Published On: 19 Dec 2023Categories: Music

About 15 years ago, I was heartily and probably finally sick of reading more or less the same articles every December about “yuletide songs”, so many of which managed at some point to rhyme “yule” with “cool” and all of which either punted the latest Christmas concoction by some Tony Bennett wannabe or André Rieu or Kenny G soundalike or, if the piece had been written by someone who was slightly hipper than the rest, regretted the fact that Christmas music was usually so lame while reminding us that, once in a very blue moon, it somehow managed to be, you know, really cool, before going on to mention John and Yoko, the Pogues, the Pretenders and … well, Slade … and that, with one or two fairly ubiquitous but generally unprepossessing additions, was pretty much it. At the time I was writing a weekly column about albums you should have in your collection, so I wrote one about ‘The Perfect Christmas Album’ but, a bit like the Beach Boys’ ‘Smile’, the album didn’t exist, not officially; at least my version of it didn’t. To digress here so as to namedrop a little, David Thomas of Pere Ubu once told me that ‘Smile’ was the perfect album precisely because it didn’t exist, which might go for Christmas albums as well.

Anyway, I decided to put my money where my mouth was and, perhaps inspired by Brian Wilson’s efforts not that long before, help one into existence. So, for the past decade and a half, I have compiled a double CD of Christmas-related tracks every year, with a couple of New Year’s tunes thrown in, to give to friends as Christmas presents. The latest set accordingly comprises volumes 29 and 30. Just so we’re clear, that’s around 650 different tracks related to Christmas, though a few are actually about New Year, all of which have passed my personal examination of what deserves to be on a Christmas album I’d want to listen to all the way through and maybe even all year round.


The Pogues – Rum, Sodomy & The Lash

Low – Christmas

Jimi Hendrix – Live At The Fillmore East

There are rules, of course. Firstly, as my tribute to a rapidly disappearing way of life, I have to own the track on CD, so there’s no just googling “Christmas” and hitting “download”, though friends, aware of my rule, have from time to time sent me CD-Rs of tracks they thought I needed. Then, songs can occasionally be repeated but they must be in different versions by different artists. And, thirdly, there’ll be no John and Yoko, Pogues, Pretenders or Slade, though the Beatles’ fan club Christmas flexi-disc singles and Mark Kozelek’s version of 2000 Miles qualified and Shane MacGowan’s death forced me to lead off the 2023 set with Fairytale Of New York, a great song for sure, but almost as done to death, at least in the UK, where I often spend Christmas, as the blighted Boney M in your local Checkers. I had closed 2022 with Silent Night by Low, whose Mimi Parker had just died, so the MacGowan song was, despite the rule, an obvious choice. It was originally to be found on ‘Rum, Sodomy & The Lash’, probably the group’s best album, with artwork based on The Raft Of The Medusa, a production by Elvis Costello – who never quite married the bass player who memorably sang that she was “a man you don’t meet every day” – and a title taken from a comment that Winston Churchill apparently made about the Royal Navy.

MacGowan, who had been born on Christmas Day, had in fact made it onto an earlier set, as Shane MacGowan & the Popes, formed when the Pogues eventually lost patience with their ex-genius frontman, with his Christmas Lullaby, which is also a fine song although probably in a league below the Premiership. The version of Little Drummer Boy by Low, a superb slowcore trio-then-duo from Bob Dylan’s birthplace with a string of fine albums behind them, one of which is the entirely seasonal Christmas, is gorgeous and can be taken to ease the annual affliction caused by Boney M’s. Or you could listen to the Jimi Hendrix medley of Little Drummer Boy, Silent Night and Auld Lang Syne that he recorded in a 1969 jam session and that was released a couple of times as a single. Hendrix was on stage at the Fillmore East when 1969 turned into 1970 and his perfectly Hendrixian Auld Lang Syne kicks off the second disc of the often spectacular ‘Live At The Fillmore East’ before segueing into the more representative Who Knows.

Exactly two years later the Band, whose Christmas Must Be Tonight is one of the loveliest songs of the season, were at the Academy of Music in New York with a horn section arranged by the great Allen Toussaint for a series of concerts that generated one of rock music’s best live albums, ‘Rock Of Ages’ and later the ‘Live At The Academy Of Music 1971’ box set. The New Year’s Eve gig culminated early the next morning with a surprise appearance by Bob Dylan who joined the group for four songs, his first with them since the Isle of Wight and his only live performance of any sort since then apart from George Harrison’s benefit for the people of Bangladesh. But the important moment for our purposes occurred at midnight on 31 December when organist Garth Hudson, in the throes of a seven-minute improvisation called The Genetic Method, which the Band routinely used as an intro to Chest Fever, also drifted into Auld Lang Syne.


Okkervil River – Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See

Phil Spector – A Christmas Gift For You

Spectrum Meets Captain Memphis – Indian Giver

Big Star – Third

Now this might all seem a bit meh at our current musical remove but let me borrow from Jason Isbell’s dad’s advice in the Drive-By Truckers’ fabulous Outfit, in case you don’t already know, or maybe forgot, and lay it out real nice and slow. As long as you avoid the hoary versions of the old chestnuts, rather than the chestnuts themselves, and accept that Christmas songs can be anxious as well as unctuous, funny as well as downright rude, you could also develop an obsession to the point where your ear subconsciously searches almost every song you hear for a Christmas-related message, sometimes to the point where that “yule” you thought you heard turns out just to have been “you’ll”. Occasionally the title itself proves irresistible. Traveling Salesman’s Young Wife Home Alone On Christmas In Montpelier, VT by Casiotone For The Painfully Alone (who also complained about a Cold White Christmas in St Paul), Okkervil River’s Listening To Otis Redding At Home During Christmas, Tom Waits’s Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis and Wall Of Voodoo’s We Shouldn’t Have Given Him A Gun For Christmas would have demanded inclusion no matter what they sounded like. Fortunately, they’re all good songs.

For decades, Phil Spector’s 1963 ‘A Christmas Gift For You’ was considered pop music’s gold standard and it could still be, though a younger generation’s tolerance for a collection of songs like Frosty The Snowman, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus sung by a collection of girl groups like the Crystals, the Ronettes and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, along with the record’s secret weapon, Darlene Love, to Spector’s Wall of Sound might be tested, especially when arranged and produced by a man who went to prison for murdering a woman he had apparently met only hours before. Spector claimed that her death was an accidental suicide. He was not believed.

Sometimes the best Christmas songs are not so much about Christmas as they are about stuff, real or made up, that happened at Christmas. Ironically, one of those events, which might accurately have been termed an accidental suicide, spawned a few of my favourite Christmas songs. On Christmas Day 1954, R&B singer Johnny Ace was backstage between sets in Houston, Texas, showing off with his pistol to some ladies who included Big Mama Thornton, who had been the first to record the rock ’n’ roll classic, Hound Dog. Thinking it wasn’t loaded he pointed it at his head and pulled the trigger. It was. Hence, for example, Paul Simon’s The Late, Great Johnny Ace, Dave Alvin’s Johnny Ace Is Dead and possibly best, and certainly creepiest, of all, The Lonesome Death Of Johnny Ace by Pete Kember, formerly of Spacemen 3 and also known as Sonic Boom and Spectrum, and one of American music’s truly great maverick musicians and producers James Luther (or just plain Jim) Dickinson, once known as Mudboy (of Johnny Ace’s fellow Memphis legends Mudboy & the Neutrons) but strutting his considerable stuff here as Captain Memphis. Together they forensically detail the events and aftermath of Ace’s demise in a package as propulsively bleak as any since New York electro-punk duo Suicide told the story of Frankie Teardrop. Frankie Teardrop is not a Christmas song but, startlingly perhaps for those who know their unforgettable debut, Messrs Rev and Vega did record one: Hey Lord, for the various artists’ ‘ZE Christmas Record’.

Dickinson produced my favourite, and most-played, Christmas song. Big Star, also from Memphis, are in the top ten bands of my life, a list they will likely never leave, and their third album, entitled ‘Third’ but often known as ‘Sister Lovers’ because the two remaining members of the band were dating sisters, occupies a similar place among the records of my life. In addition to the band’s Alex Chilton’s misspelled uneasy listening masterwork, ‘Like Flies On Sherbert’, which is an album your response to which might decide whether you and I can be friends, Dickinson produced the often highly idiosyncratic ‘Third’, which includes Jesus Christ, a gloriously melodic jangle that assures us that the wrong shall fail and the right prevail before announcing the guitar solo with “we’re gonna get born now”.


