Robin Bengtsson – Born To Love

“At least you were spared the heartbreak.”

Tim: Came out a few weeks ago, and while it’s not a Christmas track it does take place on a cold dark night in December, so I figured it could wait. And be warned: there’s emotion here, so you might want to keep the tissues nearby.

Tom: If a Christmas track actually raises any sort of deep emotion from my cold, cold heart, Tim — even sympathy or sadness — you can consider “Can We Get Tom Feeling Festive” a success. I don’t hold out much hope.

Tim: Now, it’s not often I get emotionally involved with a track – the last time I can remember it happening, in fact, was when Gary and Agnetha reminisced five years ago (and incidentally, the lyric video gave that the happy ending I was wanting, so that’s lovely). But this track, for some reason, really got to me, and I hadn’t even been drinking. Truth is, it’s a beautiful song – the melody is fantastic, his vocal really sells it, and then there’s the lyrics.

Tom: I’ll be honest, reader: given the setup and that we’re only three songs into the month, you can probably figure out where my response is going here.

Tim: Thing is, I don’t want this sad ending. I want him to change – or rather, I want him to realise that actually, she can change him. He’s not found anyone yet, but instead of giving up, the song’s target persists, and eventually he realises he was born to love. He was born to have a fantastic life, born to marry this fantastic person, born to have beautiful kids, and, sixty years down the line, born to be spending the cold dark nights in December in a lovely warm cottage, surrounded by a devoted family. So keep the first few verses – paint him as a tragic figure. But towards the end, fiddle with the lyrics, Robin. Give yourself some hope, some sign of a future, so that you’re not living in yesterday’s house at the end of the road. Because dammit, it’s Christmas. Can’t you try for some happiness?

Tom: I’m sure that was a heartwarming suggestion, Tim, but unfortunately half way through the track I fell asleep.

Tim: Well in that case at least you were spared the heartbreak.

Bella & Filippa – Ring Them Bells

“It’s a cut above most of the dreck you send over at Christmas.”

Tim: Until now, this pairing were only known for the 2017 Melodifestivalen entry, the quick moving, guitar strumming Crucified. With a debut album apparently on the way for next year, though, when better to get back into the game than the official Most Wonderful Time Of The Year?

Tom: Literally any other time, Tim. It’s like going to the shops on Christmas Eve: everyone else is dashing there too. Also, it should be “Ring Those Bells”, if I’m going to be grumpy about it.

Tim: Oh no.

Tim: So I’m going for an unusual strategy today, because I’ll go right ahead and say it: this is not a great Christmas track. Or even a particularly good one.

Tom: And I’m also going for an unusual response: this… isn’t… bad?

Tim: What?

Tom: I mean, it’s a cut above most of the dreck you send over at Christmas. Why don’t you like it?

Tim: It’s too slow; there’s a long time before anything interesting happens; overall it just drags a bit. But dammit, there’s potential here – that “house at the end of the road” melody is lovely; the chorus, while repetitive isn’t of itself bad; and the ‘look out for the lonely people’ message is lovely.

Tom: It’s blurring the line between schlager and country, as often happens. But, yes, I’ll grant you that it’s slow — at two minutes in I was assuming we were going for the final chorus, but no, we weren’t even half way through.

Tim: Now, let’s improve it. We can’t bin off everything before forty seconds in (which would lower the general dullness score), because it’d ruin the narrative, but we can use it as a springboard, much like Mariah does with here “iiii-ii-i-isss yooo-ooo-oo-ooou” moment. Obviously don’t bring it up as enormously as that does, but if you’re not having a chorus there you’ve got to do something. Bring the next verse, and subsequent ones, up to the level of the chorus. Dial the choruses up even further, to where the existing end ones are like (though you can leave the upper vocals for the end). Finally, speed it up – played at 1.25x through YouTube, it’s a bit better.

Tom: I’m not convinced that the speed change improves it, but you’re right: it does need something else. Or, perhaps, one verse less.

Tim: Then, and only then, might you have a good song. As it is, it’s not going to end up on my Christmas playlist – and hell, I’ve got 50 Grand For Christmas on there.

The Fizz – Don’t Start Without Me

“Home For My Heart was one of the highlights of last year’s Christmas, and happily I can absolutely report that they’ve done it again.”

Tim: You’ll remember The not-legally-allowed-to-call-themselves-Bucks Fizz’s Christmassed up Home For My Heart was one of the highlights of last year’s Christmas, and happily I can absolutely report that they’ve done it again. I don’t want to spoil anything, so just press play and watch this utterly wonderful video.

Tom: “Will it ever stop raining / they’re cancelling trains and” is the worst rhyming couplet this week, Tim.

Tim: True, and if we’re honest perhaps of this year as well. BUT that is one tiny, minor, niggling point in this otherwise 100% number. You see, I’ll be getting the train back to my parents’ place for Christmas this year, and I won’t lie to you, part of me hopes the train breaks down, so all of us passengers can have a party while we’re waiting, exchanging gifts, breaking out the booze, and everyone dancing around to electric guitars, lyrics that include “toot toot” and absolutely glorious key changes.

