Trudging round TK Maxx in pursuit of small woollen items for assorted relatives, qmunicate’s resident Grinch was struck by the difficulty of crafting a Christmas playlist devoid of the kind of saccharine, John Lewis-Ad sentimentality, Mariah Carey-esque caterwauling or indie bands doing ‘ironic’ reinterpretations which tends to dominate shop and radio playlists over the festive period. With that in mind, let us dive into the swirling snow dome of minor chords, seasonal references and gin-soaked melancholy that represents a take on Christmas bonhomie for the more discerning listener….
10 – The Ronettes – Sleigh Ride
Masterminded by Sideshow Bob look-alike and imprisoned pop-genius Phil Spector, A Christmas Gift for You took the finest vocal groups of the early sixties and put them to work covering a variety of traditional standards. What sets it apart from a million copycat efforts however is the gorgeous harmonies and Spector’s slick production. Arguably, he invented the idea of pop stars releasing Christmas records but when the results are as irresistible as this I’ll allow just one ‘Ding-aling-alinga-ding-dong-ding’ on the list.
9 – The Darkness – Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)
Written with the admirable goal of getting the word ‘bell-end’ onto Top of the Pops, the hirsute rockers turbo-charged romp is just flamboyant and daft enough to be endearing. Denied a Christmas Number 1 by emo anthem ‘Mad World’, it perfectly captures the inherent silliness of filling your house with tinsel and toys for two weeks a year.
8 – Tim Minchin – Drinking White Wine in the Sun
Starting out as a comic riff on the commercialisation of Christmas, the big-haired pianist’s ballad brilliantly transforms into a tender tribute to his young daughter, touching beautifully on the importance of family amidst an ever-changing world.
7 – Ring out Solstice Bells – Jethro Tull
Any band who feature a flautist are desperately uncool by modern standards, but this ballad from 1973’s Songs from the Wood is actually one of the best tracks in their discography, balancing neatly between folk, classic rock and seasonal high spirits.
6 – Dave Grohl, Billy Gibbons and Lemmy – Run Rudolph Run
One of them is the finest drummer of his generation (suck it Portnoy), one is the man Hendrix described as the second best guitarist in the world and the other is the living embodiment of the spirit of rock n’ roll. They get together in a room and decide to jam out an old Chuck Berry song. Genius ensues. They’re having a great time and so should you. Bonus points: ZZ Top mainman Billy Gibbons possesses a beard that puts even Santa’s to shame
5 – Tom Waits – Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis
On the other hand however, what better way to celebrate the festive season than contemplating the misfortunes of one’s acquaintances? This, then, is the central premise of the gravel-voiced piano man’s contribution to Christmas cheer: the titular prostitute is broke, pregnant, locked up and desperate for the narrator to post her bail. Raw and sinister, it’s a far more powerful reminder that not everyone gets a merry Christmas than Band Aid’s sugar-coated conscience salving.
Alternatives: William S Burroughs’s ‘A Junky’s Christmas’, anything from Bob Dylan’s Christmas record.
4 – The Waitresses – Christmas Wrapping
Slightly more upbeat is this tale from Ohio of a woman planning to spend Christmas alone. One-hit wonders The Waitresses not only gift us catchy brass and a funky new-wave rhythm but even a happy ending too, as our heroine hooks up with the man she’s been pursuing all year whilst out buying Cranberry sauce. Charming without resorting to sugary sweetness or cheesy kitsch, it’s so good it even survived a Spice Girls cover.
3 – Low – Just Like Christmas
I have a theory that the very best seasonal tunes aren’t actually about Christmas at all and this is one track which definitely seems to bear this out. When Mimi Parker sings ‘On our way from Stockholm, it started to snow’ it’s sweeping and romantic, yet tinged with sadness when she realises she can’t get home to loved ones. Here Christmas is merely a reminder of the home comforts the narrator is missing but by subverting the sleigh bell clichés the indie rockers craft a sweet and believable tale.
2 – Joni Mitchell – River
Mixing stunning swooning vocals with a sparse but direct arrangement the Canadian singer- songwriter’s festive treat appears on her seminal 1971 album ‘Blue’. The song is a complex confessional mixing escapism with self-doubt as Joni wishes for ‘a river to skate away on’, but it’s her fantastic voice and gorgeous lyricism that demand repeated listening.
1 – The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl – Fairytale of New York
When the girlfriend of Pogues producer Steve Lilywhite stood up to record a guide vocal for the Irish septet’s tale of hope, crushed dreams and romanticism in snowy New York, little did they realise that they were coming together to record what is not only the finest Christmas song ever committed to tape but a stunning piece of music regardless of when it’s played. Blending Kirsty MacColl’s melodic sensibility and sparky personality with Shane MacGowan’s drunken rasp, it’s proof that Christmas time need not be synonymous with treacly cliché and perfectly capturing the rows and bickering of the festive season as well as a tremendous sense of hope and expectation for the new year.