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The 18 best Christmas songs, ranked: From Fairytale of New York to Santa Baby and Winter Wonderland

The Independent logo The Independent 22/12/2018 Roisin O'Connor, Alexandra Pollard
Bing Crosby et al. posing for the camera © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited

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We’re well into December now, so that means you’ve certainly heard a few Christmas songs played in shops and on radio stations around the UK, many of them as ubiquitous during the festive season as tinsel, turkey and mistletoe.

Here are some of our favourites, from Forties classics to more recent pop hits, to get your Christmas celebrations into full swing.

18) “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” – John Lennon and Yoko Ono

There’s a caveat to the optimistic message of the song’s title. “War is over,” sing a choir of children over festive tambourines, but only, they add, “If you want it.” Having analysed the success of his previous single, “Imagine,” the former Beatle noted, “Now I understand what you have to do: Put your political message across with a little honey.” On this, an anti-Vietnam war protest song wrapped up in sleigh bells, strings and an anthemic melody, he does just that. AP

17) “Mary’s Boy Child/Oh My Lord” – Boney M

Taking Harry Belafonte’s 1956 hit “Mary’s Boy Child” and singing it in medley with new song “Oh My Lord”, Boney M’s No 1 hit combined Christmas carol-like harmonies with Euro disco, steel drums and a reggae sensibility. It might sound disastrous – but somehow it works. AP

16) “2,000 Miles” – The Pretenders

“He’s gone/2,000 miles/Is very far,” sings Chrissie Hynde, above a twanging guitar riff in “2,000 Miles”, her serpentine melody stretching each syllable into several. You could easily assume it’s about two separated lovers, but it was actually written for the band’s original guitar player, James Honeyman-Scott, who died of a drug overdose a year earlier at the age of 25. The song is desperately bleak – as is the case with all the best Christmas songs – but with a note of festive hopefulness too. “The children were singing/He’ll be back at Christmas time.” AP

15) “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” – Brenda Lee

Brenda Lee was just 13 years old when she made herself a rockabilly legend thanks to the recording of this party classic. It always reminds me of scenes in The Santa Clause (one of the best ever Christmas films) where the jaunty number was heavily featured, along with seminal holiday movie Home Alone. RO

14) “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” – Dean Martin

Few Christmas songs are as cosy as this one. Dean Martin’s smooth, rich voice is as warming as a good glass of whisky; paired with sweeping, romantic strings and a chirpy flute, “Let it Snow!” conjures up images of stockings hanging up over the chimney, a Christmas tree glinting with baubles, and a frost-tinted window with snow falling outside. RO

13) “Walking in the Air” – The Snowman / Peter Auty

Though Aled Jones tends to get the credit for this haunting masterpiece, it is actually the voice of choirboy Peter Auty that appears in the climactic scene of the wordless 1982 animation The Snowman. He wasn’t credited though, and when his voice broke and Jones’s version reached number five in the UK charts, he was almost written out of history. In truth, though, whichever version you hear, the song’s sweeping grandeur is goosebumps-inducing. AP

12) “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” – David Bowie, Bing Crosby

Recorded for Bing Crosby’s TV special Merrie Olde Christmas, and framed around a strange scripted exchange of banter between the two, this mash-up only came about because Bowie hated the song, “Little Drummer Boy”, that he had been asked on the show to sing.

So songwriters Ian Fraser and Larry Grossman, alongside the show’s scriptwriter, cobbled together “Peace on Earth” to serve as a counterpoint, while Crosby performed the intended song. They recorded the resulting medley after less than an hour of rehearsal, and five weeks later, Crosby died. AP

11) “Santa Baby” – Eartha Kitt

“Eartha Kitt is the sexiest woman in the world. You don’t write Christmas songs that are sexy. How are we going to do that?”