Tom: I actually muttered “oh, piss off” under my breath after that “toot toot”. It’s just a series of gripes. And “don’t start without me”, while a good turn of phrase, actually just means everyone’s sitting around waiting for the one person who couldn’t plan in time. YES I’M OVERANALYSING THIS.

Tim: BUT EVERYTHING IN IT IS GOOD. The thing I love so much about this song is that it just keeps escalating: initially, you’ve got everything that makes up a great pop song. A minute and a half in and the video throws in an impromptu party on a train. Forty seconds more, and up comes the song to say “hang on, let me give you a ludicrous electric guitar breakdown”. A bit later: “no, that wasn’t enough, here’s a bloody ridiculous key change for you”.

Tom: If only it were a good song.

Tim: Oh, mate. This is, hands down, one of my favourite songs of the year, and the fact that it’s a Christmas just makes it even better.

William Shatner feat. Rick Wakeman – O Come, O Come Emmanuel

“We are BACK, it is DECEMBER, and so it is high time for the annual game of ‘Can We Get Tom Feeling Festive?’.”

Tom: Apologies for the delay in service here, folks, my laptop died and I had to wait for a repair.

Tim: We are BACK, it is DECEMBER, and so it is high time for the annual game of ‘Can We Get Tom Feeling Festive?’.

Tom: For our new reader: this is a game that Tim tries every year and which my Grinch-like self increasingly regrets, as a parade of cash-in Christmas albums goes past. THAT SAID: from the title alone, Tim, this is a strong start.

Tim: To kick us off, well. I don’t know how it’s taken William Shatner until now to release a Christmas album. I also don’t really know how well ‘Shatner Claus’ works as an album title, but there it is anyway. A load of tracks, mostly each featuring a slightly well known musician. This one in particular caught my eye simply because I couldn’t quite imagine what Mr Shatner’s voice could bring to this typically quite reserved hymn.

Tim: And you know what? It doesn’t sound too awful.

Tom: I mean, “doesn’t sound too awful” is a low bar to clear. And I say this as someone who genuinely, unironically enjoys Shatner’s cover of Common People. You’re going to need to elaborate on that.

Tim: The opening instrumentation sounds about right, with his voice working as an admittedly somewhat peculiar narration, and whoever the anonymous female vocalist is, she can clearly pull it off. Slightly let down by his speaking over the chorus, and him talking ominously about Satan and hell gives a vibe that’s more comedic than festive, but I can’t deny that Rick Wakeman’s keyboarding sounds very good, and by the end of it all I’m almost just impressed that it’s all holding together.

Tom: It does just about hold together! That is… not actually an endorsement though?

Tim: If you want to check out more of his festive work (and you really really should), have some recommendations: Little Drummer Boy was almost featured instead of this, because it’s a lot of fun.

Tom: I just listened to that as a comparison, and… no. No, that’s even worse.

Tim: There’s a weirdly almost ska version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; the punk version of Jingle Bells is…worth checking out; and his rendition of Feliz Navidad is exactly as you would imagine it to be.

Christmas Flashback: Feuerherz – Merry Christmas

Tom: We started out this Christmas season with three songs in a row that actually made me feel a bit festive. It’s been all downhill since then. Tim: this is your last chance. What’ve you got?

Tim: Ah, um, well, I’ll be honest: this might not be your cup of tea. HOWEVER, although there’s no real song this year that screams “this belongs on Christmas Day”, this one really really does. Feuerherz are a German band with members from multiple nations, and released this a couple of years back; hopefully you’re up to date on your English, German, Italian and Dutch.

Tom: I think there’s a little bit of Spanish in there as well? I’d have been more impressed if they managed to rhyme across languages, but sure, okay, I get the spirit of this.

Tim: Now, I didn’t mention this in the intro for fear of overselling it, but is it just me or does this have elements of Basshunter in it?

Tom: What? … where?

Tim: Specifically, the backing underneath the second half of each verse and the choruses, which put me in such a mind of his stuff that I couldn’t help liking the rest of it, however much the harmonies make it sound like a crap JLS ballad.

Tom: Okay, so now I feel better about it, because “crap JLS ballad” was pretty much what I was going to say here.

Tim: Yeah. It may be a dated reference but every year I think of JB’s beautiful greeting and well up with joy (and there’s an outstanding key change if you keep listening to that). Back to this, though, and you’re not missing much if you’re not fluent in all four languages, as they basically say exactly the same thing: to all our friends, Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

Tom: This song doesn’t actually help me with that sentiment at all, but hopefully the rest of the world feels different. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Saturday Flashback: Same Difference – All I Want For Christmas Is You

“That’s remarkable.”

Tim: Not a single release, but an X Factor performance, a full ten years ago. The performance that opened the show. What a beauty.

Tim: What a beauty.

Tom: That is… well, that’s remarkable. It feels like it comes from the early 90s, but I just looked it up and it turns out that was 2007.

Tim: Oh, yes indeed. I won’t argue, there are some misguided moments here – Sean’s groin thrusting isn’t really something many people wanted to see having their tea on a Saturday night (though I’m not complaining), what those elves are doing 40 seconds in is anyone’s guess, and there’s a reason we’ve skipped the first thirteen seconds – but otherwise, oh, it’s just pure festive pop joy.

