This article is part of a series, chronicling a foolish attempt to chronicle the history of modern pop, through the Now That’s What I Call Music series. All the previous articles, and some other fun stuff, can be found here. This, however, is a break from the norm to review an annual offshoot of the series, compiling (in theory) the best Christmas songs of all time onto three fun packed discs.
Released- 3rd November 2014 (Though, let’s face it, there’s one every year)
2000 years ago, in a manger, Jesus was born. 1950 odd years later, pop music was born. The two work well together.
Me Holiday History
Originally a Roman festival called Saturnalia, and appropriated by Christianity under the Emperor Constantine as the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birthday. In fairness, Jesus is pretty cool about the whole thing, and doesn’t want presents himself, and is just like, ‘Guys, have a drink, treat each other to stuff, and maybe behave like less of a dick than you do the rest of the year round’. You go, son of God.
If I had to save one track from this album, and the remainder put on the naughty list, that track would be… Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody. Even use of the hideous non-word Xmas in the title can’t poison this perfect Christmas song!
Track by track breakdown
John & Yoko And The Plastic Ono Band With The Harlem Community Choir- Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
A lovely opener, full of Christmas spirit. Sadly, doesn’t look like Santa’s bringing what you want again this year, John and Yoko, but don’t give up!
Mariah Carey– All I Want For Christmas Is You
And so my inner Scrooge comes out. I hate the screeching, melismatic vocals, the forced jollity, and how damned overplayed it is. Bah humbug.
The Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl– Fairytale Of New York
Overplayed too, but I can never get enough of this delightful, brutally honest Christmas song. Who hasn’t had a Christmas with a blazing row at some point in their lives?
Wham!– Last Christmas
Sweet, good natured, perfect pop. If you haven’t heard James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers gorgeous, simple cover of this, watch the video below and bask in the loveliness.
Wizzard – I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday
If you haven’t seen Black Mirror- White Christmas yet, do! This song is used to terrifying effect at the end, and it’s one of the best things I’ve seen all year. Anyway, this song is okay, but it’s always felt like a poor man’s version of the next song…
Slade- Merry Xmas Everybody
…which is the greatest Christmas song of all time. If you disagree, you are, objectively and empirically, wrong. If you can hear Noddy Holder scream ‘IT’S CHRIIIISSSSTMAAAAS’ and not be full of excitement, you’re probably going to spend this Christmas Eve being visited by three ghosts.
Chris Rea- Driving Home For Christmas
Heartfelt song, about coming home to your family for Christmas. Perfect balance of hope, and sadness you don’t do it enough, which sums up the feelings of doing this.
Band Aid– Do They Know It’s Christmas?
The good version of this song. From before Bono thought he was Jesus, and around the last time Sir Bob had a wash.
Greg Lake– I Believe In Father Christmas
There’s something about a Christmas song this downbeat and resigned that is absolutely brilliant. I just like the optimism- nothing has turned out right, but still, you believe.
Cliff Richard– Mistletoe And Wine
Somehow, I can simultaneously love and hate this song in equal measure. Well played, Clifford.
Mud– Lonely This Christmas
Average. When you think about it, it’s had the word Christmas shoehorned into it. It could be an anytime of year song. Change it to Easter, the same. Diwali, the same. So Mud cheated. Boo.
Boney M– Mary’s Boy Child / Oh My Lord
Disco Christmas is the best Christmas of all. Boney M are terminally underrated, and deserve much more love. And Christmas is a time to love. So use a little Christmas love on the band that brought you Rasputin.
Jona Lewie- Stop The Cavalry
Okay. Maybe this might be better than Slade. I love Jona Lewie’s honest English voice, and his songs are that much more interesting than your average, as you’d expect from a Stiff Records alumni. If you haven’t heard his sublime album On the Other Hand, There’s a Fist, do check it out. It might confuse, but certainly won’t disappoint.
Shakin’ Stevens- Merry Christmas Everyone
I’m a sucker for a call and response section, and once it starts in this, the song becomes irresistible.
Elton John– Step Into Christmas
I’ve heard this song a million times, but still don’t know the words to the chorus… “Step into Christmas, nah nah nah nah nah, we can something something forever and ever”
Girls Aloud– Not Tonight Santa
Not their finest Love Machine/Sound of the Underground hour. Won’t be on these compilations in a couple of years, mark my words.
