Soundtrack to a cooler Yule

You probably won't find these songs on a Christmas compilation, but that doesn't mean they're substandard. Robert Webb celebrates cult festive offerings
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The Independent Culture

Back in 1957, a radio DJ named Al Priddy, of the Portland, Oregon, station KEX, was fired for violating the station's ban on playing Elvis Presley's rendition of "White Christmas". It was considered just too sacrilegious for mid-Fifties small-town America. Irving Berlin's nostalgic number is generally considered the first modern Christmas anthem and it quickly established itself in the national psyche as the perfect secular carol. Ever since that morning in January 1940 when Berlin instructed his arranger, Helmy Kresa, to "take down a song I wrote over the weekend", Christmas records have been and unavoidable soundtrack to festive revelries.

Now, of course, there are stalwarts from every era: comedy numbers, tinsel rockers, breathy ballads, millennial prayers. For ubiquity, Slade's "Merry Xmas Everybody" and Wizzard's "I Wish it Could Be Christmas Everyday" run a close second to Bing Crosby's definitive take on "White Christmas", in the UK, at least. Then there are evergreens by acts such as Nat "King" Cole, John Lennon, Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl and Jona Lewie. These tracks have become a compiler's meal ticket. The trouble, as anyone will know who shells out for each annual configuration of The Best Christmas Album in the World ... Ever, or Now That's What I Call Christmas, is that the same roasted chestnuts come round again and again, as regular as Cliff Richard.

It's time to stop the cavalry and sound a fanfare for the Christmas singles of old that evade the compilers' playlists. Here are a baker's dozen - some neglected hits and some that never were but should have been.

Kate Bush: 'December Will Be Magic Again'

The great lost Kate Bush single, released at her commercial peak in 1980. Bush name-checks Oscar Wilde and Bing Crosby in a swooping seasonal shrieker. It was aired during her 1979 BBC Christmas special, Kate, in which she also duetted with Peter Gabriel and Roy Harper. The studio version was released the following Christmas, when it lodged in the charts at No 29. It has never been reissued.

Find it on 'This Woman's Work: The Kate Bush Anthology'

Saint Etienne: 'I Was Born on Christmas Day'

"When you're in a pop group, you want to do a Christmas single, don't you?" said Saint Etienne's Bob Stanley. Sarah Cracknell duets with the Charlatans' Tim Burgess on a seasonal kitsch classic about two lovers writing to each other. "One of the characters is working in Euro Disney to get some money for presents, while his girlfriend is in England pining for him," said Burgess. It reached No 35 in the charts in 1993, just in time for Stanley's birthday - on Christmas Day.

Find it on 'Too Young to Die: The Singles'

James Brown: 'Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year'

James Brown bends notes like plastic and praises God on one of two JB singles released in December 1966, the other being "The Christmas Song". Both are from his superlative first Christmas collection (there have been several) which, along with Motown's 1968 seasonal sampler, Presley's Christmas Album and Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You, set the standard for festive round-ups.

Find it on 'James Brown's Funky Christmas'

The Ramones: 'Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)'

Ho! Ho! Let's go. The late Joey Ramone dedicated this 1989 plea for a truce on punkish scuffles to his girlfriend. "Christmas is the time when we break each other's hearts," he croons amid the usual Ramones wall of sound. Joey was considered the hippie of the group and now has a New York street corner officially named in his honour.

Find it on 'Weird Tales of the Ramones'

Squeeze: 'Christmas Day'

This festive piano-and-harp arrangement, written by Chris Difford, was Squeeze's failed pitch for the 1979 Christmas charts. It's also the only Christmas record banned by the BBC on grounds of blasphemy. "The lyric was shot through with Chris's sense of humour, dovetailing the story of Mary and Jesus with Morecambe and Wise," explained his bandmate Glenn Tilbrook. The video featured the band in an ill-advised re-enactment of the nativity scene.

