Christmas music tends to evoke strong emotions. However if it sends you into a state of puce faced apoplexy then you’re clearly listening to the wrong sort of festive music. As soon as November draws to an end, its sleigh bells all the way, and as much as I can sympathise with shop workers who are often subject to the same old Christmas standards on repeat, I’ve always been a staunch defender of the much maligned festive tune! Of course Christmas music in the wrong hands can be incredibly cheesy; it can be mawkish, overly sentimental, maudlin or just plain daft. But at its very best Christmas music can be beautiful, uplifting, inspiring, witty, bittersweet, heartbreaking and on occasion devastatingly bleak. And daft. However as a “genre” it’s often derided by chinstroking purists who prefer to listen to their music in a Cromwellian reverie of respectful contemplation rather than have their ears sullied by sleigh bells and tales of Rudolph the rhinophymatous Reindeer.
Of course it’s easy to see why there’s a tendency to label Christmas tunes “a bit shite” when you recall some of the lazy opportunistic Christmas horrors inflicted on the public over the years. Robbie Williams festive abomination “Can’t Stop Christmas” being a prime recent example of what happens when a shit idea is given wings and is lazily transformed into the musical equivalent of South Park’s sentient festive faeces Mr. Hankey utilising your ears rather than the Broflovski’s bathroom. But to reduce all music that takes its inspiration from seasonal festivities to the egregious bellowing of Noddy Holder, who reassuringly wakes every Christmas morning to full throatedly roar “it’s Christmaaaaaaas!!” down Mrs Holder’s ears or Cliff Richard’s camembert infused “christian rhyme” would seem a little reductive. Over the last decade I’ve produced an annual Christmas podcast in an attempt to highlight that there’s much more to Christmas music than “Christmas In Blobbyland” or perhaps my own Xmas (hum)bugbear Paul McCartney’s Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesiser led atrocity.
My relationship with Christmas music began in a disturbing fashion when I caught my Father, post-office party, wearing a Santa hat , simultaneously weeping and singing along to Nat King Cole’s “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot,”. However the one track that seemed to resonate most in our household during my childhood Christmases of yore was “Christmas Dream” performed By Perry Como and the London Boy Singers. A track written for the 1974 movie adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s best seller The Odessa File, because nothing says “Happy Christmas” like hunting down Nazi War criminals .
In fact my childhood Christmas musical landscape was often informed by middle aged crooners who ambled around faux mansions looking slightly dazed and confused. Christmas specials from the likes of Perry Como, Bing Crosby and Andy Williams were a seasonal staple back then. The conceit of these shows was that we would find a beloved crooner at “home,” in a Rockwell/ Hallmark representation of the perfect Christmas mansion. The door bell would ring and our genial host would look bemused and mumble something along the lines of “I wonder who the Kris Kringle THAT could be on such a chilly winter’s night. ” They would then be greeted by a seemingly inexhaustible procession of A list, and more often than not B list stars and singers who would join our affable host in all manner of festive jollity. You’ll appreciate that such specials weren’t particularly plot driven :). Judy Garland, Sammy Davies Jnr, even John Wayne would all mosey on by. One of the most celebrated yet bizarre collaborations saw a befuddled Bing Crosby transported to the UK where he was visited by a translucent David Bowie on his Merrie Olde Christmas TV special. The show also featured Twiggy chatting to Charles Dickens, (because clearly we all do that every Christmas in England) plus Stanley Baxter as Bing Crosby’s maid! Legend has it that Bowie hated the song he had been booked to sing with Olde Bing – The Little Drummer Boy , and the producers had to come up with a compromise lest they lose the segment completely. Within an hour they had composed counterpart lyrics and a new bridge. Hence “Peace On Earth”’ was sang by Bowie alongside Bing’s affable “Pa rum pum pum pumming.”
Here’s Alexi Sayle’s hilarious take on the Christmas special.
Although such Christmas specials were deemed too cheesy for modern audiences and had all but disappeared from our screens they do seem to be experiencing something of a revival in the streaming age. Kacey Musgraves recent Amazon Xmas special which featured Lana Del Rey channelled the spirt of these old specials, (although who the fuck would choose to invite James Corden around to their faux mansion is beyond me.) Mariah Carey’s recent Apple TV Xmas special upped the ante and attempted “a plot” which saw the self appointed “Queen Of Christmas” flying round in a Sleigh before she, with typical modesty, “saved” Christmas. Full of reassuring big diva energy it was everything you’d expect from a Mariah Carey Christmas special. A word to the wise: don’t drop acid before watching it.
Then came the game changer for me. One snowy Christmas Eve (to be honest it was probably a damp November but let’s not shatter the mythology here ) my Dad was given the Phil Spector Christmas album. He wasn’t too keen and so he gave it to me. And so began my obsession with Christmas music. Obviously when approaching Spector’s work we must acknowledge he wasnt simply “problematic” or a “flawed comedy-wig-wearing-genius” he was voilent controling mysogynist pig and convicted murderer. His dark abusive legacy will always overshadow any of his artistic achievements . Separate the artist from the art ? Nah the artist is the art. Yet I can still listen to this album and marvel at the performances of The Crystals, The Ronettes, and Darlene Love who all reinterpreted these songs and made them their own. The album is part of their artistic legacy and as such should not be cancelled, indeed their performances should be celebrated as much as Spector should be reviled.
Yet still Christmas music seemed to belong to my parents generation and my Dad, whose taste in music was often as bizarre as his ill judged trousers would often blast out dreadful Christmas novelty songs such as “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas “ and “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” Which rather seamlessly leads us on to The Pogues and the wonderful Kirsty MacColl. It wasn’t until “Fairytale Of New York” was released that Christmas music seemed to speak to a different demographic. The Pogues redefined the idiom of what Christmas music could be and gave us a song that was full of grit, grime, faded glitter, and was ultimately a song of hope in the face of adversity. It’s still the first song I play on Christmas morning , and that will remain the case as long as I haunt this earth, because that my friends, is what we call a “Christmas tradition.”
However, like any song that becomes so seasonally ubiquitous ( it’s apparently the most streamed Christmas song of the 21st Century) familiarity breeds contempt and there are actually people who walk amongst us who actively hate this song. Rather tiresomely every year the same well worn debate rages over the use of the word “ f**got”,” as sung by Kirsty MacColl on “Fairytale” a term which is now widely accepted as a homophobic slur, as the warring protagonists in the song trade insults – “You’re a bum, you’re a punk – you’re an old slut on junk /Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed. You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap, lousy f**got / Happy Christmas, your arse, I pray God it’s our last.”
The band themselves did attempt to put this issue to bed years ago, but those who enjoy stirring up imaginary culture wars have attempted to use the song as part of their spurious ‘war on woke’ agenda.
So let’s go round the houses once more. Shane MacGowan discussed the use of the word explaining it was written from the perspective of an imaginary character in the song. He said – “She isn’t supposed to be a nice person, or even a wholesome person. She is a woman of a certain generation at a certain time in history and she is down on her luck and desperate. I was trying to accurately portray the character as authentically as possible.”
Indeed way back in January 1992 when The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl performed the track on Top Of The Pops the original lyrics were changed from “you cheap lousy f**got” to “You’re cheap and you’re haggard”.
Some sought to defend its use on the grounds that “f*ggot” originally meant a bundle of sticks, which morphed into a term used to describe a lazy person and that slut is a derivation of a slattern which was apparently meant a slovenly woman. However we all know how words can be weaponised and their meaning can change over time. After all there’s a reason why the The National Spastics Society changed it’s name to SCOPE in 1994. Certainly a straight white man such as I shouldn’t even begin to try and justify the use of the word to those who are offended and harmed by it. Not that it stopped Nick Cave wading in recently who said of the lyric “The changing of the word ‘f**got’ for the nonsense word ‘haggard’ destroys the song by deflating it right at its essential and most reckless moment, stripping it of its value. It becomes a song that has been tampered with, compromised, tamed, and neutered and can no longer be called a great song. It is a song that has lost its truth, its honour and integrity – a song that has knelt down and allowed the BBC to do its grim and sticky business.”
