30 Years of NOW – The Christmas Album Part 2 (2000-2015)
By 2005, it had been five years since the last NOW Christmas Album, and it was time for a reboot. But things had changed in the interim. Popstars: The Rivals and lying in wait The X Factor, had the Christmas number one all but monopolised, which had a strange effect of leading to both the dullest ‘races’ for Christmas number one ever and also a resurgence in the popularity of the Christmas music of old. The previously mentioned Golden Period from the early 70s to mid-80s became particularly venerated on radio and on the multitude of music channels now available. Unfortunately, this didn’t lead to a great deal of new Christmas music, at least not any GOOD new Christmas music, which may explain the decision to slim back NOW Christmas 2005 to a single cd.
It still retains the core tracks you would expect with no surprises or baffling inclusions, bar one. A chap called Patrizio Buanne, who sounds like a lecherous ice cream man with an awful karaoke backing track. It’s so stinky bad it makes you think Michael Buble isn’t actually that bad.
The album does, though, feature the giant Perspex NOW lettering in a suitably festive landscape, but labels itself as NOW Massive Christmas Hits XMAS which is a tad unwieldy. This may have been a dig at the BMG/WEA backed Christmas Hits (as in NOW’s great 80’s rival, The Hits Album). They had knocked out their first spoiler album in 2001, utilising a near identical track listing to NOW, beefed up to 50 tracks, but crucially including those big tracks (well, two tracks) NOW no longer had the use of: Wham’s Last Christmas, and the more recent Christmas classic Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas. Christmas Hits would appear again in 2004, expanded to 60 tracks and filling itself with a lot more obscure (to UK ears) tracks by the likes of Linda Ronstadt and a Backstreet Boys B-side. On the plus side it includes T-Rex’s oddly neglected Christmas Bop and Wombling Merry Christmas. So it’s clearly brilliant.
In 2006, and no doubt noticing a distinct drop in their December cashflow the previous year, NOW Christmas is back and up for a fight, expanding to 3 discs and 60 tracks. Its title is back to the more normal, NOW That’s What I Call Xmas, but it’s still using Xmas instead of Christmas. No doubt this is something they focus grouped.
(This link to Allmusic is the only tracklisting I can find for the 2006 release; the info on the official NOW site is incorrect, and is actually the 2009 release. Oops.)
Upping the ante to three discs results in some fine introductions (The Waitresses finally make an appearance, a couple of Motown classics, Squeeze’s long forgotten Christmas Day, to my knowledge the only Christmas song to namecheck Morecambe and Wise, feel free to prove me wrong in the comments), a selection of much older tunes and some carols for the oldies (disc 2 would no doubt be given short shrift by the kids) and the inevitable contract fulfilling excretions by EMI/Virgin acts, although ALL of the dreadful tracks mentioned on the 2000 release (Robbie, Spice Girls, Ronan Keating, Billie) have gone. Thank Christ.
In their place however, we get Samantha Mumba’s horribly weedy (and far cheaper, in every respect) version of All I Want For Christmas Is You. Despite its belief that a Spector-like Wall of Sound is achieved by chucking as many different sounds into the mix as possible, it actually achieves the near impossible feat of making perhaps the best Christmas song of the past 25 years utterly unlistenable. It even steals Macca’s squelches. Slow hand clap.
Slightly saucy Andrew Sisters knock-offs The Puppini Sisters (who, incidentally do a rather superb Dixie jazz version of the Mariah track) deliver the most recent track on the album. Their fun version of Jingle Bells was made available as a download only track, but only AFTER the NOW album had already been released. It was all good publicity for them and their soon-to-be released album, no doubt. Girls Aloud’s Not Tonight Santa is one of the bonus guffs from the Christmas cash-in release of their album Chemistry in 2005. It’s the slightly naughty tale of the Girls’ boyfriend (it’s not clear if they all share the same one or if they are singing about their own significant others) and what he can offer that Santa can’t. Sadly, they missed the opportunity for references to bulging sacks and only coming once a year. It’s fairly dreadful, considering the cracking tunes they could knock out.
His great Lord Cliffness manages to snag three places on the album, with the perennial Mistletoe and Wine being joined by the almost as ubiquitous Saviours Day (whose video reminds me so much of the Wicker Man I once mashed them up) and long forgotten almost-Christmas-number-one-that-no-one-remembers, Little Town. No idea why, maybe Cliff had a Greatest Hits out that year.
