Christmas Podcast

The Underground Of Happiness Xmas Special Dec 6 2011 by underground of happiness2

I thought I'd put a bit more flesh on the bones of the Christmas Special, this week's show, which was also the 200th episode of The Underground of Happiness. That's the wave form above (apologies for the delay before Hank Snow, the CD player was acting up). I've stuck in a few extra tunes and links as well below, just for the craic. Merry December everybody.

1. Darlene Love - Christmas (Baby please come home)
My personal favourite from what is probably the definitive Christmas album in pop music, Phil Spector's 1963 classic of the genre. Put aside the irony of a Jewish man celebrating the main Christian holiday (Spector was reportedly tickled at the idea of the royalties that Irving Berlin, also Jewish, raked in for White Christmas). Forget the schmaltz of Spector's monologue on Silent Night. Focus on the brilliantly simple between-the-eyes lyrics of Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry, Jack Nitzsche's thrilling arrangement, the Wall of Sound and that voice. You just can't fake a voice like that (even if it was recorded during sweltering August).

2. The Beach Boys - Little Saint Nick
Taking a cue from Phil Spector was his huge fan Brian Wilson. This song first appeared as a single in 1963, but this version made its debut on Christmas with The Beach Boys, in time for Yule 1964. It's a tried and trusted driving Beach Boys backbeat (it could be California girls, in fact), with added Christmas trimmings. But as usual it's the vocals that stay in the mind longest, a delirious barbershop quartet gone wrong/right. If you need to be distracted from something at this time of year, do it with this.

*This interview with Jack Wagner appears on the 2004 release of the Christmas album. I find something very poignant in Brian's halting, tentative delivery, I must say.

3. Gruff Rhys - Post apocalypse Christmas
I love Gruff Rhys. Not content with creating an art installation earlier this year, made out of miniature shampoo bottles culled from hotel rooms - and of course the accompanying Hotel Shampoo album - he's releasing what he's calling a "secular Christmas EP" this December, including this great sub-T-Rex groove, the title track. The EP also features the catchily titled Slashed wrists this Christmas, supposedly a song based on the real experience of a friend of Rhys', who attempted suicide after falling victim to depression at Christmas. Offhand, I can't think of anyone else capable of keeping it this real in pop music. Plus, while I'm a sucker for Christmas songs, I also love audacious antidotes to the (often blindly optimistic) festivities.

Gruff Rhys - Post Apocalypse Christmas by PIASGermany

4. Joni Mitchell - River
As with a few in this set, a song that's not about Christmas as such. I remember my sister having the Blue album on vinyl and I heard this first in her flat. Apart from the brilliant strangeness of Mitchell's voice, the idea of skating away on a river (while no doubt commonplace in icy Toronto) seemed like a completely alien concept to a 19-year old from wet and mild Cork.

5. Gene Wilder - Pure imagination
From Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the 1971 classic adaptation of the Roald Dahl book directed by Mel Stuart. It's always seemed like a Christmas film because of the heavy tv rotation every December. The music and lyrics by the great partnership of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse are just perfect, the musical direction by Walter Scharf is a joy, with swirling violins and twinkling vibes, and Gene Wilder's singing is brilliantly light and carefree. It's one of the pinnacles of pop music, basically.

*I have to add this too, from the same soundtrack, a melody so poignant it could make grown men weep, carried by the luminous vocals of Diana Sowle.

6. Dylan Thomas - A child's Christmas in Wales (Extract 1)
Thomas reads his own writings here, and his inflections alone make this unmissable. Plus the turn of phrase is obviously genius. I mean, two-tongued sea, come on.

All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.

*John Cale's solo piano adaptation, the live version contained on Fragments of a rainy season, would have made the list too if time had allowed. This is the not-quite-as-good-in-my-book album version from 1973's Paris 1919 .

7. Esquivel - Parade of the wooden soldiers
Esquivel's version of All of me is the signature tune to the show, so I had to have some space age bachelor pad music in the Christmas special. I have no idea about the background to the tune, just that it's also on the Phil Spector Christmas album (see no. 1 above). That's a good enough recommendation for me. And it's another brilliantly bonkers arrangement by the Mexican legend. No listening link for this, you'll just have to use the soundcloud mix at the top of the page.

*And swing your hips to these zoo-zoo-zoos on Christmas Day.

8. Emmy the Great & Tim Wheeler - Jesus the reindeer
In the list for the innovation of naming an extra reindeer, and also in order to provide power pop ballast in the set. Plus I have a soft spot for Emmy the Great ever since she did that duet with Darren Hayman last year.

*This song, also from the new Emmy/Tim Christmas album, sees Tim channelling his inner Beach Boy and is also top class.

9. Tom Waits - Silent night (live)
I came across this on a mixtape somewhere and I reckoned the set was a bit short on spiritual content. Tom gives good spiritual, in fairness. This studio version draws on a certain New Orleans sound and for some reason plays twice in the link.

