Is there a more contentious issue in popular music today than the annual Xmas song debate? Okay, yes there probably is, but now the rest of the world acknowledges that Cheryl can’t actually sing, GaGa is overrated and Bono is a tool, our attentions must turn to the age old topic of why no-one releases festive songs to rival the greats. Lewie, De Berg and, er, Cliff have all had a fairly long reign in world of Christmas tunes, with only a few challengers appearing since The Pogues waltzed into the Christmas number two slot in 1987 with their masterpiece, the dark carol Fairytale Of New York. Recent examples of ranged from the bauble-shatteringly awful Don’t Let The Bells End (The Darkness) to some which, whilst deserving a place in the discerning listener’s collection, would hardly fit snugly on “The Best Christmas Album Since Last Year’s Best Christmas Album – Ever!” such as Glasvegas’ slurred tale of winter loneliness A Snowflake Fell And It Felt Like A Kiss, or The Killers’ Christmas songs for those who are too cool for Slade.
Many smaller bands record seasonal tracks with their own special mark but not many of our biggest bands bother these days, and there would appear to be one big, shiny corporate reason for that. On the 13th of December 2009, The X-Factor (ITV’s fame-whore factory line) will decide who will release the winner’s song of series six in an “attempt” to claim the “coveted” Christmas Number 1 spot, and woe betide anyone who tries to stand in its way. I say “attempt” and “coveted” because the X-Factor has won this position for the past four years in a row now, and one suspects that nothing will stop the X-Factor’s relentless march towards market saturation and Christmas domination, even if smug bell-end extraordinaire Simon Cowell had to buy all the CD copies himself and invade Lapland simultaneously. Maybe he could leave Louis there to find employment as Santa’s deranged new elf.
So, as if Christmas hadn’t become commercial enough already, we now have a situation where one of the richest music moguls on the planet annually dictates to us who is going to be the nation’s favourite festive artist. Previous members of this club have included Shayne Ward with That’s My Goal”, Leona Lewis and A Moment Like This, When You Believe by Leon Jackson and Alexandra Burke warbling all over Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s seminal Hallelujah like a screaming cat on a trampoline. This year’s instalment of the capitalist Christmas experience is set to be either entertaining but vocally bland Olly Murs (who couldn’t even win on Deal Or No Deal, a game with no skill required), the impressively ditzy but likeable Stacey Solomon, quiet but consistently excellent Joe McElderry (who lives so close to me I couldn’t possibly critique him without suffering the wrath of my Mam and grandparents) or Danyl Johnson, perhaps the best vocalist, but a man with serious image and confidence issues. Plus I always expect to see the Millennium Falcon to come soaring out of his cavernous mouth, a la The Empire Strikes Back, when he hits the big notes. This year’s release is rumoured to be either Don’t Stop Believing by Journey or The Climb by Hannah fucking Montana. Songs that I wouldn’t choose to listen to before making sure my ears were completely detached from my head at the best of times, never mind at Christmas.
It’s all very easy to blame the X Factor for the decline of Christmas specific music, but in reality that particular cynical PR exercise of a show is merely the end result of what we started in the last decade or so. It seems that somewhere in the haze of the 90s we forgot how to make a decent Christmas number one. It could be argued that The Spice Girls kicked off the trend. Back then they subjected us to year after year of “Girl Power” and left us longing for the day that East 17 released Stay Another Day, possibly the last good Christmas song. Since then we’ve had to endure the embarrassing re-workings of Do They Know It’s Christmas?, and The Wombats’ Is This Christmas? to name but a few. All of the above could be linked to increased levels of violence over the festive period, but they also beg the question of why we can’t seem to produce any decent Christmas hits anymore.
Maybe though, the problem is not with the new songs being written, but with public perceptions. If you look at the majority of the best remembered Christmas songs from the biggest musicians of the 70s and 80s you may notice that they are hardly stellar musical achievements. The likes of Wonderful Christmastime and even Slade’s hallowed Merry Xmas Everybody all use the exact same form of festive stereo typing that is pervasive in today’s musical Christmas turkeys. Could it be then that we look back on these older tunes with such rose-tinted nostalgia that we overlook faults that we wouldn’t accept from today’s chart scenesters? Or is it more that all these bands seem so desperate to make it into the pantheon of festive greats that their efforts end up feeling as hollow and fame obsessed as the X-Factor winner’s single? I recently reviewed a Christmas offering by little known Irish musician Niall Conn, who managed to capture the spirit of those older songs without sounding hollow or forced. Instead his Loving You At Christmas Time was as much a warm tribute to those tunes as the festive season itself, and if it had been written in the 70’s Conn would probably be set for life raking in the royalties, but as an unknown in a world of un-paralleled musical choice he is unfortunately destined to be left behind. For all those out there though who long for the days when Xmas singles were the musical equivalent of a knitted jumper and a glass of sherry by the fire, I recommend you seek Conn’s song out. The same goes for Bob Dylan’s surprising Christmas In The Heart album, which whilst featuring no original material does contain refreshingly fun and heartfelt versions of some great traditional fare, and with all profits going to charity the festive spirit of fun and giving is evident in every raspy note that comes from the great man’s mouth.
Oddly for a period associated so heavily with joy, there is one type of Christmas song that has maintained its credibility and often gains popularity at Christmas time; the miserablist Christmas song. These more sobering, and jaded takes on the festive season have been going strong since Mud recorded Lonely This Christmas. The sub-genre reached its peak in 1987 when the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl climbed to number two in the U.K charts with the seminal Fairytale Of New York (it was beaten to the top spot by the Pet Shop Boys covering Elvis Presley’s Always on My Mind). This understated, emotional tale about two people with a self destructive love over Christmas contains many evocative images such as youthful optimism of when the couple arrives, to the cold reality of how their lives have fell apart around them, culminating in the feelings of the characters being stripped bare before the final soaring chorus (“You took my dreams from me when I first found you/I kept them with me babe/I put them with my own/Can’t make it all alone/I built my dreams around you”).
Artists such as Gary Jules and Malcolm Middleton have even managed to reach the top spots in the past with songs such as the hauntingly bleak Mad World and We’re All Going to Die. Less commercially successful are those that are actually about Christmas, although they still manage to garner a cult following, and one of the best in recent years is Frightened Rabbit’s majestically miserable It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop. The song tells the familiar story of people deciding to be nice to each other for the one day in the year where everyone is supposed to get along and is ended with a refrain of “the next day life went back to its bad self”.
It was never going to reach the same heights as any X-factor’s winner, not even Steve Brookstein, but it has earned a place in alternative Christmas playlists alongside other lesser known artists, and so long as Simon Cowell holds the monopoly over the charts, and dodgy indie bands are churning out bad pastiches of old classics, we’ll hopefully have more of these hidden gems to keep us warm over Christmas alongside our Christmas hits compilations.