Other newcomers include a one-time only appearance of Kate Bush’s Home for Christmas. It’s pleasant but inconsequential (it’s less than two minutes) and pales next to the brilliant December Will Be Magic Again. There’s also Band Aid 20, the ’20 years on’ rerecording of Do They Know It’s Christmas? with a bunch of acts most of which have now been long forgotten just 11 years later. There are many problems with this, the biggest of which is that it gave Sir Bob a handy excuse to forever consign Band Aid II (the Stock, Aitken, Waterman version) to the dustbin of musical history forever. There was the fact that Robbie Williams and Dido desperately wanted to be on it, but couldn’t be arsed to get to the studio with everyone else, but they still let them record a bit and included it; there’s Justin bloody Hawkins who thinks a Christmas charity song is the perfect place for his oh-so-ironic axe wanking; there’s bloody Bono and that bloody line (obviously he had his nose very much put out by Matt Goss and Jason Donovan’s reading of the line in 1989 that he felt compelled to come back, despite the fact Mr Hawkins was intended to sing it); there’s the fact that Bananarama weren’t even asked to be on it, and maintain a 100% appearance rate; there’s Chris Martin’s bafflingly out of tune piano; there’s the Sugarbabes sounding like a computer generated girl band; there’s the John Lennon/Give Peace a Chance ending. Perhaps the most maligned aspect at the time of release was Dizzee Rascal’s rap. Listened to now, that’s probably the best part. At least he’s trying, everyone else sounds so utterly bored. One of the problems with Band Aid 20 (and its later 30 cousin) is the sense of duty involved. Adele got absolutely pelted by the media in 2014 for not appearing on Band Aid 30 despite Bob Geldof insisting he never asked her. If you don’t appear on a Band Aid single you are worse than Hitler. So artists trudge to a grotty recording studio on a cold Sunday morning, probably the worse for wear, and sing a song they’re probably just as sick of hearing as we are. You’re bound to be sound a bit bored. At least on the 1984 original the concept alone was exciting enough to generate much enthusiasm (that and coke, probably), but no one ever thinks about why (let alone gets angry because) so and so isn’t on it (Clare Grogan of Altered Images has at least admitted they were asked and they turned it down, brave girl.)
Sod it. You’re not going to hear it on the radio this year. Or any year.
Even Band Aid 20 isn’t the worst track on NOW Christmas ‘06. State of the Heart’s smooth jazz radio version of Last Christmas takes that particular accolade this time round.
There is a rogue element on here that should be mentioned though: East 17’s Stay Another Day. It’s not a Christmas song. It’s sentimental, yes. It’s got bells on, yes. It has a suitably snowy video wiv da boyz from Da Stow in dare puffer jackets, innit. But it ain’t a Christmas song.
Onto 2009 which features identical artwork but a different tracklisting. A couple of attempted ‘modern’ Christmas songs find their way onto this one, some of which never saw the light of day again. Probably the most celebrated (i.e the one you hear the most) was from Spinal Tap wannabes The Darkness, whose Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End) from 2003 was a genuine attempt to wrestle the Christmas number one back for ‘proper’ Christmas songs. You know, proper Christmas music made by sarcastic piss takers who want to write themselves a fat annual cheque. It’s as cynical and calculated as anything The Dark Lord Cowell ever does and the fact people thought this should be number one over the Popstars is frankly laughable now. What was most chucklesome at the time was the fact that it DID outsell that years’ Pop Idol contestants version of Merry Xmas (War Is Over) (good lord) but couldn’t outsell Gary Jules’ Mad World, a song which managed to out depress Tears for Fears, and instill itself into the nation’s hearts. That track has yet to find itself of a NOW Christmas album, but is a Christmas music channel staple now.
(Amazingly, The Darkness, who have had what some may refer to as a comeback this year, are having another pop at the Christmas charts in 2015, with I Am Santa, an utter dirge of a tune which even a wonderfully well made retro video can’t rescue.)
Other newcomers include Gabriella Cilmi (Warm This Winter) whose attempt at a career in the UK (rather than in her native Australia) needed a boost. What better way than to have your Christmas track included in a supermarket ad campaign, along with a NOW appearance. The Wombats (crazy name, crazy guys) tried their hand at the ‘tell it like it really is’ Christmas song, which isn’t bad, but not exactly great either. For a song from 2008, there’s a distinct whiff of 2005 about this. If you heard it on the radio you’d struggle to recall if it was The Kaiser Chiefs, Futureheads, Razorlight or any number of XTC-rip off merchants from the dark days of the mid 00’s. Even an introduction from Les Dennis can’t raise this above ‘meh’.
