sleigh ride. Then The Shins do their tuneful indie thing on Paul McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Christmastime’, closely followed by McCartney himself doing ‘The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)’. Neither are especially pleasurable, and the latter only confirms the fact that male pop singers of a certain age are as irresistibly drawn to covers of ‘standards’ as toddlers to an unattended chip pan, with results almost as disastrous. At least Rod Stewart had the good grace to confine them to his own Christmas album.
Standards dirty the album like yellow snow. Rufus Wainwright and Sharon Van Etten get all Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews on a particularly smug ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’. It’d have to be minus 50 outside for me to stick by that piano. The cancer turns malignant with The Head And The Heart’s ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?’, on which the Seattle indie-folky-pop plops channel Michael Bublé like a bunch of hapless horror-movie teens inadvertently summoning the devil on a makeshift ouija board.
The other foul thing about this album is its sense of worthiness: The Civil Wars are po-faced on ‘I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day’, and Punch Brothers treat ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ as if it were scripture. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of spiritual calm around Christmas (I believe there is some kind of religious aspect to the season) but there’s also a reason why Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ is practically a carol. It’s because it has a Brummie man screaming “IT’S CHRISTMAS!” like a pissed boss at an office party and it’s brilliant. Artists on this album: think more like Noddy Holder. It bloody well is Christmas. There will be presents, and sickly drinks, and you may well cop off with somebody. Cheer up.
So who is this album for? Some of these bands are hipster faves, or former hipster faves now in that position where the fickle barometer of hipsterdom doesn’t quite know whether they’re still cool or not (hello, Holly Golightly). Then there are those oldies – the brilliant Irma Thomas doing ‘May Ev’ry Day Be Christmas’; the aforementioned Paul McSanta. And lots of sundry Americana acts straying in like lost exiles from a Wilco house-party.
Is it for you? Is it for your mum? Is it for your cousin who works in graphic design? The answer to this question is: all of them and none of them. It’s produced in collaboration with Hear Music, the label owned by Starbucks. It is, essentially, background music to soundtrack your next mince-pie-choco-chai-nog latte. But what, ultimately, does this leave us with? Just a compilation that’s not as clever as it thinks it is, or as joyful as it should be. And next time, Starbucks, have some respect and get Cliff Richard involved. Jeez.