Now I love Nick Cave’s music, I see him as a visionary and a hugely important artist , and part of me kind of gets the artistic defence angle, but also, it’s a load of bollocks. It’s still a great song and that remains undiminished, edited, redacted , bleeped or whatever. (Fuck me it even survived a Ronan Keating cover. ) At home I’ll probably play the original version, but if I have friends over who I know may be offended, it’s the edited version all the way. Its not that difficult, is it? And as MacGowan said “ I am absolutely fine with them bleeping the word -I don’t want to offend anybody or get into an argument.” So that’s that then ? Well not quite.
Unemployed jobbing actor and singer of no fixed talent Laurence Fox who has rebranded himself as an “edgy” forthright plain speaking right-wing political commentator tweeted the following in 2020 in response to the BBC playing the censored version of “Fairytale.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we sent the (proper) version to the top of the charts? #DefundTheBBC.”
The Pogues ( in this case Spider Stacy of the band) response was concise, savage and hilarious
: “F*** off you little herrenvolk s***e”. (“herrenvolk” was used in Nazi Germany to refer to the so-called “master race.”)
What a strange world we live in which sees Nick Cave And “Lolz” Fox aligned and sharing the same opinion.
So enough of my own potted history of Christmas music, this post was originally supposed to highlight more recent Christmas music that’s been released over the past few years. After all, classic Christmas music didn’t start with “White Christmas” and end with “Fairytale of New York.” But before proceeding a word about Low’s “Christmas” EP released in 1999, a quite beautiful collection of songs which contains the indisputable classic “Just Like Christmas.” This year it has an added poignancy due to the untimely death of Mimi Parker. It’s an incredibly evocative song with Parker’s ethereal yet intimate vocal and propulsive percussion making you feel like you’re being taken on a snowy journey with Low as your guide. Would it be too much to suggest that this would make a hugely fitting Christmas No.1 this year ? Or will we have to endure poverty tourism disguised as an irreverant “fun” song about sausage rolls ? (ok I know it’s for charity but theres only so much pastry themed music a man can take , and normalising foodbanks? Well that’s actually more offenisve than the objectively atrocious music innit).
If you’re still inclined to believe that Christmas songs are by definition “naff” then surely The Raveonettes “The Christmas Song” will disabuse you of that view?
It’s a perfect mix of nostalgia and yearning replete with a timeless melody. I interviewed Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo at Erics, in Matthew Street, Liverpool before a gig one dark December night about a decade ago and asked if they’d planned to write any more Christmas music. Wagner responded thus “We have “The Christmas Song” why would we do anymore, I don’t think we can surpass it.” Mind you the Raveonettes did write more Christmas tunes in the intervening years, and Wagner was right , they never quite surpassed “The Christmas Song.”
More recently ( well actually almost a decade ago ) we had “Jul Song “ by Dark Horses, ( from the “Psych-Out Christmas” compilation) a dark magisterial track which is one of the finest seasonal songs ever written and yet remains bafflingly overlooked. Glacial beauty, elegance, sadness and joy are all here.
Ramones obsessed Helen Love joined forces with Ricardo Autobahn of former John Peel favourites The Cuban Boys to produce the bittersweet “And The Salvation Army Band Plays” , a gorgeous slice of festive melancholy. It pulls off the trick of juxtaposing downbeat lyrics with a melody that soars with hope. Given the current fuel and cost of living crisis the lyrics certainly still resonate “The windows are broken,/ There’s ice in the house/ There’s no heating tokens / So the fire’s gone out / Not a word here is spoken / Only silence and doubt.”
