This post first appeared two years ago as “My Ten Favourite Christmas Songs”. It had a mixed reception, some accounting it a “great list” whilst others, as is their right, rubbishing certain selections and offering their own alternatives.
I stated at the beginning of the earlier post:
there’s the thankless challenge of breaking down an initial list approaching fifty into ten. That said, after much soul searching, I’d like to think that the ten I have chosen – at least for today would be broadly similar to those I would have plumped for last year and will do next year, and in the years to come. The order may differ slightly but the contenders will remain the same. I make that assertion in the full expectation that the future is unlikely to unearth some sensational new numbers that will threaten the current status quo (those old rockers are not in it by the way.
That statement still rings true, and I have re-released that same list today, with only minor textual amendments.
A word of warning first.
One type of “music” you will not find in this list are the aggravating seventies pop confections of Slade, Wizzard, Mud, Shakin’ Stevens and many others that are heard everywhere at this time of year – TV programmes, shopping malls, parties. So if they’re your favourites, I’d stop reading now. And don’t expect to see any of the annual serving of mush served up by Cliff Richard either.
I am also unmoved by those songs that may or may not have a Christmas theme and content, but are forever associated with the holiday period purely because that is the time of year when they first came to our attention, often for commercial reasons. This is why I don’t share the almost universal idolatry of “Fairytale of New York”, despite the fact that I love both Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl. I don’t dislike Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and you cannot knock the tremendous work it has done in addressing famine in Africa. But these are false friends and do not, for me, carry that indefinable spirit and “feel” of Christmas.
I’m an unashamed traditionalist, even sentimentalist, when it comes to Christmas music, indeed Christmas per se. So the list is essentially nostalgic, redolent of past times, especially childhood. And yes, I’m prepared to concede that, on this occasion, age is a contributory factor to this outlook. Maybe it also derives from being surrounded by Dickens from a young age.
Am I saying then that, for a Christmas song to earn my respect or adulation, it must either serve a lengthy apprenticeship – at least half a century – or evoke a romanticised version of a bygone age?
Perhaps I am.
But enough of this – let’s get on with my selection. Cue immediate quizzical looks with number ten.
10. Must Be Santa – Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan doing a Christmas song? You must be mad, or you’ve clearly had too much egg nog – or both, I hear you scream in disbelief. Well, maybe, but he produced a whole album of them back in 2009. And some of it is rather good. The grizzled near seventy year old voice, ravaged by red wine, cigarettes and constant touring, lends itself rather nicely to some of the old standards like “Do You Hear What I Hear? Winter Wonderland” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, though perhaps less so to the assortment of Christmas carols he tackles.
But this is my particular favourite – a rollicking, boisterous romp with some less than traditional lyrics.
So who’s had too much egg nog now?
9. Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow – Dean Martin
Another standard sung in a more conventional manner. Recorded countless times but, for me, this is the best version. Deano’s lascivious, martini-soaked croon nails it for me.
8. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear – The Choir of Winchester Cathedral
Initially, this slot was filled by “In the Bleak Midwinter”, a lovely carol but perhaps just a little too familiar for inclusion here. I was then reminded, on hearing it for the first time this year, of this beautiful and too little heard melody. But, in truth, it could have been any number of other carols.
7. Here We Come A-Wassailing – Kate Rusby
The first of two – there could again have been more – offerings from the Barnsley Belle. It may only be number seven – at least for today – but it tends to be the first song I listen to each December to kick start the festive season with its atmosphere of celebration and community. A song ripe too for inclusion in an adaptation of any Thomas Hardy novel.
6. Angels From the Realms of Glory – King’s College, Cambridge
And glorious this indeed is. Truly thrilling. As a child, this would fill Rochester Cathedral at the school’s end of term concert more satisfyingly than any other carol, even if I and my school friends were more interested in our card and dice games beneath the pews. But we always found time to join in with our own version of the last line of each verse – something to do with a West London football team if I recall correctly.
5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Ella Fitzgerald
“The Voice” has to have a place on this list. Warm, vibrant, nostalgic – everything that makes Christmas special. Along with Al Jolson, the Andrews Sisters and Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ella dominated the soundtrack to my earliest years. She has subsequently survived Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, psychedelia and country rock to maintain a similarly central place in my affections.
4. See Amid the Winter’s Snow – King’s College Cambridge
The more discerning reader might have observed that my carol selections are not the most frequently heard, hence popular. I have not developed the measure of contempt that the more familiar carols might be thought to have bred – far from it, but “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” and the achingly beautiful melodies of my other selections carry the day for me.
A passing nod too to the two carols that I most associate with my childhood – “Rocking” and “Away in a Manger” which we “sang”, sat cross-legged on the frozen wooden floor of Glencoe Road Primary School when, apparently, we’d never had it so good (well, for a six year old, perhaps we hadn’t).
“See Amid the Winters Snow” has added resonance too in that this was my father and his eldest brothers’ party piece at the end of the annual freemasonry lodge Christmas dinner and dance. They would – so I’m told, I never witnessed the spectacle myself – bring the house down with their heartfelt, drunken duet.
3. The Holly and the Ivy – Kate Rusby
This should have been “The First Tree in the Greenwood” but I could not find a video of Kate’s performance. Instead, I returned to the song of which it and many others are variants. Again, I could have filled this list with Kate’s lovely renditions of traditional carols, supported by the mellow tones of the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band.
2. Run Run Rudolph – Chuck Berry
The nearest thing to a “pop” song in this collection, even though it was recorded more than half a century ago. But what drive, energy, excitement and humour – classic Chuck, the godfather of rock ‘n’ roll. He may not have written it but he gave it its life.
1. For Unto Us A Child is Born from Handel’s Messiah – Sir Colin Davis & the London Symphony Orchestra
Probably heard – and certainly sung – more often as part of a carol concert, the opening bars of Handel’s sublime oratorio evoke Christmas for me more than any other piece of music, hence its pre-eminent position. A perfect accompaniment to a big breakfast and the exchanging of gifts.
But surely, you say, isn’t this one of those “false friends” you sneered about earlier in this article? After all, wasn’t “Messiah” first performed in the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin on 13th April 1742. It’s a Easter, not Christmas song goddamit!
Fair point, but I contend that not only does it fit my “spirit and feel” test, but it has become so inextricably associated with the Christmas season in the public consciousness that it is the most glorious expression of the life, and in this instance, birth of Christ.
I rest my case.
By the end of this journey through the last four centuries of western music you may be wondering if I have “got religion”, and specifically Christianity, so drenched in the christian tradition are my selections. It is an understandable question, to which I can only respond that, though the inherited faith, if not the latent spirituality, be long gone, the thrill of listening, and indeed reading, how gloriously others have expressed that faith, endures.
And, of course, they evoke that most precious period of our lives – childhood.