[On The Record]: Christmas Songs That AREN’T Embarrassing.

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or so that song playing in the stores keeps on telling us. And it is, but sometimes the inevitable litany of overplayed songs we’ve heard since childhood bring you down on the umpteenth time you hear them in a single day. There are some truly great Christmas songs (who doesn’t really love ‘Fairytale of New York’?), but plenty of them are just tired and plain embarrassing. With that in mind, here is a rundown of some less played Yuletide favourites to be proud of and to keep you rocking through the festive season.

Otis Redding – ‘White Christmas’
A Christmas oldie given a soul revamp by Otis Redding, who breathes new life into it by wringing each note for all its worth. Meanwhile, the brass and shimmering organ give it that uplifting gospel feel, which truly do foster feelings of comfort and joy.

The Ramones – ‘Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)’
This is my kind of Christmas message. Of course, Christmas isn’t always the most tranquil time of year and bust-ups tend to come with the territory. Sometimes the chaos takes hold, but it’s worth remembering what counts, as The Ramones do here.

Pearl Jam – ‘Let Me Sleep (It’s Christmas Time)’
From one of Pearl Jam’s earliest Christmas singles in 1991, ‘Let Me Sleep’ shows Eddie Vedder singing with childlike wonder and vulnerability, both excited and lost as “cold wind blows on the soles of my feet”. Meanwhile, Mike McCready’s stunning eastern guitar melody ensures that this is not your standard Christmas fare. Equally worth checking out is ‘Strangest Tribe’ from a 1999 Christmas single.

Teenage Fanclub – ‘Christmas Eve’
Short, but sweet. The Scot band always could pen a nice ditty with beautiful harmonies and guitar melodies, but this tune comes with an extra sprinkling of Christmas magic.

Eels – ‘Everything Is Gonna Be Cool This Christmas’
A Christmas anthem from the man known as E, full of riffy guitars that will blow away the holiday blues. Any Christmas song with the line ‘Baby Jesus, born to rock!’ immediately deserves a place on this list.

Tom Waits – ‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’
What you might call a Christmas song from the wrong side of the tracks (well after all, it’s Christmas there too isn’t it?). It’s a sad and vulnerable song in some aspects, but what wins it back is Waits’s comic timing and the tongue placed firmly in his cheek (“Charlie, I think about you every time I pass a filling station… on account of all the grease you used to put in your hair”).

Simon and Garfunkel – ‘Seven O’Clock News / Silent Night’
Nestled at the very end of 1966’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, this version of ‘Silent Night’ has a real sting in its tail. While the duo’s ever-perfect harmonies beautifully deliver the Christmas carol against a backdrop of poignant piano, it is juxtaposed by an overdubbed news bulletin of actual events on 3rd August 1966, including announcements of mounting tensions against civil rights marches, Lenny Bruce’s suicide, serial murders and violent responses to Vietnam protests. The song is eerie and encapsulates in just under two minutes the growing fears and anxieties of a once-hopeful generation as an increasingly bleak seventies loomed.

Run-D.M.C. – ‘Christmas in Hollis’
So maybe Run-D.M.C.’s PG rated rapping seems a bit outdated since hip-hop and gangster rap changed the game, but there’s no denying that this half-comic Christmas song has charm. It mixes truthful family traditions with pastiches of Christmas carols and a chance meeting with Santa and his “ill reindeer”…

Joni Mitchell – ‘River’
Poignant and sad despite the jingle bells coda that open and close it, after all of these years ‘River’ still remains one of the most undisputedly beautiful songs ever written. It is definitely a song for those having a blue Christmas, but between the self-admonishments and homesickness there is a tiny glimmer of hope in the river that will take away Joni’s worries. It is a small and possibly false hope, but it is there.

Mogwai – ‘Christmas Song’
Away from their tinnitus-inducing riffing, Mogwai are also capable of quiet and incredibly tender moments. ‘Christmas Song’ perfectly captures that childhood moment of waking up early on Christmas morning, with cold light creeping its way through the window and the ripe silence before the household wakes up and feet shuffle (or scramble) their way downstairs.

Ryuichi Sakamoto – ‘Main Theme From Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’
The main theme from the Nagasi Oshima’s film about the relationships between four men in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War does not immediately conjure up the spirit of Christmas. Having said that, there is definitely something very meditative about Sakamoto’s piece, like the calm you get when watching snow fall in the depths of winter.

Bruce Springsteen – ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’
Okay, so maybe this is a bit of a cheesy song, but hey, it’s Christmas! Can’t have Christmas without a little bit of cheesiness and I do like a bit of Brooce. So hear’s a rollicking, full band version of ‘Santa Claus is Coming To Town’, complete with cheesy grins and ho-ho-ho’s. Merry Christmas all!

P.S. In the same Christmas spirit, here is a rundown of some of the worst Christmas album covers of all time. Read them through to the end, I promise, you will cry with laughter.

What are some of your favourite alternative Christmas songs? Let me know in the comments below.

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[From The Cutting Room Floor]: Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Pearl Jam.

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Often, seeking out new music can feel like a treasure hunt (or sweeping a minefield, depending on how you look at it). And while the internet has made this search far easier it is still the case that sometimes X marks the spot exactly, and sometimes it just doesn’t. But, every now and then you will come across those completely unexpected diamonds-in-the-rough that appear in the form of B-sides, outtakes or bootlegged live cuts. Those happy moments where you stumble across something that stops you in your tracks and think ‘Why is this only a B-side?’. Of course B-Sides once used to serve the purpose of being where artists could experiment on a format which would not effect popularity (as A-side singles do) or stick out like a sore thumb in an album’s track list. But, these happy accidents still have the power to add immense value and enrich your life. This feature is about digging out those deeper cuts that deserve more attention than mere relegation.