You want synth pop ? Well Marsheaux have got you covered with surely the best title to grace a Christmas song in the form of 2017’s “We Met Bernard Sumner At A Christmas Party Last Night.” Not only is this another glittering festive track but rather brilliantly almost all the lyrics comprise of New Order song titles.
If these aren’t heavyweight enough for you it’s hard to argue that Frightened Rabbit have produced some of the most profoundly beautifully bleak and moving Christmas songs of the last decade or so.
Take “Cheap Gold” for example …
Or “It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop ”
There’s realism, humanity and a deep underlying sadness to everything Scott Hutchison did and his struggles were well documented, but he left a wealth of incredible music. He also wrote under the moniker Owl John and “It Gets Cold” is just heartbreaking, beautiful and inspiring. Hopefully one day all Scott’s and Frightened Rabbit’s Christmas tunes might be released officially in a package that befits the music.
David Berman (Silver Jews/ Purple Mountains) wrote the incredible “Snow is Falling In Manhattan” in 2019, just months before he took his own life. It’s impossible not to be moved by the song’s lyrics and melody which appear ostensibly to be an ode to a snowy city , but in retrospect become something much more profound. “Songs build little rooms in time/ And housed within the song’s design/ Is the ghost the host has left behind/ To greet and sweep the guest inside/ Stoke the fire and sing his lines.”
It was covered in 2020 By Chilly Gonzalez featuring Feist And Jarvis Cocker as part of his “A Very Chilly Christmas album.”
As I’ve highlighted there’s a fair share of dark Christmas music out there which acts as a counterpoint to some of the more relentlessly upbeat tunes. Phoebe Bridgers seems to be making a Christmas tradition of releasing dark minimalist covers and this year she covered The Handsome Family’s “So Much Wine.” A song about leaving an abusive relationship, isn’t what one might call traditional Christmas fayre, but sadly it’s a reality for many and across the UK there is often a spike in domestic abuse cases at Christmas. There’s also the double whammy of a winter world cup in Qatar ( a country which still imposes guardianship rules over women, but hey football and money and greed trumps all) which often leads to violence within relationships. Bridgers strips the original back and slows it down as the lyrics are pushed to the forefront. ““I had nothing to say on Christmas Day/ When you threw all your clothes in the snow/ When you burnt your hair and knocked over chairs/ I just tried to stay out of your way.”
The tradition of the ugly Christmas jumper (or sweater) was celebrated by girlhouse in 2020 with the superb “Ugly Xmas Sweater Party” which is certainly one of the finest new original Christmas songs of recent years.
There are plenty of cover versions to choose from and Wham’s “Last Christmas” is often the “goto” Christmas cover. The song’s ubiquity also gave rise to WHAMAGEDON which challenges people to go as long as possible throughout December without hearing the Christmas classic. Yet instead of simply covering “Last Christmas”, The Boy Least Likely To instead imagined what would happen if Gerorge Michael And Andrew Ridgely had reunited one Christmas Eve night on the witty and charming “George And Andrew.”
Anika Norlin’s brilliant “Silent Night” similarly concentrates on the song’s creators and its history rather than simply bashing out a cover. It’s beautiful, moving, profound and begins by examining the song’s origin story. Austrian priest Joseph Mohr desperately needed music to play at midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1818 as the church’s organ was broken. So he took matters into his own hands and wrote a poem. Some say inspiration struck him when he took a walk around the snow laden town of Oberndorf, which looked at peace and one imagines was calm, and also bright. He then gave the words to organist Franz Gruber, who composed a melody on the guitar. Norlin adds levity to proceedings imagining what 19th Century hipsters’ reaction to Silent Nights first airing might have been : “Well I like the older stuff better/ they should do more upbeat tunes.”
There have been some great pop Christmas tunes of late too, which rarely get a look in due to the music business being heavily based on a streaming model and the fact the public tend to stream the cannoised classics every year. So instead of Mariah or Arianna why not try the always excellent Caroline Pollacheck who opted to reinvent her hit “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” for the festive season with “So Cold You’re Hurting My Feelings.”
