Christmas. We all know it won't be quite the same this year. Fewer, smaller parties, separated from friends and loved ones and as lively as dropped pine needles.
But don't despair yet. One essential part of celebrating Christmas remains the same and that's the Christmas songs whether they're carols, pop classics or simply personal quirky favourites.
To save you reading on when that last handful of After Eight mints are calling your name from the sweet box, I'm proud to present the first, the ultimate Pop In the Real World Christmas Crackers Spotify playlist.
It's here https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6GfGnfYSwA1J6AVJ3jXraE?si=9dr3uW0yQGmAkml_iXsnWw so you can skip straight to it without reading any more. (I recommend listening to it on Shuffle.)
Recently my twenty something son asked me not to judge him, but he really enjoyed Kylie Minogue's Christmas album. My response surprised him. I think it's one of the very best Christmas albums, full of original future classics and excellently pitched covers of traditional favourites.
Since that exchange I've been pondering what makes a classic Christmas song and I've come up with five categories. Well, actually, I've come up with my own 'rule of six', but the sixth is albums or songs shamelessly put together with the intention of making a quick buck for minimum effort. These are gimmicky, unimaginative or just shoddy. The only common factor they share is that they are uniformly poor, and I won't be referring to these again. Bah humbugs!
The first worthwhile category contains songs that we associate with Christmas because they were in the charts at the right time, or because they they reference Christmas without intending to be taken as Christmas songs.
An example is The Flying Pickets version of Only You which was the Christmas No 1 in 1983. Until then it was known as Yazoo's debut single. 'Mad World' by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules is another, downbeat example, as are any of the X Factor number 1s timed to perfection for many years and destroying the prestige of the Christmas No 1 in the process.
The second category is for observational songs that are about Christmas without intending to raise the Christmas spirit. 'Thank God It's Not Christmas' by Sparks, 'Christmas' from The Who's 'Tommy' and 'Christmas At the Airport' from Nick Lowe's excellent 'Quality Street' selection fall into this category.
The third category is for those songs that act as a reality check on the party atmosphere, and remind us that troubles still exist beneath the Christmas excitement. Band Aid's 'Do They Know It's Christmas' is probably the best example of this. Although these songs can be cynical, bitter even, some are nevertheless excellent. Regard them as the teaspoon of vinegar in a pavlova meringue mix.
The fourth set is for those songs which treat Christmas with reverence. Any carol will fall into this category as will songs that contain a sense of the wonder of Christmas. Songs here may also be a fresh take on an established Christmas classic such as 'White Christmas' distilling the sincere sentimentality of the original into a new form. (Incidentally, the Christmas song is one of the few categories of song where a cover version is widely encouraged.)
And finally, and thankfully, we have the feel good Christmas songs. These are the classics - the Slades, the Mariahs and the Kylies. They kick start the explosion of our happy hormones, license us to behave as we want and tell us unmistakably that we're having a great time.
Back to that playlist. Here follows a whistle stop tour of some of the songs in each category that I'd share without hesitation. They're all in the playlist alongside others. I hope you enjoy them.
But first there's a quick round up of some of the Christmas albums and songs released this year.
I suspect that lockdown, as well as boosting the number of 1st born children due in the next couple of months, also has something to do with the number of Christmas records released this year too!
The Goo Goo Dolls may have disappeared beneath the radar a little in recent years but 'It's Christmas All Over' does not strike as an act of desperation. Its blue collar songs of Christmas are more than listenable and the closing track 'The Christmas Party' will help to kick start the party spirit with ease. The biggest surprise is the version of 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' which is both convincing and affecting.
Andrew Bird's 'Hark' expands his EP of 2019 into a full album. It's a mixed Santa Sack of songs, but the strongest include a haunting version of Oh Holy Night. He sings about the difficulties of creating a Christmas album in the Spring ('Christmas In April) and at least his version of 'Auld Lang Syne' means we will have access to all the words between 'Lest old acquaintance be forgot' and 'for the sake of auld lang syne.' and won't have to make do with slurred singing and humming.
Dolly Parton is close to ruining my Christmas with 'A Holly Dolly Christmas'. She takes care to explain the joke in the title in case it passed you by, and the songs come across as being from a tipsy Granny on the cusp of becoming inappropriate. I'm afraid that like an over generous Christmas dinner I was unable to finish it. I feel mean being unkind about Dolly and her album, so suggest that we recognise that if there's a time and place for this kind of behaviour, it's at Christmas. Let's be tolerant and grin and bear it.
The Bird and the Bee's languid lounge approach contained in 'Put Up the Lights' may not be to everyone's taste, but I liked it.' . You and I at Christmas Time' is a genuinely good song and 'Merry Merry' bounces gently along. Try it out at the moment that preparations for the big day have exhausted you.
