You loved it as a kid / And now you need it more than you ever did
- Tracey Thorn, Joy
We have a problem. My calendar, and seemingly everyone elses, is clearly broken because it's stating that today is 24th December, or Christmas Eve, and that CAN'T be so. Even in the deep midthirties I can still remember as a child finding those weeks running up to the 25th the slowest, most frustrating time of the year, but now the days seem to vanish in a bleak blur of commuting in the dark (and, this year, general poorliness across the family). Are we sure it's not the 17th?
Well, regardless, I've got my priorities in order. While the tree was conspicuously lacking in wrapped goodies underneath until an hour ago (admittedly more to avoid Bagl from crawling up to them and soaking the wrapping paper in drool) I do have a suitably festive musical playlist fully assembled and ready to go. Here's three of the best.
Tracey Thorn, she of Everything But The Girl, released Tinsel and Lights a few weeks ago and straight off the bat it's pretty much a classic for this time of year. Most of the songs are covers, though not the usual - I was particularly delighted to hear Low's Taking Down The Tree covered so well, given the excellence of Low's Christmas EP. The opening track, Joy, is an original written by Thorn and it's probably the highlight of the album for me. It's a perfect Christmas song, but not in a Slade/Roy Wood/belted out with gusto at festive discos kind of way. It's made for those quiet moments you need at this time of year, curtains pulled tight against the cold and dark, and to my mind absolutely nails what Christmas is really all about (rather than that silly story). With every listen it hits harder, the lyrics startlingly real (while playing it back to write this post I was borderline blubbing by the last line). It's real, clear-eyed and genuine, managing the stonkingly rare feat of being neither cynical nor twee. If you play only one song from this post, make it this one.
While we're at it, do have a read of Tracey Thorn's enjoyable piece for The Quietus on Christmas music, on how "Christmas songs are all either overtly sad, or contain within them covert elements of sadness which are disguised by the surface trappings of fun and merriment." I particularly liked the anxiety of Slade and the reference to Mrs Doyle's misery.
Despite being an atheist through and through, I still find much to love from the religious music. The words may often be absolute bunkum (Seven Joys of Mary still makes me splutter with indignation - I mean, honestly, "The next good joy that Mary had / It was the joy of six / To see her own son Jesus \ Upon the Crucifix"? Some Mum!) but that doesn't diminish the impact of the music itself. Choirs in particular have the ability to make the heart soar and I do love a good candlelit choir service. This year I got hold of a choral album of Celtic and British songs and carols, Wolcum Yule, performed by Anonymous 4 (£6.49 on Amazon MP3, should you be tempted). It's a good-sized collection of music, some well-known, others not, spanning centuries and performed (often unaccompanied) by 4 female choral singers. The above is their version of John Tavener's The Lamb and is probably the most minor-key track on the album, but I think it fits nicely.
The thing about Tim Minchin is that he seemed to appear out of nowhere for me, as though I'd missed a memo or something. One day I'd never heard of the chap, the next I see him on the back of the Guardian Guide selling out arenas across the land. I've since become a huge fan of his work, but when White Wine In The Sun went viral amongst friends (and my lady wife) three years ago I admit it didn't move me much. Cut to now and it's one of my favourite festive songs, with lines that once seemed a bit overdone now ringing true, twanging my heartstrings mercilessly. I fear I may have grown up a bit.