Elsewhere U.S Girls released an anti Christmas single on 4AD in 2020 as band lynchpin Meg Remy implored that Santa stay home due to climate change, and the environmental impact of Christmas trees, crappy plastic gifts and consumerism.
American singer-songwriter , Meiko who now resides in London released a Christmas classic back in 2018 with “Merry Christmas Wherever You Are ? ” Which is kind of apt given the first song she ever performed as a child was “White Christmas.” She explained “This song is about missing loved ones during Christmas. I wrote it when I was really sad, but I wanted to record it with really happy-sounding production. It was produced in Nashville by my good friend, Josh Grange”
If you’re still not convinced , hell, even The Jesus and Mary Chain recorded a Christmas song. Well actually they didn’t, “Birthday” appeared on the bands 6th studio album “Munki” and contained the refrain “And it’s Christmas time again/ Yeah it’s Christmas time again /And it’s Christmas time again again and again.” So f*ck it that’s as near as we’ll get to a Mary Chain Christmas song so I’m claiming it.
As for albums, well Everything But The Girl already had the classic “25th of December” in the bag ,
but then Tracey Thorn went on to release a solo Christmas album in 2012 called “Tinsel And Lights” which is all kinds of perfect.
Smoke Fairies “Wild Winter” album is also highly recommend
and basically any Sufjan Stevens Christmas tune deserves your attention ( and there are plenty to choose from. )
He’s also back this year guesting on Rosie Thomas’s beautiful “We Should Be Together” which might just be this year’s best seasonal offering.
Although 17 year old newcomer Lexie Carroll’s is a strong contender too!
In 2011 Emmy The Great And Tim Wheeler’s one off Christmas collaboration “This Is Christmas” demonstrated that it’s entirely possible to produce a credible Christmas album and have great fun doing so. Replete with shimmering melodies, sleigh bells, strings and a reindeer called Jesus they perfectly captured the spirit of the season mixing surreal wit with a smattering of traditional Christmas schmaltz.
Personally I’m not generally much of a fan of punk Christmas songs. They often seem a bit “try hard” and rather than being subversive they can sound obvious, trite and somewhat 6th form. Mind you I do have a soft spot for Blink 182’s incongruous “I Won’t be Home For Christmas” a band who discovered that rarely venturing beyond trite, obvious and sounding 6th form could be incredibly lucrative.
Canadian artist JEEN who’s not adverse to dropping an annual Xmas tune covered it last year in some style.
If you’re after an Indie Christmas compilation which also raises money for good causes then look no further than “A Very Indie Christmas” – volumes I and II which includes some crackers from the last few years including Crocodiles “Christmas In Hell”
Crocodiles had also previoulsy teamed up with the much missed Dum Dum Girls on “Merry Christmas Baby (Please Dont Die )” utilising the ancient, mystic Christmas tradition of song titles with brackets randomly (thrown in).
So there are songs about Christmas present , Christmas past and in the case of The Primitives in 2012, Christmas trashed !
And it would be remiss of me not to mention that Cherryade’s A Very Cherry Christmas annual compilation is always a joy !
So if you STILL remain unmoved then I expect you’ll be getting a visit from 3 ghastly apparitions this Christmas Eve.
So whilst I work out what to put on this year’s podcast here’s a link to 10 years worth.
And I’ll leave you with this classic from Half Man Half Biscuit, a band renowned for their acerbic wit and Nigel Blackwell’s hilarious incisive and sometimes bleak lyrics. You might expect such a band to write a song laced with cynicism regarding the festive season. But Nigel rather enjoys Christmas and so instead they “subvert expectations” and produce a song about the moaning Christmas cynics – “See how we yawn/ At your bile and your scorn/ It’s a beautiful day / Peace on Earth has been played/ Make a noise with your toys / And ignore the killjoys/ ‘Cos it’s cliched To be cynical At Christmas”
And it really is. Happy Christmas !
For more Festive musical fun check out our friends over at Christmas Underground and Christmas A-Go-Go
A Spotify Playlist