In part one, I slated the tendency for artists to get lazy at Christmas and just cover the same old songs instead of writing their own stuff, and with good reason. For the most part, the versions are uninspired, unoriginal and more frustratingly predictable than a typical Klute playlist. But there are a handful of artists who’ve actually made an effort to produce good covers – either by interpreting it in a very different way to usual, or just putting in a rare convincing performance – and it only seems right that they get the credit they deserve in my final list of Christmas songs.
Five great Christmas covers
The Boss’s live shows are known for their incredible length and big arrangements, among many other things. He’s also a dab hand at covers, regularly including them in his sets. This recording dates from the Born to Run era, when he was deservedly flying as high as anyone. Borrowing heavily from the arrangement used in the Spector-produced version by The Crystals, the E Street Band own the song from the off. Coupled with some classic Springsteen banter, it makes a wonderfully memorable version, which Springsteen still reprises regularly on stage.
A ramshackle run through a medley of “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”. Recorded by a supergroup three parts Thin Lizzy and two parts Sex Pistols – though importantly with the true king of Irish rock, Phil Lynott, on vocals – it’s much more throwaway than masterpiece. But it’s also so much fun, it’s easy to look past the sloppiness and see it in its true form – one of the best Christmas medleys. Also gets bonus points for needlessly having two drummers just because they could.
The most famous, and most successful, of the current crop of blues guitarists, Joe Bonamassa is well known for forsaking his birth country and drawing much of his influence from the British blues – Cream, Free, Rory Gallagher, early Fleetwood Mac, that sort of thing – instead of the American blues. This is in ample evidence here, with the bright honky-tonk piano giving his trademark licks something to feed off. Paired with a classic Bonamassa vocal, it’s a great interpretation of a normally tedious standard.
Mike Oldfield had made his name two years earlier with Tubular Bells. Knowing that work, this recording is hardly a surprise – it’s purely the traditional carol built up from a single acoustic guitar line to a huge multi-tracked marvel. It works partly because Oldfield is a very skilled producer and performer – his mastery of so many different instruments never fails to impress – but also because he chose exactly the right carol to treat this way. “In Dulci Jubilo”, when performed in its full Pearsall arrangement, is a beautiful mix of complex harmonies, and Oldfield captures that perfectly.
Nils Lofgren has got a bit of a rough deal over the years – he’s known as a perpetual sideman, first with Neil Young, then later Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr, and that’s left his at times excellent, if consistently uneven, solo work unfairly passed over. He recorded this for an Arizona charity in the late nineties, as he was moving into the folkiest phase of his solo career. It’s hardly a revolutionary arrangement, but Lofgren’s vocals suit it perfectly – the slight falsetto on the refrain line is utterly beautiful.
And another honourable mention or two: Julian Casablancas – “I Wish it Was Christmas Today”, My Morning Jacket – “When the Bells Start Ringing”