2000 Miles – The Pretenders 1983
Christmas songs are usually positive, life-affirming, and family-friendly, they celebrate the mutual sense of community, well-being, and happiness of the season, and yet many people are estranged at this time of the year, while others are left to remember those who can never share Christmas with them again. Such songs are more heartrending, poignant, and the best of them strike an emotional balance between sentiment and the spiritual dimension of Christmas. Pretenders left to right – Peter Farndon, Martin Chambers, Chrissie Hynde, and James Honeyman-Scott
Such songs as Ringing The Bells for Jim (Johnny Cash), I Want To Come Home For Christmas (Marvin Gaye), Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas Without the One You Love (The O’Jays), and Please Come Home for Christmas (The Eagles), certainly got that balance right. In June 1982 the Pretenders lead guitarist James Honeyman-Scott’s drug-related death inspired Chrissie Hynde to write this song for him, even though the lyrics depict two long-distance lovers who are apart at Christmas. Bassist Peter Farndon would also tragically succumb to a drug-related death a year later.
Hynde’s soulful alto vocals and Robbie McIntosh’s jangly guitar riffs were standout features, the promo video was however surreal – Hynde dressed as a tambourine-wielding Salvation Army officer, traipsing through a snowy landscape, encountering Santa Claus, an ice fisherman, snow bunnies, penguins, skiers, a guy in a polar bear suit, and a nativity scene – despite all that, the song remains one of the most melancholy of musical snow globes, at Christmas.
Last Christmas – Wham 1984
The song originated one Sunday in 1984 when George Michael and Andrew Ridgely were visiting Michael’s parents, Ridgely recalled to The Mail On Sunday in 2017:
“We’d had a bite to eat and were sitting together relaxing with the television on in the background when, almost unnoticed, George disappeared upstairs for an hour or so. When he came back down, such was his excitement, it was as if he had discovered gold which, in a sense, he had. We went to his old room, the room in which we had spent hours as kids recording pastiches of radio shows and jingles, the room where he kept a keyboard and something on which to record his sparks of inspiration, and he played me the introduction and the beguiling, wistful chorus melody to ‘Last Christmas.’ It was a moment of wonder; George had performed musical alchemy right there.”
This song has very little to do with Christmas though, it’s about a failed relationship, and only the phrase “Last Christmas,” when the relationship comes to a head, is there a reference to the festive season; despite this it has become an annual Christmas standard, especially in the UK. It was released as a charity record with the proceeds going to the Ethiopia Relief fund, but it was the Band Aid song Do They Know Its Christmas, another charity single, which also featured George Michael, which prevented Wham from hitting #1 in the UK, in fact Last Christmas remains the highest-selling song in the UK never to reach the #1 position.
The music video features George Michael and Andrew Ridgely accompanying girlfriends to see friends at their home in a ski resort, the duo’s backing singers Pepsi and Shirlie also star in the clip along with Spandeau Ballet bassist Martin Kemp, the boyfriend and future husband of Shirlie Holliman.The songwriters of Barry Manilow’s hit Can’t Smile Without You sued Michael for plagiarism, claiming that the melody was lifted from their composition, and the matter was subsequently settled out of court. With the release of the 2019 movie Last Christmas and its soundtrack which contains no less than 14 Wham and George Michael songs, this song was rebirthed and the album duly debuted at #1 in the UK.
