Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat - and those festive pop songs are starting to grate! Andy Welch reflects on the musical ghosts of Christmas past, and suggests a few merry numbers for the present.


It seems to get earlier every year, doesn't it?

That moment when you're in a shop, normally a department store or supermarket, happily going about your business, and suddenly you hear Noddy Holder's voice for the first time since last year.

"It's Chriiiiiiiiiiiiist-mas," he bellows, as he has done every 12 months since 1973.

"Oh no," comes the only natural response. "Already? We've only just had Bonfire Night."

Now if you heard Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody for the first time today, chances are you'd love it. It is, after all, a fantastic song that fully encapsulates the excitement of Christmas; the preparation, magic, tradition and anticipation.

But familiarity breeds contempt, and almost 40 years after it was first released the overplayed song is about as welcome at Christmas as a sloppy kiss from your sherry-addled great aunt.

Slade aren't the only guilty party either. Wizzard's I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday is no better. Amazingly released the same year as Slade's effort (what was it about glam rockers and Christmas?), it's been loitering around on Christmas compilations and TV adverts ever since.

Interestingly, despite the ubiquity of the song and the countless cover versions since 1973, it's never charted higher than No 4 in the UK.

Then there's Jona Lewie's exercise in brain-nagging melody, Stop The Cavalry, Sir Paul Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft's Wonderful Christmastime, and Happy Xmas War Is Over by his former songwriting partner John Lennon - not to mention Elton John honking his way through Step Into Christmas.

Mud have been Lonely This Christmas every year since 1974, Chris De Burgh is still going on about that spaceman who came travelling, while Shakin' Stevens will be wishing Merry Christmas Everyone forever more.

Perhaps the biggest problem with much Christmas music is we're still in thrall to the classics made in the Seventies. Look at any seasonal compilation - normally called something like The 101 Best Christmas Songs Ever! - and how many of the assembled tracks will have been released in the past 20 years? Very few is the answer.

That's not to say contemporary artists don't write Christmas songs, you just have to search much harder for them and there's almost no chance a new number could stand alongside any of the giants mentioned so far.

Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas, released in 1994, is about the most recent offerings accepted into the festive canon, and even that harked back to the Motown holiday-themed hits of the late Sixties and early Seventies: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town by The Jacksons and so on.

Christmas music seemed to hit a brick wall during the Nineties, and while Cliff Richard has many incorrect accusations levelled at his music, the decline of the festive single can be pretty much traced back to Mistletoe & Wine and Saviour's Day, which were Christmas No 1s in 1988 and 1990 respectively.

With those saccharine nursery rhyme lyrics and accompanying videos, he's lucky Christmas wasn't cancelled outright.

In the aftermath of Cliffmas, as we'll call it, seasonal songs have been thin on the ground. There's the aforementioned Mariah, while East 17 had a Christmas No 1 with Stay Another Day in 1994, a song only deemed festive because it features bell sounds and the four-piece looked cold in the video.

Novelty singles were also big business - Mr Blobby, Bob The Builder etc - until X Factor's stranglehold took over and effectively killed off the genre.

Shayne Ward hit No 1 in 2005 with That's My Goal, and was duly followed to the December top spot by Leona Lewis, Leon Jackson and Alexandra Burke, only for something odd to happen the year after. Joe McElderry was denied his almost certain Christmas No 1 by a husband-and-wife team of campaigners Jon and Tracy Morter.

As admirable as their 2009 mission to get Rage Against The Machine's Killing In The Name Of to Christmas No 1 was, it didn't seem to have much good cheer about it. If people wanted to buy the X Factor winner's single each year, then surely it was up to them how they spent their cash.

That's the great thing about the charts - they document popularity, not necessarily good taste. And perhaps a real protest would have been millions of people opting out of the race altogether.

Maybe Christmas music just became too cheesy for record buyers of the Noughties; too kitsch to be cool. And if there's one thing Christmas - the campest of all festivals - didn't need, it was even more gaudiness.

Carols have never gone out of fashion. While we might be bored of Slade, Wizzard and, as it gets older and more overplayed, The Pogues' Fairytale Of New York, you'll hear few grumbles about Once In Royal's David City, Oh Come All Ye Faithful or, the most fun traditional tune there is, Deck The Halls.

Christian carols have fallen by the wayside slightly as Christmas becomes less of a religious celebration and more of a time for family and friends.

There has been a slight resurgence in Christmas albums in the past couple of years. His Bobness, Mr Dylan, released Christmas In The Heart in 2009, while chief Super Furry Animal, American duo She & Him, and Brit pairs Smith & Burrows and Emmy The Great & Tim Wheeler all released Christmas albums last year, each adding a particularly indie take on the yearly celebration.

This year Cee-Lo Green, Tracey Thorn, Christina Perri and Rod Stewart are just four of the artists releasing new Yuletide albums.

Whether they're offering anything new remains to be seen, but it's got to be better than listening to Slade again, hasn't it?

10 Christmas songs to try

:: Tracey Thorn - Tinsel And Lights

:: She & Him - Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

:: Summer Camp - Christmas Wrapping

:: Darlene Love - Marshmallow World

:: The Temptations - Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer

:: Low - Just Like Christmas

:: The Leisure Society - The Last Of The Melting Snow

:: The Futureheads - Christmas Was Better In The 80s

:: Sharon Van Etten and Rufus Wainwright - Baby It's Cold Outside

:: Emmy The Great & Tim Wheeler - Zombie Christmas