Justin Lee Collins. Nobody likes him, do they? Perhaps invoking his name isn’t the best way to kick off an article about festive cheer, but I have my reasons.
In 2005, Justin Lee Collins presented a show on Channel 4 called Bring Back The Christmas Number One. Fed up with Simon Cowell’s Christmas chart domination, Justin wanted to see a song with a Christmas theme take that coveted UK number one chart position on Christmas Day.
With the exception of the Live Aid remake, this still hasn’t been achieved since Cliff Richard topped the charts in 1990 with Saviour’s Day.
Now let us pause to listen to that song.
Jesus, I love that song.
Justin gathered the ghosts of Christmas past – Jona Lewie, David Essex, Showaddywaddy, and members of Mud and Slade – and got them to record a song called I’m Going Home. It didn’t make it to number one.
Never mind. But the thing is, though Justin was ostensibly motivated by his desire to topple the tower of SyCo, I seem to remember a bogus thread running through his program. Justin kept hinting that one of the main reasons why Christmas songs no longer make it to the Christmas number one spot, is because people simply no longer write good Christmas songs. They were a product of Justin’s childhood, which is why he gathered the heroes of 70s and 80s Christmas music for his brave attempt to set things right.
Well, balderdash. It’s still the case that bloody good Christmas songs are released every year. True, they no longer make it to number one, but since when has that been an indicator of quality?
Here’s a list of 10 great Christmas songs from the 21st century.
Now, before we begin, yes. I quite agree with you. To allude to a TV show presented by a disgraced “personality”, which nobody has seen in nine years, as a rambling introduction to a listicle…yes. Not my best moment. And oh my, I just used the word “listicle”. Less than 300 words in, and this post is already a disaster.
Never mind. Let’s go.
The Go! Team – The Ice Storm
What? So a Christmas song has to explicitly reference Christmas in order to be considered a Christmas song? Shut up. This is definitely a Christmas song, in the same way that Jingle Bells is a Christmas song. It sounds like the most wonderful ice storm ever. It’s like being lost in a blizzard and stumbling across Santa’s workshop, where you’re immediately served hot chocolate and deep filled mince pies by friendly elves. Indeed, this is very much music for – and quite possibly by – elves.
Los Campesinos! – The Holly & The Ivy
Two songs in a row by bands with exclamation marks in their names. It feels like 2006 again! Except it’s not 2006. It’s 2014, and Los Campesinos! have released a Christmas EP. It came out less than two weeks ago, and already I can tell that it’s going to be a treasured fixture of at least the next six Christmases.
Despite having never given them a go, I’d always written off Los Campesinos! as a bunch of yelpy angular post punk tedium merchants. This bogus notion has everything to do with the exclamation point in their name (don’t ask me why), and the fact that they released their first album during my first year of university – when I was in the height of my Genesis obsession, and everything that was new and loud and fast was treated with suspicion.
I now realise that I’ve been completely unfair to this band, and judging by the quality of their Christmas EP, I must really have been missing out. They have quite a few albums which I cannot wait to explore, but they’ll have to wait til January. Right now, their Christmas EP is getting at least two listens a day. It’s that good.
It compiles two of their previous Christmas singles, adds another, tacks on a b-side, and ends with quite a stirring cover of Mud’s Lonely This Christmas. But at the heart of the EP is an interpretation of The Holly & The Ivy, which has now been added to my list of songs that were stunning right from the first listen.
Their interpretation uses a phrasing that I’ve never before heard used for this song. It makes it sound less like a Christmas carol, and more like a pagan folk song about the seasons. It’s like they’ve stripped all the unease from the Wicker Man soundtrack and replaced it with swirling wintry magic.
There’s a choral interlude that could have been used as incidental music in Home Alone or Edward Scissorhands. It ends with an original verse, in which our narrator sings about travelling home for Christmas through the night, in a van, with his sister. There’s nothing particularly sad about the words, but it still makes me feel vaguely unhappy. Perhaps because my sister’s currently on the other side of the world, and this will be the first Christmas since her birth where she won’t be around.
As this list progresses, it will become obvious that I prefer the poignant Christmas song. Leave now if you’re averse to that sort of thing.
Coldplay – Christmas Lights
Chris Martin has a fight with his significant other, so he goes out for a walk. The Christmas lights on Oxford Street are all it takes to lift his mood.
Something tells me that there’d be a great deal of overlap on the Venn Diagram of people who hate Christmas, and people who hate Coldplay. Call it a hunch, but I imagine that many, many, many people actively despise this song.
I don’t. I’m not going to come out with a smarmy “their loss”, but I will say that in the bleak midwinter, Coldplay’s earnest sincerity is often exactly the sort of thing I need.
Their choruses are specifically written to be sung by thousands. There’s a real comfort in that, especially when they’re set to the sort of rhythm that invites swaying – as is the case with Christmas Lights.
