Warmth, magic, excess, music, light: Christmas is the proggiest time of year.
A lot of prog bands have Christmas songs. For a while, I wondered if there was something about Christmas that appealed particularly to proggy types. Then I realised that there are also multiple Christmas folk songs, punk songs, rap songs, jazz songs, and yep, new age songs. Christmas isn’t just a wonderful time of year for the proggy. It’s a wonderful time of year for everyone.
Nonetheless, there’s something especially beautiful about a Christmas prog song. But then, I would think that.
One thing I find endearing is that Christmas tends to bring out the proggy side of non-prog artists. The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York is operatic in its structure. Cliff’s masterful Saviour’s Day is a sweeping Goliath of a song, complete with stirring pan pipe solo. Clearly, there’s something in the air at this time of year.
Let’s explore some of the best Christmas prog songs, together.
Big Big Train – Merry Christmas
They sound like Peter Gabriel fronting Jethro Tull, and they sing passionately about nature, wildlife, the landscape, industry, and history. Of all the bands doing this sort of thing today, no band is doing it better than Big Big Train. I only heard their Christmas song for the first time this year, but I can already tell that it’s one for the ages.
It has everything you’d want from a Christmas song: Chiming and jingling bells, a children’s choir, a brass band, and a rousing chorus that shines all the brighter coupled, as it is, with those comparatively subdued verses. The lyrics reflect on how Christmas might not be as wonderful now as it was when you were young, but you can still make it wonderful, if you want to. This reaches in somewhere deep and cold and lights a fire.
Snowfalls, the b-side to Merry Christmas, is more wintry than outright Christmassy. It’s less uplifting than the a-side, but it’s a moving piano and mellotron-driven slow-burner which, by the end, sounds absolutely immense, like a swirling blizzard that somehow warms instead of freezes.
There’s also Big Big Train’s Wassail EP. Despite the festive artwork, and even though it’s named after something that’s at once a Christmas drink and a Christmas tradition, there’s nothing particularly Christmassy about this release. It’s just a trio of songs from their Folklore album, coupled with an exclusive live-in-the-studio track. It’s all good though! It’s easy to picture merry-making jesters bellowing the title track as they skip from door-to-door offering songs for pennies and pudding.
Marillion – The Carol of the Bells
Many traditional Christmas carols are so complex and portentous that they can immediately become prog songs simply by virtue of who’s performing them. But after two and a half minutes, Marillion give The Carol of the Bells the Marillion touch, transforming it into an urgent mysterious epic with not one, but two searing guitar solos, and a very unexpected ending. I love how the video implies that they all live together, sharing a bed and all.
Marillion also recorded a version of The Christmas Song. They play it totally straight, so if you’re expecting more outlandish prog theatrics, you might be disappointed. But Steve Hogarth’s husky soulful voice was made for this sort of music. The band provides a relaxed jazzy backing, giving the whole thing a smoky late night feel that brings to mind the mid-journey pints I used to enjoy at Crewe station on my way home for Christmas.
Mike Oldfield – In Dulce Jubilo
There’s a cursed version of this song on YouTube. Watch it here. It’s evil. Insidious: every time I hear Mike’s version I can’t help but hear that voice singing those words. He must be stopped. And the only way I can think to dispel of that malevolent spirit is to play this pure, wholesome, untainted version, on repeat, while allowing myself to get that little bit more inebriated with each subsequent listen.
Mike’s just showing off in this video, isn’t he? Demonstrating that he plays everything. It’s undeniably impressive. And at 1:26, when the guitar kicks in, things get so righteously powerful that the evil spirits that haunt this song wither like vampires in sunlight.
There’s a “Christmas Version” of this song. It’s identical in every way, except there’s snow and holly framing all the mini Mikes in the video. Mike’s also recorded a version of Silent Night. With the odd bubbling synths, and with a warbly electric guitar taking the place of the vocals, this could be a broadcast from the first Christmas on Mars.
Kate Bush – December Will Be Magic Again
Many Christmas songs either lament lost innocence, or else seem resigned to make the best of a bad situation, living in hope that Christmas might be wonderful this year. But Kate uses that modal verb to suggest futurity and certainty. It’s not a hope, it’s a promise: December will be magic again. See how I fall, she gasps, like the SNOW! And when she sings snow, her voice catches, like she’s overwhelmed with excitement, or perhaps casting a spell. Promise delivered.
There’s a live version from Kate’s 1979 Christmas TV special, where I believe this song premiered. I simply cannot imagine an artist like Kate Bush being given a prime time Christmas special, now. Nothing’s as good as it used to be.
