So, it’s the most wonderful time of the year for most, but there’s one aspect of the festive season that is sadly treated with absolute disdain and that is the humble Christmas song.
There’s a minority (and it’s one that I am very much a part of) that will have been listening to them constantly since at least the beginning of November, so much so that I now have a Spotify playlist with 90 or so of the finest of them on there, of all genres and tastes.
And taste plays a big part in the snootiness aimed towards them, as folk tend to look down their noses, dismissing them all as mindless drivel. This is made all the more ludicrous as it seems that it’s perfectly acceptable to spend the equivalent of Venezuela’s annual turnover on electricity to light up a house which would also contain ten foot Santas, reindeers and snowmen, but as soon as you show an interest in listening to Cliff’s ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ then you are regarded as some kind of child.
If I were in charge of the country, I would insist on placing the Phil Spector Christmas album on everyone’s iTunes, just like U2 did the other year.
There is also a recent trend towards more clever, subtle Christmas songs, but who wants that? They are meant to be fun, over-the-top, blasts of joy, something that these days seems lacking, as the truly shocking LadBaby having the last five Xmas number ones sadly shows.
There are going to be omissions from this list and I’ve not included any of these modern ones (honourable mentions: The Futureheads, Julian Casablancas, Terrorvision etc) or great covers (I’m looking at you Red Rum Club, LIFE and The Wedding Present) as the originals are all magical sacrosanct pieces of joy that shouldn’t be messed with (although if IDLES ever get round to finally releasing their Mariah Carey cover, then I’ll make an exception.)
So, here it is, Merry Christmas, please enjoy the list below, and in the words of that great Christmas single maker George Michael, listen without prejudice.
10. Elton John: Step Into Christmas (1973)
’Welcome to my Christmas song, I’d like to thank you for the year” is a hell of a terrible opening couplet but luckily things pick up from here. It’s a thousand times better than the recent Xmas-ruining monstrosity he conjured up with Ed Sheeran. This is a perfect example of how the 1970s was the golden age of the jolly, meaningless Xmas ditty. Bonus points for the weirdest thing ever seen in a pop video, during the instrumental bit – Elton reaches into his pocket and pulls out…not mistletoe, holly or even a cracker, but a Watford supporters card.
Should have started his Glastonbury set this year with this.
9. East 17: Stay Another Day (1994)
1994’s Christmas number one single (it was atop the charts for five weeks in total), with it’s eminently pastichable video famous for the white anoraks, was not originally set-out to be Xmas related, written as it was about the lead singer’s brother committing suicide. They ended up throwing on some twinkly piano, and some angelic jingle bells, and a melancholy gorgeous seasonal classic was born.
8. Frankie Goes To Hollywood: The Power Of Love (1984)
“Not just for Xmas, this is for life” is how lead singer Holly Johnson introduces the song when he plays it live these days, and he’s spot on.
It’s a Christmas song in the same way as Die Hard is a Xmas film – that is, not very much at all – and it is only really included as one by virtue of its nativity storytelling video. As ballads go, it’s right up there.
7. Andy Williams: It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year (1963)
The first 30 seconds of this are the most goose-bump inducing sound of the season, Describing it as “grand” doesn’t quite cover it, it’s a glorious cacophony, and although it’s been covered many times since, then this version is the only one that carries off the show-tune element. It’s the nearest thing you can get to a 1960’s Xmas Greatest Showman.
6. Shakin’ Stevens: Merry Christmas Everyone (1985)
Now we are venturing into “I can’t believe he’s included this in the list instead of something more trendy” territory, but bear with me.
If this had nothing to do with Christmas, and was just about teddy bears or something, then people would rightly hail it as a corker.
Shaky does his best Poundland Elvis impression, it relents not a jot throughout and the video is an absolute cheese-fest, what is there not to love?
5. Pet Shop Boys: It Doesn’t Often Snow At Christmas (2009)
How this wasn’t more of a hit I’ll never know, only reaching number 40 in the charts as the main track on the duo’s Christmas EP.
It was originally a fan-club only release back in 1997, and is an typical PSB disco banger, with their usual pithy lyrics, this time bemoaning the modernisation of Christmas, albeit with added jingliness.
Worth a listen for the lesser-spotted Chris Lowe singing his one and only line, “And a Happy New Year.”
4. Slade: Merry Xmas Everybody (1973)
A message to all the newer bands who are struggling to earn cash from the music business in its current form. Just write a great Christmas song. Noddy Holder earns from just this song every year over £500,000 a year just from this song.
£500,000 a year. Yes, really.
It helps that it is a glam rock stomper of a monster, but the fact that the lyrics are a bit not-very-good, that alone should be enough to inspire you to write something equally as whimsical and start earning those big bucks.
3. The Pogues and Kirsty McColl: Fairytale Of New York (1987)
Instantly loved by 99% of the public, most of whom had never heard of the two main protagonists previous work.
It played it’s part in the greatest chart battle for Xmas Number One that there has ever been, back in 1987 (which, to general hatred, was won by the aforementioned Pet Shop Boys) and has been a constant part of Christmases ever since, usually with some mention to it’s questionable lyrics.
Hearing this sad classic for the first time each year is the official start of festivities, just the thought of Shane MacGowan’s mournful drawl makes me want to crack open the Guinness and Bailey’s, and this will of course take on extra pathos this year, which could finally take it to the Xmas top spot. It also has one of the finest outros ever.
2. Bob Dylan: Must Be Santa (2009)
A few years ago, when I was first made aware of the existence of Christmas In The Heart (this track’s parent album), I thought that someone was playing a Christmas prank.
Bob Dylan, the Bob Dylan, had made a Christmas record?
I have so far resisted the temptation of listening to any other tracks on it, as I fear that they can only pale into comparison with this, an extraordinary piece of work.
On both the song and the accompanying video, Dylan pulls off the feat of sounding and looking simultaneously bored and enthralled all at once.
It’s the musical equivalent of most Christmas films, with it’s so-bad-it’s-fantastic feel.
1. The Crystals: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (1963)
When the time comes that I shuffle off this mortal coil, I have already pencilled this in as the song I want as I’m lowered into the ground (I’m secretly hoping I pop off in the summer, just to make it all the more confusing).
I resisted the temptation to include the whole of the Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You record as number one, even though it is a flawless piece of work (with the exception of its creator). Yes, it is that great an album, if by some miracle you have never heard it, then buy it now for yourself as an early treat.
From the sparkly spoken intro, to the wall of sound which continues to its very last notes, it’s the definitive version of the definitive Christmas single. Bruce, Mariah, Buble et al…shame on you for even attempting it.
I’m off to listen to it for, probably the thousandth time this year already, I suggest very strongly that you do the same.
Feliz Navidad to all!