Poor Phil Springer. Half of the songwriting team behind the super sultry “Santa Baby” was always slightly resentful that his biggest hit was a festive one. Well, I’m grateful for it. Eartha Kitt’s huskily delivered letter to Santa Claus is undoubtedly the sexiest Christmas song of all time, and has been covered by everyone from Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift to Madonna (I don’t talk about Madge’s attempt) and Michael Buble. Yet it’s Kitt’s version you find yourself coming back to. RO

10) “The Christmas Song” – Nat King Cole

This Mel Torme composition was originally written, according to Torme, with Bob Wells as a mind-over-matter attempt to stay cool during a stifling summer day in 1945. It’s one of Cole’s most enduring hits, and one of the most beloved of all Christmas songs. RO

9) “I Believe in Father Christmas” – Greg Lake

British musician Greg Lake – who fronted Emerson, Lake and Palmer – was also renowned for his solo work, the most popular track being “I Believe in Father Christmas”.

The song was released in 1975 and – in Lake’s eyes, at least – became a victim of its success. He claimed he wrote it in protest at how increasingly commercial the festive season had become, and so denied that it was an official “Christmas song”. Despite this, the song is a permanent fixture on Christmas playlists around the world, and playing it now feels all the more poignant after his death in 2016. RO

8) “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – Andy Williams

Andy Williams’ classic brings to mind the kind of big, brash Christmas’s you see in American films – lots of presents, blazing fireplaces and a huge feast – but also plays heavily on the importance of spending time with your loved ones. It consistently appears in the top 10s of Christmas song rankings, and more than 50 years in, the 1963 staple shows no signs of wearing out. RO

7) “Stop the Cavalry” – Jona Lewie

It was “just another anti-war song” until Jona Lewie threw a kazoo into the mix. The English singer-songwriter never intended “Stop the Cavalry” to become a Christmas single, but the festive mention in the line “I wish I was at home for Christmas”, along with the addition of a Salvation Army brass band and tubular bell, was enough to convince listeners.

The song sold 4m copies upon its release and was only kept off the top slot that Christmas because of John Lennon’s death and consequent position at numbers one and two on the UK singles chart. Lewie told The Guardian in 2015 that he earns more from “Stop the Cavalry” than the rest of his songs put together. RO

6) “Driving Home for Christmas” – Chris Rea

Christmas is about spending time with your loved ones, and few songs capture the excitement and longing of the journey to get there better than Chris Rea’s unexpected hit. In 1978, Rea thought it was all over. His record contract was done, and his manager had just told him he was quitting. Rea wanted to get home from London’s Abbey Road studios to Middlesborough, but his record company wouldn’t pay for a ticket.

“My wife got in our old Austin Mini, drove all the way down from Middlesbrough to Abbey Road studios to pick me up, and we set off back straight away,” he told The Guardian. “Then it started snowing. We had £220 and I was fiddling with it all the way home. We kept getting stuck in traffic and I’d look across at the other drivers, who all looked so miserable. Jokingly, I started singing: “We’re driving home for Christmas…”

Years later Rea landed on a tune with keyboard player Max Middleton that he realised would fit his lyrics. The result became a radio hit, but he didn’t play it live for a while after that.

“The gig was on 21 December, so the road crew kept badgering me to do it,” he recalled. “I went, ‘If I’m going to sing this f**king song, we’re gonna do it properly.’ So we hired 12 snow cannons. When we started the song, you couldn’t hear it for the noise of the crowd, and we let go with the machines. We put three feet of artificial snow in the stalls. The venue charged me £12,000 to clean it up.” RO

5) “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Frank Sinatra

I love Frank Sinatra’s version of this song. It was originally written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for Judy Garland to perform in the 1944 musical Meet Me in St Louis, and features an original line that’s a lot bleaker than the version most people know.

The song is credited to Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, though after Blane’s death in 1995, Martin insisted that he wrote the song by himself. His first version was, he told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2010, just too sad for Garland: “The original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, ‘If I sing that to little Margaret O’Brien, they’ll think I’m a monster.’” Martin said that he initially refused to budge and insisted that Garland sing the song his way.

