It was suggested this week that Noddy Holder’s festive yelling on Merry Xmas Everybody has so far earned Slade more than £520,000 in royalties this year alone. That’s some stocking filler for a 40-year-old composition, and the sleigh-bell-infused music keeps coming, with new Christmas albums by everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Mary J Blige this winter (reviewed page 52-53).
But what was the last new Christmas song that really stuck in the public consciousness? The youngest perennial favourite is probably Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You, hardly a sapling now that it’s nearly 20 years since its release. Before that, it’s Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas (1988) and of course, The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York (1987). We don’t seem to want to hear new music around the tree — partly a reflection of the natural nostalgia that Christmas brings, and also a change in the kind of big singles that get produced around now.
Today it’s all X Factor winners and weepy charity songs in the Christmas No 1 slot. The last genuine Christmas song to reach the top spot was Band Aid 20 in 2004, covering the original Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? from 1984. Otherwise you have to look back to Cliff Richard’s Saviour’s Day in 1990, if you can bear to.
At home I admit to sticking mostly to the obvious as well. It’s Dean Martin as far as the ear can hear around our house, and especially A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. Not even the producer’s murder conviction can dull the warm glow given off by Darlene Love on Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), Spector’s vast wall of sound production perfectly reflecting the excesses of the season.
But there are treats away from the Now That’s What I Call Christmas compilation that’s probably on repeat in most households. Among the newer music, Sufjan Stevens needs an editor as usual on his 10 Christmas EPs, but there’s much of real beauty there if you have the time to filter through more than 100 songs. Ron Sexsmith’s song Maybe This Christmas, from 2002, is a tiny Christmas gem at less than two minutes long, and Low’s 1999 song Just Like Christmas seems to edge a little closer to the canon every year — it deserves it.
I asked the real experts — some of the year’s most successful musicians — for more suggestions, and they unearthed some impressive stuff. Who knew there was a gangsta rap Christmas album? Thanks for the tip, Rudimental. Now get on and write something even better, and you too could have as happy a Christmas as Holder.
Dan Reynolds, Imagine Dragons
Blue Christmas by Elvis Presley
“This song reminds me of so many Christmases growing up in Las Vegas. I remember lining up on the stairs, from youngest to oldest, with my seven brothers and sister, waiting anxiously to go on a rampage through our stockings. One year one brother went during the night and put coal in my stocking. I cried like a baby.”
Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End) by The Darkness
“The one we agree on is 10 years old now and was the last valiant attempt at a modern Christmas song. Roy Wood and Wizzard’s I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day also gets an honourable mention.
Oh Holy Night (carol, composed in 1847)
“When I was about 12 I joined the school choir a few years after my family moved to Belfast. The first time I took part in the Christmas carol performance was in the school chapel. When we first sang Oh Holy Night and got to the part where the A minor chord first happens over the lyrics (“Fall on your knees …”) that melodic and musical change just blew my mind. It’s subtle but a real spine-chiller.”
Last Christmas by Wham!
“It’s not only an amazing pop song that rings all the right (sleigh) bells, but it also reminds me of being six years old and hearing it for the first time.”
I Believe in Father Christmas by Greg Lake
“I love the lyrics: ‘They sold me a dream of Christmas/They sold me a Silent Night’. It may be Christmas but the reality is there are still troubles in the world.”
Alex Trimble, Two Door Cinema Club
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (originally recorded by Jimmy Boyd, 1952)
“It’s a song that opens up the imagination to why Santa performs all these ‘selfless’ deeds. It reminds of me of playing in the school concert band at Christmas time in our local shopping centre in Bangor. It was definitely one of my favourites to play.”
Amir Amor, Rudimental
Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto
“From the dying days of classic Gangsta Rap, this 1996 track features the late and great Nate Dogg. It’s from the Christmas On Death Row album which features a whole bunch of festive tunes for your gangsta party.”
Fairytale of New York by the Pogues, featuring Kirsty MacColl
“I spend a lot of time in Ireland and every year we put on a Christmas party for friends and family — I always find a way of duetting this song with someone.”
White Christmas by Otis Redding
“His rendition is incredible and gave me goosebumps the first time I heard it. His performance is what inspired me to record my own version for my Christmas record.”
Christmas Is Awesome by Reuben
“Reuben broke up many years back now (though Jamie Lenman, their singer, has just released a new record) but this one still stands out to me as the best Christmas song I know. It rocks hard, and it’s pretty funny. Definitely worth tracking down.”
Felix White, The Maccabees
It Must Be Santa by Bob Dylan
“I love the fact that he thought of this, wrote it, made a video for it and put it out, all with a straight face, and got away with it. Everyone knows The Pogues and Slade are the true Christmas song champions but I feel Bob deserves special mention for his effort, especially as it was only a couple of years ago.”
George Shelley, Union J
Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You
“Growing up, this was always the Christmas record that got me dancing around the room and the video is something that makes me feel like it’s Christmas. Mariah Carey’s also almost as much of a diva as Jaymi in the band!”
Late 80s Mercedes — Christmas in My Heart
“Being asked to choose a favourite Christmas song is like making the best of a bad situation. It all makes us cringe but this song from this year, by a New Zealand funk band, makes us cringe the least.”
Mark Prendergast, Kodaline
Fairytale of New York by the Pogues, featuring Kirsty MacColl
“It might be an obvious choice but here’s something magic about when this song comes on in an Irish pub on Christmas Eve. It always gets a mass singalong, plus I hate Christmas bells in songs and this doesn’t have any. It’s not just a great Christmas song, it’s a great song. Timeless.”