05 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Alan Parsons in a Winter Wonderland

Novelty: Gen X Edition

Compilation albums have blossomed into a major part of the music industry. They're like mixtapes for people without taste or the time effort and talent to create their own. Once either the lazy collection of this season's hits, or the ghetto for strange novelty records sold on late night TV, they now have a variety of guises: the charity album, the thematic covers album (covers of an artist, or even a tribute album to an album), and of course, the holiday album.

Despite whatever cred they may get from low record sales or being on indie labels that were originally cutting edge but have since been acquired by the dwindling number of megamonolithic corporations, indie and GenX bands like a pay day as much as the next artist formerly known as profitable. This gives bands contributing to the holiday album comp a clear remit, either record their take on a standard Christmas carol or pop tune, or break new ground with something seasonal of their own. The former creates a mixed bag, uptempo songs dragged down into shoegazing slowness, or somber carols given raucous speed guitar inconsequential throwaways like those punk medleys of AM radio hits. The latter usually gives us what is in essence a novelty song, a Christmas song that would otherwise not exist on its own merits, and will likely never be played or covered again and will die when this compilation goes out of print. A few may catch the imagination of the fans of the band, or may even be a new classic.

Alan Parsons in a Winter Wonderland by Grandaddy simultaneously pokes fun at and performs tribute to the titular uber sound engineer musician producer. Part of the charm of this one is just how ludicrous it becomes as it crash lands in the middle of the standard Winter Wonderland, not even trying to shoehorn the more absurd lyrics into a musical line, the words just keep going over the cliff when the music has already turned the corner, and of course there's the obvious nod to fellow synth prog rocker Greg Lake's I Believe In Father Christmas.

I probably first heard it on BBC6 Music (a station I'll discuss more tomorrow), it was released on a charity album curated by a British commercial alt rock station Xfm, It's a Cool Cool Christmas. (also includes The Dandy Warhols on The Little Drummer Boy).

Fountains of Wayne -- I Want an Alien For Christmas This Year, is just a breezy fun track, which although it probably won't have much staying power, is cheerful indie-pop.

I should probably also mention the excellent efforts by Scottish band Belle and Sebastian, who performed an excellent BBC Peel Session for Xmas 2002, which is available "somewhere", their version of O Come O Come Emmanuel is also on the XFM comp mentioned above. Sufjan Stevens, a suspiciously prolific stylistic chameleon, perhaps known for his supposed 50 States project (only two albums so far), released 5 quite long EPs of Christmas music which have been boxed as Christmas Songs. I would probably get into his music more, if I knew how to pronounce his name. My favorite of the originals on these is the wonderfully titled Get Behind Me, Santa!

I first came across the song Merry Christmas from the Family in a cover by Jill Sobule recorded for the 1995 compilation You Sleigh Me! (also includes Tori Amos on The Little Drummer Boy).

Merry Christmas from the Family

Jill Sobule | Myspace Music Videos

The original is by Robert Earl Keen, a star of the alt country scene and a contemporary of Lyle Lovett. It was a minor hit for him, and is so requested at his live shows he has a rule that he now only performs it from Labor Day to New Year's. It also spawned a book and a sequel song. It is an affectionate not patronizing look at its family of trailer grotesques, not as OTT as a musical episode of My Name is Earl would be.

As I also included her for the (c)hanukkah entry, with Jesus Was A Dreidel Spinner, to give you an idea of how great Sobule's own non-seasonal material is, here's one of my favorites, Bitter:

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