Other than this the 2009 vintage is starting to taste extremely familiar, with only the late arrival of The Pretenders’ 2000 Miles and Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas (finally) making the thing slightly more definitive than it ever has. Wham and Mariah are still missing, but we still have State of the Heart and Samantha Mumba to annoy the hell out of people who only want to buy one album with all their faves on it.
2010 appears to be identical music wise, but the artwork has been subtly changed from red to purple and given a tad more room to breathe. The Wombats are still on it.
Joy to the world! The Wham has come! In 2012 people stopped writing crap Amazon reviews of the NOW Christmas Album because of ‘the shitty instrumental version of Last Christmas’ because, finally, Wham’s version returned to NOW for the first time since the original release. In light of this it was also given a prominent place as number three in the almost immovable disc one tracklisting. That running order was given a bit of a spruce and shake up. Not radically so, but at least it didn’t look like nothing had changed, as with the previous couple of go arounds.
George Michael’s second appearance on the album comes from his more recent, and rather neglected, Christmas song, December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas). It’s a proper heart-tugger, which features one of George’s best vocal performances for years. It’s in no way a party tune though, which may account for its lack of airplay in the time since its release in 2009.
Whilst State of the Heart had to give up their slot of Last Christmas to its rightful owner, Samantha Mumba suffers the indignity of being let go in favour of ANOTHER cover version of Mariah’s hit, from someone (or something) called Lady Antebellum. Now, I had to look this one up because that name meant less than bugger all to me, and I really wish I hadn’t. I wonder if this is supposed to be one of those ‘cool christmas’ things that have been popular for a while whereby hipster acts do covers or even attempt a new Christmas song (I blame Sufjan Stevens for all of them). This comes across like S Club 7 trying to do a really heartfelt reading of what was a great pop song. It’s almost interchangeable with Never Had A Dream Come True.
Mick Hucknall’s Happy This Christmas can, however, sod off. No hit for years? I know, I’ll write a god awful song, stick Christmas in the lyrics, add some bells and ‘little drummer boy’ percussion. Bingo! Or not. It didn’t chart. If it wasn’t for this blog post, and the radio station Smooth Christmas, I would probably never have heard it.
In other changes The Darkness (after just one appearance), Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews, and, sadly, Squeeze, were let go, and replaced by the distinctly unfestive Coldplay (another dreary would be ‘modern classic’), a suprising return for Sinead o’Connor (her brilliantly haunting Silent Night) and mum favourites Il Divo.
The 2013 release should have been a cause for much celebration as Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas finally made its NOW debut (straight in at number two, pop pickers; John Lennon is still hanging on at number one after all these years), but this is a tainted release for just one reason, and massively controversial it was too (in my head). The past few years have seen the emergence of a new Christmas tradition, and like all great new Christmas traditions it is in fact the revival of an old one. When I was a lad way back when, Christmas didn’t start until the unveiling of that years star-studded Woolworths christmas advert (also available at Woolco). Whether it was Eric Bristow battering a kid at darts, Anita Harris twirling a record stand, Joe Brown being a ringmaster, or The Goodies dancing to an astonishing Super Trouper knock off, you could guarantee it was all anyone was talking about the next day. That and which Star Wars figures you weren’t going to get this year. Well, that tradition is back with us, with many proclaiming John Lewis Day as the official start of the yuletide festivities now. This has not only led to ever increasingly budgeted super commercials by them and their rivals, but also a clamoring to be the unknown (or in Lily Allen’s case, desperate for the work) artist doing an insipid cover of a (sometimes) very famous song in the ad. In 2012, whilst the ad was very good (the snowman getting his snow lady a scarf) the accompanying song was anything but. Worse, Gabrielle Aplin’s cover of Frankie’s The Power of Love usurped its big brother on the NOW album that followed it a year later. I’m not sure why though. The Power of Love is, frankly, one of the best songs of the 80s; powerful, evocative, gut-wrenchingly beautiful, brilliant produced, and, rather sadly in my eyes, a Christmas classic (I say sadly, because it’s so much better than to only be confined to December airplay). Aplin’s version retains none of the original’s potency, replacing a strong message (which incidentally fits the ‘never say die’ message of the ad much better) with a weedy, fragile vocal where the singer sounds like she can barely finish the song. And a year later, no one even remembered it, because, like most Christmas related things, you forget about last year because this year is already creeping up the drive ready to shove a ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’ up your jacksy any second now. No one would have noticed if Aplin’s version wasn’t there; no one would have set up an online petition demanding to know why NOW how snubbed it. No one would have cared. I imagine many DID care that Frankie wasn’t there.
Even more annoyingly it was still present and correct on the 2014 release, which is a carbon copy of 2013.
