Michael Hann has spent years mining for Christmas-song diamonds, proving that not all festive music is irredeemably horrible. Here he pulls on his big white beard and presents the definitive playlist
There was a time, not so long ago – while the previous president of the US lived in the White House – when CDs were a thing. People still liked having them; my wife didn’t complain about the quantities of them in our house. Imagine! And, as a music writer, come Christmas I used to be sent piles of seasonally themed CDs. Most of the them were fairly tawdry affairs, but some were gems. And because I don’t care for writing Christmas cards, but do like sharing music with people, for several years I would make Christmas CD compilations to give to friends: 20 or so in the first year, 120 by the time I last did it in 2012, by which point people had started wondering if I couldn’t do a Spotify playlist instead.
Listening to that much festive music – more than 100 tracks a year, every year – didn’t fill me with hatred for Christmas music, because I wasn’t listening to anything I heard 34 times a day in shops. Instead I developed a great love for the ingenuity of those artists who managed to make the simple, exploitative act of churning out a Christmas record into something beautiful.
So, in the spirit of giving (and at the request of an editor), I have revisited those days of Christmas compilations. Sadly, it turns out that it’s too expensive and time consuming to post a CD to everyone in New Zealand, so finally – six years late – please celebrate Christmas with me, with Christmas music that really isn’t horrific to listen to. I hope.
John Fahey – Silent Night
The great “American primitive” guitarist had one problem: no one ever bought his records. On learning from a record store clerk that Bing Crosby’s White Christmas sold out every year, he decided to record his own hardy perennial. The New Possibility duly became his best selling album, and it has never been out of print.
Waterson:Carthy – Jacobstowe Wassail
Think of these 30 songs as a journey through Christmas Eve, from solemn and respectful, to bawdy and drunken. Little says solemn and respectful quite like the songs of the English folk tradition, though a friend did once ask why the assorted members of the Waterson and Carthy families didn’t just record a song called We All Starved In The Fields This Christmas to sum up their apparent worldview.
Thea Gilmore – Listen, the Snow Is Falling
You can’t find Yoko Ono’s original on Spotify. But never mind, because Thea Gilmore’s version is rather better. Anyone who thinks Galaxie 500’s version is best should have it explained to them that no Christmas song was ever improved by an extended guitar wig-out.
Mahalia Jackson – Go Tell It On the Mountain
If the churches where I live sounded like this at Christmas, I might go. But no congregation of people who go once a year to hold up a candle and show their kids the nativity display ever sounds like Mahalia Jackson. So I don’t go.
Kate Rusby – The Ivy and the Holly
The English folk singer Kate Rusby, like John Fahey, realised the rewards of Christmas albums: she’s made four of them. I commend them to you; they’re absolutely lovely (her non-Christmas music is pretty great to. Remember, a folk musician is for life, not just Christmas).
Calexico – Green Grows the Ivy
I tend to imagine Calexico as routinely featuring mariachi bands in full flow, possibly with some random people shouting “Arriba!” Even though I know that is a grotesque caricature of Mexican culture, and Calexico aren’t even Mexican. And that I have listened to Calexico plenty of times and I know for a fact they don’t sound like I imagine them. I think I love this performance so much because I always half expect some Speedy Gonzalez novelty that never materialises.
Sister Rosetta Tharp – When Was Jesus Born?
“Was it January? No! No! February? No! No! March, April, May? No! No! No!” Jesus was actually born in the last month of the year, as the great Sister Rosetta Tharp informs us in a Southern spiritual that is wholly unafraid to explain the blindingly obvious. I also recommend the reading by Zambian Vocal Group, who wear fantastic sweaters in the cover of their album Christmas in Zambia.
Nikki Lane – Falalalalalove Ya
Sometimes people get shot in Nikki Lane songs. In this one she just wants to wrap you up in a great big bow. Folk, country, soul and funk are always the best genres for Christmas music, because they are the ones that still have some connection to religion, and can deliver insincere silliness with a straight face.
The Chills – Christmas Chimes
I’m just shamelessly pandering to New Zealand here. But I do love The Chills. I really do.
Tracey Thorn – Maybe This Christmas
If you loved Tracey Thorn’s album Record this year, I implore you to seek out her Christmas album Tinsel and Lights, which is gorgeous and sad and has her wonderful voice delivering wonderful songs.
Scritti Politti – Snow in Sun
Tracey did this one on Tinsel and Lights, but I like the original for Green Gartside’s a capella harmonies on the opening, and because it’s hard to imagine his past iterations – either the earnest Gramsci-spouting tuneless revolutionary, or the big-suited, big-sounded pop star – recording something so purely lovely as this.
Bill Monroe – Christmas Time’s A Coming
One of those country songs that they all have a bash at, but compared to Bill Monroe, the king of bluegrass, everyone else sounds too knowing. Some of these songs stand up to repeat listening all year round. I accept this one doesn’t. But then you’re not going to be listening to a Christmas playlist all year round, so I’m fine with it.
