December 6, 2008 / 3:46 AM / 10 years ago

Indie rockers spread Christmas cheer

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Holiday albums have usually been the domain of big stars — think Bing Crosby, Dean Martin or Josh Groban. But this year, an influx of indie artists and labels are getting into the holiday spirit, all with different goals in mind.

Aimee Mann arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party at Mortons in West Hollywood March 5, 2006. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

Artists like Aimee Mann and Sufjan Stevens have proved there’s a market for a different kind of Christmas tune. Stevens’ 2006 collection “Songs for Christmas” has sold 81,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while Mann’s “One More Drifter in the Snow” from the same year has sold 39,000.

The underlying notion is that there’s a youthful audience that will buy (or at least pay attention to) records that are more left-of-center than the everyday reinterpretation of a classic holiday ballad.

Longtime Stevens colleague Rosie Thomas decided to take the plunge almost on a whim this spring, calling on a handful of friends from the Seattle area to help her record “A Very Rosie Christmas.” Released November 4 by Nettwerk, the set’s 12 tracks include Alvin & the Chipmunks’ “Christmas Don’t Be Late.”

“I don’t blame people for overlooking it,” Thomas says with a laugh. “A chipmunk sung it.”

Thomas is on a holiday-themed tour that she hopes to make an annual occurrence, much like Mann, who is in her third year of touring around “Drifter.”

Nettwerk sees evergreen potential in “A Very Rosie Christmas,” with the idea being to make “an event” out of each tour stop and draw in fans for years to come, according to manager Mike Cochran.

Meanwhile, Merge is hoping to carve out a similar niche for former Neutral Milk Hotel multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster, whose “The Singing Saw at Christmastime” recently became the 20-year-old label’s first Christmas album.

For Koster, this is no mere stylistic diversion. “We’ve been approached by other artists to do holiday singles, but this project seemed perfect. For Julian, it’s Christmas 12 months of the year,” Merge publicist Christina Rentz says. “His dog is actually named Rudolph.”

Indeed, following his stint on the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise tour, which saw reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel leader Jeff Mangum make several unannounced appearances, Koster is upping the holiday ante.

Of late, he’s using e-mail to solicit private homes to “carol” in and spread his quirky brand of Christmas cheer. “It would be so nice if music knocked on my door and came to see me,” he says of his rationale for staging such a trek.

Other holiday releases have the potential to inject new life into the most recent studio albums from a given artist.

When the Raveonettes released “Lust Lust Lust” in February on Vice Records, they planned on touring for the remainder of the year, but personal issues prevented that. Instead, the Danish rock duo released three digital EPs, culminating with last month’s “Wishing You a Rave Christmas.”

“We wanted to keep them on the radar, repositioning a record that came out in February,” Vice Music GM Jamie Farkas says. “It was nice timing to have the last one hit right at the point where people are thinking of what came out this year.”

Also on the market is a compilation from Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records, an EP from Underoath drummer Aaron Gillespie’s side project the Almost and the first holiday-themed albums from Mary Chapin Carpenter and Bela Fleck (Rounder).

And despite the challenges of getting their music heard amid a glut of holiday releases, most artists say the hardest part of the process was simply picking the material. “That’s always the difficulty with covers — you’re not pressured to do the songwriting, but I am touchy about it, because a lot are done so well,” Thomas says of the holiday canon. “Once we figured out what would work, we tried to reinvent them as a unique experience.”


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