Crafting a Christmas classic is easy, right? A few sleigh bells, some lyrics about mistletoe… and wine, perhaps? Snowmen, Santa… you know the drill. Except, of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Capturing Christmas magic in song is about as easy as catching Father Christmas up your chimney. There are those who try - check out the never-ending procession of Christmas albums that thrive or dive each year - and - thankfully —there are those who don’t have to try.
So, pour yourself an eggnog, don your songwriting scarf and your production parka and learn from the very best as we pick just five Christmas tunes (and a few extra extended listens) that really deliver the goodies.
1. Marshmallow World - Darlene Love
You might not instantly recognise that title, but believe us, you know it. And when this rips out of your speakers your Christmas party just got started.
Marshmallow World is, of course, from - for our money - the greatest Christmas album of all time, A Christmas Gift For You by Phil Spector. Picking just one of the seasonal smashes from this wall-to-wall-of-sound classic was next to impossible, but we’ve plumped for Marshmallow World by virtue of its state-of-the-art production complexity and unstoppable, irresistible energy. Just be sure to check out the album in its entirety, too.
Released on November 22nd, 1963 - the same day President Kennedy was assassinated - the album was originally entitled A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records (being originally released on Philles records).
Over the years it has been re-released multiple times as A Christmas Gift To You From Phil Spector and even had a stint as simply The Phil Spector Christmas album, being originally released in mono before popping into stereo in 1974.
In bare-faced actuality it’s a rag-tag compilation of cheesy Christmas standards, quickly cobbled together in September 1963 with a cast of artists and friends of Spector, lending their vocals over a trusted band of session musicians - aka The Wrecking Crew - with the whole bunch given Spector’s famous wall of sound production.
In reality, however, it’s a magical, airy, blast of good cheer that will be THE on point and timeless soundtrack to Christmas forever. Fact.
Featuring performances from Darlene Love, The Ronettes, Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans and The Crystals on rotating vocal duties it’s the arrangements of these Christmas standards that make the album so special, with these hasty, loud, brash, big reworkings becoming the de facto ‘original’ versions of every Christmas classic on board.
Listen to any other artist tackling Santa Claus Is Coming To Town or Winter Wonderland and it’s the Spector version they’re copying. And it was Spector that first gave White Christmas the shuffle and swing that everyone from Michael Bublé to Megan Trainor cranks out today.
Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ can - and has been - replicated through heavy use of modern technology, but the man himself created it thanks to the insane luxury of having multiple instruments playing the same line at the same time. Why have a piano part when you can have three pianos playing it with a harpsichord and Clavinet on top? That, plus judicious use of the large echo chambers at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles - large purpose-built rooms lined with stone and concrete walls, and a precursor to the spring and digital reverbs to come.
The fantastic musicianship, great, raw, one-take vocals, the distinctive sound of the studio and Spector directing it all combine to create a musical Christmas snapshot that will remain magical forever.
2. Band Aid - Do They Know It’s Christmas?
It's a track so familiar that, chances are, you’ve never really listened to it. An odd mix of sounds and styles that - had the band and its producers not felt the pressing need to get it out within 24 hours and start saving lives - would have been subject to a lot more care and attention.
The story behind Bob Geldof’s call-to-arms - made after seeing TV journalist Michael Buerk’s report on the famine in Ethiopia - and his ‘avengers enemble of ‘80s excess ne’er-do-wells is well documented, so we’ll focus on the song itself.
DTKIC is a record without a chorus, as successive lines are added by the parade of pop royalty before a shuffling drum fill from Phil Collins and ‘the shouty bit at the end’. A game of two halves, then… Or rather a 90/10 combination of verses by Ultravox’s Midge Ure and ‘the feed the world bit’ by The Boomtown Rats’ Bob Geldof. The glue between the two being a rushed, simple backing track crafted by Ure in advance of the session with an Emulator II and a Yamaha DX7, contributions from Duran Duran bassist John Taylor and guitars from Paul Weller (not used on the finished track).
Initial plans had been for top-of-his-game Trevor Horn to produce but after insisting that the recording would require six weeks of work (timing that would have put the release beyond Christmas) Horn made do with offering his Sarm West Studios for free on the 25th of November 1984.
The track is therefore - at best - a bit of a rush job. Ure’s own vocal ‘ahhs’ - pitched to almost comically low notes - form most of the backing, with a sampled reverbed single tom hit from the opening seconds of Tears For Fears’ The Hurting forming much of the rhythm track - this despite the band not being invited to take part.
