Reality TV stars may have the Christmas No 1 slot sewn up, but that hasn't stopped The Killers and a string of indie bands making an assault on the top spot. Nick Hasted reports on the allure of having a Yuletide hit
The multi-media juggernaut for the X-Factor winner's Christmas single is already being primed to steamroller all opposition, when the year's most coveted No 1 is announced on Christmas Eve. But this week The Killers are attempting to remind us of more honourable Christmas traditions. The Las Vegas band, whose second album Sam's Town has seen them enter the mainstream with their hipness intact, are releasing their own Christmas single, "A Great Big Sleigh". Recorded in the same full-bore, Springsteen-esque style as their regular songs, it is a reminder that Christmas can have its own cool appeal.
"There are some great Christmas tunes that have been recorded over the years, from the likes of George Michael and John Lennon," the band's singer Brandon Flowers enthused to NME. "Sometimes you forget. You get so caught up in business and being an adult that you forget to have fun and enjoy things and be nice to people."
"A Great Big Sleigh" has been released far too early to have even a theoretical tilt at the Christmas No 1. Even before The X-Factor's winner is known, their cover of American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This" is the odds-on favourite for the position, which was snatched by the show's Shayne Ward last year. "The X-Factor winner has quite simply killed this market," confirms Rupert Adams, of the bookmaker William Hill. Clogging up the rest of the chart will be Crazy Frog's Wham! cover "Last Christmas", Cliff Richard and Brian May's "21st Century Christmas", Ricky Tomlinson's shameless "Christmas My Arse", and numerous unfestive offerings, such as El Chombo's reggaeton club favourite "Chacarron".
The Killers, though, are not alone in suspecting Christmas may not be just about rapacious commercialism and tastelessness. The Puppini Sisters' double-A side "Jingle Bells/The Little Match Seller" at least attempts to re-engage with seasonal tradition. And quietly, numerous cult and underground figures have revealed their own love for Christmas music.
Aimee Mann's new album One More Drifter in the Snow contains self-penned and familiar Christmas songs, following her low-key EP "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" last year. That combined a version of the Bing Crosby classic with "I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas", about young Southern criminal lovers on the run. This mixture of the sacred and the profane also applies to Sufjan Stevens's Songs for Christmas box-set, a collection of EPs he has made for family and friends since 2001. "[A roommate and I] both decided we wanted to make music our grandparents would like," Stevens, perhaps the most respected US indie star, has said. The Christian singer combines respectful covers of a wide range of Christmas songs with self-penned dissections of the season's mundane reality, such as "Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)". Pearl Jam will release their annual fan club-only Christmas 7in single, adding to earlier curios such as the Jackson Five cover "Someday at Christmas" (2004). Rufus Wainwright, meanwhile, will restrict his seasonal fascination to a live Carnegie Hall special, roping in Lou Reed, David Byrne and Laurie Anderson to help. Americana heroes such as Kelly Joe Phelps and Willard Grant Conspiracy have also released Christmas songs in the last couple of years.
Only The Killers have risked exposing themselves to the mainstream, so far. Given the overwhelming cheesiness and ruthless commercial muscle at work in the Christmas market, when millions of consumers make their annual, easily led record-shop trip, such diffidence is perhaps unsurprising. But it is a recent phenomenon. Look back through the Christmas No 1s of the Seventies and Eighties, and novelty hits jostle with unlikely seasonal smashes such as Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" (1975), Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" (1979) and The Human League's "Don't You Want Me". Oasis's "Whatever" (1994) was a near-miss, while 2004's face-off between Gary Jules's "Mad World" and narrow loser The Darkness's "Don't Let the Bells End" was a brief return to a Christmas race of real quality; the success of Jules's mordant Tears for Fears cover also proved that, when not being herded by mega-hit TV shows, the mass-buying public that Christmas attracts is capable of anything, including good taste. It is The Darkness's one-off Christmas template that The Killers have most obviously followed.
The real, lost grail, though, is the specifically Christmas-themed, classic single. Stevens' motives for his EPs apply here. It is an opportunity to cross generations, taking yourself out of the rock'n'roll ghetto and into universal family appeal, without sacrificing your ideals. How else could skinhead bovver boys-turned-glam thugs Slade have become as engrained in many people's consciousnesses as the Queen's Speech? (their 1973 No 1 "Merry Xmas Everybody" gets its annual re-release again this year, of course). John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Vietnam-era "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" (1972) gives a shiver of chastening perspective, if heard in the right mood on Christmas Day (The Beatles, it should be recalled, had three consecutive Christmas No 1s).
For all their rabble-rousing punk swagger, meanwhile, The Pogues are best remembered for "Fairy Tale of New York". Held at No 2 in 1987 by the Pet Shop Boys' "Always On My Mind", it has grown into a perennial. Challenged by Elvis Costello to write a Christmas classic, Shane MacGowan's lyrics, finding the remaining sparks of love between a boozing, ageing Irish couple, one possibly dying of alcoholism, allied to Jem Finer's redemptive melody, make a heartbreaking record. It was intended to combat "the torture of packaged party time", Finer told Uncut, and every year its mix of harsh Christmas realism and transcendent romance does just that.
The Pogues proved beyond doubt that Christmas is as rich a time as any to write about, once you fight past clichés; and that you can enter the rhythm of people's lives if you succeed. It is this challenge that The Killers' example suggests could be taken up again. Coldplay are only a residual sense of hipness away from writing some sort of vaguely humanist hymn. And the day Jarvis Cocker applies all his pop skill to a musical equivalent of the bittersweet Northern realism of a Royle Family Christmas special will be one worth rejoicing.
The stumbling block, causing embarrassment to even try in recent times, is perhaps a combination of the cynical taint that abominations from Mr Blobby to The X-Factor exude, and confusion about what Christmas means. The easy-listening salves offered by Bing Crosby and Co are hard to apply in our more secular world. But the holy beauty of the carols that such songs aped, and the earthier, sometimes bitter, drunk or lonely realities we will all soon be facing deserve to be combined in pop music. The Killers could be just the start.
'A Great Big Sleigh' by The Killers is out now on download only