Paul McCartney– Wonderful Christmas Time
I love it. My lovely cousin hates it. His reaction to it makes me love it even more. It’s a Christmas day tradition to put this on repeat and break him.
Pretenders– 2000 Miles
File next to Driving Home for Christmas. It’s really very pretty and a little bit sad. I have no idea when I started liking The Pretenders, but I’m glad I got my head out my arse and did.
Coldplay– Christmas Lights
They’re so wet and annoying that they’ve made Christmas sound wet and annoying. I’m dreaming of a drizzly Christmas.
Gabrielle Aplin – The Power Of Love
Inferior cover of the great Frankie Goes to Hollywood track, as used by John Lewis to make you buy a bunch of toot you didn’t need for Christmas.
Elvis Presley- Blue Christmas
Slightly off kilter and featuring Elvis just, well, being Elvis. It’s an Elvis song, and therefore is pretty good!
Bing Crosby– White Christmas
Bing is Christmas. The first two or three Bing songs I think of are all Yuletide based. This one is just plain lovely. A joy to sing along to, too.
Andy Williams– It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
Good enough for a pass mark, but that’s about it. Annoyingly revived and overused of late, but has it’s charms.
Dean Martin– Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Yep. The old crooners really had Christmas locked down. Deano’s voice is warm and rich like Gluwein, and the song itself is a joy.
Nat King Cole Trio– The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)
The aural equivalent of a brandy by a roaring fire on a snowy day. Warms the cockles of your heart, and couldn’t be more Christmassy.
Doris Day- Winter Wonderland
One of the few Christmas songs you hear all year round, as a result of it’s use in inventive football chants. Also quite good at Christmas.
Frank Sinatra- Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
One of the most beautiful Christmas songs. The pretty angel at the top of the Christmas songs. Again, the mix of a little sadness with the joy seems to be the formula for a cracking Christmas song.
The Crystals– Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
It says a lot about the classic A Christmas Gift For You album that 4 tracks from it are used in the next ten. It really is the perfect Motown Christmas album.
The Ronettes– Sleigh Ride
See, another one already. Wall of sound production, brilliant female vocalists, what more could you ask for?
Brenda Lee– Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree
Not in love with the song, but, I am in love with the scene from Home Alone where he sets up the fake party to this song. So good.
The Jackson 5 – Frosty The Snowman
Lil Mike and brothers, knocking it out the park. What is it about Motown that blends so well with Christmas?
Alma Cogan– Never Do a Tango With An Eskimo
I know it’s dated and a little bit kitschy, but it makes me smile. All our novelty songs today seem to have to be about body parts and/or functions, and I think that’s a great loss for mankind.
Kylie Minogue– Santa Baby
Of all the versions to put on here, they chose the one by a singer with no discernible talent, and with all the sass taken out of it, replaced with bland, FM radio sex.
The Ronettes- I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
Much better! Welcome back Phil Spector! Don’t shoot! Really, this song is far too upbeat, given that it’s about the breakdown of two marriages. Yeah, you didn’t think of poor Mrs Claus did you?
The Crystals- Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer
You get so used to hearing this song, I think you forget it’s actually a lovely track about acceptance, and being different. Was Rudolph this popular before this song? Good on him. Unless he has a red nose because he’s actually a vicious, violent alcoholic from all that brandy under the tree.
The Beach Boys- Little Saint Nick
I am so biased it hurts when it comes to the Beach Boys. So, obviously, this is damn near perfect and essential. Apart from any part involving Mike Love.
Adam Faith– Lonely Pup (In A Christmas Shop)
Not dreadful, but a part of me thinks that this song and the “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas” adverts are inextricably linked…
Dean Martin– Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Not as good as the Ella Fitzgerald version, but it’ll do, and it reminds me of Elf now, which is another Christmas win. Remember kids, the best way to spread Christmas cheer is by singing loud for all to hear.
Jim Reeves– Silver Bells
Again, I prefer another version, in this instance Bob Dylan’s, but it’s still a twinkly Christmassy treat, so I’ll let it lie.
Burl Ives– O Little Town of Bethlehem
One of my favourite carols, and a pretty reasonable version thereof.
Nat King Cole– The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot
Good lord, what a depressing song! I wanted to cry! Really, don’t listen to it at Christmas unless you want to feel awful. I thought there was going to be a twist at the end, but there wasn’t.
