Friday, December 10, 2010

Ten Good Christmas Number Ones

The 'Christmas Number One' tradition is an interesting tradition that the British keep that on this side of the pond is completely ignored. In short, whatever song happens to be the chart-topper the week December 25th falls in is remembered as a 'Christmas Number One' and gains an unofficial status as a Christmas standard, whether or not it has anything at all to do with the season.

As befits Coca Cola's favourite holiday, many Christmas number ones are sickly-sweet concoctions that make you cry out for Boxing Day to come so they'll be taken off the radio. But here are ten you can listen to well into the New Year. From British charts, obviously. Links to Youtube included. Ho ho ho.

(As a side note, it turns out that the Christmas number two list is probably actually better, featuring "Build Me Up, Buttercup", "YMCA", "Caravan of Love", "Ice Ice Baby" and "Chocolate Salty Balls" from South Park.)

1.MOON RIVER (1961): Just to drive dyslexics crazy, the Christmas Number One version of this chestnut from Breakfast at Tiffany's is not Andy Williams' version but the one recorded by South African Danny Williams. Really. If this was a cheap effort to grab a few extra sales à la the guy who ran for office as a "Literal Democrat" or the company that makes "SQNY" electronics, the deceit is the white guy's, as this version is older. At least as beautiful too, but that beauty really belongs to Henry Mancini. A gorgeous song. Youtube LinkDanny Williams, Moon River, Christmas Number One

2.WE CAN WORK IT OUT (1965): This makes the list because it was technically not the b-side of Day Tripper but the 'other a-side' of a 'double a-side'. Either way, this moody little miniature is the best of the Beatles' five Christmas number ones between 1963 and 1967. Youtube LinkThe Beatles, We Can Work It Out, Christmas Number One

3.BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (1975, 1991): I hesitated to include this Queen canard. It's a bit.. well, it's a bit overdone, isn't it? Epic, best-song-ever, blah blah blah... it's tough to just hear it as a cool song anymore. But a cool song it is, with both the piano ballad at the beginning and the guitar screamy bit at the end enjoyable even if they're entirely overshadowed by the Scaramouching in the middle. That's what makes this more than 'just another song', and the part of the song that divides the world into two: people who will admit loving it, and people who pretend they don't. This song hit the number one on two different Christmases, the only song not containing the line "thank God it's them instead of you" to do so. Youtube LinkQueen, Bohemian Rhapsody, Christmas Number One

4.MARY'S BOY CHILD / OH MY LORD (1978): Among the Christmas Number Ones on this list, you'll find few of my choices actually have seasonal content. The truth is they're too often cheesy. This is not only cheese but is the stinkiest of continental blue cheese, but it's irrepressible fun as well, as much of Boney M's bizarre Caribbean/German disco/calypso hybrids were. Youtube LinkBoney M, Mary's Boy Child, Christmas Number One

5.DON'T YOU WANT ME (1981): Nothing more Christmasy than a breakup song, is there? Not that this Human League monster sounds like a weeper, with its driving ringtone musical backdrop and charmingly artless lyrics. It is pretty much just nonsense, but it's truly wonderful nonsense, one of the best songs ever, in my humble opinion. Youtube LinkHuman League, Don't You Want Me, Christmas Number One

6.ONLY YOU (1983): The original was where Vince Clarke, after failing miserably with Depeche Mode, got machines to replicate human emotions. So it's a strange choice for an a capella rendition, but The Flying Pickets (who?) got a well-deserved Christmas number one with this, the first a capella song to hit the top of the charts. Youtube LinkFlying Pickets, Only You, Christmas Number One

7.ALWAYS ON MY MIND (1987): This not-even-slightly-Christmasy song kept the best Christmas song ever, the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York", from the top, for which it deserves to be on Santa's naughty list. But it's a great song nonetheless, sentimental in the Elvis and Willie versions, here filled to the brim with that emotion unique to Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant, the emotion that manages to be sincere and ironic at the very same time. Youtube LinkPet Shop Boys, Always On My Mind, Christmas Number One

8.EARTH SONG (1995): Jarvis Cocker be damned, this is just a great song. Complaining that this song is bombastic is like complaining that the sun gives off light. Like Michael Jackson's infamous performance of it at the BRIT Awards, this song is as bombastic as they get; it's just that it turns bombast into high art. Youtube LinkMichael Jackson, Earth Song, Christmas Number One

9.MAD WORLD (2003): Several of the songs here are covers, interestingly. What makes a cover great is rarely fidelity to the original; a great cover is one that brings something new to the composition. Recorded by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules for the Donnie Darko soundtrack, this beautiful cover of Tears For Fears' already gorgeous original is pretty much the definition of 'haunting' - fragile, still... it sounds like a demo. And after hearing it once, you'll thereafter never hear the Tears for Fears original as the 'proper' version. Youtube LinkGary Jules, Mad World, Christmas Number One

10.KILLING IN THE NAME (2009): Yeah, it's mostly the stick-it-to-the-Man iconoclasm of last year's guerilla effort to shove this song in Simon Cowell's face that wins this song its slot on the list. I actually hated this song, and Rage Against the Machine generally, when it first came out. But now that its dime-store revolutionary sloganeering plays like nostalgia, I can call it charming. So it really is festive then. Youtube LinkRage Against the Machine, Killing in the Name, Christmas Number One

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