The song picks up with drums from Phil Collins, a simple, barely-a-bass-sound, and buzzing synth chords hard left (both from a PPG Wave synthesizer). The ‘clanging chimes of doom’ are, of course, provided by preset 26, Tub Bells, from ROM1A of the DX7’s factory settings.
The story goes that among the first celebs to arrive at the studio were James ‘JT’ Taylor and Kool from Kool and The Gang, with the rest of 1984’s pop royalty dragging their heels like the stars they were, arriving in dribs and drabs and various stages of drunkenness throughout the morning.
Unfortunately, the presence of JT in the control room - “a proper singer” - had a detrimental effect on the bravado of 1984’s young bucks, with the likes of Simon Le Bon, Paul Young and even George Michael refusing to ‘go first’. It was actually Tony ‘Foghorn’ Hadley of Spandau Ballet who broke the silence, despite his lines appearing sixth (after - in order - Paul Young, Boy George, George Michael, Simon Le Bon, and Sting).
By all accounts, egos were successfully left at the Sarm Studios’ door, the only pop star demand of the day being that a bottle of brandy be procured to help soothe Boy George’s sore throat, which is clearly audible on the track.
Post record-time recording, two two-track stereo reel-to-reel tapes of the final mix were spun out at the end of an all-night mix session and left Sarm Studios simultaneously in two taxis at 9am on the Monday morning. One tape was entrusted to engineer Stuart Bruce, on his way to (London mastering house) Utopia for its final polish, the other with Bob Geldof, heading to Radio 1 for its first play. Geldof reached his destination first and, asking the driver to turn the radio up, Bruce was able to listen to the tape under his arm as it was broadcast live across the airwaves…
And it sounded terrible. Fortunately, armed with this bad news and his golden ears, Bruce arrived at Utopia fore-armed and, with the help of engineer Steve Angel, the two performed choreographed, mix-saving EQ and compression changes at key points during playback to mercifully make a master that righted the rushed track’s wrongs.
Worth noting that, perhaps due to the slightly shonky song and its recording, and despite worldwide press attention and subsequently making millions for famine relief, UK pop bible Smash Hits relegated Band Aid to the bottom bar and put Strawberry Switchblade on the cover instead.
3. Peace on Earth / Little Drummer Boy - David Bowie and Bing Crosby
Everything about this almost lost gem is remarkable. The combination and contrivance of David Bowie and Bing Crosby performing together, the sound of the track itself, its insane written-on-the-spot creation and its subsequent burial/unavailability all conspire to make this one more than a little special.
After watchin his highly revered future-classic Low album to achieve - at the time - mixed acclaim and top out at number 11 in the States, Bowie was on the promo warpath for its follow-up, Heroes. So much so that he agreed to appear on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, a trite-to-the-max TV Christmas Special featuring Bing, wife Kathryn and family-as-guests-at-English-castle with stars ‘dropping in’ throughout the show.
Shot at Elstree Studios outside London, Bowie appears as the castle’s neighbour who drops by looking for Sir Percival Crosby - the castle’s owner who “lets me use the piano” Bowie explains. It all… defies description. We suggest you take a moment to ‘enjoy’ the full cringe in the link above. (Or for lighter relief go for Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s beat for beat remake here).
The show’s musical supervisors Ian Fraser and Larry Grossman, along with scriptwriter Alan Kohan, had intended Bowie and Crosby to simply duet Little Drummer Boy together, but on the day of shooting Bowie reneged on the plan, claiming that the track didn’t suit his voice. “I hate this song; is there something else I could sing?” he asked.
Placed in a fix, the trio crafted the Peace On Earth counterpoint arrangement on a piano in less than an hour, taught it to Bowie and recorded it in three takes an hour after that.
What they created in record time is a Christmas classic, with the pair’s voices forming an unexpectedly beautiful harmonious mix. And when Bowie kicks in with the counterpoint… It's magic.
POELDB turned out to be Crosby’s final recording, made just weeks before his death, with the Christmas show being aired after his passing - on 30 November 30 977 in the US and Christmas Eve in the UK.
All of which would have been a poignant but fitting ending. But - and as was the way with TV shows circa 1977 - the 16-track studio-prepared audio for the track was wiped soon after broadcast and the entire performance lost forever.
It went on to live a ghostly existence on video and audio bootlegs, but mostly survived in the memory of those who had watched its one-off TV airing at the time.
But all was not lost. In the early ‘80s, RCA discovered a take of the audio picked up from the show’s boom mics and were able to use this crude two track recording to bring the track back to life and finally release it as a single in 1982, five years after it was broadcast.
