The Christmas song, like the Christmas jumper, has become something so uncool that it is actually (a bit) cool again.
Again like the jumper, there are different camps of fans. With some people (as with all their interests in life) there is nothing too hideous. This accounts for the existence of the Really Ugly section of the Beyond Retro vintage clothing website (though I still can’t see the difference between Ugly and Really Ugly), and the fact that someone somewhere must like A Wonderful Christmas Time (or any song) by Paul McCartney.
There again, the beauty of songs (and jumpers) and especially Christmas ones is that my very ugly is your very beautiful, and my too cheesy is your just the right amount of fromage. It is interesting to note that, in polls of the general public’s most irritating and most well-loved Christmas songs, the same songs appear in both lists (and also in my list). I think the very fact that the same songs appear year after year is the comforting, nostalgic part. For this reason, I don’t think we need any more Christmas songs. The same ones really are more than enough. I know everyone and his duck have recorded Christmas songs (though I could only manage 17 seconds of Orville singing White Christmas) but I don’t need to hear any more novelty versions of any of the old classics. I’m also undecided as to whether Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is the best Christmas single of all time, or the worst one. It’s not only catchy, it is apparently one of the best-selling singles of all time. Anyway, it stays off this list as in my humble opinion there are better ones.
I might also mention that having warned the hubs that we would have to sing along to Christmas songs at a party this very weekend, I turned around the next minute to find him warbling along at the top of his lungs looking as happy as Johnny (Mathis). In Christmas song world, no doesn’t always mean no.
Which brings me to my playlist, in chronological order.
Bing Crosby White Christmas (1942, appeared in film Holiday Inn, and in eponymous film in 1954)
Written by Irving Berlin and first performed by Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn, and then recorded by a zillion other artists since, White Christmas is the best-selling single of all time according to the Guinness World Records, selling an estimated 50 million records worldwide. It resonated with listeners during World War II and continues to be a favourite during the holiday season. Not bad for a song that took 18 minutes to record.
For all Bing fans, that’s not the last you’ll see of him in this list.
Nat King Cole The Christmas Song (1944)
Christmas summed up in 1 minute 57 seconds. Sung by the voice of an angel (despite the 3 packs of menthol cigarettes he smoked a day), and co-written by another hero of mine, Mel Tormé. The very thought of chestnuts roasting on an open fire snaps me instantly into a happy mood, and just look at that beautiful singing smile.
Frank Sinatra Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1944)
Another classic from another classic singer, Sinatra himself. The song first appeared in the film Meet Me in St Louis, starring Judy Garland, which was where Garland met director Vincente Minnelli, who of course became her husband. It’s a melancholy song, and Garland asked for changes to the lyrics, as did Frank Sinatra, whose version is as well-known as the original. For another more soulful version, you could do worse than to listen to the velvety tones of Luther Vandross, who released a version in 1995. Then again, Luther could sing the Catford entries of the phone book to me and I would be charmed.
John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band Happy Xmas (War is Over) (1971)
The result of two years of peace activism, which began with the John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘bed-ins’, this song is hugely nostalgic for me and gives me an immediate lump in the throat. I distinctly remember hearing it on the radio in the car as we drove home one evening around Christmas (Southwark Street if you are interested). Since I am not THAT old, I must assume it was not the year it was released but more likely to be the year when John Lennon died, 1980, when the song went to number 2 in the charts. Even the 8 year old me found this a moving, melancholy song. We can only hope that maybe one day war will actually be over.
Slade Merry Xmas Everybody and Wizzard I Wish it Could be Xmas Everyday (both 1973)
To go from one extreme to another, I had to put the next two into a double bill of good old-fashioned rivalry from the Midlands of Britain. Released in 1973, Wizzard (a group of Brummies led by Roy Wood) was expected to gain the Christmas number 1 and was pipped to the post by Noddy Holder and his loveable Wolverhamptonites, Slade. Who would have thought that two classic Xmas numbers would come out at the same time (and every year since)? Merry Xmas Everybody by Slade was played at the end of winter term assembly at my school every single year. When I left school and heard it there for the last time my favourite lyric seemed even more relevant: ‘Look to the future now, it’s only just begun’. And to all those humbugs who can’t manage to enjoy either of these songs, at least enjoy some silliness from Top of the Pops’ heyday: look at the mutton chops! look at the suits!
Bing Crosby and David Bowie Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth (1977)
I told you Bing would be back. In an unusual move, David Bowie joined Bing Crosby in Bing’s final holiday television special. Apparently Bowie hated the song Little Drummer Boy, which is why the writers added in Peace on Earth as a counterpoint for him. Apart from all the stories about the recording (did they know who each other was or not, what does Ziggy Stardust remember about it?) I still love it – a combination of two interesting voices representing different tastes of the era, all wrapped up in a schmaltzy traditional mash-up. Sadly Bing died of a heart attack just a few weeks after the recording.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood The Power of Love (1984)
And so to the 80s for this melodrama of a pop song about the power of love. It’s not really a Christmas song, but just watch the video if you don’t remember it from the first time around. Rewind back to 1984, and remember how this was the third single which followed Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s (controversial) debut Relax, and their (controversial) second single Two Tribes. As Holly Johnson, co-writer and lead vocalist said, “I always felt like The Power Of Love was the record that would save me in this life…the fact that love is the only thing that matters in the end.”
The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl Fairytale of New York (1987)
Quite fittingly, we end on the nation’s favourite anti-Christmas Christmas song. Even those of you who hate hearing about chestnuts roasting, bells jingling, or drummers drumming, even you love this song. The most-played Christmas song of the 21st century, it has an Irish folk tune, it has Shane McGowan and Kirsty MacColl, drugs, homelessness, and lyrics such as ‘Happy Christmas your arse, I pray god it’s our last’. Of course we love it, and I can’t think of a better time to go and sit on Kirsty’s memorial bench in Soho Square.
I could have added Mariah (1994) in to this list right here at the end, but she really would have been a funny fit after The Pogues. I prefer to end up there with Fairytale of New York, the last great Christmas song which was made in the 1980s. I know newer artists want to cover the old songs, and I do actually forgive Michael Buble as I like his sweet voice, but really will there ever be another song good enough to add to this list?
For me a good Christmas song has to have some or preferably all of the following elements: melancholy, nostalgia, good cheer from the Midlands, some parupapumpum-ing, a few tears if you’re lucky, and some proper undying, death-defying love.
What about you? What elements do you need in your favourite Christmas song? And don’t just say a singing green duck in a nappy. I would love it if you commented with your favourite or worst Christmas song.
In Nat’s words, Merry Christmas to you!