The Darkness – Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)
The title might be a joke, but this song is no laughing matter. OK, maybe it’s a bit of a laughing matter, what with its children’s choir, it’s keening guitar solos, and it’s shout of “C’mon kids!” But beyond all of these seasonal trimmings, this song achieves the sort of thing that is often marked as the sign of a truly good song: that ever desirable combination of catchy, cheerful melodies and poignant, affecting lyrics. It’s not an exact science, and the formula’s by no means definitive, but through combining those seemingly disparate elements you invariably succeed in creating the sort of song that genuinely connects with people.
That’s why Christmas Time is so much more than a novelty Christmas song with a funny title. It treats Christmas as a moment of respite. Throughout the year, we’re all far too busy to spend any meaningful time with the people we love. But come Christmas, everyone’s together, and usually, everyone’s happy. Don’t let the bells end, for when the bells end, we all have to go back to work, and we likely won’t see each other again for months.
Watching the video, though, the whole thing gets a happy ending, and that happy ending is but one lovely moment in a song that’s full of them. I particularly like the Hawkins brothers soloing together on the same double necked guitar.
Tim Minchin – White Wine In The Sun
This songs starts off like every Tim Minchin song – with a roll of the eyes, Tim insists that, with his towering intellect, he’s above this sort of thing. But once you get past the dubious shout out to supervillain Richard Dawkins, White Wine in the Sun becomes genuinely affecting, as Tim looks forward to travelling back to Australia to spend time with his family. And then he starts addressing his daughter –
But you will learn someday / That wherever you are and whatever you face / These are the people who’ll make you feel safe in this world.
He might be an irritating, pretentious, sanctimonious wally, but with this song, Tim Minchin essentially nails the true meaning of Christmas.
Half Man Half Biscuit – It’s Cliched To Be Cynical At Christmas
Another band I’ve written off, perhaps unfairly, for years now. They strike me as the musical equivalent of a TV panel show – a bunch of sneering blokes taking a sideways look at everything, with particular scorn reserved for anything that’s popular, or anything that’s just a little bit different. But every Christmas, when I hear this song, I feel as though the subsequent year might be the one in which I finally give Half Man Half Biscuit a chance. For this song is incredible.
Funny enough, it comes across as a missive to the sort of sneering bloke who might appear on a TV panel show. They’re tired of their scorn – for Christmas is no time for sideways looks – and they’d simply quite like to get on with celebrating Christmas, if that’s alright. Luckily, the festive spirit is allowed to triumph, as the song transforms, quite magnificently, into a rousing rendition of I Saw Three Ships.
The video is especially lovely. Being a bleary montage of Christmas lights in Liverpool, it reminds me of home. Specifically, it makes me feel like tucking into some freshly prepared doughnuts, bought to warm us up, having spent hours on the frozen Liverpool high street.
Billy Mack – Christmas Is All Around Us
Yep. Not only do I really like Coldplay, I also really like Bill Nighy’s stupid song from the soundtrack to Love Actually. In fact, it’s likely that I actually love a lot of the things you hate. Think of it as my “thing”.
Bob Dylan – Must Be Santa
Oh look, it’s another Christmas cover by an old man with a craggy face! As infectiously jolly as this is, the main appeal is the video, in which Bob Dylan, with his luxurious hair, throws what looks like the most fun party that ever was thrown. Unfortunately, it descends into fisticuffs, which results in Bob Dylan exchanging a most disapproving look with his best buddy, Santa. It’s lovely to think that Bob Dylan and Santa are the best of friends.
Andy Burrows – Light The Night
From the soundtrack to The Snowman and The Snowdog, the sequel to The Snowman that is surely destined to become every bit as timeless and beloved as the original. Light The Night is the sequel’s answer to the original’s Walking in the Air and – whisper it – I actually prefer it.
Like Walking in the Air, it’s used to soundtrack the flying scene, so it’s suitably soaring and magical. It’s the sort of song to which I simply cannot listen whilst in polite company. It’s too much, and it reduces me to the same state to which the Snowman himself is inevitably reduced as the weather gets warmer.
Sufjan Stevens – Sister Winter
Though this list wasn’t written in any particular order, had it been so, this would undoubtedly made it to the top. Having written about 100 Christmas songs, the vast majority of which are gems, I could have filled this list with Sufjan at least five times over. Sister Winter, though, is the best of all of his Christmas songs. Indeed, it might even be the best song he’s ever written.
Were anyone to ever ask why Christmas means so much to me, in lieu of a verbal answer, I would simply play them Sister Winter. It explains everything: Winter is cold and oppressively dark, and it’s all too easy to let it get to you. But Christmas, with its bright lights, its smiling people, its delicious food, its plentiful drink, and its general merriness, is essential. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to get through winter, which means I wouldn’t be able to get through the year, which means that I wouldn’t be able to get through life.
There’s a bit where this song rises and rises – the tension builds and builds – and with a triumphant cry of “Oh my friends I return to wish you a Merry Christmas“, the song transforms from a gloomy lament into a genuine party. There’s drums, rattles, trumpets and, you imagine, heartfelt smiles all around.
It gets me every. Single. Time.
Merry Christmas everyone. Stay gloomy.