A deep dive down the chimney into Christmas season-specific music, starring Kathryn Williams, Chilly Gonzales, ‘The Soul Santas’… and a Michael Bublé ornament
Christmas music is a rum old thing. Some people hate it, some people don’t. However, what is inescapable is that it’s, um, inescapable at this time of year. It’s best to let it happen and go with the flow, I find. So here are a range of tinsel-based solutions that will soundtrack the ideal Christmas that are either new or repressed or whatnot this year. (But, you know, I’m speaking as someone who thought that Lindstrøm’s 40-minute facemelting take on Little Drummer Boy would be an ideal accompaniment to a family gathering to unwrap presents to, but should have maybe stuck to pumping car exhaust fumes into the lounge instead as far as that went down vibes-wise.) So here it is. Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun (and quite a handful of them are taking the piss a bit) IT’S ONLY JUST BEGU-UUU-UUN…
The big daddy of festive pop compilations is the Now brand’s Now That’s What I Call Christmas. I’ve long argued that their first compilation from 1985 has effectively shaped the UK’s Christmas pop landscape ever since. Due to various licensing larks, it goes through various iterations over the years, but the 2021 update is quite sensational all told. A 68 track 3CD or 47 track 3LP version is available, and everyone you expect (bar Mariah Carey) is present.
Pleasingly, as if to show that the original is so iconic, 15 of those tracks are here bar Queen, Shakin’ Stevens’ Blue Christmas and, um, understandably, Gary Glitter. What’s also quite interesting with the advent of streaming in recent years, is that it’s basically the singles chart come the day itself, as Elton John, Band Aid, Pogues, Wham!, Slade, Chris Rea, Wizzard et al all become hits again.
What is also interesting is how few tracks past the ’80s manage to break through into festive folklore such as Leona Lewis, Kelly Clarkson and Coldplay sit nicely among the yore. It’s also a treat to see Jason Donovan’s When You Come Back To Me and Freiheit’s Keeping The Dream Alive in there, which are as much a part of Christmas pop as anything laden with sleigh bells. And – hoorah! – there’s also the welcome inclusion of Saint Etienne’s I Was Born On Christmas Day, aka one of the greatest Christmas hits ever.
There are other takes on the Now gold standard too; The Greatest Christmas Songs is a 2LP scenario in both gold or purple vinyl editions featuring 12 tracks that crossover with the Now, and Mariah does feature albeit in a duet with Justin Bieber, which is the equivalent of asking for Lindt and getting actual lint instead.
Warner’s The Christmas Album is another 2LP opportunity to own Driving Home For Christmas (and why not?) alongside Donny Hathaway’s splendid This Christmas and Adam Faith’s glorious Lonely Pup (In a Christmas Shop).
The very definition of ‘a mixed bag’ is the 2LP A Very Cool Christmas 3, with Amy Winehouse’s I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, Dusty Springfield’s O Holy Child and The Emotions’ What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas? up against Pearl Jam, The Offspring or even Black Crowes’ Back Door Santa (which is effectively about anal sex in a Santa costume).
There was a time when people thought they were too cool for Christmas, which I dunno if it’s because I’m 106 or anything, it seems quite a quaint idea to object to Wham! really. However, there was joy to be had for those who were anti-Cliff back in 2000, when a breath of fresh air came along with the indie-facing It’s A Cool Cool Christmas. Originally released via XFM and in aid of War Child, it makes its debut as a double red vinyl this year.
It’s a bit of a treat really, with Low’s fabulous Just Like Christmas included, as well as the nights-drawing-in sweetness of Belle and Sebastian’s O Come, O Come Emmanuel and other tracks by The Flaming Lips, The Dandy Warhols, Grandaddy, Teenage Fanclub, Eels, Drugstore, a pre-fame Snow Patrol and then-post-Kenickie Lauren Laverne. It’s become something of an iconic festive release for the indie set and is still in aid of War Child, so you have absolutely no excuse.
John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together was a Christmas TV special back in 1979, and featured – yes – singer John Denver with the ensemble of felt-based heroes carousing through a selection of festive songs both old and new. It’s now coming out as a candy cane-striped vinyl edition for ‘the holidays’ and is very wonderful.
If the idea of the now sound of Christmas sounds a bit cliché to you, and you fancy something a little more relaxing and old school, then there is a brace of classic festive favourites being reissued. Originally released in 1957, A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra was the crooner’s first festive offering, and has been reissued in various versions ever since. Waxtime In Color are now handling it, and have popped it out on white vinyl with an unnerving sleeve featuring our Frank carving a turkey.
Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album comes from 1968 and was arranged and conducted by Robert Farnon, and was his first Christmas outing too, and is a swift half hour of a magical be-frosted distant world.
Perhaps one of the greatest festive albums of this era is Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas, recorded by – of course – Ella Fitzgerald midsummer in 1960.
This era’s turns usually knocked out up to four albums a year, so it was just another day in the studio for them. Basically, it’s the bomb. For years it was nigh on impossible to get hold of, but in recent times it’s been shifted around various labels and now quite easy to find, or if not you can just stream the bugger OR buy this on white vinyl from Waxtime In Color (again) who’ve taken turns to issue it this year. It’s pure joy.
You could probably alternate your spins of Ella with Christmas Hits: Jazz, Lounge and Rhythm & Blues, which was originally a 3CD affair with 75 tracks on it back in 2018, but has been condensed down to a digestible 20 track vinyl.
The likes of Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby all feature, as does the silken swoon of Julie London’s I’d Like You For Christmas, dating from the era when these singers would smoke 60 tabs a day to keep their voice ‘smoky’ (the clots). It’s snapshots of warming and wonderful yuletide felicitations of yore (try saying that after a dozen Babychams).
New-wise, Norah Jones has I Dream Of Christmas which, she begun working on after a lockdown-inspired session of listening to Christmas albums, and is a mix of original numbers (Jolly Jones, Christmas Glow etc.) and Norah’s spin on classics (Winter Wonderland, Blue Christmas and Run Rudolph Run etc.). It’s really quite special and has warm glow written all over it* (*well actually no, it has Norah Jones written on it, “hoho”) and it’s gentle, jazzy and probably the best and cosiest thing ever. Tailor-made to burn some Jo Malone candles to. (Although, top tip: steer clear of the cheaper seasonal migraine-inducing candles though, as you’re better off setting fire to a tyre.)
Kelly Clarkson has a second Christmas album out this year. I’d say ‘holiday’ but it makes me feel a bit queasy, and writing ‘Christmas’ endlessly gets a bit RSI. Anyway, When Christmas Comes Around features duets with Ariana Grande, Chris Stapleton and Brett Eldredge. There’s a track called Christmas Isn’t Cancelled (Just You) which is reason enough to buy it.
It’s a nice day for a White Christmas, is it not? Well, that was one of the open goals presented to Billy Idol on his festive collection, and quite frankly it’s enough to make one give up. HONESTLY MAN.
First released in 2006, Happy Holidays sees the legendary sneerer frolicking through some of the classics. This new version omits some tracks, but adds On Christmas Day and so that’s good enough an excuse for it to now come out on vinyl. It’s quite gentle and drunk, so if you’re expecting hot rockin’ and hard livin’ takes on Silent Night and Frosty The Snowman, then you’re out of luck. But hey, Billy is good value at whatever takes his fancy.
Lu’s Jukebox Vol. 5: Have Yourself A Rockin’ Little Christmas With Lucinda (Highway 20) is a long-winded roundabout way of titling Lucinda Williams’ latest installment in her Lu’s Jukebox series. It makes its debut on vinyl and CD this year after being released online last year, and features run throughs of festive fayre old and new, with versions of everything from Merle Haggard’s If We Make It Through December and The Ramones’ Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight).
‘And Friends’ is doing some seriously heavy lifting on A Sentimental Christmas with Nat King Cole and Friends: Cole Classics Reimagined. Cole, who was a tremendous, towering talent in the ’50s and ’60s, was so popular that the Capitol Records building was jokingly named ‘Nat’s House’ due to the company having so much success with him that they effectively built the place with proceeds from his albums.
However, this posthumous duets affair features several acts that were unlikely to have been actual friends with him, what with the tricky ‘elephant in the room’ of dying in 1965. He might have possibly known Johnny Mathis, sure, maybe even Gloria Estefan as a toddler, but John Legend was certainly after his time, and seeing as Britain’s Got Talent alumni and murderer of Robyn’s Dancing On My Own Calum Scott wasn’t born until 1988, it feels a little unseemly to graft them together as mates. No one wants to go full humbug here, but maybe get an original Nat King Cole Christmas album instead rather than encourage this digital mockery.
Leona Lewis has – not our words, hers – ‘repacked’ her 2013 album Christmas With Love as Christmas With Love, Always which features her majestic One More Sleep, and now comes with two bonus tunes – Kiss Me It’s Christmas (featuring Ne-Yo) and a cover of If I Can’t Have You, which isn’t particularly festive but gives the album some ‘playable in January’ appeal, which is what it’s all about, eh viewers?
