Happy Holidays USA or Merry Christmas UK? Who does Christmas songs better?
Every year without fail, I make December an all Christmas songs affair. Never before December 1st of course, and never after the 26th, but for every minute in between, it is Christmas music in my house (and my car and on my headphones). This will absolutely include the minor 1984 Queen hit ‘Thank God It’s Christmas’, which takes on a new meaning in 2020 when you listen to the lyrics (“it’s been a long hard year”). It would really help put 2020 behind us if the song came back into vogue (it reached number 21 in the UK chart in 1984).
Never mind. We will, however, see another old Christmas song dominate the consciousness this year — and even reach number 1 on the chart, and that’s Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas. First released in 1994, it is the last bona fide classic original Christmas tune ever released (it has now passed one billion streams). I’ve written before about how this song has been re-marketed with considerable resources over the years by Sony Music. Mariah wrote the tune with Walter Afanasieff (who recently sold his 50% stake to the investment/publishing group Hipgnosis Songs Fund, so we can expect the song to keep coming every year in ever more ways). I hope it doesn’t all become too much ‘big business’, since part of the song’s universal charm is that a lot of people love it, but nobody dislikes it.
Christmas music is a funny old genre, but it’s more important than you might think. It takes up a substantial amount of listening time in December and a lot of music gets played — including the all-day Christmas tunes piped out in retail stores. For a funny take on the legacy of the Christmas song as one-hit-wonder, forever piped through supermarket speakers — do see the Nick Hornby film About A Boy.
I’ve been researching the genre for years, fascinated by the comeback of the Christmas album, which I’ve traced back to 2006 (roughly speaking), which saw the release of both Aimee Mann’s One More Drifter In The Snow (2006) and Sufjan Stevens’ Songs For Christmas box set. After that, artists on both sides of the Atlantic (and further afield) have fancied a crack at the album as Christmas cracker, exploring many different takes from cover versions to originals and traversing just about every musical style in the process: rock, pop, R&B, folk — even electronic — there playlists full of electronic xmas tunes on the streaming platforms. When country stars do Christmas, the results can be especially rewarding. Try Kacey Musgraves’ 2016 release A Very Kacey Christmas for example.
While I have been vaguely preoccupied with the idea of a post based on a transatlantic face-off between the USA and the UK as to who does the best Holiday/Christmas music, it turns out to be something of a complicated area. While the Americans have a rich depth in holiday tunes, from the heritage of Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Billie Holiday, The Carpenters, Andy Williams and Frank Sinatra, they also have mighty Mariah of course. But it’s possible that in the US, there is a stronger pipeline of new seasonal music coming out each year. In 2020, we have new additions to the American Christmas canon by Dolly Parton, Goo Goo Dolls, Leslie Odom Jr., Tori Kelly, Maddie & Tae, Carrie Underwood and mexicana legends Calexico. A lot of it is rather good. As mentioned earlier, it was American artists that brought the Christmas album back into vogue.
On the other hand, the UK has produced The Pogues (featuring Kirsty MacColl) Fairytale of New York which is a lot of peoples favourite Christmas song. The Brits have Slade Merry Xmas Everybody, which is the UKs official family Christmas drunken lunch anthem. And we have Wham Last Christmas — the saddest seasonal break-up pop banger ever made. But the Americans would hardly know it, since many of the UK’s favourite Christmas tunes have barely registered across the Atlantic — Wham is a rare exception having charted (at number 11) in the Billboard Hot 100.
Brits Bob Geldof and Midge Ure also wrote the most important (if not the best) Christmas song ever, Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas. The song has become part of British pop culture though once again, was only a minor hit in the USA (at no. 13 on Billboard). Bless him, the UK’s popical son Robbie Williams had a stab at a Christmas staple in 2019 with Time For Change, but sadly Robbie could not reverse the trend of more & more less memorable Christmas tunes. Not one to be easily deterred, Robbie is back in 2020 with coronavirus antidote Can’t Stop Christmas (“You can’t take away our season, like you can’t take away our wine”). Maybe Robbie should have another crack at it each and every year.
I guess based on the above evidence, the US is looking most likely to claim the Christmas crown, but then once I dove further back into tradition of the Christmas carol, it made me think again. It is the old folk songs that ring the Christmas bells of England, bringing to mind boozy pub sing-a-longs that can’t be beaten even by the rather schmaltzy American classics.
Yorkshire folk singer Kate Rusby for example, has made no fewer than five Christmas albums — yes five. Her first seasonal album Sweet Bells was released in 2012 and her latest, Holly Head was from 2019. Kate is on a merry mission to spread the word on the solemn beauty of the English Christmas song — a tradition of seasonal community spirit practiced from the impromptu singalongs of South Yorkshire pubs to the 19th century carols of Cornwall. The results are quite wonderful, as you’ll agree if you’d care to stop everything and spend four and half minutes in the company of the song The Holly King. Another fabulous English folk tune for Christmas was released this year (in the hot pandemic-ridden summer): Shirley Collins’ quiet masterpiece The Christmas Song.
That said, so many of the ‘Christmas standards’ are a subset of the great American songbook, from Dinah Shore’s ebullient 1954 classic You Meet The Nicest People (At Christmas) to Andy Williams’ joyful Most Wonderful Time Of The Year (1963).
The tradition continued through to the early 1970s, when The Carpenters produced Merry Christmas Darling, a sad and beautiful number. The lyrics were written in 1944 by an 18 year old Frank Pooler, who later became choral director at California State University, Long Beach. Some 22 years after he wrote them, two of his aspiring music students, Karen and Richard Carpenter, asked the Professor if he had any ideas for holiday songs. According to Pooler, they had become tired of the standard holiday songs. Pooler gave them the lyrics and so the story goes, Richard Carpenter wrote the accompanying tune in just 15 minutes. Four years later, in 1970, the Carpenters hit number one on the Billboard Christmas charts with the song, and did so again in 1971 and 1973. And so a new American standard holiday song was created.
Perhaps, the seasonal song can be an ongoing tradition as part of the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the USA (may it continue as the political landscape changes a?). I hope so. Most of all, I hope to be able to compile a truly great list of forgotten British Christmas songs to sit alongside my currently rather US dominated collections. Maybe I’ll start here:
Any other suggestions?
The Song Sommelier holiday page is here. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.