Frank Sinatra– I’ll Be Home For Christmas (If Only In My Dream)
Another, wartime era, slightly sad song. But at least this one is tinged with hope and nostalgia. Seriously, I never expected such misery of Nat King Cole.
Johnny Mathis– When A Child Is Born
A bit too traditional for me to love it. Conjures up images of non-hipster knitted sweaters, and a love of right wing bigotry. Sorry.
Chris De Burgh– A Spaceman Came Travelling
See, Lady in Red is so cheesy I can’t help but love it. This doesn’t go far enough, and ends up feeling cheap, like a pub with a permanently sticky floor.
Il Divo– O Holy Night
Popera should be a swear word. It’s nice enough, but bland as dry bread.
Sinéad O’Connor– Silent Night
Whereas this modern version of a standard is really quite splendid. She’s always had a way with emotion, hasn’t she?
Bert Jansch– In The Bleak Mid Winter
Another lovely carol, arranged splendidly by Mr Jansch. Sounds delightfully warm in tone, in juxtaposition with the title…
Steeleye Span– Gaudete
I know I’ve said it before, but I love accapella stuff. This has always had a lovely medieval feel to it, but I’ve never known what it’s about. I just looked it up, it’s a pretty standard hymn in Latin.
Mike Oldfield– In Dulci Jubilo
A double header of Medieval latinate carols. Here is the section of the album where a private education would be useful to say anything worthwhile, isn’t it…
Cliff Richard– Saviour’s Day
Irredeemably pants. I stuck up for you, once, Sir Cliff. Not anymore. Awful, stinker of a song. Trite, judgemental yuckiness.
Aled Jones– Walking In The Air
The Snowman is my Bambi. Even aged 30, I watch it every year, and desperately hope the Snowman survives. Every year, he dies. Raymond Briggs basically taught me that life is unfair, and I both thank and curse him for it. As for the song, yes, it remains completely beautiful and timeless, from the first piano arpeggio to the end.
David Essex– A Winter’s Tale
It’s okay. Everything by David Essex is okay. Never bad, never good. He is the Marquis of Mediocrity. The Steve Guttenberg of song.
East 17– Stay Another Day
Nothing to do with Christmas, save for the fact it snows in the video and was out around that time. To hell with it though, everybody of my generation associates it with Christmas, and it is a classic.
George Michael– December Song (I Dreamed Of Christmas)
You caught lightening in a bottle last time, failed to do it again. Just go back to the start of the article, and listen to the lovely Manics version of Last Christmas again.
Bing Crosby & David Bowie– Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy
Again, the skit at the beginning of their performance of this is one of the greatest things about Christmas. No word of a lie. The song is great too. And the phrase paruppapumpum.
Mick Hucknall– Happy This Christmas
I have allowed myself to get over my childish fear of Simply Red, and accept they were damnably good, in their day. This rethink does not extend as far as Mick Hucknall’s solo career.
Jethro Tull– Ring Out Solstice Bells
I don’t mean to be pernickerty (yes I do) but a solstice song isn’t a Christmas song. They are two separate things. Is the Dreidel song on here? No. Because Channukah isn’t Christmas. Nor is Festivus. So, jog on, Jethro Tull, and come back for Now That’s What I Call Pagan Spirituality Anthems.
The Waitresses– Christmas Wrapping
A massively underrated band, who seem only to be remembered for this, and I Know What Boys Like. This is a brilliant Christmas love song, disguised as a diatribe against Christmas (which I’d enjoy anyway), till it switches in the final verse and everything’s cool. Sneaky trick, but it really works!
Band Aid 20– Do They Know It’s Christmas?
The second best (or third worst) of the versions of this song, bolstered by some interesting backing by Radiohead, and some larking about from Dizzee Rascal. Amusing to see how many people have faded from the cultural background since this was recorded… Who was your favourite Bedingfield?
The Weavers– We Wish You A Merry Christmas
I miss being young enough to go carolling. We used to spend ages working out the harmonies. I still sing them under my breath when I walk past carollers.
The Spinners– The Twelve Days Of Christmas
FIVE GOLD RINGS! That is all.
Andy Stewart– Auld Lang Syne
Forever linked with the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life in my mind, so who cares what version it is!
Abba– Happy New Year
Again, not Christmas, you cheeky Swedish popmeisters.
Final verdict: 42.5/63. 67% Buddy the Elf, 33% Grinch. A very good effort, made easy by the fact Christmas songs are bloomin’ irresistible.