‘All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun’ – Jeff Buckley

Presided over by his mother, Mary Guibert, Jeff Buckley’s legacy has been kept in safe hands since his death nearly twenty years ago, and the steady stream of bonus material that has surfaced since then has only served to cement his status as an effulgent talent. From the rough, but sophisticated eclecticism of incomplete sophomore album Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, to golden throwaway moments on the expanded edition of Grace and stunning recordings of his café days on Live at Siné, all of these recordings prove that Buckley exuded the kind of creative gold dust that plenty of musicians would trade their own mother for. Here is a deep, deep cut that points to a possible collaboration with Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins that may possibly have gone down in history. Buckley is a perfect foil for Fraser’s quavering siren call, duelling perfectly with his own shimmering and elastic croon. The music strikes a nice middle-ground between Buckley’s innovative musicality and the dream-pop sojourns of Cocteau Twins, providing a mutual space for these captivating vocalists to meet.

‘Come Into My Sleep’ – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds 

To be found on the mammoth, if literally titled, three disc B-Sides & Rarities collection, ‘Come Into My Sleep’ originally appeared as the B-side to ‘(Are You) The One I’ve Been Waiting For?’. I can certainly see why this track wouldn’t fit on the introspective tone of The Boatman’s Call, but it certainly offers a seductive remedy to its caustic A-side. It is a metaphysical serenade of sorts, with Cave petitioning his lover to sail through seas of stars into his dreams. A simple xylophone melody invokes intrigue while Cave’s vocals glide over them amongst dreamy strings. Stunning.

‘Drifting’ – Pearl Jam

This song was allegedly written on the back of a plane ticket after Eddie Vedder spent a night over at Neil Young’s house, and the vagabond spirit which has permeated both musicians’ work is certainly at the fore here. Unlike some of the sprawling, anthemic songs Pearl Jam have made, ‘Drifting’ centres on Vedder’s searching, soulful vocals and laid back acoustic strumming as he extols the virtues of untangling yourself from the complicating excesses of a materialistic lifestyle and hits with the force of a simple truth. It’s a lovely, carefree ditty which offers a precursor to his later soundtrack for Sean Penn’s film Into The Wild.

What are your favourite B-sides and rarities? Let me know in the comments below.

[Live Review]: STRFKR – Hoxton Sq. Bar, London 13/11/13

STRFKR live“You will know why I love life”

On 13th November it was a cold and quiet Wednesday night in Hoxton Square, with no indication of the frenetic dance party that was about to kick off in Hoxton Square Bar. In fact, even inside the sold-out three-hundred capacity venue there was little indication as to what was in store until STRFKR kicked off their set. The Portland indie-dance four-piece are not an imposing appearing bunch and bandleader Josh Hodges did some onstage tech before the set largely unnoticed by a chatting crowd. However, once the band started they proved to the crowd that they know how to throw a party.

Setting the agenda from the off, STRFKR launched straight into the racing Miracle Mile track ‘Malmö’, which got the crowd moving with an infectious mix of energetic bass, catchy whistling and juddering synths. Backed by fluctuating and colour shifting lights that reflected off the mirrorball in the middle of the packed venue, the lads were in their element and immediately got the good vibes going. From there they moved into spacey, atmospheric tunes from second album ‘Reptilians’ before diving headfirst into the Pixies-esque garage pop of ‘Beach Monster’. The band kept new and old fans alike pleased with a seamless mix of new tunes from their recent album, Miracle Mile, and old favourites from earlier albums. The shoegazey singalong ‘Say To You’ segued perfectly into the crashing drum fill and skewed countermelodies that open early fan favourite ‘Rawnald Gregory Erickson II’which elicited a cheer from the audience. Fortunately, the samples of enlightening monologues from British philosopher Alan Watts, which pepper many early recordings, make a successful transition to the stage and at one point bassist Shawn Glassford engaged in a funny conversation with these samples.

After the jubilant synths and warbly guitar solo of ‘Atlantis’ they throw the crowd a curveball by unleashing their high energy cover of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’Usually a dancefloor killer outside of hen nights, the jaunty bass line and driving guitar lick really pumped the crowd up and got even the most reserved gig-goer moving their feet. Towards the end of the set the band crack out their own feel-good disco tune, ‘While I’m Alive’, which saw audience members break out glow sticks and guitarist Patrick Morris pull some dance moves during the instrument-swapping percussion breakdown. The band exchange grins and exude the air of musicians who have their parts down and who have mastered a good pop melody. They channel Depeche Mode on the moody and atmospheric ‘Leave It All Behind’, with synths so heavy the walls shake, before thanking the audience for joining them on their first headlining date in London and then round off the night by getting the audience jumping on ‘Bury Us Alive’After applause and coaxing from the audience, STRFKR return to the stage and send the crowd off with an encore of the dreamy ‘Isabella of Castile’ and pulsing dancefloor filler ‘Boy Toy’.

Throughout the triumphant set the band themselves seemed shy, only greeting the audience five songs in and exchanging little banter. However, they are clearly confident behind their instruments, dishing out audaciously catchy songs with a little stage swagger and are not afraid to let their euphoric music speak for itself