When you’re a Christmas tragic such as myself, one of the key ingredients to falling headfirst, and utterly, completely and absolutely so into the festive spirit – it begins sometime around the end of November, ending only on Boxing Day or in my case, considerably after that – is music, lots and lots of Christmas music.
That includes everything from The Nutcracker through to a slew of carols and modern classics, and even an album, an entire album of brand-new originals (thank you Sia!), all critically-important in getting you in just the right mood.
Whether its decorating the Christmas tree, placing the various fun knick-knacks that line the shelves or stringing the tinsel from light fitting to light fitting (don’t knock it until you’re tried it and no, it does not catch on fire, thank you), or simply kicking back with the one you love, music is as much a part of the season as eggnog, Three Wise Men or reruns of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
So in honour of the special place music occupies in this season of Frosty the Snowman and chestnuts roasting, I’ve selected 10 of my favourite Christmas songs, a by no means exhaustive list, and throw in five reinterpretations by indie artists, to give you some idea of what’s available out there but, more importantly, to get you rockin’ around the Christmas tree or simply tapping your foot and humming happily as you wrap presents, and maybe just maybe, fall in love with this music as much as I have since the days I used to play “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on the piano every Christmas.
“Marshmallow World” (version by Seth MacFarlane)
If you only know Seth MarFarlane from Family Guy or Ted, you’ll be in for a treat when you first hear what is, by any estimation, a superlatively lush and lustrous voice. He sings absolutely beautifully and even better, has the ability to invest his singing with just the right amount of Christmasness. Sure it’s an intangible quality but my lord does MacFarlane have it and in spades, and it’s on resplendent show on Carl Sigman (lyrics) and Peter DeRose (music)’s 1949 song, “Marshmallow World” aka “It’s a Marshmallow World”, which has been covered by the likes of Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Johnny Mathis.
“Winter Wonderland” (version by Sara McLachlan)
Granted no one in Australia will ever be able to live this out for real but with someone as gloriously talented as Canadian artist Sarah McLachlan adding joyfully upbeat lustre to 1934’s “Winter Wonderland” by Felix Bernard (music) and Richard B. Smith (lyricist), you probably don’t really need to. And for those of you lucky enough to get a white Christmas – the seasonal occurrence, not the song, although let’s be fair both are good, McLachlan’s damn near angelic voice invests the song with a sweet, aching hushed melancholy that quite magically never loses one iota of its festive hopefulness.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (version by Amy Grant)
Debuting in 1944 in the film Meet Me in St. Louis, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is as melancholically poignant as they come, as Judy Garland character Esther tries, on Christmas Eve, to cheer up her despondent five year sister who, like the rest of the family, is dreading the family’s move to New York City. It has been covered by anyone who’s anyone really but it’s this version by Nashville-based Amy Grant that really tugs at my heartstrings, helped along by the fact that I’ve been following her career since the get-go and consequently have a sentimental soft spot for all three of her Christmas albums.
“Let it Snow” (version by Frank Sinatra)
Frank Sinatra was an amazing singer no matter what he tackled. But I have always loved his festive classics thanks largely to his ability to add a smooth sheen to songs that we know so well. Take “Let It Snow”, a jaunty song by any yardstick to which Sinatra adds gorgeously rich vocals, big band swing and a sense that no matter how bad the weather is, kicking back with the one/s you love is a thousand kinds of delightful. Let it snow indeed!
“All I Want For Christmas is You” (version by, of course, Mariah Carey)
Now this is a classic with a capital “C”, red and white neon and lettering the size of Texas. One of the few modern Christmas songs to attain classic status, and pretty much instantly too upon its release in November 1994, “All I Want For Christmas is You” is bouncy, longing-for-that-special-someone, extravagantly upbeat fabulousness that manages to keep its giddy optimism (thanks to a driving danceable beat that yields for no one) even with undercurrent of realism creeping in. It’s real but full of promise, alive and yet knowing and it’s taps into everything wonderful about the season, most especially the sense that anything, absolutely anything, is possible.
“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” (version by Michael Bublé)
Oh how I love Michael Bublé’s softly soulful, velvety-smooth voice. Teamed with Meredith Willson’s 1951 classic “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”, it’s in a league of its own, adding that festively cozy sense of being wrapped in everything good, wonderful and sublime that all the best Christmas songs deliver up in spades. This song is one of my go to decorating songs, adding a delicious sense of contentment to one of my favourite times of the year.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (version by Annie Lennox)
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, which dates from the 16th century or earlier, doesn’t quite have the popularity it once did but it remains one of my favourite Christmas songs period. It was the one song I’d relearn every Christmas – I was not a naturally gifted pianist so relearning was a given as was the insane amount of time it took me to get it right – and to this day makes Christmas feel like Christmas. So imagine my great delight – go on, I can wait – when Annie Lennox, an artist I adore for her luminously crystal clear, deeply emotive voice added it to the list for her A Christmas Cornucopia album (2010), immediately making the song a standout on a superlative collection of tracks.
