In the month leading up to the holiday, it's often difficult to escape the near-continual assault of schmaltzy Christmas music. It seems virtually every artist of note in the last half century (and quite a few that are best left forgotten) have, at some point or other, produced some sort of Christmas song or album, from The Beatles, The Ventures and The Beach Boys to Rob Halford, Weezer, and Sharon Jones (to name but a few), meaning in the end that there's an absolute glut of different, sometimes only moderately compelling, versions of instantly familiar, classic songs. Despite of this, Christmas albums seem to have inherent commercial punch that other albums sometimes lack – Josh Groban's 2007 Noel, for instance, moved an astonishing 3.7 million copies in its first three months of release, making it the second highest-selling holiday album of all time (number one on the list – Kenny G's Miracles: The Holiday Album, which sold nearly three million copies in just the last two months of 1994).
It's not difficult to imagine artists like Groban or Kenny G cutting a holiday album however – their music appeals to a significantly older audience that would be perhaps more willing to listen to another batch of the same old holiday tunes. Given that Christmas albums are (apparently?) in such high demand, it's not surprising that some definitively bizarre records have been released over the years, ranging from novelties like the Star Wars-themed Christmas in the Stars and Disco Noel to things like Julien Koster's The Singing Saw at Christmastime, The Moog Machine's Christmas Becomes Electric, and Alexander Goodrich's Organ and Chimes at Christmas that may have been good ideas initially, but become positively maddening when drawn out to album length. I'm still haunted by memories of listening to a beat up LP of Li'l Wally "The Polka King" Sings Polish Christmas Carols, which somehow found its way onto the record player at my childhood home numerous times every holiday season.
It's might not be all that shocking then that it's generally the more offbeat Christmas albums that appeal to me today - and I would suspect many others whose Decembers sometimes turn into a nightmare of repetitive, frequently obnoxiously chipper tunage whether they want them to or not, feel the same way. Punk rock bands have released a fair share of Christmas songs over the years, though for my money, it's the older singles (originals like The Raver's amusing “(It's Gonna Be A) Punk Rock Christmas,” TVTV$'s “Daddy Drank Our Xmas Money,” and Fear's impactful “Fuck Christmas,” along with the classics - Stiff Little Fingers's furious “White Christmas” and The Dickies's “Silent Night”) that take the cake for fury and enthusiasm over more recent efforts that often seem to have been dialed in (My Chemical Romance's cover of Mariah Carey's “All I Want for Christmas is You” for one).
Among the snottiest and funniest punk bands around, British group The Boys (recording as The Yobs) and The Vandals perhaps released the finest full-length holiday records from the genre. The Yobs Christmas Album, released in 1980, slams through various traditional songs in amusing ways (“White Christmas” becomes a faux-reggae number, while “Stille Nacht” samples Adolf Hitler), but it's the downright filthy “The 12 Days of Christmas” and “C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S” that steal the show. The Vandals went for much the same sort of amusingly tasteless vibe on their 1996 “Oi to the World,” which is fairly unique for containing mostly original (if very irreverent) songs along with a Yobs cover, Tchaikovsky rendition, and a (frankly, irritating) version of the religious hymn “Here I Am Lord.” While “Christmas Time for My Penis” and “My First Xmas (As a Woman)” set the stage, I rather like downer album closer “Hang Myself from the Tree” for its complete reversal of the usual holiday cheer.
Though the late, venerable British actor Christopher Lee made it a habit of dropping a Christmas-themed heavy metal release yearly from 2012 until 2014 and doom metal has occasionally toyed around with this sort of material from time to time (Type O Negative's “Red Water [Christmas Mourning]” being one that stands out in my mind), Old Man Gloom's 2004 Christmas is arguably one of the best and most singular seasonal releases from the genre. North Carolina's Silber Records, meanwhile, has unleashed a slew of holiday-based noise and experimental music on and off since the year 2000 (2015 saw the release of 8 EPs), but one of my favorite albums of extreme Christmas music is the 1996 Japanese compilation simply titled The Christmas Album. Featuring the likes of Melt-Banana (performing a hectic version of “White Christmas”), Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her (delivering a somewhat smarmy, easy or maybe even sleazy listening cover of “Here Comes Santa Claus”), Gastr Del Sol (putting forth a serene and almost ambient rendition of “The Bells of St. Mary") and God is My Co-Pilot (with a harsh, menacing version of “Marshmallow World”), the album culminates with noise god Merzbow's haunting “Silent Night.”
While I could rattle off the highpoints of both The Raveonettes's 2008 Wishing You a Rave Christmas (which starts off with a buzzy cover of Darlene Love's “Christmas [Baby Please Come Home],” then proceeds through a trio of original, dream and/or noise pop tracks) and Narwahl Decimation's DØD SNØ GØD JUL (the idea of an electronically-based Christmas album strikes me as a lousy one, but this sometimes destructive combination of experimental electronics and grindcore is actually surprisingly decent and rather fun), my choice for the best, most overlooked definitively off-kilter holiday album is 1997's Christmas in Stereo, released on the Kindercore label.
Each of the 19 bands featured on this compilation were given two weeks to put together a track. Some chose to cover traditional songs in a unique way, with the results ranging from excellent (The Catskills and Kincaid producing bummer rock covers of, respectively, the aforementioned Darlene Love track and “White Christmas,” Aden's gorgeously executed rendition of “Silent Night) to positively odd (a shrill, anything-goes version of Louis Armstrong's “What a Wonderful World” produced by the Elephant Six Collective supergroup Major Organ and the Adding Machine). Among the original songs on the album, Gritty Kitty's hazy “Why They Chose the North Pole,” Bunnygrunt's comical “I Am Going to be Warm This Winter,” My First Keyboard's playful “Christmas Is Only Good If You Are a Girl (Boy),” and The Autumn Teen Sound's relaxed “Christmas Wish” may fare the best. Still, while individual taste may vary and not everyone will like everything included on this incredibly eclectic disc (one which even throws in a old-school country tune from The Starroom Boys as well as a straight-up sound art experiment courtesy of the Olivia Tremor Control), every track here is interesting in its own way. I also like the fact that this may be one of the most pervasively melancholic Christmas albums I've ever listened to: the perfect antidote for that inevitable overdose of tiresome holiday pop.
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