Find it on 'Big Squeeze: The Very Best of Squeeze'

The Beatles: 'Christmas Time (Is Here Again)'

Christmas 1967 belonged to the Beatles. "Hello Goodbye" was the Yuletide No 1 and the Magical Mystery Tour film was unveiled on Boxing Day. The band's year-end gift to their fan club was a flexi-disc containing this novelty number, spliced in among chat and greetings from the fabs. It's now perhaps best enjoyed through a seasonal fug of sherry and light ale. Although circulated to thousands, it was not commercially released at the time and made the charts only on the back of the 1995 reunion single.

Find it on 'Free as a Bird'

The Kinks: 'Father Christmas'

Is there a more menacing Christmas song? In Ray Davies's yuletide single, released in 1977, the eponymous hero gets mugged by a gang of lads with no sense of occasion. Never mind the toys: they threaten to beat him up unless he hands over the money. The sociopolitical undertones soon become apparent: "Give my daddy a job, cos he needs one / He's got lots of mouths to feed / But if you've got one, I'll have a machine gun / So I can scare all the kids on the street." Frightening stuff.

Find it on 'Come Dancing: The Best of the Kinks 1977-86'

Big Star: 'Jesus Christ'

Big Star could have taken their name from an advent calendar, although were actually named after a Memphis grocery store. Fronted by the former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton, they made no impact on the singles charts whatsoever. This celebratory slice of devotional powerpop was recorded in 1975 and released three years later to promote the band's belated third album, Sister Lovers. Chilton wrote it after browsing through a hymnal that belonged to his girlfriend's father, who was a minister.

Find it on 'Sister Lovers'

Fountains of Wayne: 'I Want an Alien for Christmas'

Chris De Burgh's "A Spaceman Came Travelling" is the best-known single about Christmas and space. This light-hearted song from New York's Fountains of Wayne, on a similar theme, was on a 1997 EP, coupled with "The Man in the Santa Suit". It's a letter to Santa: "I want a little green guy/ About three feet high/ With 17 eyes." Magic.

Find it on 'Out-of-State Plates'

Elton John: 'Cold as Christmas'

Usually cold-shouldered on those Yuletide compilations in favour of the party favourite "Step into Christmas", this was the fourth single from Elton's 1980s comeback album Too Low for Zero. Technically it's not about Christmas: the protagonist is simply complaining about feeling the chill of winter in mid-July. But it was a hit at Christmas 1985 and was also the second Elton hit to feature Kiki Dee. It's not his best seasonal song: that award goes to his 1973 B-side "Ho! Ho! Ho! (Who'd Be a Turkey at Christmas?)".

Find it on 'Too Low for Zero'

Alex Harvey: 'There's No Lights on the Christmas Tree, Mother - They're Burning Big Louie Tonight'

As Glasgow's Tommy Steele embraced glam in the early 1970s, fashioning his unique blend of hard-rock cabaret, it was inevitable that he would come up with a Christmas song. This country-vaudeville rocker, released in 1972, was apparently inspired by Francis Bacon's painting A Study After Velasquez: St Nicholas, which shows Santa screaming in what appears to be an electric chair. Sadly, it gave the charts a wide berth.

Find it on 'Considering the Situation: The Anthology'

The Cocteau Twins: 'Winter Wonderland'

As fragile and transitory as a snowflake, this version of the song by Felix Bernard and Dick Smith settled on the lower branches of the Top 60 in 1992. It was recorded at the suggestion of the band's US label, Capitol, for projected inclusion in a compilation of Christmas covers. Vocalist Liz Fraser's harmonic reading ended up as part of the band's Snow EP, along with "Frosty the Snowman", and was deleted as soon as it hit the charts.

Find it on 'The Edge of Christmas' collection

Three Wise Men: 'Thanks for Christmas'

Released on Virgin ("not Mary, but Records", as the press release put it), this was Swindon's psychedelic popsters XTC in pseudonymous mood: songwriting was credited to Kaspar/Melchior/Balthazar. It was out in time for Christmas 1983, but failed to chart. The real writer, Andy Partridge, reckoned that he had "a soft spot for Christmas songs".

Find it on 'Rag and Bone Buffet'