It took an intervention from Tom Drake (who played John Truett, the boy next door) to convince Martin to rewrite the truly depressing sections that would have made Garland tell a little girl in the film to abandon all hope. In the first verse, she’d have sung: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past.” Her line about the magic of Christmas past would have been completely inverted: “No good times like the olden days / Happy golden days of yore / Faithful friends who were dear to us / Will be near to us no more.”

Call me sentimental, but I much prefer the way Sinatra’s version opens on his isolated vocals before gradually introducing the swooning choir and tender strings section. And the lyrics: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/Make the Yuletide gay / From now on your troubles will be miles away/Here we are as in olden days/Happy golden days of yore/Faithful friends who are dear to us / Gather near to us once more.” RO

4) “All I Want for Christmas Is You” – Mariah Carey

One of the best moments on American Idol in 2014 was an exchange between judges Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey, who famously did not get on during the series. As a contestant/Mariah stan [“stalker fan”] told the star he loved “All I Want for Christmas is You“ and hailed it as the “best modern-day Christmas song”, Minaj threw a little shade by saying: “It sure was, wasn’t it?”, emphasis on the ”was“ very much intended. Carey’s response was immediate and dismissive: “Still is, dahling!”

She earns a reported £4000,000 in royalties from the track each year, with its lasting popularity testament to just how good a song it is. Its unyielding Christmas spirit and those diminished (infectious) C minor chords combine for the ultimate experience of festive cheer, with a perfect mix of nostalgia and pop sentimentalism thrown in for good measure. RO

3) “Last Christmas” – Wham!

George Michael wrote, performed, produced and played every single instrument on this song, where the narrator looks back with sadness on a past relationship. As with “Fairytale of New York”, you have an upbeat, cheerful rhythm and chirpy instrumentation, against the melancholy of unrequited love in the lyrics, with the suggestion that it was given away too hastily (“This year, to save me from tears/I’ll give it to someone special”). RO

2) “Fairytale of New York” – The Pogues

Some of the best songs combine uplifting instrumentation that contrasts with lyrics that can be downright miserable, and such is the case for “Fairytale of New York”. It has none of the sickly sweet sentimentality of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” or Wham!’s “Last Christmas”.

“Fairytale of New York” is a drunken hymn for those with broken dreams and abandoned hopes. Its narrator, an Irish immigrant, is thrown into a drunk tank to sleep off his Christmas Eve binge. Hearing an old man sing the Irish ballad “The Rare Old Mountain Dew”, he begins to dream about the past, and so begins the story of two people who fell in love in America, only to see their plans of a bright future dashed.

Shane MacGowan’s slurring, bitter delivery of those opening vocals is played out over romanticised piano chords, then to those wonderful, jaunty strings, with Terry Woods’ mandolin part giving the song an additional Irish brogue. RO

1) “Winter Wonderland” – Bing Crosby

Bing Crosby is the king of Christmas songs and is now so associated with the holiday that there’s an album of his music announcing him as “The Voice of Christmas”. He was the first popular singer to record Christmas songs, and his version of “White Christmas” remains the best-selling single of all time, with over 50m copies sold. It’s his version of “Winter Wonderland” that really gets me in the festive spirit, even though there’s another sad story behind the lyrics.

Richard (Dick) Smith was suffering from tuberculosis, an illness which had plagued him since a child, from his bed in a sanatorium in Philadelphia. Gazing longingly out of his window at the snow, he wrote a poem describing all the things he would do when he was well again. He was inspired by the views of people playing in the park across the street from his family home on Church Street, where he’d lived with his mother, brother and two sisters. His father had died when he was a child.

After he was finished, he took the lyrics to his friend Felix Bernard, a professional pianist. A copy of “Winter Wonderland” found its way to Joey Nash, lead singer of the Richard Himber Orchestra, who recorded it in 1934. Guy Lombardo heard Nash’s recording and made a record of his own, which became a hit that December. Smith died in 1935 before “Winter Wonderland” became a Christmas hit again for Ted Weems, and long before Crosby recorded his, and arguably the most famous, version. RO

Related: 31 of the most underrated Christmas songs [Cosmopolitan UK]

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