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Christmas is approaching like a fishtailing, overloaded juggernaut, but expats won’t get to experience the annual “tradition” that is the Christmas song and the race for the Xmas No. 1 single. The splintered U.S. music charts, a huge love for country music and a general eschewing of novelty, talent show or charity-related singles means that these “classics,” ringing out in every store and home in the U.K. right now, might only be on your iPod…
“Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl
Originally reaching No. 2 in 1987, it’s become everyone’s Christmas song par excellence—probably because it’s utterly free of cheese and wasn’t planned to be a holiday hit. It’s been re-released every year since 2005, and been a Top 10 hit every time. MacColl was a last-minute substitute for the female vocalist sparring with Shane MacGowan, and it’s perhaps odd Brits love a song about a drunken couple arguing on a New York street.
“Merry Xmas Everybody” by Slade
Back to 1973 for this glam rock cut, which was a targeted Christmas No. 1 and has sold well over a million copies. It has been re-released many times and barely scraped the charts, but that doesn’t matter: no Brit party is complete without this sing-along favorite. All together now: “It’s Christmaaaaaas!”
“I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” by Wizzard
The song that Slade beat to the top spot (it only made #4 at the time), it got a boost when it was featured in an Argos commercial (always a way to a Xmas hit in the UK) and doubtless it makes writer/singer Roy Wood very happy when the royalty check comes in.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid
America had their own version of this charity effort, but this song still raises the hairs on the back of your neck if you’re a Brit. Versions featuring other singers of that era hit the top of the chart at this time in 1989 (Band Aid II) and in 2004 with Band Aid 20, but the original is still the best.
“Merry Christmas Everyone” by Shakin’ Stevens
The denim-clad quiffed Welshman “Shaky” had an Elvis vibe, and notched up amazing 33 top 40 singles in his career – and was the biggest-selling UK singer of the 1980s, period. Still affectionately thought of, this easy-to-sing tune was released a year later than planned so it didn’t compete with Band Aid.
“Last Christmas” by Wham!
Ariana Grande has a version out at the moment, but back in the early 1980s, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley broke many a girl’s heart. The video – classic Xmas fare of skiing in the snowy Alps – is a paean to bouffant blond hair and puffy clothes, though the sentimental lyrics are still a winner.
“Stop The Cavalry” by Jona Lewie
The one big hit for Lewie, it reached No. 3 in 1980 and was a planned as a protest song – as you can tell from lyrics. The video showed Lewie as a soldier fighting in WWI trenches, and – even though it wasn’t quite what he intended – it has been popular around Christmas ever since. Paul McCartney’s first solo No. 1, “Pipes of Peace,” was a hit around Christmas 1983 and has a similar video.
“Walking In The Air” by Aled Jones
Several movies are guaranteed to be on U.K. television at Christmas: the latest James Bond, The Great Escape and this 26 minute short from 1982. Based on Raymond Briggs’ children’s book The Snowman, it featured this song sung by Peter Auty, though the single featured Welsh choirboy Aled Jones.
“Always On My Mind” by Pet Shop Boys
Christmas singles aren’t always cheap dreck. The Beatles and Spice Girls had three Christmas No. 1s, and so did Tom Jones, Pink Floyd, Queen and even Human League. In 1987 Pet Shop Boys put a driving dance beat behind this much-covered American country classic—and hit pay dirt.
“Somewhere Only We Know” by Lily Allen
The John Lewis department store Christmas television commercial has become a U.K. phenomenon in recent years, often inspiring tears. This year their high-end and charming “hare and bear” cartoon has the apposite single, and it’s Lily Allen covering a Keane song—you can’t get more British than that!
Chamber of Horrors:
“Mr. Blobby” by Mr. Blobby
Forget Benny Hill, Renee and Renato or even Bob The Builder’s Christmas hit singles; this one was the worst. Truly cringe worthy (and barely tolerable even after a few sherries), this 1993 novelty was “sung” by a pink, yellow spotted puppet character from Noel’s House Party television show. How did this ever happen?
What’s your favorite British Christmas classic? Tell us below:
James Bartlett writes about travel, film and the weird and wonderful side of living in L.A. He has been published in over 90 magazines and newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine, Angeleno, Hemispheres, Delta Sky, Westways, Variety and Bizarre. He is also a contributor to BBC radio and RTE in Ireland, and is the author of Gourmet Ghosts - Los Angeles, a "history and mystery" guide to bars and restaurants in L.A. - details can be found at www.gourmetghosts.com.