Mississippi John Hurt – Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings

Bob Dylan – World Gone Wrong

Johnny Cash – American Recordings

Dave Alvin – Public Domain: Songs From The Wild Land

On Christmas Day 1895 “Stag” Lee Shelton shot and killed Billy Lyons in an argument over a Stetson hat, and so bluesman Mississippi John Hurt’s great 1928 recording of Stack O’ Lee and R&B singer Lloyd Price’s 1959 US No 1 hit, Stagger Lee, both qualify as Christmas songs along with the dozens of other versions of the song by artists ranging from the remarkable Frank Hutchison, who was white and is therefore regarded as very early country rather than the bluesman he just as easily was back in the days when rural music was classified by record companies as “race” if it was black and “hillbilly” if it was white, to the Black Keys, but Nick Cave’s deliciously over the top version, about the same guy but set 37 years later, probably doesn’t. For much more about the event and its sonic consequences you should read Cecil Brown’s Stagolee Shot Billy. Then maybe read the chapter on Sly Stone in Greil Marcus’s classic Mystery Train. It’s called The Myth of Staggerlee. Sly has lived an unusual life, no doubt well described in his memoir, which is just out, but it seems unlikely that he ever shot a man over a Stetson hat.

Bob Dylan recorded Stack A Lee on the second of his early ’90s albums of old folk and blues songs. Delia was on the same album. It’s another Christmas song. Delia Green died on Christmas Day  1900 at the age of 14 having been shot by Moses Houston the previous day, and just as those two albums assisted Dylan out of what seemed, with just a few exceptions, to be a serious slump in form, so the first in the ‘American Recordings’ series that signalled Johnny Cash’s late career revival included Delia’s Gone, about the same murder.

North Carolina farmer Charlie Lawson murdered his family on Christmas Day 1929 before shooting himself. The only survivor was the son he had sent into town to buy shotgun shells. The Murder Of The Lawson Family has been recounted by a number of bluegrass and country artists including the pluperfectly wonderful Stanley Brothers, but perhaps never as affectingly as by erstwhile Blasters and X guitarist turned invariably excellent songwriter, Dave Alvin, on his magnificent album of ‘Songs From The Wild Land’. The record also contained Alvin’s version of Delia.


Various Artists – Blues, Blues Christmas Vols 1-6

Paul Simon – So Beautiful Or So What

Chuck Berry – The Chess Box

Tiny Tim – Tiny Tim’s Christmas Album

As the Handsome Family sang, “Christmas is the season when most folks kill themselves / Christmas is the reason for all those stupid bells”, or as pre-war fire and brimstone preacher the Reverend J M Gates reminded us on one of his many unflinching recorded sermons, his congregation amen-ing and tell it brother-ing along in the background, Death Might Be Your Santa Claus. Around seventy years later Rev Gates would have an unexpected spell in the popular music sun as his thoughts on Getting Ready For Christmas Day would be sampled by Paul Simon on a hit album.

Many record labels have released Christmas collections featuring mainly their major acts performing mainly the hoary classics, though Atlantic, Stax, Sugar Hill and Chess, are a few of those to have put out decent albums, but there’s one label that stands out from the crowd.  Document Records is an Austrian-founded, Scottish-based label that specialises in the reissue of American roots music mainly up to the 1940s, especially blues. It tends to go for completeness rather than only the cream of its roster and its Blues, Blues Christmas compilations are the source of plenty of fantastic little-known Christmas music. You’ll find the Reverend Gates there along with other evangelists and an array of well- and unknown bluesmen and women from Bessie Smith and Blind Lemon Jefferson to Lead Belly and Freddy King, the Alphabetical Four and Black Ace to Gribble, Lusk & York. You’ll also find early Chuck Berry, though Chuck’s best-known Christmas song came along later. I have been able to start more than a dozen of my compilation CDs with versions of Berry’s marvellous Run, Rudolph, Run, by artists ranging from Keith Richards and Dwight Yoakam to Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams. This year’s version, by Cher no less, failed to make the cut.

