We all have them, songs that seem to touch a secret place in your soul – sometimes secret even from you. They can grow and occasionally fester like an open wound, or they can fill you up, inspire you and occasionally even heal you. Sometimes they don't even reflect your musical tastes. They can be shameful secrets that you keep from family and friends. You feel like a drug addict craving your next fix. At times like those you thank the powers that be for MP3 players – the syringe of those suffering with this affliction.
This is a special Christmas installment of songs that touch my soul but unlike most of the “Songs” column’s this edition isn’t full of passion, desire and lust – because even I can’t make Christmas lusty. Usually just five songs long, this holiday special will be 12 songs (one for each day of Christmas) over a two-part column. Not a traditionalist, you’ll notice that many of these songs are not the regular favourites, although there are few golden-oldies that I simply couldn’t do without.
“O Come O Come Emmanuel” – Belle and Sebastian
That great Scottish band, Belle and Sebastian, did, what is to me, the seminal version of John Mason Neale's "Veni, Veni, Emmanuel." Neale is a 19th century divine scholar and hymn writer. B&S's version is a sublime, graceful, concordant version, with the band striking the perfect balance between modern and traditional with vocal harmonies enough for any church choir.
“Fairytale of New York” – The Pogues with Kristy MacColl
Those gods of Irish folk-pop The Pogues, gave us a song that is as far from traditional as it could be and yet, has a lovely tune that feels oh so Christmassy. Featuring Kristy MacColl – an English singer venerated by the British media, when she died well before her time in 2000 – this song is essentially a tale of love gone wrong. Sung by Pogues frontman, toothless genius Shane MacGowan, spinning a lyrical tale in the form of an internal monologue between he and former girlfriend MacColl, as he lies in a drunk tank, in New York City, sleeping it off.
The lyrics are touching and humorous, the music has a sweeping, orchestral quality to it and the picture MacGowan paints of New York at Christmas is astonishingly vivid. And of course it has those, oh-so Christmassy lyrics “You scumbag, you maggot/ You cheap lousy faggot/ Happy Christmas your arse/ I pray God it's our last”. Really warms your heart doesn’t it. But I bet many of us have thought those very words too many relatives and loved ones at Christmas.
“Alan Parsons in a Winter Wonderland” – Grandaddy
Grandaddy are easily one of my favourite bands. Their signature quirky electronic noises over indie rock guitar and intelligent lyrics were what made them so much fun but sadly the band are no longer together. They contributed this track to, possibly the greatest Christmas compilation album ever, Jeepster Records' It's a Cool Cool Christmas.
Here Grandaddy take that classic song “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”, add that electronic quirkiness I was talking about, over the top of the well known tune and play with the lyrics. The resulting track is another mix of tradition and modern that is so cool it smokes. The fun lyric changes turn the song from a play in the snow to an ode to prog-rock great Alan Parsons. My personal favourite lyrics are wrong but Grandaddy somehow make all the syllables work, even if they don’t fit: “in the meadow we can build a snowman/ and pretend that he is Alan Parsons/ he'll say have you listened to my new band/ we'll say no but we really like that one song it goes time keeps flowing like a river”. A future classic without doubt.
“Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow” – Dean Martin
Truly a Christmas great, with that super cool crooner Dean Martin on vocals. Would it surprise you to find out that this pop-standard is not, in fact, a Christmas song at all but a simple love song? Despite the obvious wintry lyrics, and its warm cheery feel, the song never actually mentions Christmas. Originally recorded in 1945 by Vaughn Monroe, it was a number one hit in its day, but when the ultra cool rat-packer recorded it, the song made its way into our collective Christmas conscience. Now who would be without old Dean-baby at the holidays?
“Carol of the Bells” – Mannheim Steamroller
Picking just one Mannheim Steamroller Christmas song is like trying to choose between your parents or your in-laws for Christmas dinner – I’m sure the old ball-and-chain will have something to say about your choice – so let’s just let this one track stand for all Mannheim Steamroller. This is my own particular favourite right now, although it does change from year to year. This track is from their seminal Christmas album A Fresh Aire Christmas which also includes other favourites “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, “In Dulci Jubilo” and “Veni Veni (O Come, O Come Emmanuel)”. In fact this whole album, along with their first Mannheim Steamroller Christmas, is a must have for the holidays. Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without MS’s electronically synthesised bells and orchestras, hell in this track they even threw-in some synth vocals just to top it all off.
“The Christmas Song” – Nat “King” Cole
Iconic doesn’t begin to cover Nat “King” Cole’s status in our hearts and minds and this song is right up there with him. Beautifully smooth, creamy, and rich this jazz song was so perfect and elegant that not one single cover (and it is one of the most covered Christmas songs out there) has ever come close to it knocking Cole off the top spot. And lets hope it never does.
“Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas” – Eels
In this song Eels do what only they do convincingly – essentially the band Eels is just singer-songwriter Mark Everett – make Christmas rock. The Eels signature sound – as heard in all the Shrek movies – melodies, harmonies and an effortless fusion of indie rock guitar and piano sounds added to Mr. E’s fabulous lyrics like “…everybody's waiting for you down at the house/ the tree is looking so inspired/ there's a Yuletide groove waiting for you to move /come on and throw another log on the fire/ and everything's gonna be cool this Christmas”. And of course ultimate lyric, “Baby Jesus, born to rock”. This is a seriously cool Christmas song.