Fairytale of New York – The Pogues featuring Kirsty McColl 1985
Irish emigration accelerated in the 19th century following the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840’s, and many Irish sought a better life in America. But too often these hopeful emigres lacked employable skills and became homeless in their adopted country, and Christmas was not really a time of celebration and rejoicing. Shane MacGowan was lead singer with the Irish Celtic-folk-punk band The Pogues (an Irish word meaning arse) who had just had success with their second album Rum, Sodomy & The Lash. Elvis Costello bet MacGowan and Jem Finer, the Pogues banjo player, that they couldn’t write a Christmas song that wasn’t sentimental and soft-hearted, and challenged them to highlight the fact that many people do not have a great time at Christmas, and McGowan and Finer accepted the challenge
A first recording of the song by MacGowan and Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan was to be included on the Pogues next album, Fall From Grace With God, produced by Steve Lillywhite, who took the session tapes home and got his wife Kirsty MacColl to record a demo vocal, which was so good that she and MacGowan ended up recording the song as a duet. Finer had written two songs but needed MacGowan to come up with lyrics and blend the two melodies, in a Melody Maker interview in 1985, he described his unique song writing process “I sat down, opened the sherry, got the peanuts out and pretended it was Christmas. It’s even called ‘A Fairy Tale of New York’, it’s quite sloppy, more like A Pair of Brown Eyes than Sally MacLennane, but there’s also a ceilidh bit in the middle which you can definitely dance to. But the song itself is quite depressing in the end, it’s about these old Anglo-Irish Broadway stars who are sitting around at Christmas talking about life and their relationship.”
The lyrics are variously maudlin, profane, sentimental, euphoric, sincere, and mud-slingingly critical and all in four minutes, the narrative arc cleverly captures the disparity between the sorts of Christmases people enjoy, and the strange mix of ecstasy, tension, vitriol, and airing of grudges between family members during the festive season. The song title was inspired by a novel by JP Donleavy entitled A Fairy Tale of New York and although it’s easily the UK’s favorite Christmas song and charted #2 there in 1985 and has regularly returned to the UK charts as a festive hit, it was initially banned in the USA and other countries because of the inclusion of profanities in the lyrics and has never really charted globally. The promo video features Shane MacGowan pretending to play the piano and scenes inside a police station as cops, including one played by Matt Dillon, deal with inebriated revelers, Kirsty MacColl was killed in a tragic boating accident off the coast of Mexico in 2000.
Drivin’ Home for Christmas – Chris Rea 1986
This perennially popular Christmas song was originally recorded by Chris Rea in 1986, even though he had written the song many years before, when he was stuck in heavy traffic as he headed out of London with his wife in her Austin Mini, as she had driven down from their North Yorkshire home in Middlesboroigh, to take him home for Christmas. It was cheaper to drive than take the train, and Chris was out of contract with his record company at the time. Rea conceived the song as his wife drove him home, writing down the lyrics when the car stopped at red lights. He originally wrote the song for Van Morrison but never got the chance to pitch it to him, Rea told BBC radio 4’s Today program, “Drivin’ Home for Christmas, is a car version of a carol, but I can’t knock it, I always think, if I don’t hear Drivin’ Home For Christmas, it means I can no longer go on holiday.”
All I Want for Christmas is You – Mariah Carey 1994
This Phil Spector–meets- Motown-flavoured song has a simple message: Mariah Carey is not concerned about all the paraphernalia of Christmas – she just wants to be with her man. This was co-written and co-produced by Carey and Walter Afanasieff, who started off as Whitney Houston’s arranger and has co-produced and co-written many of Carey’s hits, including One Sweet Day, and Hero. He also won a 1999 Grammy award for co-producing Celene Dion’s My Heart Will Go On.
Carey and Afanasieff wrote it in the summer of 1994, with him coming up with musical ideas on a piano while she developed the melody and lyrics. They set out to write an uptempo Christmas track in the style of Phil Spector’s girl group productions of the ’60s, Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), was an inspiration. They achieved their goal, creating a fun, bubbly and memorable seasonal song, although Afanasieff was worried that the arrangement was too basic, almost like a practice piece. But it’s simplicity ensured that it became a real earworm of a song, and although it was not released as a single until 1994, a year after Carey’s mega-selling album Merry Christmas had topped the charts around the world, when it charted #12 in the US and #2 in Australia and the UK, and it has returned to the charts at Christmas time on a regular basis ever since.
