20 Christmas Songs, Ranked Worst To Best
So, now is the time of year when everyone starts writing their lists of best albums of the year, and inexplicably puts ‘Modern Vampires of the City’ at #1 when it should just be a safe sort of medium to high and when Steven Wilson is far more deserving of the top spot. But I just got a bunch of new CDs for Christmas and I’m more interested in listening to them than going over everything that’s been released in 2013, and besides, over the past two weeks or so, a lot of what I’ve been listening to has had titles like ‘The Greatest Christmas Album In The World Ever’, and since they’re songs that everybody knows and everybody hears without fail in December, I thought I’d say a few things about them.
#20: Santa Baby: The version of this everybody knows is Kylie’s from 2000, although it was originally released in 1953, and it’s pretty much my pet hate when it comes to Christmas songs. The breathy, girly vocals are incredibly annoying and the lyrics are frankly creepy – the idea of flirting with Father Christmas is too weird for me to even think about. The melody is strange and awkward and never really goes anywhere, and all in all, I can’t understand why this ever became a hit.
#19: All I Want For Christmas Is You: Mariah Carey’s 2003 single became massive and many regard it as a definitive Christmas song… when in actual fact, it’s not even about Christmas – it’s just using Christmas as an excuse for her to talk about a guy she’s in love with. I could probably cope with this if it was otherwise a good song, but I find it uninspired, following the same ‘sparse, tender opening followed by danceable, upbeat second verse’ that pop songs have been following since their invention.
#18: Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree: Again, the original version of this isn’t the one everyone knows; the popular version is by Mel Smith and Kim Wilde from 1987, and again, it’s one of those songs that is everywhere and I can’t understand why. It’s just incredibly grating in how it’s constantly upbeat and very repetitive, and it doesn’t exactly seem to be about anything – it just exists. Mostly, the people I know who like it want to seem like they’re into retro music when they’re actually not.
#17: Proper Crimbo: I discovered this 2003 song for the first time this year and instantly hated it. It’s performed by a range of celebrities who were popular at the time but unremembered now, and is clearly meant to be a novelty song. I often tire of novelty songs after the tenth listen; this one I tired of before the first was out. Some people like it because it’s down to earth and captures what Christmas really is like rather than the ideal – I dislike it for the exact same reason; I love the magic of Christmas.
#16: Wonderful Christmastime: Paul McCartney’s contribution to Christmas music came in 1979, which incidentally was the same year that ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ became Christmas Number One (I didn’t feel like I could include that, though.) This is a good song that I’d actually choose to listen to, but its problem is that it’s too safe. Sure, it’s warm and feel-good, and it works excellently as background music in a Christmas party, but it doesn’t do anything particularly exciting.
#15: Merry Christmas Everyone: Released by Shakin’ Stevens in 1985, my complaint about this one is basically exactly the same as the last one. I decided this one slightly edged McCartney out because I’ve always thought he sounded a bit self conscious and unwilling to let go, and Shakin’ Stevens doesn’t have this problem, putting everything he has into the song over a fun swingy rhythm that won’t change your world but will get you tapping your feet.
#14: His Favourite Christmas Story: One that less people will be familiar with, this was released in 2008 by obscure American power pop band Capital Lights. As the title suggests, it tells a story, and the story is excellent – incredibly sad and beautiful and can still make me cry a little if it catches me in the right mood, so I have to listen to this a few times every year. There’s nothing special about the music, though, and if you’re not concentrating on the story it’ll slip right by you.
#13: Baby It’s Cold Outside: Another song that’s older than anybody realises, this 1949 classic has been covered by more people than I care to count, and if I’m honest, the version I downloaded is actually by the Glee Cast. I’m not embarrassed by that, though: Darren Criss and Chris Colfer both have excellent voices which work with each other really well in this playful duet which is more seasonal than Christmassy but is incredibly catchy and always enjoyable to hear or sing along to.
#12: Ring Out, Solstice Bells: Again not technically a Christmas song but certainly a holiday song, this is one of many such songs by Jethro Tull but the only one ever to achieve any fame, and for good reason. The vocals in the verses are a rough, acquired taste and contrast nicely with the gradually building, bombastic chorus creating something that really shouldn’t be uplifting but actually is. It’s very different and creates a great diversion when a Christmas playlist starts to get a bit monotonous.
#11: 2000 Miles: This 1983 single by the Pretenders is a stripped-down acoustic vocal showcase for Chrissie Hynde; and she’s honestly a joy to listen to here, full of emotion and passion – not surprising considering it’s dedicated to ex-band member James Honeymann-Scott following his death. It’s a sad and longing ballad that builds to a stunning climax and it’s perfect if you can’t deal with the constant cheeriness of some of the hugely famous Christmas songs.
