Now That's What I Call A Music Blog

Blue Christmas: NOW 100 Hits Christmas (2019)

Now Christmas 2019 cover artRegular readers of this infrequently updated blog may have been wondering what the hell has been going on of late. Well, the truth is that while I still keep telling myself to kick myself in the arse and get this thing going again, life, the universe and everything just keep getting in the way, and for this I apologise. What I do not apologise for is the fact that this latest entry (the first for a while) is yet another NOW Christmas update, because, by jove, for the first time in four years (and the first time since Sony took full control of the brand) the go-to musical compilation of choice for shops, offices and parties has been dusted down, spruced up, given a new look and a surprisingly brutal freshening up.

Recent years have, of course, seen a huge decline in physical music sales, with compilations moving away from big expensive contemporary collections, and instead focussing on the more nostalgic (and cheaper) end of the market. This makes sense, as it’s mainly the nostalgia fans who are still buying them. NOW itself has finally got around to repackaging and rereleasing the series from NOW 2 on CD (with numerous alternative versions from the original releases; see the excellent Pop Fan’s Dream for more info).

This has led to a preponderance of budget ‘100’ compilations in various flavours, from various different sources. The logic is simple: five discs, a tracklisting on a theme (e.g. electronic 80s, girl’s night out, driving songs), make sure the first few tracks on each disc are very well known, and fill the rest with, er, filler. For some listeners, like me, this can lead to a goldmine of long forgotten tunes that never get played on the radio, but for many a listener this will lead to frustration, track skipping, and ultimately the charity shop or boot sale.

There have been a few ‘100 Christmas Songs’ compilations over the past few years which all follow this plan. Some cheat, by including a CD of ‘party’ tunes, or a karaoke disc, but essentially these are very good value, normally running to about £5 for a solid collection of most of the well known tracks.

A bargain bin

A bargain bin yesterday

Someone at NOW has clearly been paying attention, because we now have, the rather clunkily titled, NOW 100 Hits Christmas. This seems a simple enough proposition. The last NOW Christmas in 2015 (and re-released every year since) featured 71 tracks. So add another 29 tracks, probably ones that had fallen by the wayside since the first release in 1985, maybe sprinkle on one or two new ones, and sit back and count the cash. Except they haven’t done that. And it’s quite shocking what they have done, and having looked at the tracklisting I’m at a loss to understand what has happened.

The first thing to note is the sleeve art. It’s still giant perspex letters floating in space, but this certainly does not have the look of a party album. A cabin in a snowy landscape with a shooting star overheard suggests a more contemplative mood than the busy, gaudy crackers and baubles of the previous incarnation. And it’s fair to say the tracklisting continues in the same vein.

Happy Xmas (War is Over) is back front and centre, and the rest of disc one is much more reminiscent of the original NOW Christmas Album back in 1985, maybe even more so than the fudged reissue from a few years back. Shaky, Slade, Band Aid, Greg Lake, all the big hitters, with a sprinkling of more up to date tracks from Leona Lewis and Kelly Clarkson. More importantly, there are several new, and very pleasant, additions. Ariana Grande’s Santa Tell Me is exactly what a modern christmas song should sound like by managing to be contemporary and nostalgic at the same time. I was surprised to see this only reached number 13 when released in 2014, as it’s exactly the kind of thing people complain never gets released anymore. The surprise for me though was Justin Beiber’s Mistletoe. I must admit I’ve never paid any attention to Beiber’s career being far too old and male, but I really liked this very stripped back little ditty (although the overdubbing of about 12 different Beiber’s harmonising with each other does grate after a bit). Again, the kind of thing you’d think would be a hit with people complaining there aren’t any good christmas songs anymore.

One thing people have been complaining about a lot this christmas (at least people that I associate with) is the appearance of a Robbie Williams christmas album. To celebrate this double (!) album mix of covers and originals, Williams has been as ubiquitous on the tv and radio as sleigh bells are on this album. NOW obliged by providing a choice cut from the album (The Christmas Present) for preview here, two weeks before its release. Let’s Not Go Shopping is a very odd choice to include here, being neither a good original song, or a listenable cover version (both options are in short supply on the album to be fair). It’s another chance for Robbie to indulge his love for big band crooning which served him so well in snagging a now pretty much forgotten Christmas number one in 2001, when he managed to persuade Nicole Kidman to duet with him on Something Stupid. The other oddity about Let’s Not Go Shopping is it’s not being used to promote the album on the radio. There you will hear either his abominable version of Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody (with Jamie Callum, which makes me nostalgic for Steps’ version) or the ballad, Time For Change, a turgid trudge which starts by invoking the memory of Lennon’s Imagine, then descends into a nostalgia fest of what Christmas was like as a kid and features possibly the worst chorus on a christmas song ever (“Christmas time, Christmas time, merry Christmas”). I suspect Let’s Not Go Shopping will go the same way as Williams’ Walk This Sleigh, and make only the one solitary appearance on a NOW Christmas album.

Sticking with terrible cover versions, the usually reliable Girls Aloud toss out a terrible reading of Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday. This one has been dragged up from the same set of tracks as Not Tonight Santa (featured on the 2006 variant, and revived here on disc 5), a bonus disc of Christmas themed tracked tacked onto a re-release of their album Chemistry, to get people to buy it again. What this does mean is that, sadly, Wizzard are missing from the NOW album for the first time ever. That is, frankly, unforgivable.