The track’s quality and reputation ignited a passion for both Bowie and Crosby fans alike, and it became one of Bowie’s fastest-selling singles, being certified silver with over a quarter of a million copies sold within a month. It reached number 3 in the UK charts but surprisingly failed to chart in the US.
4. Don’t You Want Me - The Human League
Ho ho ho! Just as the merits of Die Hard as a Christmas film are often pondered (it is, by the way) so a similar debate is had around The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me’s classification as a Christmas single. Indulge us here. It is. And it’s one of the best.
Blame 1981 and the cold, new decade, bleak, urban, non-Christmassy snap in the air for ushering this icy melancholic synth blast to the top of the otherwise fluffy festive charts. In fact, the only ‘Christmas’ track to break the UK top 20 in 1981 was The Hokey Cokey by the Snowmen (stalling at number 18) - a track that also entirely fails to mention the word ‘Christmas’. Bah humbug…
Amazingly, DYWM very nearly didn’t happen as a single, being the fourth from The Human’s League’s groundbreaking Dare album. Never particularly liking the song after producer Martin Rushent scrapped a harder, ‘early League’-style version in favour of a fluffy, poppier remake with guitarists-turned-keyboardists Jo Callis and Ian Burden, frontman Phil Oakey banished it to the last track/side two graveyard on the album AND resisted a fourth single release, fearing a fan backlash for rinsing Dare too much. (For perspective, Michael Jackson's nine-track Thriller album - one fewer than Dare - would shamelessly spawn seven singles a year later.)
After relenting only after record label Virgin’s costly inclusion of a free poster with the 7-inch, DYWM promptly entered the charts at number nine and ploughed onto the top spot a week later, becoming The Human League’s biggest hit, one of the defining tracks of the 1980s and sealing 1981’s reputation as the best year ever for music (discuss).
This frosty British take on ‘festive cheer’ would even go on to hit number one in America… In July 1982.
Look. It’s obviously really cold in the video… and is that a turkey sandwich Jo Callis is eating? It really could snow any minute…
5. Last Christmas - Wham!
Believe us. We tried not to include this one but it’s too darned perfect to swerve.
By the time of Last Christmas, George Michael had effectively dissolved Wham!, and while the management had hopes of a third album he, and Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley knew that the writing was on the wall. With the pressure off, effectively, Michael went full cheese for this perennial festive favourite.
In Ridgeley’s book, Wham!, George and Me, he writes that the song’s genesis occurred at George’s parents’ home in Hertfordshire in 1984. The pair were watching the football when inspiration struck, with Michael quickly leaving the room to sketch the song out on his keyboard in his old teenage bedroom. Ridgely heard it later, and says: “I only had to listen to the demo once to realise that Last Christmas would be a huge hit.”
Recorded in London at Advision Studios soon after, the song is almost entirely the work of George Michael. He recorded and produced the track solo on a LinnDrum, with all the other parts - except for a low-end contribution from stalwart Wham! Bassist, the late Deon Estus - being played by Michael himself on just one keyboard, a Roland Juno-60. And some sleigh bells, obvs. So next time you’re moaning about not having enough gear, think again.
Remarkably, while Last Christmas clearly IS a Christmas record (with ‘Christmas’ in its title and all those sleigh bells) it’s not necessarily a Christmas song, featuring zero lyrical references to snow, eggnog, elves, presents, Santa or any other festive trope. Instead, it’s a tale of torment, lost love, and a desire to do things differently, and could just as easily have been entitled ‘Last August’.
For all the track’s misery, do check out its joyous landmark ‘80s time capsule video (recently remastered to 4K) - the final time that Michael would be seen sans stubble. Aside from some moody staring, this is no contrivance. Michael and Ridgely really DID go on holiday with all their mates and stay in a big posh Swiss chalet for the duration of the shoot. How cool is that?
And similarly, treat yourself to the track’s totally non festive double-A flipside, the excellent, similarly LinnDrum propelled Everything She Wants, easily Wham!’s best track and a big part of the single’s success, as DJ’s continued to flip Last Christmas post festive season. That bass…
While the track was a huge hit for Wham! (blurring the break-up of the band by coming after Michael’s solo release of Careless Whisper) it failed to reach number one, being held off the top spot by Do They Know It’s Christmas, also in our top five and - ironically - also featuring George Michael.