The Temptations – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
There were so many Motown Christmas records that they were bound to strike gold with a certain frequency. Admittedly, it’s a little odd that Eddie Kendricks sounds like he’s trying to sing Rudolph into bed, but hey, it’s Christmas. Live and let live, eh?
Vernon Garrett with Sir Stan and the Counts – Christmas Groove
I know nothing about Vernon Garrett. Not a thing. Googling him brings up little more than the fact that he clearly likes wearing sunglasses in photos, and that no one else knows much about him either. But never mind. It’s what’s in the grooves that counts, as Berry Gordy used to say.
Johnny Guarnieri – Santa’s Secret
“Santa Claus! Old Kris Kringle! Yes, he’s got a reefer a hundred feet long! Smokes it from end to end!” Which explains how he has the appetite to eat all those mince pies, at least. I’m a sucker for berserk old novelty records like this. And this one truly is berserk.
The Marshall Brothers – Mr Santa Boogie
Don’t confuse these Marshall Brothers with the Dutch-American rock band of the same name. This lot have eight songs on Spotify. Five of them are Mr Santa’s Boogie (but Who’ll Be The Fool From Now On is absolutely lovely).
Lou Rawls – Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town
This is one of the easiest Christmas songs to overdo (much as I love Bruce Springsteen, his version is not one I turn to for pleasure), but Lou Rawls pitches it in a place halfway between jazz and R&B that sounds like the best Christmas party Don Draper ever went to. Three dollars well spent in a secondhand shop in Brooklyn in December 2017.
Clarence Carter – Back Door Santa
I used to run a CD stall at our kids’ school’s Christmas fete. One year, the vicar decided to engage me in conversation just at the point Clarence Carter’s meditation upon the particular nature of the gifts he likes to give – ”I make all the little girls happy / While the boys are out to play” – was booming out from the CD player on my stall.
Marlene Paula – I Want To Spend Christmas With Elvis
Because if she doesn’t she’ll be so lonely, baby, it’ll be heartbreak Noël. Another of those mystery records: one reputable site says it’s from 1956, but if so it refers to Be Bop a Lula a year early. So don’t worry about facts, just marvel at how a shabby little thing cashing in on Elvismania becomes a perfect piece of Americana 60 years on.
Detroit Junior – Christmas Day
There is an Emery “Detroit Junior” Williams Jr who sang the blues, until he died in 2005, aged 73. But nothing else he did sounds remotely like this wonderful soul/funk blast. On the other hand, how many people called Detroit Junior could there possibly have been. Even more confusing is that Detroit Junior came from Arkansas and lived in Chicago.
James Brown – Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto
It’s not only the kids in the houses with picket fences who need a visit from the fella with the presents, In fact, they’re the ones who need it least of all …
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects
The problem, though, is that when Santa reaches the poor kids, he’s going to discover a certain logistical problem with his means of entry to their homes.
Four Imperials – Santa’s Got a Coupe De Ville
Nothing says Christmas quite like the noise of revving engines and squealing tyres. Which is why the Four Imperials’ Santa needs a four-door limousine rather than a sleigh.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra – Santa Drives a Hot Rod
Continuing the unlikely sub-genre of rock’n’roll songs about Christmas and cars, we give you the former Stray Cat, who believes the power of a hot rod engine is the only way a sleigh could make it around the world in a night.
Bob Seger and the Last Heard – Sock It To Me Santa
Before becoming the go-to bearded everyman of Middle America, Bob Seger was a fantastic Detroit R&B shouter, with a penchant for mangling James Brown and Christmas.
Jerry Clayton – Santa Claus
We’re into the section of the evening for drinking and, possibly, dancing. Where it doesn’t matter how obscure the record is. And this one is quite obscure. Once upon a time you could have bought it from the label: Big “I” Records, PO Box 216, Bedford, Ohio.
Fountains of Wayne – I Want an Alien For Christmas
If I’m completely honest, I slightly prefer the B-side, The Man in the Santa Suit, but its resemblance to Father Christmas by the Kinks is just a little too pronounced. So have this powerpop banger instead.
Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler – Marshmallow World
Of all the Christmas numbers that became Phil Spectorised, Marshmallow World is my favourite, despite the intrinsic creepiness of the concept. The melody? It’s as if someone decided to compile a list of Christmas cliches for a dare. It’s like having sausages and bacon as well as pigs in blankets. In other words, perfect.
The Sonics – Santa Claus
In which the most primitive of all garage rock bands take the most primitive of all garage rock songs – Farmer John – and make it about Father Christmas. That is all they do. Nothing else. What would be the point?
Deer Tick – Christmas All Summer Long
It’s a matter of great disappointment to me that none of the proper releases by this American band are anything like as good as this throwaway Christmas rave-up. They should just copy the Sonics and change the lyrics for seasonality.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.