You’ll have to work out for yourself why I draw the line at Cher when I’ve used Tiny Tim’s seemingly ridiculous falsetto version of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. There is a loose connection between the two artists, by the way. Many years ago, Tiny Tim recorded a few tracks with the Band – yes, that Band. Possibly the best of these was the Sonny & Cher hit, I Got You, Babe, the best version of which is not, you may be surprised to hear, by UB40, and possibly not even the second-best version. Tim was also on one of those Beatles fan club Christmas flexi-discs, singing Nowhere Man for George Harrison. There have been those who have doubted whether it really was the guy whose Tip-Toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me prowled improbably up the 1968 charts rather than one of the Beatles speaking and singing in falsetto, but it surely sounds like him.

An astonishing number of perfectly respectable artists have bought into the Christmas theme at least once in their careers. Joni Mitchell wished she had a river she could skate away on while the Long Ryders sang about Christmas In New Zealand. For Steve Earle it was Christmas In Washington, where the Democrats rehearsed for four more years of things not getting worse. After a string of titles where they declared what they wanted to do – be well, be sedated, be your boyfriend, sniff some glue – the Ramones listed what they didn’t wanna do – grow up, walk around with you, be learned or tamed, go down to the basement – before concluding that they didn’t want to fight on Christmas night either. Sixties garage punks the Sonics, the recent documentary film on whom I can’t wait to see, didn’t believe in Christmas (’cos they didn’t get nothing last year); James Brown sent Santa straight to the ghetto, but presumably only after Millie had pulled a pistol on him (as noted by both De La Soul and the Roots); Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings lamented the fact that there weren’t no chimneys in the projects; and, while Captain Beefheart couldn’t find Santa Claus on the evening stage, John Cale remembered a Child’s Christmas In Wales, and Richard & Linda Thompson sang hallelujah at the turning of the year. Meanwhile Clarence Carter, otherwise known as Back Door Santa, was making his run ’bout the break of day.


Calexico – Seasonal Shift

Los Lobos – Llegó Navidad

Joseph Spence – Living On The Hallelujah Side

Terry Allen – Bloodlines

The splendid Calexico are among those who have invested a greater sense of energy and purpose into their Christmas projects and stuck around for a full album’s worth of seasonal songs. My daughter sent me a message last week that, amazingly, they were playing Calexico’s Hear The Bells in Bluewater, a huge shopping centre in south-east London, and I once heard Bert Jansch’s In The Bleak Midwinter in a cosmetics shop in Bromley, which almost seemed a reason to emigrate.

Others, desultorily scattered and virtually invisible among the Chers, Michael Bublés and Josh Grobans of other people’s worlds (though the pop-up Graceland-in- the-snow packaging of my Elvis Presley Christmas CD is one of my favourite musical artefacts) have included Hiss Golden Messenger, Rodney Crowell, king of Medway rock ’n’ roll Billy Childish and the at least alphabetically linked Nick Lowe, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Los Lobos … and I haven’t even got to jazz, folk, modern blues, bluegrass, Cajun, reggae or non-English speaking music, though quite a lot of the Los Lobos album is in Spanish.

My favourite after Big Star’s Jesus Christ? There are a few, but I do find the extraordinary Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence’s mumbled and grumbled Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (in dropped D tuning for the guitarists out there) hopelessly addictive. And I reckon you have to get up quite early in the morning to beat Darlene Love’s (remember her from the Phil Spector record?) All Alone On Christmas with its Little Steven arrangement and its backing by Springsteen’s E Street Band with the Miami Horns. You should not let its use in Home Alone 2 detract from your enjoyment of a great Christmas song.

However, if I ever find out that the events of Texas songwriter (and renowned sculptor) Terry Allen’s Gimme A Ride To Heaven Boy did take place at Christmas as I suspect they could have, all bets are off. The protagonist comes upon a hitchhiker one night with “his thumb out in the wilderness and a halo in his hair”. He picks him up, they share a beer and the passenger then pulls a gun from his robes telling him that, “The Lord moves in mysterious ways and tonight, my son, He’s gonna use your car”.

Richard Haslop


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