Christmas Podcast 2013

I didn't do a Christmas-dedicated show this year (there are a few Christmas songs each in the last few shows of the year) but I did in the end decide to put a Christmas podcast together. It builds a little on a Christmas show I did two years ago which you can find on this link.

So here's the audio and below a few lines on the tunes involved.

The Underground of Happiness Xmas Podcast 2013 w/ Can,Gruff Rhys,Camera Obscura,Marvin Gaye,J Cash++ by Theundergroundofhappiness on Mixcloud

The Sceptics

I figured it might be a novel twist to start off with some Christmas doubting tunes, songs highlighting what's wrong with this time of year. I'm here to tell you that Bah Humbug can accommodate beautiful pop music.

1. Gruff Rhys – Post apocalypse Christmas

A great, flabby rock n roll groove in a song which imagines life after consumerism and waste. A kind of cross between The Road and T Rex, then, which can only be good.

2. The Phoenix Foundation – Everybody’s money

The poppy New Zealanders delivered an EP of misanthropic seasonal fare a couple of years ago. I just love the way this song combines its irresistible descending melody line (deriving a little from late Beatles, it seems) with descriptions of rivers of greed. The uncompromising chorus conclusion - "I smell death" - is one that must have been shared at some time by many people, however fleetingly, who have lived through Christmas in the western world.

3. Beach House – I do not care for winter sun

In which the somnolent dream poppers do a beautiful job of giving out about the weather (and life in general) but making you swoon while doing it.

4. Owensie – The old breadline

A glorious slice of samba by the Dubliner, a companion piece to his single last year 'Distance of her love', which was one of my favourite songs of the year. Never mind Wham, off skiing in the Alps - picture what this conjures: gorgeous saxophone and clarinet tones, a skittering backbeat, great semi-hushed vocals wrapped around a social realist message of scrounging round the back of the couch for pennies. In my dreams, I imagine that it's the kind of tune Elliot Smith might have come up with if he had been into Latin music. Arresting and thoughtful and great pop music at any time of the year.

The Nostalgia

Let's go from doubters to celebraters and those who use Christmas as a lens for delving into that legendary foreign country, the past.

5. Dylan Thomas – A child’s Christmas in Wales (Extract)

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.

6. John Cale - A child’s Christmas in Wales (live)

Adapted by Cale from his fellow Welshman Thomas' writings, this live recording is from Cale's rich Island Records period in the 1970's. His brilliant piano phrasing and staccato left hand attack are particularly well shown off here. He also has a fine, distinctive voice, something I don't think he's given enough credit for.

7. Josh Rouse – Christmas with Jesus

A song which could have easily fitted in The Sceptics strand (is it possible to be nostalgic and sceptical at the same time? Of course it is...). I've been a fan of Josh Rouse for a long time and to be honest once I discovered he had a Christmas song he was a shoe-in for this playlist. There's a lovely fizzing arrangement here, a great swell of oscillating guitars and surging organ, and sure you could listen to the man sing all day.

8. 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 were into medieval music. 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.

The Folk Music

9. Sufjan Stevens – Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Vibes or glockenspiels or some such making the famous carol sound like something out of Steve Reich's back catalogue or a gamelan workout. It's beautiful and bonkers and inspired. Stevens should also be awarded some kind of award for services to Christmas music, having been examining and excavating the genre for very many years.

10. The Doomed Bird of Providence – Christmas song

Uncompromising is a word you could certainly apply to Doomed Bird. They are an ongoing conceptual folk music project who use the early Australian immigrant experience to wreak harrowing tales of hardship and misery which are nothing but compelling. Their second album Blind mouths eat on Front & Follow this year was the most recent, brilliant example. With sawing violins and doom-laden drumbeats, this tune from 2011 puts you right on board a ship in the south seas destined for the rocks, and feels like the ultimate in authentic documents of a quite particular (and under-represented to say the least) Christmas experience.

