Seasonal Selection 2013

22 Dec

Unless I hear something really sensational between now and New Year’s Eve, this is likely to be the last post for 2013 on this blog. At Christmastime, people of faith have a shedload of great music to enjoy. On December 16th indeed I was down in London to start off the seasonal stuff at a dinner which later featured a brass quintet and carol singing.  I enjoy the usual standards: ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and whatever but I admit I was a bit out of my comfort zone when this particular audience managed to sing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ in  the original Latin (‘Adeste Fideles’) – including a (presumably unrehearsed) descant! Great stuff.

Commercial Christmas music isn’t all bad either. I’m not so snobby that I can’t enjoy The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York or, Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everyone’ as much as the next person – it’s just after one time each year, in shops especially, they grate like fingernails down a blackboard!

My own taste defaults, probably predictably, to British traditional carols (such as the Coventry Carol, On Christmas Night All Christians Sing, Gower Wassail) but  I’ve decided to leaven this mix with a few other seasonal  favourites (including some commercial ones) and leave you with my Alternative Christmas Top Ten. Read, go listen (I’ve taken a one-off break from my usual policy of not linking to performances)  and see you next year!

  1. The Home ServiceShepherds Arise!  (traditional arr. Anthony Ingle and Howard Evans) (From The Mysteries,  Originally on Coda Records 1985, now available Fled’glingRecords  FLED3014)(2000) From the National Theatre production of the York Mystery Plays in a version by Tony Harrison. This song isn’t from Yorkshire but from Sussex (and from the singing of the Copper Family) but this is my favourite version – from the the finest theatre production I’ve ever seen and my all-time favourite piece of Christmas music. I have been know to play this  at full volume on Christmas Day to wake people up – you should too. A great song performed with gusto! All credit toIngle and the late Howard Evans for the uplifting brass arrangement – which characterised the Home Service’s best work. Surprisingly there seems to be no YouTube version by the Home Service so here’s a link to the Coppers singing it – just a smidgeon slower and more sedately).
  2. Mike Oldfield In Dulce Jubilo (traditional)(Virgin Records, 1975) An instrumental version which went top 5 in the UK charts. Mike Oldfield’s traditional roots are under-celebrated.
  3. Bob Dylan – Must Be Santa (William Fredericks/Hal Moore)(Sony/Columbia , 2009). Just when you think you’ve got the measure of Dylan, he comes up with something surprising  – such as his Christmas In The Heart CD from which this, my favourite track, comes. It is impossible not to smile at this gloriously silly piano accordion-driven romp .
  4. Gretchen Peters – Northern Lights (Gretchen Peters)(From Northern Lights, originally on Sccrlet Letter Records, 2008. My version from 2009, 15 Song Career Retrospective on Noisetrade download).  Gretchen’s track note says it all:  “I felt this was the title song as soon as I wrote it. I’ve always been fascinated with the Northern Lights, though as many places as I’ve been where they’re common I’ve still never seen them. But I think of them as one of the beautiful gifts nature gives us, seemingly for no other reason than to delight us. The end of the year is a reflective time, and fraught with stress and sadness for some people (maybe more than would admit it), and I was trying to get at this notion. I spent a very difficult Christmas the first year after my marriage broke up, but in some ways it was a beautiful experience, because I really had to examine what I wanted the holiday to mean. It was clearly not going to be a Hallmark/Norman Rockwell Christmas, so I had to really think about what was important to me. And it turned out that peace, and quiet, and reflection made for a lovely and meaningful, if at times melancholy Christmas Eve. Getting off the treadmill can be a huge relief. That’s what I was getting at in the last verse: “we try to make up for mistakes that we’ve made/with presents and parties and Christmas parades”.
  5. Lindisfarne – Winter Song (Alan Hull)(From Nicely Out Of Tune,  Charisma Records 1970)(Now on Virgin). This was never a single, let alone a Christmas single but it’s a great social conscience song from Lindisfarne’s princial writer which ought to have been a hit! I’m glad that it’s still getting covered: “When winter’s shadowy fingers/First pursue you down the street/And your boots no longer lie/About the cold around your feet//Do you spare a thought for summer/Whose passage is complete?/Whose memories lie in ruins/ And whose in ruins lie in heat?/When winter comes howling in”. Live performance from 1984 :
  6. Mary Chapin Carpenter – Christmas Carol (from Come Darkness, Come Light,Decca  2008). Gentle, introspective reflection from a fine songwriter. Tasteful instrumentation that highlights her piano and throaty vocal. Mary Chapin Carpenter is the artist who seems best to  articulate the mix of anticipation, regret, wistfulness and wisdom of ageing for me!
  7. Kate & Anna McGarrigle (featuring Martha Wainwright) – Rebel Jesus (Jackson Browne)( From The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, Nonesuchrecords, 2005). My favourite track from this collection. The Albion Christmas Band have also done a cover with Kellie While taking vocals – but the production is stronger on this version.
  8. Last Train Home – Christmas in St Paul (composer not credited)(from The Alternate Root Holiday Sampler #3 , 2012). The Alternate Root ( is a wonderful US roots magazine and occasionally sticks out free samplers which are invariable great.  As a result of hearing this lovely track I went and bought  their 2008  CD Live at Iota (get from ). It’s the mundane detail of this tale of a Christmas kiss that make this work. (This rather ragged live version is  nowhere near as good as the studio take.
  9. The Albion Band – Snow Falls (John Tams)(from Lark Rise to Candleford, originally Charisma CDS 4020(1980) currently available on Talking Elephant TECCD097 (2006). Written for the National Theatre production of the play by Keith Dewhurst from the books by Flora Thompson.  The second best piece of theatre I’ve ever seen (see track 1). This was years before the recent UK TV adaptations.  The song was also covered and recorded by later variations of the Albion Band too. (This version  is of  the composer performing it with The Home Service rather than the Albions
  10. Kate Bush – Misty (Kate Bush) from 50Words for Snow (Fish People records, 2011) . It feels invidious to single out one track from this remarkable collection from the wonderfully odd but supremely interesting and talented Kate Bush! If you haven’t heard this CD, give yourself a Christmas treat and do so. And listen to it alone. In a quiet house or flat. Or if you have to listen with headphones, don’t do it  when anyone else is around. Some music is for sharing – but for me, this deserves concentration and solitude. It is remarkable stuff. Go on, do it! (

3 Responses to “Seasonal Selection 2013”

  1. esther millson January 2, 2014 at 12:53 am #

    Thanks for your seasonal selection, Mr Nicely Out of Tune – and do hope that you’ve had happy holidays.

    I reckon that ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ contains the worst carol line ever… “Christian children all must be/Mild, obedient, good as he”. Even if I was a believer (which I’m not), my view is that Jesus was neither mild nor obedient…

    Suspect you might like, if you don’t already, someone called Paolo Nutini. I learned over the festive season that he’s got a new album coming out in April. My nephew and I are awaiting it eagerly. Meanwhile, said nephew’s new year message was that he’d seen a band called, err, The Boothill Foot-tappers – live.

    Do you know of them?

    • alastairt January 2, 2014 at 10:39 pm #

      Re. Mr Nutini: I spent a happy afternoon watching the back of his head and his arse in the Festival Hall (I was in the Choir seats) as part to the Richard Thompson Meltdown fest. Some of the happiest times I’ve had ever (post-gig Cajun dancing) are of said festival!

  2. esther millson January 3, 2014 at 10:36 pm #

    Robbie Williams appeared, for the third time, in my Santa stocking…

    His new album, Swings Both Ways, is great – especially track five, which was co-written w Rufus Wainwright…

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