Worth noting that, inspired by Band Aid, the notoriously generous Michael also donated the proceeds from Last Christmas to the charity. [Doffs Santa hat]
Last Christmas went on to chart again in ‘85 and ‘86, reaching 2 and 14 respectively, then disappeared until 2007, after which it has charted every year since. Previously well known as the UK’s highest-selling single NEVER to reach number one (with over 2m sales to date), it finally reached the summit of Mount Pop in December 2020, meaning that it took 36 years to finally hit the top spot - a new record.
At the time of writing Last Christmas is number 3 in the UK charts.
All of which cements Last Christmas’s status as an everlasting solid gold work of pure genius, but it’s not quite the end of the story.
Michael was sued for plagiarism soon after its release by the writers of Barry Manilow’s (and The Carpenters’) Can’t Smile Without You - the case was eventually thrown out - and it’s worth noting that Last Christmas sounds eerily similar to Joanna by Kool and The Gang, which was released a year earlier. Have a listen to this re-pitched mash-up that runs both tracks simultaneously and rewire a little bit of history in your brain.
More to unwrap
Ho ho how many more Christmas classics? Yup, we’re gifting you eight more goodies with our pick of extended essential festive listening.
1. Oh Santa! - Mariah Carey
In which Mariah, while acknowledging that Santa is “kinda busy with his elves right now,” suggests that he quit the present delivery game in order to “bring me back my baby” instead.
Amazingly, while being the lead cut from Carey’s second (!?) Christmas album and storming to the US Christmas number one in 2010, the track didn’t get a UK release, and so this Outkast Hey Ya!-inspired festive foot-stomper is a bit of a lost gem, totally overshadowed by her all conquering All I Want For Christmas Is You (released December 1994, US charting every year since and finally reaching number one in 2019, 25 years later).
We’ll take Oh Santa! over AIWFCIY any Christmas Day. Just be sure to ignore the needless/spoilt 2020 10th anniversary remake featuring Arianna Grande and Jennifer Hudson, which WAS released in the UK… and got to number 67. Ha.
2. Snow In Sun - Scritti Politti
One of the most beautiful, evocative, icy-yet-oh-so-warm ‘Christmas’ tracks ever. Only ever released as an iTunes single, it dwells as track three on Scritti’s (criminally only) fourth (and at the time of writing, final) album White Bread Brown Beer, from 2006.
Full of regret (“Looks like maybe we’ll lose our home, out of pocket and all alone, I should have worked and I should have known, seen the dark clouds coming…”) it remains uplifting and oh-so-twinkly thanks to its Norwegian Wood-inspired acoustic arrangement and liberal use of preset 75, Digi-Bells, from the Korg M1.
3. Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings - Ain’t No Chimneys In The Projects
Possibly your favourite new Christmas record and as authentically funky and brilliantly mixed and recorded as any of the classics. Sharon’s mum has all the answers, describing how - despite the lack of an obvious entry point - Santa is still able to deliver his Christmas booty on the big day.
4. Christmas in Hollis - Run DMC
There aren’t enough hip-hop Christmas tracks - fact - but this blast from the Die Hard soundtrack (see, it IS a Christmas film) still stomps all over inferior, more contemporary fare. (We’re looking at you Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dat N–a Daz, Tray Deee, Bad Azz and Nate Dogg…) See also Backdoor Santa (below) from which it steals its blast-off horn riff.
5. Saint Etienne - I Was Born On Christmas Day
There just aren’t enough ‘modern’ Christmas tunes, so this bright and sparkly, winning, and winsome house-y rave-up duet with The Charlatans' Tim Burgess remains top of our tree.
Part of the band’s bloody great A Glimpse of Stocking Christmas album, which also features their own not-even-subtle ‘homage’ to Last Christmas, Welcome Home.
6. The Ramones - Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)
Rough and ready but surprisingly tuneful and cleanly produced. If you like your Christmas tunes on the thrashy side then The Ramones have got you covered.
7. Clarence Carter - Back Door Santa
A two-minutes-eight-second slab of fiercely stereo, super dynamite soul. What a charming and cheery Christmas tale. Listen as Clarence explains how all the girls like him to deliver his presents via the back door while their boyfriends and husbands are away… Wait a minute…
8. The Waitresses - Christmas Wrapping
Save the best ‘til last? Bah humbug, but that’s too strong! Have a new wave Christmas in the company of The Waitresses’ tortuous tale of finally finding love in the grocery store’s cranberry sauce aisle…
Shamefully this ultimate Christmas jam - check that bassline - has never gone top 40 in the UK, failing entirely upon release in 1981, hitting 45 in 1982, and number 96 in 2016. Allow The Waitresses to serve you a festive feast with all the trimmings.