Pomplamoose's album 'Winter Wishes' came out in 2018 but I heard it this year for the first time. (It's my blog so I can break my own rules.) It's a very pleasant album that captures the spirit of Christmas. 'Winter Wishes' and 'A Better New Year' both stand out as does the bass line driven version of 'Sleigh Ride'.
Meghan Trainor's 'A Very Trainor Christmas' left me as cold as leftover turkey straight from the fridge. It's proficiently done in a dance lite kind of way, and if that's your poison you'll find something here to like.
Chilly Gonzales is in touch with the melancholy side of Christmas in 'A Very Chilly Christmas' with his piano treatments of old favourites and carols. There's a good new song with Jarvis Cocker and Feist - 'Snow Is Falling In Manhattan' and a grimly realistic take on 'Last Christmas' covered below. It makes a pleasant accompaniment to wrapping presents.
Calexico do Mexico for Christmas with 'Seasonal Shift'. This comes across as an album they wanted to make. It's had care and attention invested in it and that means it will survive beyond the 2020 Asda Post Christmas Music Sale. 'Christmas Al Over Again' is as good an original Christmas song as I've heard for some time. Their take on 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over) is gentle and sweet, shorn of excessive righteousness.
Lost Christmas is the standout album for me this Christmas. All the songs on this compilation are good. Field Music and Warm Digits deliver strong songs. Jesca Hoop's 'White Winter Hymnal' contains a pleasant surprise (see the next section) and I'll have a soft spot for the Phoenix Foundation's 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' this year and for several Christmases to come. It could have been sung by the Massed Star Wars Droid choir, if only Gareth Malone made it to Alderaan. I wish.
Right Place Right Time
In a way, The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl's 'Fairytale In New York belongs here. The altercation happens at Christmas but it's not about Christmas or commenting on an aspect of Christmas. It came up for me on Shuffle one June and sounded just as good then. Regardless of where it belongs, it's a cracking song. The Weepies 'All That I Want' and The Lilac Time's 'No Sad Songs' are lovely songs by any measure. The likening of the first flush of love to a child's excitement on Christmas Eve in the Lilac Time offering is apt, evocative and says more about love than Christmas. Camera Obscura's 'New Year's Resolution' is an object lesson in making resolutions. Hope they were able to keep them, particularly the one about kissing! Norwewgian supergroup (!) Sunturns ' The Axial Tilt' is the only song I know about the mechanics of the Winter solstice. Sounds can be as evocative of Christmas as fully blown songs as Spaceship's 'Todmorden Bells' demonstrates. Jesca Hoop's cover of Fleet Foxes 'White Water Hymnal' sounds lovely and is rendered festive by including a short piece of Happy Xmas (War Is Over) into the middle. Gorgeous. 'Only You' has become a Christmas classic despite, not because of, its content. Kylie Minogue and, surprisingly, James Corden do it justice. In a similar vein is the version of Caravan of Love from the Housemartins. And finally, thank you to Jona Lewie, whose 'Stop the Cavalry' embalms an iconic, historic Christmas moment aided by a whole battalion of the Salvation Army.
This is a niche, arbitrary category but it contains some excellent songs. The Boy Least Likely To's 'George and Andrew' imagines a Christmas meeting in the pub between George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley some time after Wham split and they went their separate ways. It's a touching and catchy celebration of friendship and one of the best songs for Christmastime ever. Field Music's 'Home For Christmas' captures a common theme at Christmas nicely and Warm Digit's ' Good Enough For You This Christmas' recognises the trials and tribulations we've faced to get to Christmas this year, the toll they've taken and hopes that Christmas will be, at least good enough, to off-set some of those this year. Missed opportunities are reflected on in Everything But The Girl's '25th December' is a melancholy but lovely song with a sweet chorus melody. A more upbeat variation on this theme is 'Home for the Holidays' by Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler. It's a duet with chemistry, and a favourite in our house. Josh Rouse's Christmas album, 'The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse' doesn't sound that festive being more of a standard Josh Rouse album, but 'Christmas Songs' is a lovely, nostalgic tribute to the feeling caused by, well, Christmas songs.
The ultimate reminder of real world concerns at Christmastime is BandAid's 'Do They Know It's Christmas' but the 1984 version. Only the 1984 version. (Sorry younger people - but you know deep down that I'm right.) 'Last Christmas' has been covered many times in many ways. Manic Street Preachers performed a reflective version on TFI Friday. Lucy Dacus provides a riotous, angry take with her version, but it's Chilly Gonzales who has thought most about what the song means in real life. There's a guy who falls head over heels in love over Christmas. The girl reciprocates at first but dumps him the next day. Following a year of trying to get over this trauma he sees her again and everything comes flooding back. It's not a feel good situation demanding upbeat music and Chilly Gonzales gets this. (Forget her George. She's not a nice person and she's not worth it.) Nick Lowe updates Wizzard's 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day' poignantly, and covers the coda by the children's choir memorably.
