How does one make a good Christmas album? If you’re a huge star like Michael Bublé or Idina Menzel, it doesn’t really matter – just turn the mic on, release it in November and watch the money roll in. But artists like this aren’t really looking to add new songs to the canon, they’re merely following in the footsteps of their Sinatras and Amy Grants respectively. To make legitimately good Christmas music – music that captures the warmth and vibe of the season with out falling into cheese or self-parody – that’s tough. For these two examples, they have plenty of fans that indulge the cheese without irony.
When really thinking about it though, it’s way simpler than you think to cut an artistically respectable Christmas record. The way to make it work is to play to your strengths. Make music that fits your aesthetic and aim it December’s way. The playbook for this is of course A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records, the 1963 bible of the pop Christmas album. Every song on that record, namely the originals like “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Darlene Love, have all of the gusto and earworm magic as any of the Ordinary Time singles Phil Spector was churning out in the early 60s. Likewise, Sufjan Stevens’ Songs For Christmas box set in 2006 is an amazing re-affirmation of Christmas music with Stevens approaching both covers and originals with a childlike innocence to just simply letting go and following your muse – musically, many of the tracks on that set could have fit perfectly on Michigan or Illinois and would have been among either record’s best moments.
When an indie rock band such as Wales’ Los Campensinos! venture into the market, it could go many a direction. Do you take yourself seriously and risk sounding like a Xmas-loving dork? Do you make it jokey and self-aware and make some half-assed throwaway? Luckily, the band are smart enough songwriters and keen enough on the season to not slip too hard down either trap. A Los Campesinos! Christmas EP presents five originals by the band and a cover of glam rock band Mud’s 1972 Christmas #1 single “A Lonely Christmas,” and the results are great. For the Mud cover, the band transforms the original’s mock doo-wop into an aching ballad complete with a re-creation of the spoken word bridge, sounding like a delicate plea to a loved one. This EP also finds home to the 2012 single “A Doe to a Deer,” one of the most powerful Christmas originals released this decade. With clanging guitars, glockenspiel and some underlying sleigh bells, its sincerity is something rarely heard in an indie rock Christmas tune. Ditto for “Kindle a Flame In Her Heart,” which opens with toy piano and bells before the band kicks in with a hook cut from the same cloth as last year’s No Blues. Throughout the EP, the lyrical allusions are a little silly but endearing – “Wrap your arms around me like swaddling clothes” is cheeky as hell, but its delivered with such hard longing in Gareth David’s voice, you can’t help but feel the sentiment. The best Christmas songs have always been about longing to be with someone in time for the holiday, and this EP frequently holds the concept like life or death. Only on the tender acoustic “The Holly & the Ivy,” does the aggression let up for a warm folk number complete with interlocking vocals and oak-tinged vibe the evokes the feeling of being off the grid in a winter-ized cabin.
A Los Campesinos! Christmas EP is the kind of record that would be nice for more artists to take a crack at. It takes a bit of humility, sincerity, and of course songwriting chops to do well. And while it’s a meager affair at six songs, it’s existence as more or less a gift for fans (as this will unlikely have any sell-worth beyond the Los Campesinos! inner-circle), and being able to give people the ability to get in that Christmas spirit without having to succumb to the department store repetition is always a welcome gesture.