The best Christmas song ever? You decide.

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 NewsomeClare 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?

 

 

22 Comments

  • Vija says:

    Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow! – Dean Martin. Such a great Christmas song to listen to while it’s freezing outside and all warm and toasty inside with the Christmas tree lights on.

  • Shaun says:

    Good choices these, but for me it has to be Fairytale in New York. It has everything I could want from a Christmas song: festive without being cheesy, a wonderful tune, a great slice of life storyline, it’s a fantastic drinking song and of course it has Kirsty MacColl!

    There really is nothing not to like here.

    Shaun – Bowers & Wilkins

  • Stan says:

    I am completely with Clare on this one. Many years ago I went to a friend’s house, who loves Christmas time much more than I ever have, to perform our annual christmas shopping trip. When I arrived, he had the song “I Saw Three Ships” playing. I commented on how good this song sounded on his system. His reply was, “Oh, you have not heard anything yet. Here is the best Christmas Song ever”, and started the CD over at the beginning with The Christmas Song. I remember being amazed how good this song sounded at the time. My own copy of this CD was the first gift I purchased that day. This CD remains in heavy rotation during Christmas time each year and is the recording that I tend to use to judge other Christmas music.

  • Susanna Grant says:

    Without a doubt, when it comes to Christmas songs, it has to be a Phil Spector production. Christmas is all about over-indulgence and you get that in spades with Spector. Sleigh bells? Check. Harmonies? Check Multi-layered sound? Check. Massive drums? Check.

    A Christmas Gift For You is the ultimate Christmas album and there’s not a dud song on it. but if I have to pick one, I’m going for Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby comes home) – it has the perfect mix of pathos and joy and her vocals have never sounded better.
    Turn it up loud and pour yourself your first drink of the morning.

    Susanna – Bowers & Wilkins

  • mike olson says:

    A Fairytale of New York by the Pogues because it is honest and gritty but sell evokes the sentimental feelings of the holidays.

  • Mr. X says:

    Thanks For Christmas – The Three Wise Men (XTC)

  • Martin Burrows says:

    Fairytale of New York by the Pogues without a shadow of a doubt. It’s just fantastic

  • Anders Norrman says:

    Beeing Swedish, I simply must say that the recording of O Helga Natt (O Holy Night) with legendary tenor Jussi Björling is the foremost Christmas song of them all. Just listen to that voice, and then try to state that it’s not overwhelming?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9nrDfqoYzNo

    Jussi Björling is by the way the only tenor that Luciano Pavarotti recognized as a better singer than him self. (Which says just as much about Jussis greatness as Pavarottis ego I suppose…)

    Merry Christmas to each and every one of you! <=)

  • Tito says:

    Chris Rea – Driving Home For Christmas
    Buon Natale a tutti voi!

  • Ed says:

    I’m with Susanna on this. I can’t land on a single song as being a “best Christmas song”, but I can say that even songs I like can be transformed into cold pabulum when performed poorly. Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You album performs the opposite magical transformation – the Christmas songs that are pounded into us through loudspeakers in every public space become magical, body rocking, foot tapping, finger popping celebrations. The Crystal’s Santa Claus is Coming to Town is my official “kick off the holidays” play – such a bland-ish song, but run through the Wall of Sound, and it’s a rocker. Only Bruce Springsteen’s version comes close, and is clearly a tribute itself to the Crystals.

  • Kyra says:

    Thanks, Anders. I followed your link and then bought it. Beautiful.

    My favorite Christmas album released in the last 10 years would be Chris Isaak’s. it has the sweetness of the holiday with a bit of fun thrown in.

  • Richard says:

    I completely agree with those who have already suggested The Pogues. “Fairytale of New York” is a marvelous Christmas song.

  • Andy fawkes says:

    It may be a new one (in fact very new) but I truly believe Smith and Burrows ‘When The Thames Froze’ is a Christmas classic in waiting. It’s the most heartfelt, warming and genuine Christmas song I’ve heard and leaves you with that warm fuzzy feeling that encapsulates Christmas.