A contender for the saddest song ever written, 'The Little Boy That Santa Clause Forgot' is handled exquisitely by A Girl Called Eddy. Smith and Burrows (from Editors and Razorlight) brought some political disillusionment to the table in 2011 with 'When the Thames Froze'. It's bitter taste redeemed by a shift half way through to a hopeful conclusion complete with choir and colliery band. This year it should strike a chord with the line "The years go by so fast, let's hope the next beats the last." This song makes my Top 3 Christmas songs as it's stirring stuff. 'We Need A Little Christmas' from Ages and Ages is really a Christmas song for January to November as it muses how the qualities evident in the Christmas Spirit would be pretty helpful all year around.
The first reality check Christmas song I recall is Mud's 'Lonely This Christmas' although there was an element of my childhood reaction that wondered why you couldn't just let everyone get on with having a good time! A more recent trawl through the same emotions is found in 'The Boy Least Likely To's 'Blue Spruce Needles.' ( Just a thought lads, but this song doesn't say much for your vacuuming skills. A New Year Resolution in order perhaps?) 'Blue Christmas' is another song that has been widely covered. Bright Eyes, She & Him and Gabrielle Aplin & Hannah Grace all do justice to it in different ways. ABC sing of 'A Christmas We Deserve' with the glossy pop sheen almost covering the hint of petulance contained in the lyrics.
The hardest song to categorise is 'Don't Shoot Me Santa' from The Killers. Suffice to say that you don't want to be on the naughty list with this vigilante Santa on his rounds. It's also one of The Killers' best songs.
The Christmas Spirit
After that trawl through what Christmas shouldn't mean, there are countless antidotes to cynicism and despair in this section. These are the songs that show reverence for Christmas in both its religious and secular guises. These are the songs and carols that pin point a memory of feeling rather than occasion, the songs that, when you hear them about now have the hairs standing up on the back of your neck and you start to feel............ Christmassy.
Overarching all these songs, but not included in the playlist because they're extended mood pieces, is anything by John Rutter or the Kings College Chapel Choir. Both have released several albums worth of Christmas music that is perfect to wind down to when all the preparations for Christmas are complete.
My all time favourite Christmas is Low's 'Just Like Christmas'. I first heard it mid December walking down the hill to the station while it was still dark, and as snow started to fall and settle thickly. It's perfect (although the rest of their Christmas album is a difficult listen.)
I've mentioned how established and traditional favourites can sound fresh with the right new treatment. The Rifles and Pomplamoose achieve this with their covers of 'Sleigh Ride' The cover of 'Silver Bells by Bright Eyes captures shows what can be achieved when an alternative performer steps into the area of traditional songs and treats old favourites with respect. It's a reminder that the Christmas spirit works its magic in all walks of life. Pink Martini cover 'White Christmas' twice on their festive album Joy To the World. I've reached for the thesaurus here, but the only word that does their second version justice is 'gorgeous'. 'Frosty the Snowman' is familiar from countless versions since Phil Spector was at his peak. The Cocteau Twins chiming and woozy version takes it to a new level, the perfect way to drift off to sleep. Talking of Phil Spector, his 'A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector' has a strong claim to the title of best Christmas album of all time. Darlene Love's 'Winter Wonderland' can stand for the whole. There's a good version by A Fine Frenzy too. Unfortunately it's not on the playlist because I couldn't find it on Spotify. It just goes to show you can't always get what you want for Christmas.
Carols are ripe for treatments that take them beyond the church into a broader community. Even those that don't attend Midnight Mass will look to participate in a carol service for the sense of shared heritage and community. And who cares if you can't sing, just do your best loudly and cheerfully! The Pearlfishers bring all their prettiness to 'The Holly and the Ivy'. There's a reminder too that some carols are also really good songs in their own right. 'In the Bleak Midwinter' as sung by Paper Aeroplanes is a case in point. 'Angels We Have Heard On High' by Sixpence None the Richer sounds slightly thin but it's great to hear a carol that isn't played as often as it deserves. Their duet on 'Silent Night' is a treasure. If there is such a thing as an Advent carol it's 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel'. Belle and Sebastian's version drips reverence and awe. A modern carol which may not yet feature in Christingle services is The Blind Boys of Alabama exuberant, gospelly, 'Christ Was Born On Christmas Morn'. There's something about traditional folk that works well with Christmas even if it's a little off-putting for the rest of the year, Kate Rusby's interpretation of 'Deck the Halls' shows this well.
