It's Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas
Just when Christmas music was beginning to get a bit repetitive, 2011 has ushered in a glut of seasonal albums. Andy Welch finds out why we're being treated to festive music makeover
On an annual basis since 1973, Noddy Holder has been telling everyone what time of year it is with his seasonal scream.
Any Christmas compilation album worth its salt will probably also feature Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody, which is pretty much perfect, although you might well be sick of hearing it.
The same can be said of Wizzard's I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday and all the other staples in the Christmas canon.
The thing about all these songs is that they're pretty old. Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas still sounds the freshest, but was originally released in 1994.
The truth is, Christmas music hit a brick wall during the Nineties. While Cliff Richard has many incorrect accusations levelled at his music, the decline of the Christmas single can be pretty much traced back to the saccharine nursery-rhyme-like lyrics and accompanying videos of Mistletoe & Wine and Saviour's Day.
In the aftermath of Cliffmas, seasonal songs have been thin on the ground. East 17 had a Christmas No 1 with Stay Another Day in 1994, a song only deemed festive because it contains bell sounds and the four-piece looked cold in the video. Novelty singles were also big business - Mr Blobby, Bob The Builder - and then The X Factor's stranglehold took over, effectively killing off the genre.
Things got too cheesy and too kitsch to be cool. And if there's one thing Christmas - the campest of all festivals - doesn't need, it's more gaudiness.
Over the past few years, Christmas music has slowly been reclaimed with more and more bands putting out seasonal albums each December. Bob Dylan even managed one two years ago.
This year, however, sees an unprecedented number released.
"I think there's a large element of the public who are fed up of being fed sloppy seconds by The X Factor," says Tom Smith of Smith And Burrows. The duo, comprising the Editors frontman and former Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows, have recorded Funny Looking Angels, which is a surprising success given the former's penchant for doom and gloom.
"It's frustrating, because even when the Christmas No 1 was a battle between two cheesy novelty songs, at least there was some competition."
Next up is A Very She & Him Christmas by She & Him. The American indie duo have won a cult following with two beautifully winsome albums, and coupled with the fact 'She', Zooey Deschanel, first displayed her stunning voice while starring in Christmas classic Elf, it seems perfectly obvious for them to make an album of festive music.
"I like singing the melancholic old Christmas tunes, so we covered a bunch of those," says Deschanel, explaining the album's contents.
"Some of my favourite records are Christmas ones, with Phil Spector's A Gift For You and Christmas With The Beach Boys being my top two.
"Like those albums, we wanted ours to feel warm and intimate. But we put our own stamp on it, so it's definitely She & Him. It feels like sitting in a living room on Christmas Day listening to carols by the fire."
Talking of carols, most modern Christmas albums don't feature religious messages at all. The secularisation of Christmas is a topic for another day, but what is Gruff Rhys, frontman of Super Furry Animals, trying to say with his Atheist Xmas EP?
"It's a consumer festival now, based on mass-consumption," he begins. "I don't think it's become atheist completely. My grandmother was Christian and didn't celebrate Christmas in the modern, more American way, so I have that background. I do love Christmas. It's great for drinking and general enjoyment. Fun, fun, fun, really. So the music should reflect that."
Like Deschanel, Rhys loves Phil Spector's seminal seasonal album, which features the likes of The Ronettes, Darlene Love and The Crystals backed by Spector's famous Wall Of Sound production.
One song on that album, Marshmallow World, has been covered by Emmy The Great And Tim Wheeler, frontman of Northern Irish indie-rockers Ash, on their record This Is Christmas.
"We wanted to call ourselves Sleigher," says folk star Emmy, punning on the name of metal band Slayer.
The duo, who are also a couple, were snowed in last Christmas, and decided to spend their time writing a couple of songs. The rest of the album was recorded in May and August, which freaked the pair out.
"It's really hard when the sun's shining outside, but we got into it eventually," says Wheeler. "Christmas is a state of mind."
They too have left religion out of their lyrics, but it's not meant as a sleight on the institution, they're just celebrating other things Christmas has to offer.
"We've actually had the thumbs up from all religions," adds Emmy, laughing. "We have a Jewish friend who loves the album."
As for reasons why there are so many other Christmas albums released at the same time as theirs, she has a couple of theories.
"It's one of two things. It's either the sign of an oncoming Mayan apocalypse, which could be started by the release of a wealth of Christmas albums. Or, more practically, it's because artists have to work harder for their money now. You can't just put out an album, sit back and wait for the money to roll in. And if you're going to put out another album so close to releasing your solo stuff (Emmy's second album Virtue was released in June), it's easier if it has a theme, like Christmas.
"Bands have to be more creative now."
Taking creation to new levels, website For Folk's Sake have compiled their own Christmas album. It's the second time they've done so, but the first time artists involved have written and recorded new songs.
The result is a truly beautiful collection of music called It's Christmas 2011, and in Caitlin Rose's You Never Come Home For Christmas, they might have found a new Christmas classic.
What's more, all proceeds go to charity. And that's perhaps the real festive spirit.