#10: Stop The Cavalry: This one makes it into the top ten because its holiday connotations aside, it still manages to be a great New Wave song, which can’t be said for most songs on this list. Jona Lewie (who I know nothing about besides this song) creates a rhythmic and unique song with vague influences from worldbeat and traditional English music, and an anti-war protest message. It’s also very musically clever, including themes used by famous classical composers woven between the modern parts.
#9: Christmas Lights: The most recent song on the list, Coldplay didn’t release their Christmas tune until 2010, but it’s excellent. It’s stopped from being any higher on the list by the fact that it’s pretty similar to every other excellent Coldplay song ever, but nevertheless it’s one of my most played. It manages to be simultaneously happy and sad, acknowledging the magic of Christmas and its power over people despite the singer’s situation, and unsurprisingly the melody is gorgeous and the lyrics honest.
#8: Merry Xmas Everybody: So there are songs that are great because they’re fun and Christmassy, and there are songs that are great for other reasons, and then there’s Slade’s 1973 single. It’s the most consistently big-selling Christmas song in the UK, possibly because it’s timelessly relatable. The lyrics are clever, funny without trying too hard, and the guitars perfectly suit it: it’s lighthearted but still manages a serious message. Also, I read a statistic that up to 42% of the world might have heard the song. Awesome.
#7: I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday: Roy Wood’s eccentric glam rock outfit Wizzard aren’t the obvious choice for a massive commercial song but they’re definitely weird enough to pull out all the stops for this camped-up hit. Brimming with energy and impossibly full of hooks, it perfectly captures the childhood view of Christmas, which is appropriate since a choir of children actually sing on part of it. For four minutes it takes you back to a simpler time and it’s just impossible to get tired of.
#6: Happy Christmas (War Is Over): This 1971 single was released by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and is another one which combines the idea of an anti-war song with a Christmas song, and does it just slightly better. It cleverly utilises the conventions of a Christmas song including a children’s choir and the use of instruments such as chimes and sleigh bells, juxtaposing them against the idea that although it’s Christmas there are still a lot of problems in the world. Plus, I love the range of textures and contrast between solo and group vocals.
#5: Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy: The third of four duets on this list (ooh, tension) this is one I’ve always liked but only started to love this year. Rulebreaking, genre-bending David Bowie and Christmas song veteran Bing Crosby don’t sound like the most likely partnership but the two together create something that’s unlike any other song, including the best of both of their musical styles. The contrast between the classic ‘Little Drummer Boy’ and the newly written song ‘Peace On Earth’ is effective and often beautiful. The video’s great too.
#4: Do They Know It’s Christmas?: Bob Geldof’s Band Aid single has been released three times, in 1984, 1989 and 2004, and the original’s definitely the best. A lot of people can’t stand the song; it’s very divisive, but clearly I’m in favour. Firstly, I think it was a good idea with honestly good intentions, and the singers do all sound genuine, and secondly I think it’s a very well-written song, giving parts to lots of musicians but still sounding cohesive overall as it gradually builds, with a couple of fake-out climaxes that lead into a united and hopeful ending.
#3: I Believe In Father Christmas: I don’t only like this one because I love Greg Lake’s voice (though I do) or so I can laugh at the irony of huge chain stores playing a song that was written to protest against the commercialisation of Christmas (though I do.) I like it because of the subtle, shimmering riff, because the song has what are possibly Lake’s greatest set of lyrics ever, because of the stripped-down acoustic arrangement that really lets the conviction in his voice show through, and because I genuinely do believe in Father Christmas.
#2: A Spaceman Came Travelling: My second favourite Christmas song is all about the atmosphere. Chris de Burgh’s 1975 song is quietly full of wonder and beauty for something just out of reach, and this ethereal song captures it perfectly, from the quietly whispered verses to the explosive release of the choruses, it’s pretty much a masterpiece of emotional buildup in a song. It’s also an interesting new take on the traditional Christmas story and my enjoyment is in no way influenced by my fascination with space.
#1: A Fairytale Of New York: There are a lot of great Christmas songs, including many that I didn’t even mention, but it’s really not hard for me to pick my all time favourite. The Pogues and Kirtsy MacColl’s collaboration has so far eclipsed all other Christmas songs that I can’t imagine how Christmas ever existed without it. Told over three Christmases, this duet is the story of a relationship, from the exciting honeymoon period at the beginning to the constant fighting phase near the end to the crushing realisation that both parties have given up their dreams for the other person, and it hasn’t even worked out. It’s outstanding in every way, from the lyrics to the melodies that perfectly convey the relevant emotions to the performances, with Shane McGowan’s vocals a particular standout, as well as the evocative fadeout instrumental section at the end. The song is timeless, in that it’s just Christmassy enough to be perfect for the time of year but can still be enjoyed year round, and it appeals to a wide range of musical tastes too. In short, I can’t imagine finding a Christmas song better than this, and I’m not sure I’d want to.