“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (version by Cyndi Lauper)
Ever since she romped into our lives proclaiming with mischievous colour and brio that “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, Cyndi Lauper has brought her unique talents to bear on all kinds of music from pop to electronica to country and way beyond. So why should Christmas music be any different? Her entire album is an absolute cheeky hoot with “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” a standout gem, packed full of her distinctive vocals, a bouncy, fun vibe and a fantastic reggae beat that adds a whole new dimension to this classic song of the season.
“The First Noel” (version by Allie Moss)
I’ll be honest – while “The First Noel” is a beautiful carol, it can also sound incredibly turgid in the wrong hands. Hands, which I can assure you, do not belong to New Jersey-born singer-songwriter Allie Moss, who invests this timeless song with a jaunty sense of fun that takes it from a touching but slow-moving song to something with unexpected verve, augmented by her beautiful breezy vocals. If you’re a shepherd sitting in the field with your flocks, this is your song (although the rest of you should listen too, of course).
“Little Drummer Boy” (version by by Mary J. Blige)
Mary J Blige is an impressive artist by just about any measure. Forthright, honest and committed to her artistry, she’s also brilliantly adept at infusing a classic song like “Little Drummer Boy” with her own artistry and style while still retaining everything that makes it so goosebump-inducingly beautiful. This is one of those songs that makes me feel most Christmassy and Mary J Blige just nails it, choir and all.
And now for some Indie festive fun (courtesy of enormously-funky music site We Are the Guard) …
“All I Want For Christmas is You” by Cappa
Now you may think that “All I Want For Christmas is You” is so closely identified with Mariah Carey, the artist who first sang it, and has turned into a multimedia empire now encompassing an animated special and a children’s book, that it’s well-nigh impossible to do anything startlingly original or fresh with it. Well Nashville-based pop artist Cappa is here to prove that not only can you so something right out of the ballpark with it but you can make the song absolutely and definitely your own. She invests the song with a looping, folksy, guitar-driven flavour that plays up the melancholy but not at the expense of its hopeful air, aided and abetted with an achingly-emotive voice and some trippy chorus elements that make this one version that will stick in your earworm, throughout Christmas and well beyond.
“The Christmas Song” by DENM
DENM has been one of my finds of the year and I have yet to find a song of his that I don’t want to obsessively listen to over and over and over and over … well, you get the idea. Proving he has more than that special something, he has delivered up yet another compulsively-listenable song in “The Christmas Song”, written in 1945 by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé and popularised and well-nigh impossible to separate from music great Nat King Cole. The California artist obviously isn’t daunted by tackling such an iconic song, and gives it a deliciously “Garage-Dance alt-pop cover” (We Are the Guard), courtesy of vocal samples and some inventive use of pan-flutes, that beautifully reimagines it while honouring everything we like about the song.
“Carol of the Bells” BY MXMS
Talk about really pushing the boundaries and succeeding way beyond expectations. LA/NYC-based Ariel Levitan and Jeremy Dawson, purveyors of icily melodic funeral pop known as as MXMS, have taken “Carol of the Bells”, written in 1914 by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1914 with lyrics by Peter J. Wilhousky, which has always had a decidedly dark ethereal edge to it even in its more conventional iterations, and give it a spine-chillingly dark and glossy sheen. All of which gives it even more of an emotional impact than it already had, and making it one of the more evocative versions of this song. It’s quite simply a stunner.
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by alxxa
So you’re probably thinking – what is the giddily upbeat son “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, which doesn’t a dark or despondent or remotely cynical bone in its body doing with an artist who places skulls atop Christmas trees (a cleverly rad idea by the way which I love). Why giving it a fantastically edge new feel that works like a charm – Delaware-based artist alxxa has gifted Edward Pola and George Wyle 1963’s classic “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” with a wholly new kind of upbeat vibe, one that relies on the indie electro pop that alxxa is so well known for, in the process, keeping it cheery and yet more melancholically thoughtful, entirely in keeping with the feel of the season.
“Do You Hear What I Hear?” by Jamie Lidell
English singer/soul musician, now based in Nashville and formerly of band Super Collider has taken “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, written in 1962 with lyrics by Noël Regney and music by Gloria Shayne Baker and given it a major, and I mean major tempo boost to absolute winning effect. It’s so brilliantly danceable in fact that it’s hard not to move your feet to Lidell’s inspired take on the song.
NOW THIS IS FESTIVE MUSIC EXTRA EXTRA!
Are you in the mood for a parody of “Little Drummer Boy”? Then you’re in luck! Courtesy of Jimmy Fallon and Martin Short, I give you The Little Trumper Boys (source: Decider)