Yep, I like Christmas songs. Love ’em. They demonstrate something that I particularly admire about popular music, which is its lack of pretentiousness. Whilst there is every place in the world for Hamlet, there is also a place for fluff like A Christmas Carol, and therefore there’s also a place for Mariah Carey. None of the songs below are trying to say anything meaningful, which doesn’t mean the lyrics can’t sometimes stop you in your tracks (‘White Christmas’, ‘Fairytale of New York’). They are just intended to bring you some festive cheer, as simple-minded as Will Ferrell’s Elf, and I say good on ’em.
They’re also quite blatantly commercially minded, intended to cash in on a season that has essentially become all about cashing in. I’m not Marxist enough to believe that capitalism is inherently evil – just deeply, profoundly, atrociously flawed as it currently stands – so I have no problem in accepting cash-cow motivations for music. If they want to make a quick buck and make people happy, again I say good on ’em.
So make sure to enjoy the benefits of consumer capitalism at this time of year, and have a listen to these cash-ins, which I’m sure you will enjoy. Every single one I’ve played with pleasure for some years now, and with luck you’ll discover one or two to light up the dwindling daytime hours:
1) Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love
Please. That word sums up this song, with Darlene Love sounding more imploring, more desperate than just about any singer going back to the Blues. And it’s supposed to be Christmas. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, this Yuletide perennial plumbs the depths of despair in order to find transcendence. Boy does it find it in Phil Spector’s production, decking the Walls of Sound with extra booming grandiosity for the season. The pianos sound like they’re about to fly off with the reindeers to the moon, the drums as if they’re about to crash down through the chimney with Santa. And the vocals!
2) White Christmas – The Drifters
Bing Crosby’s is the one you know, but this is my go-to when I’m a-dreamin’ of a White Christmas. Down here in the south of England it really is quite the pipe-dream, so I appreciate the rich vein of humour brought to the song by this great doo-wop outfit. The Drifters sound just like a family gathered together around the fire and having a ball of it, trading octaves and jokes long into the night. Which couldn’t be further removed from Crosby’s wistful solo version.
3) All I Want for Christmas is You – Mariah Carey
Note how many of the best Christmas songs are about hoping, dreaming, wishing. They’re uplifting whilst acknowledging the conditions of a less-than-ideal present, in this case the absence of Mariah’s baby. The image of her alone and ‘waiting/Underneath the mistletoe’ is melancholy indeed, if unlikely, but belied by the rush of the chorus and sweetly enthusiastic singing. Yes, the song is overplayed. I don’t much like Mariah Carey either. But in this setting her strained over-dramatising is, most peculiarly, perfect.
4) ’Zat You, Santa Claus? – Louis Armstrong
The funniest voice in music knows exactly how to bring festive cheer to the house. Just like the big man himself, Armstrong is warm and approachable but also a little sinister – just what is that voice? ‘Cold winds are howling, or could that be growling?’ Louis starts to wonder, alone at night, in his own trademark growl. With the spooky-comic atmosphere in place, it seems just about possible that anyone could be coming to the door. I’ll leave it to Louis to answer the title.
5) Christmas in Hollis – Run-D.M.C.
Christmas wouldn’t seem like a natural fit for the tough street talk of hip-hop – but then again Run-D.M.C. never were especially tough. They were all about the simple joy of rhyming, which translates well to the festive season: ‘Rhymes so loud and proud you hear it/It’s Christmas time and we got the spirit’. Of course they sampled ‘Back Door Santa’, of course they did, the cheeky chaps. Proof that Christmastime and daft funk are not mutually exclusive.
6) Fairytale of New York – The Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl
With great amazement I’ve seen sweaty nightclubs filled with confused youths singing arm-in-arm to this one, a ‘fairytale’ that encompasses alcoholism, depression, an explosively dysfunctional romance, and a couple’s dreams fading away like snow onto wet asphalt. True, there’s that triumphant chorus, stirring orchestral fadeout, harps and strings and all – often I find myself singing along too. It’s the very definition of ‘bittersweet’, a hilarious oxymoron set to music. And it’s the only Christmas song ever, I’ll wager, to contain the words ‘scumbag’, ‘maggot’, and ‘cheap lousy faggot’.
7) Merry Christmas, Baby – Bruce Springsteen
The Boss is utterly triumphant, fresh off his biggest (and best) hit album with Born in the U.S.A., on this swaggering live version of the R&B standard. On peak vocal form, he sexes up the chorus like a pro and eggs on the legendary E Street Band with not one but two ‘Come on, boys!’ Their stomping blues rendition tops Charles Brown’s, Otis Redding’s, Elvis Presley’s – er, Hanson’s. This is where I’ll come when I want my Christmas complete with blistering sax solo.
8) Santa Claus is Coming to Town – The Jackson 5
Nothing quite captures Christmas Eve like the voice of a boy so exuberantly youthful that you just about believe that he could still believe in Santa. Young Michael Jackson is jaw-dropping as ever here, screeching ‘wow, yeah!’ and hurtling you straight back to your childhood. His later, increasingly disturbing attempts to sustain a perpetual childhood in Neverland brings a retrospectively scary/tragic undertone to this classic. But the harmonies really are eternal.
9) I’ll Be Home For Christmas – Bing Crosby
Yet another downbeat Christmas jingle about dreaming – it can be seen as the partner song to ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ in that respect, from the distant lover’s perspective. Crosby’s mournful vocals are so extended that you suspect he never will make it home for Christmas. Yet the result isn’t even remotely depressing, as the orchestration delivers an atmosphere ready to roast chestnuts over.
10) Winter Wonderland – Aretha Franklin
This wonderland is better than Hyde Park’s because it has the Queen of Soul as your tour guide. She sounds unironically delighted at the idea of building a snowman, groo-oo-oo-ving by the fire (try listening to this in the last verse without smiling), and of course strolling through the kind of White Christmas that Crosby can only ever dream of. Without a care in the world, as is her regal right.
11) Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Judy Garland
12) Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto – James Brown
13) I Wish it Could Be Christmas Everyday – Wizzard
14) Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me) – Elvis Presley
15) 2000 Miles – The Pretenders
16) I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus – The Ronettes
17) Santa Baby – Eartha Kitt
18) Step Into Christmas – Elton John
19) Run Rudolph Run – Chuck Berry
20) White Christmas – Otis Redding
21) Back Door Santa – Bon Jovi
22) The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You) – Nat King Cole
23) Blue Christmas – Ernest Tubb
24) Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow! – Vaughn Monroe
25) Up on the House Top – The Jackson 5
26) White Christmas – Bing Crosby
27) Jingle Bell Rock – Bobby Helms
28) Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree – Brenda Lee
29) Merry Xmas Everybody – Slade
30) Someday at Christmas – Stevie Wonder
31) Frosty the Snowman – The Ronettes
32) In the Bleak Midwinter – Bert Jansch
33) Happy Christmas (War is Over) – John Lennon
34) Santa Claus is Coming to Town – The Pointer Sisters
35) It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas – Bing Crosby