Working in retail around Christmas poses a problem. Well, not even working in it around Christmas. I started working on Christmas promotions and the like in August. As a result, the past few years have meant I'm so sick of that damn festive period malarkey that I've never really enjoyed it. It remains to be seen whether this'll play out again this year, but one thing is for certain: I've realised this year just how many Christmas songs I bloody love – being subjected to them via a piped playlist means you hear them on repeat in quick succession. If they stand up in that environment, they'll stand up anywhere. Here are some of my favourites (playlisted or not), and some ham-fisted attempts at trying to work out why.
The Pretenders - 2000 Miles
Right, let's get the elephant in the room out in the open so we can move on: most Christmas songs have all the nuance and subtlety of Noddy Holder jumping out from behind your tree as you open your presents and ejaculating into your face while shouting 'IT'S JIZZMAAAAAAASSS!'. Granted, part of the appeal of yuletide pophits is their bombast but it's still refreshing when someone does it with a sense of restraint. Enter The Pretenders. A plaintive guitar line, Chrissie Hynde's soaring vocals, and an overall sense of effortless, sweeping majesty. Behold, a timeless festive classic.
Brenda Lee - Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree
This really is just sonic crack isn't it? I defy anyone to listen to it and not find themselves whistling along by the second verse or so. As ever with songs this simple the devil's in the detail - the trebly guitar lines to garnish, the wall of backing vocals as required. Stone cold classic.
The Waitresses - Christmas Wrapping
POST-PUNK CHRISTMAS PARTY.
Julian Casablancas - I Wish it Was Christmas Today
Yes it's a Saturday Night Live song turned into a single, but as Smith and Burrows have proven rather comprehensively pious Christmas songs just souund downright awful. As such, perhaps it's time to celebrate a Christmas song that has its tongue wedged so firmly in its cheek that it looks like a precocious teen insinuating a blow job. You can almost see the knowing winks betwixt Casablancas and the studio engineers as he drawls out every last letter of the 'heeeeee-uhhhhhh/cheeeeee-uhhhhhh' rhyme. It almost sounds like he's having FUN, which is not only what Christmas should be about, but is a welcome surprise from someone who recently appears to believe the only present becoming of his Strokes-mates would be a faceful of sherry glass after Christmas dinner.
The Ramones - Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight)
The Ramones doing a Christmas song poses a problem. Yes, they adored all the 60s pop and what have you, but Christmas is usually about love, and the kind of weird fucked up romance that masqueraded as love on a Ramones record doesn't really fit the bill. Answer: make a Christmas song where one half of a (I assume ordinarily) volatile and tempestuous relationship makes a plea to the other to have a nice, pleasant day. Slightly warped Ramones relationship, and a cosy concilliatory normal Christmas get whacked by the same stone. BOOM. Also manages to do all of the above while sounding unmistakeably Ramones-y. Wall of guitars? Check. Sub 3 minute song duration? Check. Pop sensibility? Check. Cracking.
Darlene Love – All Alone On Christmas
Four words: Clarence Clemons saxophone solo.
Darlene Love – Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
Just to rub it in everyone's face, Darlene Love made not one, but two incredible Christmas songs. While the last one was built around a behemoth of a saxophone line, this one does it all by itself (despite having a decent sax solo itself). In a moment of madness I almost chose the Slow Club cover over the original, before seeing sense and realising you can't really pick a cover over a Phil Spector original. Behold as the wall of 'CHRISTMAS!' that gets wheeled out throughout the song buries itself into your subconscious, and the way the drums go all staccato and the brass builds as each passage ends. Quite the intoxicating mixture. Altogether now: CHRISTMAAASSSS!
Badly Drawn Boy – Donna and Blitzen
In the same way that The Pretenders is understated brilliance, so Badly Drawn Boy's festive offering from a few years ago in unwavering in its class and majesty. From the opening strings of the intro you know it's going to be something special, and from the gentle, lilting piano line to the cascading strings building to a crescendo it never stops being anything else than staggering. To take what's actually a simple, repeating melody and turn it into something so complete is an incredible achievement. To me, it's a criminally underrated Yuletide record.
The Pogues and Kirsty McColl – Fairytale Of New York
So then, here it is. The veritable DADDY of Christmas songs. I remember a few years back staying up late, well into the small hours of the morning, to watch a 90 minute documentary on its creation. I may have almost been falling asleep into my dinner the next day but by Christ it was worth it. It's also the only song to have led me to join in on a sing-a-long comprising an entire pub (a Scream pub. Winter 2008. Drink, I can only guess, must've been involved somewhere). There's not a vast amount to be said that hasn't been said before – McGowan's heartbreaking intro sets the scene for the tale, before the towering behemoth of a chorus steals the show. It's utterly immense and it speaks volumes that a) nothing has come close to matching it in well over 20 years and 2) the public outcry when the BBC threatened to ban it from the radio a couple of years ago for using the word 'faggot'. Cue a lot of backtracking.
But it also raises the issue of how sad some of the most famous Christmas songs actually are. We've already covered Darlene Love's odes to lonely festive days, but you'd have to be totally heartless not to be moved when McGowan's character pleads to MacColl's for forgiveness, citing 'I've built my dreams around you' as proof of his dedication. Even Wham!'s Last Christmas gets in on the Christmas heartbreak train, being the ultimate quasi-Bullseye 'here's what you could've won' tale; the musical equivalent of Den Watts serving Angie the divorce papers in arguably Eastenders' most famous moment back in 1986.
MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYBODY.