The ‘C’ word – 2020’s best and worst Christmas songs

Today is Sunday 29th November 2020. Today I put up my Christmas tree.

Under normal circumstances I would not tolerate such a heinous activity. It’s still November after all. A single door of advent calendar is yet to be opened. NOVEMBER. 

I’m not going to try too hard to justify this. Simply it was something fun to do together as a family in lockdown. And it turned out after a bit of mulled wine and Mariah Carey, everything started to feel normal again. Even the pickiest of bastards isn’t that much of a Scrooge.

All this has got me ready for what seems to me to be many more Christmas releases than normal this year. But breaking into the canon is hard. We all know that Christmas music doesn’t count unless the old Top of the Pops clips have been bought out again, like the turkey on the 28th, on one of those TV shows with Stuart Maconie remembering things. But maybe, just maybe, this year will give us the gift (it certainly owes us by now) of new Christmas music that isn’t total shite. Or at least marginally better than that bottle of fruit liqueur with the untranslatable label that makes its annual return, unopened, to the back of the cupboard come January.

So with my festive cockles suitably warmed, I’ll trudge out into the fictional snow and bring back stockings full of music of Christmas yet to come. Basically I’ve listened to it now so you don’t have to. Not unless you really want to.

Chris Kamara …And a Happy New Year

Yes that Chris Kamara. Chris “unbelievable Jeff” Kamara. The one off of the TV channel where all they do is talk about football. Has the world not had enough of sub-Bublé, crooning, talky-singy, Christmas big-band albums? You have a lot to answer for Michael. Also it is not acceptable to begin an album title with an ellipsis. What is truly unbelievable is that this is his second Christmas album. For someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in the presence of football crowds, you’d imagine ‘Kammy’ would have learned how to sing with passion in his voice. You’d be wrong.

Coldplay – ‘Christmas Lights’

Back when he was a team captain on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Phil Jupitus described Coldplay as “music for people who don’t like music”. And so what Love Actually is to seasonal cinema, ‘Christmas Lights’ is to Christmas music. Which means it will be terrifically popular despite being sentimental nonsense. Not a new song but it got a re-release on fancy vinyl this year. The lyric ‘take my feet / to Oxford Street / trying to right a wrong’ made my whole body cringe. One positive – after more than 20 years, their drummer can now count all the way to six.

Calexico – Seasonal Shift

This perhaps unexpected ‘seasonal’ (apparently it’s not a Christmas album) release is a multicultural jumble of covers and some original songs. They go together better than you might expect – better than the indelible snow covered image of Christmas might in their native Arizona anyway. The Lennon cover is a reasonably refreshing take on a classic and the hispanic additions are good fun, especially ‘Mi Burrito Sabanero’. It means little donkey if you were wondering, although it has got me thinking about what a Christmas version of its homonym might taste like.

Dolly Parton – A Holly Dolly Christmas

As syrupy and predictable as this is, Dolly turned out to be one of the unlikely heroes of 2020 when it was revealed she had helped fund one of the COVID vaccines. So give it a play and who knows what good cause you could be donating to next. There’s an impressive list of features including both Miley and Billy Ray Cyrus, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Fallon and Mr Christmas Album himself, Michael Bublé. You’ll struggle to find a better cheese selection this December.

Jeremih & Chance – Merry Christmas Lil Mama: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

The beats aren’t terrible on the whole, but lyrics wise this is up there with the worst ever. I’m not sure if I should be taking it seriously or not. All the references to snow, secret Santa, jingle bells and ‘got bout three hoes on my sleigh’ feel so forced. In this context the gift that keeps giving is more of a threat than a promise. I hope they kept the receipt.

The Goo Goo Dolls – It’s Christmas All Over

In the summer of 2006 I worked in a temp job in an office that had Radio 2 on permanently. I must have heard Ronan Keating’s cover of ‘Iris’ five or six times each day. This was the last time I thought about Goo Goo Dolls, and it wasn’t even them. GGDs have been taking a look back at the past too. Perhaps, inspired by the Beach Boys’ line ‘Christmas comes this time each year’, they’ve come up with ‘it’s Christmas time / again’. This tedious observation isn’t exactly going to get the party started.

Meghan Trainor – A Very Trainor Christmas

I was pretty sure the Trainor (does anyone call her that?) was a one-hit wonder. Unfortunately for everyone who has now been subjected to this, Meghan has many a hit under her tree and is still going strong. The most surprising package of all under the album tree is Earth, Wind and Fire. If only it had been a festive reworking of their mega-hit ‘September’ (‘do you remember/25th night of December?’ Anyone?). Seth Macfarlane, the Family Guy guy, is on there too. He’s the Bing to her Bowie on a cover of ‘White Christmas’. I don’t really know what to make of it all. What I do know is I never want to hear it again.

Jenn Grant – Forever on Christmas Eve

I was ready to like this one, I really was. But as soon as the sleigh bells came in in 12/8 time I lost all hope. Do we really need another lacklustre version of ‘White Christmas’? On the other hand, Jenn’s version of ‘O Holy Night’, traditionally a choral piece, has everything you want from a cover – it’s a true reimagining. Her voice is wonderful. Remind me to explore her back catalogue in January.

Dark Mark – Dark Mark Does Christmas 2020

Ah Mark Lanegan, the spirit of Christmas! He doesn’t much look like the kind of guy who would enjoy… well, anything really. So instead we have the pantomime villain character of Dark Mark, which sounds like a possibly racist nickname for a local oddball. Again not a party starter but there’s a delightful dissonance of hearing Dark Mark sing the stories of Mary and Joseph and lines like ‘I love my lord Jesus above anything’ without a flinch. More enjoyable than I imagined.

Robbie WIlliams – The Christmas Present (Deluxe)

2020 couldn’t get any worse, could it? Well not content with ruining Christmas last year, Robbie is back with more Nan gift-fodder, only this time with four bonus tracks. 

‘Yes it’s the same one as last year Nan, but this time it’s deluxe. *lowers voice* You told me she wouldn’t remember Gary. No Nan, I don’t know what deluxe means. Look, it’s got Rod Stewart Nan. You remember him? No, I didn’t think ‘It Takes Two’ was a Christmas song either.’

You thought my Nan monologue was bad? Well just you wait for Rod’s glib ‘Caam on Robbie let’s go daan the pab’. 

‘They’re all facking closed Rod’ replied Nan, much to the family’s astonishment.

Various Artists – Lost Christmas: A Festive Memphis Industries Selection Box

A Christmas album featuring This Is The Kit, Warm Digits and The Go! Team?! Dare I say this could be Christmas music we at Picky Bastards could not simply tolerate, but actually like? I’d argue that its main means of achieving this is by not sounding Christmassy. On the whole, all involved manage to avoid the standard tropes and steer clear of obvious covers. Jesca Hoop’s version of ‘White Winter Hymnal’ lays the groundwork for a new, alternative canon (I heard it in Tesco, it’s happening) and the Rachel Dadd/Rozi Plain/This Is The Kit song ‘We Build Our Houses Well’ would suit listening at any time of year. 

100 gecs – ‘Sympathy for the Grinch’

In an article about music we love to hate, it is fitting that I should include 100 gecs. As irritating as their sound is you have to admit they have a knack for creating something totally unique. Yes there are sleigh bell jingles, but this autotuned ska-punk hell is by far the most original sounding song on this entire list. Sounds like Less Than Jake got stuck inside a Game Boy. Not very Christmassy.

So that’s it for this year. Time will tell if any of these new songs make it on permanent rotation. I’ve stuck a couple of new discoveries on a playlist, so that’s a start. Right now though I’m going to stick on Wham!, Elton and Shaky. Merry Christmas!

Words by James Spearing

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