All I Want For Christmas Is A Real Good Tan – Kenny Chesney 2003
US C&W performer Kenny Chesney recorded his debut Xmas album in 2003 and the title track was this one, a disarmingly laid-back alternative to the snow, sleigh, tinsel and wintry tropes of most Northern Hemisphere songs about the festive season. Set in Hawaii and referencing bikinis, mahi-mahis grillin’, pina coladas in the blender chillin’, and palm trees swayin’, it could just as easily be about Xmas Downunder. OK the un-PC references to tanning and rubbing on oil are not recommended but who doesn’t like a Xmas song with the lyrics “All I want for Christmas is a real good tan/ Take me to the islands put my feet in the sand/ Rockin’ to and fro to the rhythm of the ocean/ Singin’ Silent Night while the palm trees are blowin’.”
Believe- Josh Groban 2004
Believe won a Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture in 2006, when it featured in the score of the computer-animated, stop-motion Christmas classic, The Polar Express (2004). A story about a young boy who doesn’t believe in Christmas, until he is transported to the North Pole on a mysterious train, to visit Santa Claus, and at the same time embarks on a journey of self-discovery. The movie conveyed a haunting, magical, almost eerie quality, which divided critics, but the song was a hit, superb orchestration and Josh Groban’s powerful vocal interpretation, made it not only a seasonal classic, but an uplifting, life-affirming, song for anytime of the year – if you are prepared to believe.
Underneath the Tree – Kelly Clarkson 2013
With its swelling instrumentals and moving message about gratitude for companionship, this song has become an instant Christmas classic, since released as a single off Kelly’s debut Christmas album, Wrapped in Red (2013). Written by Clarkson with Greg Kurstin who also produced the album, the song reminds us of the importance of being close to loved ones at Christmas, and Kelly’s easy-listening vocal style is accompanied by such instrumental effects as sleigh bells and bell chimes, which takes the retro, bouncy, wall-of-sound to the max. It’s also very cool and swinging, in a finger-snapping kind of a way, that gets close to achieving that rare feat of creating a new seasonal standard, in the same groove as Mariah’s All I Want For Christmas is You. Kelly had a #1 global hit with Underneath the Tree, and it sold over one million copies.
Santa Tell Me – Ariana Grande 2014
Grande released her album Christmas Kisses on November 2014, which included the bright, bouncy, bubbly, track Santa Tell Me, which featured Ariana asking Santa to tell her if her new beau “really cares” or if he will leave her like other guys have, before the next Christmas. Written by Grande, Savan Kotecha, and Ilya Salmanzadeh, it was a catchy song with a hummable chorus and lyrics, and ticked all the boxes for getting the balance right between festive bonhomie and possible heartbreak in the new year. It was a global hit charting top ten throughout Europe, and top 20 in Australia, Canada, and the UK, but underperformed in the US where it peaked at #42 on the Billboard charts, and didn’t quite become the seasonal staple that Grande had hoped for, but it was definitely a pleasant stocking-filler.
Santa’s Coming for Xmas and Underneath The Christmas Lights and Candy Cane Lane – Sia 2017
Aussie singer/songwriter Sia wrote and produced her fourth album Everyday Is Christmas, with her long-time collaborator Greg Kurstin in 2017, the lead single was Santa’s Coming For Us, a jazzy jam of a record with a reggae-inflected beat, that hit #1 on the US Adult Contemporary charts, #9 on US Billboard, and #39 in the UK. The song’s retro video features real-life celebrity couple Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard hosting a Xmas Eve party; Henry “The Fonz” Winkler” and All My Children actress Susan Lucci feature as the grandparents, while comedian J.B.Smoove, was the titular Santa.
Other songs on the album included the dramatic ballad Underneath the Christmas Lights, and Sia’s Christmas valentine to Phil Spector, Candy Cane Lane, with its sleigh bells and saxophones, it could have been recorded in the Gold Star Studios (LA) back in the 1960’s with Phil and the Wrecking Crew.