Which brings us bang up to date.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest NOW Christmas 2015 may be the best edition since the first, 30 years ago this very year. The convergence of record companies over the years has led to a situation where almost every major label (Warners being the exception) now falls under NOW’s umbrella, meaning almost everything is up for grabs. What this means is that they can now separate the wheat from the chaff and still knock out a 70(!) track compilation that would keep most festive parties happy. The tracklisting has been shaken to its very core with John Lennon finally forgoing his position at the top of the tree for the first time since the original release (both on the record and in the ads too, where he is now nowhere to be seen) to be replaced by Mariah Carey. No harm done. Interestingly, along with Lennon, many of those survivors from 30 years ago now find themselves bringing up the rear on CD3, including, rather surprisingly, the original opener, Band Aid, though thankfully only in its original incarnation with Band Aid 20 falling by the wayside and (Jesus praise you) no one had the bright idea of including Band Aid 30.
There is a sprinkling of new tracks and a massive addition of new/old tracks too. The actual new stuff (as in songs from the past few years) seems to fit quite nicely, and I’d actually be happy to see them again. Kelly Clarkson manages the best Spector sound-a-like since Mariah’s with the big and bouncy Underneath the Tree. THAT’S how you do a modern Christmas song.
Leona Lewis’ One More Sleep is a perfectly pleasant modern confection which is so in thrall of Christmas past its video even knocks off the one for Last Christmas. The inclusion of Do You Wanna Build A Snowman? is, sadly, inevitable, but at least it isn’t Let It bloody Go, so we should be thankful for small mercies.
What takes it up to another level is the extra classic Christmas tunes of old, many of which will be ingrained in your brain from endless Christmas shopping trips and Christmas movies, but have never before appeared on a NOW Christmas Album. James Brown’s masterful reading of Merry Christmas Baby and Eartha Kitt’s version of Santa Baby are just the start of it. We now have half (HALF!) of the Phil Spector Christmas album. the missing tracks are all replaced by other versions of the songs with the exception of Parade of the Wooden Soldiers (which means naff all to UK listeners) and, tragically, Darlene Love’s majestic Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home), a song the combined mights of Springsteen, Bono and Buble have failed to tarnish. Marshmallow World is here though, and that’s almost as good.
There’s also a superb Ella Fitzgerald hat-trick, providing criminally ignored versions of Sleigh Ride, The Christmas Song and (along with Louis Jordan) Baby, It’s Cold Outside.
There appears to be a great deal of thought in the sequencing of the tunes too, with CD1 clearly being everyone’s favourites along with the party and more up to date hits; CD2 is the classic disc for the oldies (and the not quite that oldies); and CD3 is the more thoughtful, sombre side of christmas, with a couple of carols chucked on for good measure.
But there is one very notable, and elephant-in-the-room-sized omission. Stevie Wonder may be singing about what Christmas means to him, but to a great deal of the UK population, when it comes to Christmas music, Christmas means to them… Cliff Richard. But he is nowhere to be seen. How has the Lord Cliffmass himself managed to go from three tracks a few editions ago, to none. Normally I’d speculate wildly here about the reasons for it, but I can’t afford very good lawyers, so I’ll leave you make up your own minds. Some may argue it isn’t Christmas without Cliff. I am not one of them.
It’s pretty difficult to see where NOW Christmas goes from here. Obviously we could see a swathe of new Christmas classics released in the next few years, but I doubt it. How many could you name from the past decade? Looking back over the past 30 years, it’s amazing that almost all the original 18 tracks on the 1985 edition have survived all this time. Obviously Gary Glitter isn’t here anymore; Queen’s Thank God It’s Christmas seems a strange omission, but the fact that it has never appeared again after the 1985 edition may suggest the band don’t want it included; Shakey’s Blue Christmas was quickly replaced in the nation’s affections by Merry Christmas Everyone, so that’s an acceptable loss. But the rest are all still here, most of them ever-present. I think that’s rather lovely. And makes me wonder if my generation’s views on Christmas music were probably shaped by that album. I obviously know sod all about the kids today, but I often feel my generation is the one that most cherishes Christmas music, the generation that most enjoys it, reveres it, and criticises the fact that none of the new stuff is as good as the old stuff. I’ve said elsewhere on this blog that I believe everyone thinks the pop music from their youth is the best period. With Christmas music, I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think everyone, no matter how old, could pick their top ten Christmas tunes, and it would encompass a vast, diverse range of artists, periods and styles. And they’d probably all be quite different as well. Though most would probably pick Fairytale of New York or All I Want For Christmas as their number one, instead of Wombling Merry Christmas. The idiots.