  • Ken says:

    I’m right there with ‘The Christmas Song’, but by Ella Fitzgerald on my favourite all-round ‘Christmas album’, ‘Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas’. I’d also add some Christmas-themed songs: ‘How To Make Gravy’ by Paul Kelly, ‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’ by Tom Waits and ‘River’ by Joni Mitchell. At Christmas, frankly, I just want to ‘feel’. I want to watch ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ and ‘Love Actually’, and I want to get a little choked up and not exactly know why. I want to listen to music that takes me to that same place. …The practical considerations of what to do with a hippopotamus that nobody really wanted has never really rung my ‘Christmas bell’. But when Tom Waits, on youtube, starts playing silent night and meanders into ‘Christmas Card…’ or Joni Mitchell opens ‘River’ with a twisty Jingle Bells, then I’m there. And feeling good. Merry Christmas everybody.

  • Carl says:

    Your are all wrong – The best christmas song in the world is Mariah Carey’s – All I Want for Christmas is You! Growing up in the southern hemisphere where Christmas day is scorching hot, this song and accompanying video always brings some winter wonderland sparkle to our house.

  • Greg says:

    Nat King Cole’s Christmas album is the first item to come out of our holiday decorations box on November 26th. It has to be playing before we can decorate. But every year, there are some temporary favorites. Sometimes it is something from Manheim Steamroller and sometimes it is an old time Rock & Roll Christmas song. This year it is Elf’s Lament, from the album Barenaked for the Holidays, by Barenaked Ladies. It kind of hits the political temperature of today, is irreverent and laughing-out-loud fun.

  • David Simmons says:

    Ashley is just plumb loco. I loved (and love) the music of the Beatles. But to call “Happy Christmas (War is over)” the greatest Christmas Song of all time is hyperbole of the extremest. That preachy, smug, self-righteous bit of doggerel is one of the worst songs Lennon ever penned. It hits all the wrong notes, one after the other, with a metaphorical sledge-hammer.
    May I suggest “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with it’s original lyrics suggesting pain overcome, sadness transcended, and hope for the future.

  • Joa says:

    Ok, this is maybe a bit misplaced considering most of the other songs. But here is a hymn that maybe is the most popular Christmas song in Scandinavia (and my favourite). It’s call *Dejlig er Jorden’ (Wonderful is the Earth) by B.S. Ingemann. And it’s really spiritual.

    Here is two versions/performances in Norwegian – and in Finnish:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJhz4-a6pT4 (filmed in typical pocket camera style :-S )
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiLvaxO2Kcw

    And a try I found on a direct translation of the lyrics to english :

    Wonderful is the Earth glorious is God’s heaven
    Beautiful the pilgrimage of the souls
    Through the fair realms on the earth
    To Paradise we walk in song

    Ages shall come Ages shall pass
    Kin shall follow the path of kins
    Never ceases The heavenly tone
    In the soul’s joyful pilgrim-song

    Angels first sang it To the shepherds on the field
    From soul to soul in joy it passed
    Peace over Earth Mankind rejoice
    To us a eternal saviour is born

  • Jonathan Angelo says:

    Stevie Wonder – Someday at Christmas

  • Guido Haus says:

    Dear Folks

    Nice topic! I was wondering to see all the comments about the “best” Christmas song. I think, a Christmas song without Jesus Christ is not a Christmas song. Also I found out that especially Gospel music (old and new) sounds fantastic with speakers from B&W. There are a lot of modern Gospels like “And They Praised God” from Acappella or “Look At The People” from David & The Giants that really rocks on the famous designed CM-series. So it’s a shame that we hear in this music blog not more informations about Gospel music. Also old Songs like “Reach Out To Jesus” and other Gospels from Elvis Presley fits perfectly with hardware from Bowers & Wilkins, because they have wonderful tweeters on board and transport voices realistic in your living room. By the way: “Reach Out To Jesus” is also a wonderful Christmas (and every day) song! :o)

    All the best

    P.S. Please check out more Gospels, because this type of music is not just made for your ears, it’s also helpful for your soul!

  • Hal Owen says:

    I don’t recall ever hearing a Christmas song that I didn’t like but if I may be so bold – it simply wouldn’t be “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” without multiple listenings to Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Christmas Carols.” For anyone interested, the recent Chandos release, (Chan 10385) with Richard Hickox and company, (IMO,) really do this and other holiday pieces a great service. In addition to the Andy Williams version of Most Wonderful, another seasonal favorite here is Peggy Lee’s recording from Capitol/EMI of “The Christmas Waltz.”

  • william michael cryer says:

    Any body know what price the panorama 2 will be

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