11. Josh T. Pearson – O Holy Night

If like me, you have had it up to here with all the clichéd readings of this tune, gather this antidote close to your bosom. As with many entries in this playlist, it should be taken as a companion piece to Pearson's great debut album from 2011, Last of the country gentlemen. A lot of Christmas music I can relate to directly. This is different. Unlike me, Pearson is an unapologetically religious man and you get the real sense from this version of dropping in on a dark night of the soul, by means of great close miking which picks up every swallow and gulp for breath. Fragile and intimate and enough to turn the most committed atheist into a believer.


What is known as Exotica (a byword for something not fitting obviously into any other genre really) gives me some of my most memorable musical raptures. I'm a sucker for lush orchestrations and there are a few of those in the following, as well as the only German krautrock band flippant/playful enough to offer a Christmas treatment.

12. Can – Silent night

Unhinged is a word that comes to mind with Can a lot. A kind of freedom to try any shit they feel like. This version of 'Silent night' is not even irreverent, it's a-reverent. The arrangement would remind you of one of those wind-up music boxes that goes on and on irrepressibly on Christmas morning until I eventually take the batteries out... This fades out perfectly on 3 minutes odd so it never outstays its welcome.

13. 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, not to mention the themes of optmisim, redemption and just desserts. 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.

14. Esquivel – Parade of the wooden soldiers

Juan 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. That's a good enough recommendation for me.

15. Eddy Arnold – Will Santa come to shanty town?

Superb steel guitar and a righteous croon aboard a country swing beat are the main features of this gem, found on one of those compilations you pick up in service stations. It's also a pleasant shock to hear someone outside of Ireland refer to "Santy" - I thought that was just an Irish thing...

Wall of Sound

Since the Phil Spector Christmas album in 1963, there's been a raft of Spectoresque Christmas music, not to mention pop music in general, so I thought it deserved its own slot. The Cocteau Twins version of 'Frosty the snowman' should have been in here too but I played it on the show a few weeks back.

16. The Raveonettes – The Christmas song

Give me sleigh bells, vocal harmonies and a smouldering male-female sexiness and I'm happy basically. The wobbling bass organ on this is gorgeous too.

17. Darlene Love – Marshmallow world

I'd normally pick 'Christmas (Baby please come home)' by Darlene Love from the Phil Spector Christmas album but I thought I'd give Love's other spin on the album a twirl for a change. Her voice has such a bounce and a lilt to it, it's one of the best to have ever graced pop records. And of course, the Spector/Nietzsche arrangement of honking horns down there, twinkles of glockenspiels up there and banks of voices in the middle, with galloping percussion driving everything along, is another soaring triumph.

18. Crystal Stilts – Practically immaculate

A wonderfully deadpan and vaguely nihilistic take on the Christmas story from the Brooklyn band (who also released their superb third album Nature noir this year). I love the propulsive organ and the faux choir synth too.

19. Camera Obscura – The blizzard

As one of my favourite bands, another shoe-in. This is the kind of sombre, wintry tune that Camera Obscura have made their trademark and Tracyanne Campbell's yearning voice is one of the most potent and beautiful instruments in contemporary pop music.


What it says, time for a few legends of pop music to finish.

20. Stevie Wonder – What Christmas means to me

It struck me trawling through some old compilations that Stevie Wonder's wide-eyed (pardon the pun) wonder and style, loving the world and everything in it, is perfect for Christmas music. The man hasn't a cynical bone in his body, it seems, and a part of me loves that and wants to embrace it (another part of me won't let cynicism go).

21. The Beach Boys – The man with all the toys

We had to have some Beach Boys in here. This vocal group tune is a neat postcard from their early period. Plus those "bops" mid chorus are just the greatest thing - get your family or friends singing those around the Christmas table for some priceless after dinner entertainment.

22. Marvin Gaye – Purple snowflakes

A gorgeous cosmic soul treatment from the Motown mainstay. Those organ cascades against his elegant falsetto send me away every time.

23. Johnny Cash – Who kept the sheep

Short and simple. And reflective, which is a quality that the older Cash turned into his epitaph.


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