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New Wave XmasThe golden age of Christmas rock & roll ended shortly after the Beatles got serious, upping the artistic ante for everybody concerned. Christmas records were henceforth deemed crass, commercial, and resolutely unhip, and by the 70's, few artists of any repute were creating them. To wit, among the mere handful of rock & roll Christmas albums released during the 70's were masterpieces (ahem) by the Osmond Brothers and Partridge Family. Party down, huh?

At any rate, late in the decade, punk and new wave artists began to embrace the disgraced genre - with great abandon and very little reverence. Christmas, if nothing else, provided a convenient target for the vitriol and frustration that fueled this visceral new music. The Boys, the Waitresses, and the Del Fuegos were just a few of the notable artists caught skewering Santa. Ironic, then, that the trickle of Christmas records spilling out of this new wave helped prime the pump for the earnest Christmas music revival that began in 1987 with A Very Special Christmas and continues unabated today.

Many of these great punk and new wave records, alas, have been lost to the used 45 bins of used record stores and garage sales the world over. Seventeen of the musically lighter moments, however, have been happily preserved by Rhino Records on New Wave Xmas (1996), part of a much larger series dubbed Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Hits Of The 80's. Ranging from 1977 (David Bowie's decidedly "old wave" duet with Bing Crosby) to 1996 (when new wave had long since transmogrified into alternative rock), the CD covers a lot of ground - stylistically and chronologically - proving that new wave was more of an attitude than a discernable musical genre.


The artists included on New Wave Xmas run the gamut from semi-famous (XTC, Squeeze) to completely obscure (Root Boy Slim & The Sex Change Band), but a common thread emerges among them - faith in Christmas as an inclusive celebration. Each of them experiences the holiday differently (and often with rancor), but they see Christmas as belonging to them as much as anyone - markedly in contrast to the "fuck Christmas" perspective attitude purveyed by Rhino's Punk Rock Xmas companion CD.

And while its songs range from sublime to ridiculous, New Wave Xmas consistently presents Christmas music with distinction - no one, that is, will confuse these tortured carols with those of Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians! Timbuk 3 - best remembered for their anti-yuppie rant, "The Future's So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)" - perform an anti-violence ode, "All I Want For Christmas," that makes a philosophically shaky connection between G.I. Joe action figures and third world unrest. Los Lobos deconstruct Johnny Marks' classic as "Rudolph The Manic Reindeer." Stan Ridgway and Wall Of Voodoo relate a comic morality play, "Shouldn't Have Given Him A Gun For Christmas," with a truly painfully denouement.

Even so, there's a sweetness to many of these songs that can't be denied. Perhaps the best-known entry, the Pretenders' "2000 Miles," is darn near pious - easily the least acerbic song in Chrissie Hynde's portfolio to date. Others, like Buzz Of Delight's "Christmas" (featuring a young Matthew Sweet) simply exude the child-like optimism that marks most great yuletide anthems (even if the lyrics are all-but-indecipherable).

In the Pogues' singularly brilliant "Fairytale of New York," singer Shane MacGowan is spending "Christmas Eve in the drunk tank," but he finds the wherewithal to wish his lover (sung by Kirsty MacColl), "Happy Christmas... I can see a better time when all our dreams come true." It ends badly, of course, when she spits out this immortal retort:

You scumbag, you maggot,
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas, your arse,
I pray God it's our last.
Still, the Pogues' gritty tale a testament to our inexhaustible faith in the spirit of Christmas. No matter what we throw at the holiday, this peculiar hope survives down the ages. Christmas can withstand the tallest of waves - either new or old - emerging intact on the bright side of morning. [top of page]

Albums Albums


  • All I Want For Christmas (Timbuk 3, 1987)
  • Christmas (Buzz Of Delight, featuring Matthew Sweet, 1983)
  • Christmas Day (Squeeze, 1979)
  • Christmas Time (Chris Stamey, 1985) star Top 100 Song [close]
    Comparing "Christmas Time" to the dB's "Holiday Spirit" - a song much higher on my Top 100 - the former is in many ways a better song. It is certainly a more sophisticated composition and expertly played record. But while the manic performance and cynical perspective of the latter won me over, Stamey's earlier record (a virtual paean to Big Star) is a classic in its own right. From the letter-perfect power pop arrangement (chiming guitars, soaring harmonies, thundering drums) to the inventive way Stamey rewrites holiday homilies in his lyrics, "Christmas Time" bores its way into the subconscious and will not let go. (Both songs are included on the CD editions of Christmas Time, a collection of tunes by Chris Stamey and friends.)
  • Fairytale Of New York (The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl, 1988)
  • Little Drummer Boy (Miracle Legion, 1985)
  • Mary Xmess (Sun 60, 1993)
  • One Christmas Catalog (Captain Sensible, 1984)
  • Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy (David Bowie & Bing Crosby, 1977)
  • Rudolph The Manic Reindeer (Los Lobos, 1988)
  • Santa Claus (Throwing Muses, 1989)
  • Santa's Beard (They Might Be Giants, 1988)
  • Shouldn't Have Given Him A Gun For Christmas (Wall of Voodoo, 1987)
  • Thanks For Christmas (The Three Wise Men, a.k.a. XTC, 1983)
  • 2000 Miles (The Pretenders, 1983)
  • Xmas At K-Mart (Root Boy Slim & The Sex Change Band, 1978)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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