It’s easy to fall foul of stereotype or cliché when song-writing, but perhaps never more so than when penning a Christmas song.
Clichés not only surround Christmas, but are positively embraced come late December. Russell Mael, frontman of LA’s enduring weird-rock duo Sparks, is not easily accused of such a crime, so, we figured, who better to ask for a selection of festive favourites?
“I find things fall into different camps,” says Russell at the start of our conversation. “So the one common thing in the Christmas songs that I respond to more is the potential for loneliness at Christmas and how it evokes that.
“The celebratory side, for me, often brings up the saccharine side of Christmas that I don’t respond to well. It’s just sort of hackneyed. The ones that have a bit more meaning for me have a little more reality infused in them in an emotional way… In my mind, certain things just click.”
Onwards we go then through a sleigh-ride selection of 10 tracks from one of rock’s finest and most-artful minds…
Elvis Presley - Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me
“Elvis is Elvis, so he gets a boost on any list. As I said, there are certain themes that carry through Christmas songs.
“One is this ‘celebratory time of the year’ theme, where people like to idealise and make it a hopeful, fun, spirited time. Then there’s the genre of songs that are a reflection on the past year and things that the writer is hoping for, wishing for, so Christmas seems to elicit different emotions.
“And then, of course, Santa Claus often gets brought into the fold, too, in Christmas songs. Here his one Christmas wish is that his lover is brought back to him. Christmas songs are often tacky or corny, but I think this one seems more earnest than some.”
Elvis Presley - Blue Christmas
“What I was saying can be combined in a certain way with Blue Christmas, again, he’s yearning for this lost lover that he won’t be celebrating with over Christmas.
“Within both of the categories I mentioned there are the ones that are done with more sincerity and emotion, whereas some have the exact opposite effect, where you just get turned-off.
“The first two on this list, in any case, both deal with the same theme around Christmas, that the singer is missing his loved one. The first one is less poetic, saying ‘Hey Santa! Bring my baby back to me!’ But Blue Christmas is a little more heart-wrenching.”
White Christmas - Bing Crosby
“You can’t have a list without White Christmas. This is one of those songs that could have gone either way - of being tacky or not.
“There seems to be a reason that it’s such a staple of Christmas. There’s a sincerity to it, although it’s being done in a more positive spirit [than my first two choices]. The guy’s dreaming of a white Christmas and approaching the subject from a less cynical side.
“It’s nostalgic. It’s yearning for the past and that’s an important point with Christmas songs. People, in song, reference Christmas mostly based on the past, on nostalgic experience.
“In this one he’s saying ‘I’ve had white Christmases in the past’ and, hopefully, this year there’ll be another, because that will bring me happiness and joy. Nostalgia is such a key ingredient in all of these Christmas songs.”
The Beach Boys - Little Saint Nick
“I love the idea of having The Beach Boys - who, in my mind, represent California and sunshine and the beach – singing about Christmas.
“I live in LA and it’s beautiful and sunny here and it has been for weeks and weeks. If you go into Beverly Hills, they have all this piped-in Christmas music and there are all of these palm trees sitting there with Christmas ornaments on them – so it’s all totally incongruous and screwed-up.
“The song Little Saint Nick, to me, is really incongruous, but I like the song. It’s done in exactly the same style as if they were singing ‘I wish they all could be California girls’. They’re just singing in their surf style, regardless of the time of year and I think that’s cool in a back-handed way.”
The Ronettes - I Saw Mommie Kissing Santa Claus
“This is from the big album [A Christmas Gift For You]! The Phil Spector thing.
“We spoke about the potential for things to become kitsch and schlock in the genre in general, but on the Phil Spector album he managed to find a way, with all of the groups and his production, to take songs like I Saw Mommie Kissing Santa Claus, which can be really saccharine and – maybe because of the production and the plaintive singing of The Ronnettes – transcend it.
“It’s not something that makes you want to cringe. You can listen to the album as a standalone anytime of the year in my mind, just because of the way he approached those songs.”
The Crystals - Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer / Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers
“Two more from A Christmas Gift For You. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers are both classic-sounding and not cringe-worthy at all.
“Most of his production is super elaborate and has this really big ‘wall of sound’, but all of the songs really stand out. They’re all really refreshing and that album is one you can come back to year after year.
“The sleigh bells and all of that were even a part of his normal productions. River Deep, Mountain High has sleigh bells on it, you know? So all of those production elements that he used in his non-Christmas songs are not out of character - in fact, they’re perfectly in character - with Christmas songs. It’s exuberant and over-the-top, but in a really well-done way.”
Darlene Love - Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
“This should have been back up at number three because it’s ‘the relationship’ song again!
“Elvis was singing ‘Santa, bring my baby back to me’ and she’s singing ‘Baby, please come home’. It’s that sub-category, within Christmas songs, of loneliness. In the case of this song, what would make it better, her one wish, is for her baby to come home, at least for Christmas.”
“[It evokes that idea of] that arbitrary, almost obligatory idea of Christmas, when you take it away from it’s original intent and meaning, where ‘you better be sharing it with someone else’ or you’re going to be considered a loner, as if that has to be a bad thing in itself.
“Society sort of judges you by ‘who are you spending Christmas with?’ And if you don’t have a good answer then you’re sort of an outcast. This song is a perfect example of that sort of thing and it’s a brilliant song. It’s very emotive and on that level, beautiful.”
Frank Sinatra - Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
“This is a classic that doesn’t have a cynical side to it at all. It’s nice when you have that in a Christmas song, but where it isn’t something that makes your cavities act-up because it’s so sugary sweet.
“With this one, there’s just something uncynical and beautiful about this idea to ‘have yourself a merry little Christmas’ and with Frank Sinatra singing it, there’s just a sincerity to it.
“That either comes through or doesn’t with a vocalist, but with Frank singing it and with the intent of the song and the lyrics of this one, it really does, I think.”
Run DMC - Christmas In Hollis
“I like the contrast of this song [to your usual Christmas songs]. In a certain way, you can find parallels between it and The Beach Boys’ Little Saint Nick.
“It’s seemingly kind of incongruous that you’d be singing a Christmas song from the perspective of Queens, New York. And that’s from a stylistic perspective, too. For a Christmas song, it sounds kind of out of context, but in a good way and it’s cool, too. It’s almost taking the genre and turning it upside its head.
[At this point MusicRadar interjects to point out that we take issue with the scratched Jingle Bells opening sequence].
“Yeah, well, there are certain conventions that don’t age well, so I’m with ya on that one!”
Billie Holiday - I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm
“This one is more evoking the wintertime in a general sort of way but it gets associated with Christmas, in my mind. It’s really sensual, that’s what I like about it.
“She’s sort of saying, ‘I don’t need no parka at this time of year, I’ve got my love to keep me warm’. With Billie Holiday singing that, you read more into the lines and conjure up sensual imagery: just thinking of Billie Holiday by the fireplace, with only ‘her love’. It can take you endless places – all good!
“Equally, it can either be with your family and your earliest memories with your mother, but if you want to get all Freudian with it, then you take it to the next level, then she’s being enveloped by her loved one in this wintertime. It’s having shelter, but in the most primal way.”