10. Cocteau Twins - Frosty the snowman
The rare sound of Liz Fraser singing actual words. Not surprisingly, she manages to rescue the most familiar of Christmas songs from a land far beyond cliché. Who'd have thought it, the combination of an imagined snow creature and a shoegaze guitar backdrop is the perfect match.

*This is the other side of the 1993 CD single, giving Winter Wonderland a trippy, dubby treatment.

11. Lost Idol - Molten snow
This fantastic mood piece comes from the other James Dean, the one who runs the Cookshop label in Brighton. This tune featured on his 2010 album, Brave the elements, and sounds a bit like Massive Attack if they got into medieval music. Again, the connection to Christmas is tenuous. But it manages to catch something brooding, ancient and pre-commercialised about this time of year and is totally brilliant.

12. Louis Armstrong with The Commanders - Zat you Santa Claus
Proof that Santa calls to New Orleans too. And that Satchmo has the best asthmatic wheeze ever recorded onto tape.

13. She & Him - The Christmas Waltz
I'm a sucker for Zooey and Matt as it is, so the news of a Christmas album from them was a pushover. Her voice here is like the marzipan under the icing on a Christmas cake. I like that, by the way.

She & Him - The Christmas Waltz by MergeRecords

14. The Superimposers - Xmas in Hawaii
From the re-released Christmas again! EP by the London band. A Christmas set has to have some sunshine pop. To be honest, I could have picked the title track but Hawaii and those ukuleles sold me.

1 Christmas Again! by Wonderfulsound

15. Dylan Thomas - A child's Christmas in Wales (Extract 2)
More razor-sharp consonants. The longer I listen to his delivery, the more I'm convinced Dylan Moran has learned a lot from him.

But here a small boy says: "It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."

16. The Temptations - Someday at Christmas
The set needed some authentic soul music. This is a knockout example from the 1971 album The Christmas Card on Motown. The sentiment echoes the 70's shift by black artists into social commentary (Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye), while the string-laden arrangement foreshadows the Philadelphia sound.

17. Múm - Babbi segir
A beautiful seasonal release from the Icelanders on Morr Music. Better to use their own words.

This 7inch contains two interpretations of conventional Icelandic christmas songs: Nú er Gunna á nýju skónum ('Now Gunna is wearing her new shoes') and Babbi segir ('Daddy Says'), both of which are traditionally sung around the tree at Christmas-dances. They are arranged for guitar, autoharp, kazoos and voices and are sung in the aforementioned terrible beautiful style. The sensation is as it should be, slightly festive stuff yet melancholic, floating somewhere between pure naiveté and lucid Kitsch: It's really just like christmas.


18. Hank Snow - The reindeer boogie
From 1953, a sort of country hoe-down on Christmas Eve, culled from one of those great compilations you find in service stations. A Canadian who moved to Nashville, my cursory research tells me that Snow introduced Elvis Presley to Colonel Tom Parker. Rather than dwell on this mixed blessing, get a load of some swing.

19. Can - Silent night
A wonderfully perverse, but still strangely beautiful, version of the old standard by the veteran krautrockers, first released in 1976. I'd have Can at every party, so why should Christmas be any different.

20. Nat King Cole - A house with love in it (live)
There had to be a crooner in the set and here's the best ever. It's on another one of those thrown-together compilations that purists would no doubt decry. Listening back to it now, I'm not sure there's actually any Christmas connection in the song, but who gives a monkey's when the singing is this good...

*While we're at it, let's address the elephant in the room. One of the all-time classic Christmas songs, written in 1944 by Tormé & Wells. In certain moods, I find it way too full of schmaltz for my taste. But can I encourage you, with me, to forget what you know, imagine hearing it for the first time, and acknowledge the genius in the man's delivery. After all, just cos something's clichéd, doesn't mean it's not a work of art.

21. Low - Last snowstorm of the year
Trademark, beyond-gorgeous vocal harmonies from Alan & Mimi Sparhawk, from their 2001 Things we lost in the fire album. It's so deceptively simple, you'd think anyone could write a Christmas pop classic.

*Here's a more overt Christmas connection from Low, with sleigh bells and the voice of an angel.

22. Dean & Britta - He's coming home
Given away to fans by the band a year ago. Britta Phillips sounds a deadringer for Nancy Sinatra on this, and in fact the arrangement has a distinct air of Lee Hazlewood about it too. Just a hunch, but I wonder if Dean Wareham wrote this originally about his son (...he went away to school last September...). However you cut it, it's a glorious piece of longing, yearning dream-pop.

*And as a bonus, let's end on this gorgeous slice of Scottish soul, from the great Camera Obscura (another tune that would have made it into the second hour, if there was one). Have a cool Yule.

**As we're at it, speaking of schmaltz and Irving Berlin, let's have this too. I understand that Bing Crosby might be a bit rich for some tastes, but I must admit I love his musical work in films (see also True love from High Society, his duet with Grace Kelly). This is the movie version of White Christmas from the 1954 film of the same name (a remake of the 1942 original Holiday Inn), with Danny Kaye opposite Bing, along with Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen.


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