All the wonderful versions of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas are further ignored in favour of Sam Smith’s version, which removes all the emotion and feeling and replaces them with vocal gymnastics and affections to better serve his ego and nothing else. Another track covered countless times (according to Wikipedia) is Mary, Did You Know. I have to admit, I listen to a lot of christmas music, and I had never heard this before in my life. The version here is by a group Pentatonix, an acapella outfit who won a TV talent show and signed to Sony. So I expect this one will stick around.

Amazingly, there are some good new tunes on show, but they are buried in the later discs, and are mostly around 60 years old. There’s a massive influx of tunes from the 50s and 60s with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee turning up with tracks not previously seen before on a NOW Christmas album. Rather strangely, Julie London has the distinction of turning up twice, an honour normally reserved for legendary artists such as George Michael, Perry Como or Lord Cliffmas (who is still glaringly notable for his absence *sideyes*). I’d Like You For Christmas is especially gorgeous, but Warm December is an abysmal recording, and sounds like someone put a tape recorder up against a gramophone playing a 78. Further crimes against music include the continued use of the shorter version of The Waitresses’ Christmas Wrapping which shortens the intro, outro and loses a whole verse; someone made the ridiculous decision to extend Bing and Bowie’s Little Drummer Boy so it has the addition of the awkward spoken word banter intro from the original TV broadcast; the version of Bing’s It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas is from the oil and water London Philharmonic Orchestra album which was also released this year; KT Tunstell’s version of 2000 Miles instead of The Pretenders; and Train’s Shake Up Christmas, just because it’s bloody awful.

I mean, come on! Which of those would you rather hear every year?

But, while all this makes it sound like the 2019 vintage is a tad vinegary, that’s not even the half of it. An even bigger problem is not what’s included, but what’s NOT. When I finished my original look at the Christmas album series, with the 2015 release, I wondered where the series could go next, as it seemed to be pretty much the definitive collection. The answer, it transpires, is to turf out a rather large number of very well loved tracks. I’ve already mentioned that Wizzard have been bumped in favour of Girls Aloud, but would you believe me if I told you their contemporaries Mud have been shaken off at the door too? Baby, It’s Cold Outside is here, but in a version arranged by Henry Mancini and featuring two unnamed vocalists. George Michael is absent, both with the teary eyed December Song but also there’s no Last Christmas! Can you imagine it? Or how about Chris Rea’s Driving Home For Christmas (or even Michael Ball’s facsimile version from the 2000 release)? No sign of that here either. Nor is there even a sniff of the two most popular Christmas songs according to a recent poll: Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas and The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s Fairytale of New York are both missing in action. They haven’t even included the Ronan Keating version of the latter. To hear those two you’ll have to tune into Magic Christmas and listen for about 20 seconds. They’re bound to turn up.

So what the hell happened? How in the space of three years did the NOW Christmas Album go from the definitive collection of festive favourites to just another Christmas compilation which only partially satisfies and is all about the size rather than the quality? I suppose the big problem NOW has, and as I alluded to at the start, is trying to decide who the album is now aimed at. While the main series is, and always has been, aimed at the pop kids, the Christmas album has generally skewed to a much older audience, and that audience seems to be aging a lot faster now (much like myself). This may explain why such a large proportion of this release is songs from the 50s and 60s, but then why discard so many songs from that period too? Surely Alma Cogan’s Never Do A Tango With an Eskimo plays to the same crowd as Petula Clark’s Christmas Cards, yet the former has been tossed away like so many, um, christmas cards.

This is easily the worst NOW Christmas Album since the 2000 version. That time the problem was EMI pandering to its own artists too much, meaning an album that was bang up to date, but which aged very quickly, with so many tracks on it never seeing the light of day again. This time Sony have done the same thing, but also tried to go in the opposite direction at the same time, creating a ‘something and nothing’ collection which attempts to please everyone but will eventually not please anyone.

If this was a supermarket, £5 compilation it would probably be cheap enough to consider buying, but this is a NOW album. It’s £12. That is shocking for something so half arsed. There are now some really interesting christmas compilations which may not have as many tracks, or as many of the big hitters, but offer something interesting or different. I picked up a Rhino (a Warners subsidiary) release called Christmas-The Collection which featured one disc of familiar tracks (The Pogues, Wizzard, Slade etc), but discs two and three were brimming with brilliant, lesser known tracks like Clarence Carter’s Backdoor Santa, the Pet Shop Boys It Doesn’t Often Snow at Christmas and Tori Amos’ Winter. None of these have ever been on a NOW album and are better than a lot of songs that have.

Christmas The Collection

Now, THAT’s What I Call A Christmas Compilation

I’m sad to say it but following on from the misjudged Christmas Album vinyl from a couple of years ago, followed by the botched CD releases of the classic albums, Sony’s stewardship of the NOW brand is proving to be a bit of a disaster. This current incarnation of the christmas album suggests a lack of attention, a lack of ambition, and perhaps worst of all, a lack of understanding of what their customers want. It will sell, because it always does, but like the 100 Hits collections, it relies on people not paying too much attention to what is actually on the track listing, and feeling warm and nostalgic for NOW Christmas Past.

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