At the time of writing, Kate’s last album of all-original material is 50 Words for Snow. There are no overt Christmas songs on the album, but it’s perfect listening for this time of year. There are a few explosive moments, but the songs are largely long, sad and spartan affairs that feel frozen in time, like glittering ice sculptures in the darkness. Stephen Fry lists 50 words for snow on the title track, while Kate urges him to keep going. There’s no-one else like her.
Genesis – Snowbound
It took me years to give Phil Collins’s Genesis a fair chance. And all the years I spent writing him off were years wasted. The myth goes that, as soon as Peter Gabriel departed, the band dropped the prog in favour of vapid commercial pop music. Stupidly, I bought the myth. Which meant I endured countless Christmasses deprived of this breathless, wide-eyed, widescreen magical masterpiece about a snowman.
Seriously, it’s an elegiac epic about a snowman! The chorus literally goes HEY! THERE’S A SNOWMAN! The music soars and swirls like the Northern Lights above a perfect blanket of soft white snow, and Phil Collins sounds like an awestruck elf in a pointy hat.
Now that I appreciate Phil Collins’s Genesis just as much as Peter Gabriel’s Genesis, I feel unstoppable, like Happy Gilmore after he learned how to putt.
Though the group has nothing else so explicitly Christmassy in their repertoire, there’s a warm and magical feel to a lot of Genesis’s music. Personally, I always got festive vibes from Visions of Angels from 1970’s Trespass, the first “proper” Genesis album. The song’s narrator sounds downcast in the verses, and outright disillusioned in one particular bridge. But during the chorus, he sounds humbled, amazed, transported. And as this is Peter Gabriel’s Genesis, the prog is weapon-grade. It’s overwhelming.
Greg Lake – I Believe In Father Christmas
My favourite Christmas song, bar none. Greg feels let down by God and gloomy weather, by the lies of his parents and peers, and by the state of the world in general. Nonetheless, he’s determined to make Christmas as special as he can. And with the power of prog, he gets there. It ends with a blinding surge of celestial horns and heavenly choirs, as if the narrator’s been poleaxed by a vision of the divine. And somehow, I’d gone all these years without seeing that full video above, which couples this devastating maelstrom with images of war, and a heart-stopping scene of a father and son reunited.
On the 2007 From The Beginning boxset, there’s an “early version” of I Believe In Father Christmas that’s credited to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, rather than just Lake. You’d expect the “early version” to be rougher, perhaps more subdued, wouldn’t you? Nope. ELP don’t do rough, and they certainly don’t do subdued. This version goes all-out. It’s fully orchestral. The highs Greg Lake’s version reaches at the end? This one’s like that from the start, and it somehow manages to take things to another level entirely. I can’t find this version on YouTube, and that boxset’s not on Spotify. It’s yours for about £35, though.
If you’re looking for a messier, noisier version of this song, check out Six By Seven’s slurry shoegazing cover for the 2001 XFM It’s a Cool Cool Christmas compilation.
Grandaddy – Alan Parsons In A Winter Wonderland
Grandaddy are not a prog band. But their festive tribute to the proggiest of studio engineers is gorgeously proggy. Because how could it not be? Over some warm synth washes, Jason Lytle dreams of meeting Alan Parsons – or of building a snowman and pretending it’s Alan – with a seamless snippet of Time for extra prog points.
The production’s right on, Jason croons, but acknowledges that all my favourite songs have notes that are wrong. I think this is a case of a musician who thinks that prog’s a four letter word protesting too much. I know for a fact that Jason’s crazy about Electric Light Orchestra.
Like the Six by Seven cover of I Believe In Father Christmas, you’ll also find this Grandaddy gem on the 2001 XFM It’s a Cool Cool Christmas compilation. The entire collection’s amazing. In a few short years, it’s gone from being a mere curio to being an indispensable part of my Christmas listening. Beyond Grandaddy and Six by Seven, there are few nods to prog. So instead, bask in the chaos of The Dandy Warhols’ delightfully raucous version of Little Drummer Boy.
Jethro Tull – Ring Out The Solstice Bells
An irresistibly uplifting song which, on the surface, simply sounds like a right jolly knees-up sung by sozzled monks. Yet listen closely and you might realise that its arrangement is extremely complicated. There’s loads going on here! But that’s Christmas, isn’t it: putting a lot of time and effort into the deceptively simple act of making the coldest day of the darkest month warm and welcoming.
The only problem with this song is that it’s a slice of delicious Xmas pie in the middle of the otherwise autumnal Songs From the Wood album. When it comes to albums, I’m an all-or-nothing sort of person. I cannot skip tracks. And at the same time, I can only listen to Christmas music in December. So unfortunately, I can only hear Jethro Tull’s finest album once or twice a year. Nuts!
Jethro Tull have a Christmas Album, which features a rearranged Solstice Bells along with numerous other standards and new compositions. Light and airy festive flute-driven folk rock – listen loud and all may seem right with the world. For a bit.