Few songs pull off the difficult trick of making explicit statements of the Christmas spirit without coming across as preachy. Johnny Cash nails his colours to the mast with 'The Christmas Spirit' and James Brown's Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year' brings his big band funk to Christmas. Unfortunately Christmas Day 2006 meant no more James Brown.
Songs that recreate the excited anticipation of childhood or convey the awe and wellbeing that adults hope to experience at Christmas are to be treasured. One of the very best is Nick Lowe's version of Old Toy Trains. No song better captures the calm settling of an excited child on Christmas Eve. It's full of warmth and love. The soundtrack to About A Boy includes Badly Drawn Boy's 'Donna and Blitzen', a lovely song that sets reconciliation, self-discovery and friendship to music. 'I Believe In Father Christmas' - don't we all want to, deep down - was a classic as soon as it was released by Greg Lake in 1975. It's been misinterpreted over the years but Greg Lake's view as co-writer was succintly put in an interview with Mojo magazine. He said "I find it appalling when people say it's politically incorrect to talk about Christmas, you've got to talk about 'The Holiday Season'. Christmas was a time of family warmth and love. There was a feeling of forgiveness, acceptance. And I do believe in Father Christmas." Gaz Coombs of Supergrass fame has released a nice acoustic version this year.
For those of us who see 'Walking In the Air' as a children's song due to its connection with The Snowman, Tom Chaplin (of Keane) may change your mind with his version which has festive gravitas in bucketloads. If we were mixing in pubs over Christmas, The Lost Brothers 'Little Angel' is just the sort of song that would have all the customers swaying gently and humming along in a mass outbreak of community togetherness. And '2000 Miles' from The Pretenders is given an even better treatment by Kylie Minogue.
The Christmas Party Spirit
When all's said and done, the songs that encourage us into a mass singalong at Christmas are the best indicators of having a good time. These are the classics, the ones you can hear on Magic Radio from the end of October (or so it seems!)
No playlist that wants to be taken seriously at Christmas can afford to overlook Slade's 'Merry Christmas Everybody'. We can forgive Mariah Carey a lot simply for producing 'All I Want for Christmas Is You.' Temporarily at least, we can forgive Showadywaddy their naffness every time 'Hey Mr Christmas' comes on the radio. Bruce Springsteen's fun loving skills in working a crowd are to the fore in his live version of 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.' Thank heavens for The Wombles 'Wombling Merry Christmas' Bopping to a genuine pop classic provided by a bunch of hairy animals. (No. We're not talking about ZZ Top!)The list has to include some instantly recognisable older classics such as Eddie Fisher's 'Here Comes Santa Claus' too. Let's not forget the new lease of life Elton John's 'Step Into Christmas' received from THAT Gavin and Stacey joke. And Wham's Last Christmas is an essential part of Christmas despite the context of a snow cabin miles from anywhere filled with people harbouring our basest emotions (lust, jealousy, anger, humiliation) being ideally suited to a Hitchcock psycho film.
There are more modern but maybe less established future classics too. Two similar ideas to get the (virtual) party started are The Goo Goo Dolls 'The Christmas Party' and Aztec Camera's 'Hot Tub of Christ'. Both signal intent to have a good time. Jeremy Lister isn't a household name, but his 'Santa's Lost His Mojo' is an absolute joy with all age groups. Kylie's 'Christmas Isn't Christmas Till You Get Here' is an instant classic to rank with Mariah Carey's finest. The Pet Shop Boys pull out all the stops on 'It Doesn't Often Snow at Christmas'. It manages to debunk most Christmas cliches in the lyrics while including most musical Christmas cliches in the tune.
Be patient with the Barenaked Ladies version of Jingle Bells. After a minute and 45 seconds seconds of crooning it explodes into musical anarchy in a way that can't fail to impress your inner, or actual, six year old. We all know serious responsible adults who revert to being big kids during the Christmas season. The Boy Least Likely To's 'Happy Christmas Baby' is for them (And that's their third song on the list. Are they the Christmas Champs?) Candy Cane Lane from Sia probably forms part of the Marshmallow World. It's a sugar rush of a song, on a par with drinking Baileys by the pint. (Don't actually try that. It's an analogy NOT a recommendation). The Beths enter into the spirit of Christmas in a way that, perhaps, belies their image with a version of 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'. It's simultaneously rousing and restrained. The Mavericks live up to their reputation for good time, danceable tunes that leave a smile on your lips and aches in your hips with 'Christmas Is Coming Round Again.'
And that should be enough to see you to Boxing Day. There are omissions I'm sure, and some contentious choices. It's a mixed bag of almost Christmas songs, nostalgia, cynicism and unshakeable favourites.
Until next year, lets leave the last words with Dave, Jim, Don and Noddy.