Possibly our toughest debate yet, we asked two sound experts – and passionate music fans – to choose the ultimate Christmas song. We have our own thoughts on the matter, but which one is right? You decide.
Clare Newsome, Group Editor What Hi-fi? Sound & Vision says The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole.
Picture a sweltering July day in California. In less than an hour, a couple of youngsters write a piece of software with the genius to touch the lives of billions, generate millions of pounds and guarantee them both an annuity for life.
Not a modern, Social Network-style tale of a Silicon Valley start-up, but how Bob Wells (aged 22) and Mel Torme (just 19) created The Christmas Song in 1945.
It took more than a year for the song to be released, but in Christmas 1946, when the world was recovering from its most brutal war yet, the velvet tones of Nat King Cole spread across the airwaves, singing the immortal phrase: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”
It was that opening line – together with the following three: “Jack Frost nipping at your nose/Yuletide carols being sung by a choir/And folks wrapped up like Eskimos” – that Bob Wells, clad in tennis whites, had penned before Mel Torme arrived for a songwriting session.
According to Torme’s later recollection, Wells said: “It was so hot today, I thought I’d write something to cool myself off. All I could think of was Christmas and cold weather.”
And in true movie-script fashion, Torme says he replied: “You know, this just might make a song.”
They rattled off the remaining lyrics and wrote the accompanying music in 45 minutes flat, before rushing over to Hollywood to play it to people – one of whom was a quickly besotted Nat King Cole.
One year on and Cole recorded his first version of The Christmas Song – a tune he was to record four times in the next 15 years, including the definitive 1961 stereo version, complete with full orchestra and Cole’s richest vocal performance yet. All using some of the top recording facilities of the time at Capitol – just one reason these songs can sound so great all these years on.
Nat King Cole’s recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1974, one of the first songs to be recognised as having “qualitative or historical significance”. It has since overtaken White Christmas as the most recorded festive song.
Some covers have been beautiful (Ella Fitzgerald; Stevie Wonder; Diana Krall to name just three), others surreal (step forward Twisted Sister) and others best forgotten (from Bob Dylan to Justin Bieber, you know who you are).
But none matches the timeless tones of Nat King Cole and his orchestra. From the opening sweep of piano and strings to Nat’s closing, heartfelt “you” and the riff on ‘Jingle Bells’, this is the quintessential Christmas classic.
The musical equivalent of all the other rich, delicious treats you consume only at Christmas, my festive season doesn’t start until I’ve got goosebumps from hearing the exquisitely recorded sound of this song on my system.
As Wells and Torme wrote:” Although it’s been said, many times, many ways – Merry Christmas, to you”.
Ashley Norris, Editor of popjunkie says Happy Christmas (War Is Over)
From the moment I said yes to this I knew it would be trouble. ‘Chose your favourite Christmas record,’ they said. ‘Of course’ I said my mind already racing through the track lists of dozens of CD-R and cassette compilations and the odd Spotify playlist. So what song perfectly captures what is without a doubt my favourite time of the year? The first thought was to go for something a bit obscure. How about Louis Eliot (once of late 90s britpoppers Rialto) and his gorgeous hymn to an English winter 25th of the 12th? Or how about Martin Newell’s Kinksy strumalong Christmas In Suburbia from his 1991 album Greatest Living Englishman with its tales of sodium lights and escaping turkeys? Or even Claudine Longet (once Mrs Andy Williams) whose back catalogue is peppered with numbers like I Don’t Want To Spend Christmas Without You and Snow that are just begging be aired on Xmas specials where reindeer jumpers, fake snow and ginormous pine trees are the order of the day.
But in the end I went for the obvious choice which is John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Happy Christmas (War Is Over). For me Christmas songs need to tick a few boxes. Firstly they need to have a degree of schmaltz. They need to be ever so slightly cheesy and a little bit sentimental. All great Christmas records have this from A Fairytale Of New York through to I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day. Basically they are cringey enough to ensure that you wouldn’t want to play them at any other time during the year, but over the festive period, when your critical faculties are beaten into submission by strange alcoholic drinks and odd shaped chocolates, they sound damn near perfect. Happy Christmas has just enough schmaltz. You probably won’t remember all the words, but with your arm round some random from the accounts department it won’t matter anyway.
Secondly I like my Christmas songs with a bit of a message. Those carols that some sing so lustily over the festive season inspire something odd in us because they are messages of hope, peace, love and a yearning for a better future. Whether John Lennon purposefully attempted to write a contemporary Carol is a moot point but with its ‘war is over if you want it’ refrain Happy Christmas is very much part of that tradition. I also like the way that it makes you think about your life and also about other people. You can say the same Band Aid though I am not sure Last Christmas quite hits the mark here. If you can’t be nice to other people over Christmas, you are really going to struggle with Blue Monday -aka January 24th.
Lastly the perfect Christmas song needs a killer melody and a catchy chorus. On his day no one was better at creating these than John Lennon, except (hugely controversial statement alert) maybe his writing partner. Happy Christmas really is just about perfect. Now where did I put that Egg Nog Latte?