Last Christmas was a bit of a heartbreaker. No, I’m not discussing the Wham! evergreen, I’m referring to 2020.
Possibly lost among that was the Chilly Gonzales festive album A Very Chilly Christmas (Gentle Threat), which is very gentle and piano-y, and evokes a sort of wet dog and yuletide warming bleakness that you get with Charlie Brown or a grey, fragile Boxing Day. It also features Jarvis Cocker and Feist, who team together on the marvellous Snow Is Falling In Manhattan, and it runs the sleigh through more classics, and is genuinely quite lovely.
An interesting pairing are folkly Kathryn Williams and poet Carol Ann Duffy, who’ve only gone and made a Christmas album! It’s called Midnight Chorus and contains a dozen delicate and cheery, joyful and tender seasonal toe-taps for those with a big warm kitchen who’ve probably attended a wreath-making workshop. It’s heartfelt and lovely, basically, and reflects on both the joys of togetherness and also the melancholy of loneliness that battles for everyone’s attention at this time of year. It has the makings of an album that you’ll pull out year after year, and is destined to become a part of your festive routine as refreshing the Waitrose website and highlighting scheduling conflicts in TV listings mags.
Michael Bublé’s Christmas album, entitled, um, Christmas is a whole 10 years old this year! Wahoo! By far his biggest album, it’s now one of the all-time biggest ‘holiday’ albums with 12 million copies sold worldwide. To celebrate, he’s bringing it out as a deluxe edition box with it on CD and green vinyl, a making of DVD, a 48-page book, a lithograph, some wrapping paper, six cards and… an ornament.
There is also an additional seven-track CD with a couple of new tracks recorded this year at Abbey Road. Now, I’m not sure what the etiquette of buying someone a Christmas album for Christmas is, but obviously Bublé is relying on legions of fans who’ll be up for such an endeavour, especially one that’s priced up as £180(!) I’m presuming at least £130 of that is his fee to pop over to your house, cook dinner and probably throw in a festive bumming as a bonus. £180! I know he looks doable in a ‘after three gins’ kinda way, but that’s a little bit too bloody cheeky. There’s a more reasonable 2CD option for the Busy Mum end of the market.
Too smooth 4 U? Then tough, as Jamie Cullum, has deluxed up HIS The Pianoman At Christmas album from last year, and added extra tracks. He’s teamed up with London jazz types Kansas Smitty’s, as well as composer and producer The Vernon Spring and acclaimed LA-based jazz singer Lady Blackbird too. If you’re Cullum-averse then avoid at all costs, but it’s a classy London-lights-through-the-prism-of-an-Uber-type affair and will work well with a themed mince.
Sliding further down the chimney of taste, Gary Barlow is releasing what has been billed as his first Christmas album. Now that might sound slightly threatening, but The Dream Of Christmas sees Barlow bellowing through the classics as well as duetting with guests such as Aled Jones and Sheridan Smith. He’s probably got a TV special arranged for it as well. “It all started off as a bit of a dalliance in the studio and before I knew it, I had a whole album!” says the man who seems to manage to conveniently have product out every November.
Still, that’s positively wondrous compared to the goodwill-pisser-away Jesse Hughes and Eagles Of Death Metal on A Boots Electric Christmas. Seemingly he’s unaware that ‘A Boots Electric Christmas’ sounds like a gift guide to a range of own-brand personal grooming products sold in a high street chemist. It’s an EP, but even that’s an EP too far for a selection of ‘electrified renditions’ bar an a cappella O Holy Night with his bandmate Josh Homme, who, well, would probably do better to distance himself from this tired one-joke act. In fact we all could.
ANYWAY. Let’s try and end things on a (slightly) more positive note. Inspired by a one-off gig at a school Christmas fair, The Soul Santas, who bear a slight resemblance to Beak>/ Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and chums, issued an album last year via Bandcamp, and it was a rip-roaring, charity-helping success.
Apparently recorded on a phone over two days in October 2020, Christmas Crackers Vol 1 sounds like it was made for a budget label in 1972, the cover art is serving peak-MFP realness, and the whole things is, well, FANTASTIC, and yes, you guessed it, being issued on green or red vinyl this year. It’s up there with The Torero Band’s Tijuana Christmas for vibes, too. And that, dear reader, is the highest compliment I can offer ANYTHING.
That’s about the dimensions of both the good, the bah and the humbug of festive entertainment solutions for you, and hopefully quells any temptation to ask a device to play Christmas music.