Flying up into the air to switch on the lights; throwing glitter, camp as you like; being lifted onto the shoulders of elves to mark the key change; the winner’s confetti coming down several hours early; oh, it’s all just lovely.

Tom: Special shoutout for both of them managing to throw their glitter late, and thus making the camera operator miss the pyrotechnics — thus making it look like there’s been a minor electrical explosion on the stage, rather than any sort of Christmas magic.

Tim: Oh, but we all know deep down that it is true Christmas magic. They don’t make X Factor like this any more, and damn it’s a shame.

Sia – Ho Ho Ho

“Why the FLIPPING HECK wasn’t this the lead on the album?”

Tom: A whole album. A whole Christmas album. Why. Why would anyone bother to do that, other than as a cheap cash-in?

Tim: I don’t know, I mean she’s certainly not the first artist to do that – Kylie Minogue, Gwen Stefani and Kelly Clarkson are three that immediately spring to mind. The only difference here is that all ten tracks are original, and to be honest I’d say that’s almost something to be applauded, rather than labelled “cheap cash-in”.

But anyway, I was playing yesterday’s track while writing about it, and I saw this in YouTube’s sidebar, and much as I didn’t enjoy her Christmas offering we featured last week, I figured I’d give this one the benefit of the doubt. Can’t be much worse, can it?

Tim: OH BLOODY HELL that’s good, and why the FLIPPING HECK wasn’t this the lead on the album?

Tom: First things first, I’ma say all the words inside my head“. Sorry, what were you saying?

Tim: Oh, GOD, that’s what it reminds me of, AARGH. But beside that, it’s fun, it’s got a great video (albeit not one that bears any relation whatsoever to the song), and it starts off requesting alcohol. Because yes, Christmas is indeed about having parties, getting pissed, and so what if people are misfits? Let’s all get together and have a good time. But most importantly of all: this is a modern track.

Tom: I mean, yes, but I’m having trouble coming up with anything interesting to say about it. It’s just… I think I’m starting to get burned out on Sia’s voice singing about Christmas.

Tim: It’s a song that’s not far off what I’d expect Sia to produce on a standard day. It’s just great, and so, so much better than that other one.

Tom: Imagine if all the effort for the album had gone into one spectacular track instead.

Tim: Hmm. Okay, maybe you have a point there.

Bright Light Bright Light & Nerina Pallot – Put A Little Love In Your Heart

“You don’t necessarily need festive lyrics to have a great Christmas song.”

Tim: Mr Light Bright Light is another one with a Christmas EP out this year, comprising six covers of songs from Christmas movies; this is the only one on YouTube. and for anyone who doesn’t know the connection, the Annie Lennox cover of the original 1960s track is from the Scrooged soundtrack.

Tim: For me, that starts good and just keeps getting better. Sure, it’s clearly a cover of an 80s song, but it’s a damned good song, such a lovely duet.

Tom: It is, although — and I’m well aware that this is down to personal preference rather than anything in the production here — it’s a song that I don’t actually like. I can’t explain why, the lyrics are just a bit too trite, the melody just a bit too Playdays.

Tim: Hmm, I get where you’re coming from – and if you don’t like the saccharine of the original, this isn’t going to be an improvement. Looking at it from my view, though: we’re not kept waiting too long for that lovely textbook key change, and the sax that comes in towards the end just adds that little bit more. Sure, there’s nothing seasonal in the lyrics – the original was released in June – but as we saw with Love Me Like You, you don’t necessarily need festive lyrics to have a great Christmas song. And I reckon this is.

Tom: Yep, if I try and treat this with a bit of objectivity, there’s little to complain about: the production’s spot-on.

Tim: In that case I’d suggest for you another cover, and one that’s also entirely devoid of festive lyrics: Siouxsie & the Banshees’s Face To Face, from the Batman Returns soundtrack; that’s on the EP as well. It’s wonderfully Christmassed up, and is so weird but also so great, so check that out.

Saturday Flashback: Emmy the Great & Tim Wheeler – Home for the Holidays

“That string section is just wonderful.”

Tom: I have no idea how I’ve never heard this track before. It’s absolutely lovely. But I warn you: it’s a song that gets worse each time you listen to it, so before you read any further, have a listen through.

Tim: Okay, but I’ll be very upset if you’re about to ruin it for me.

Tim: Hmm, seems quite nice to me, aside from Tim in the video looking glum, as if he’s only just realised that Ash’s glory days are well and truly behind him.

Tom: Let me explain why I think it’s lovely: the message is exactly a mixture of optimistic and nostalgic: “did you ever make it out of here” is something that anyone who’s gone back to their old hometown for Christmas can relate to. And that string section is just wonderful.

Tim: Agreed, on all three counts.

Tom: It passes both of my Good Pop Tests: after listening to it only once, not only I could hum the chorus (which they opened the song with!), but I immediately wanted to hear it again.

Tim: Good, we’re in alignment, it’s a nice song. Shall we leave it there?

Tom: And that’s when I notice that there are things to dislike here.

Tim: Oh.

Tom: The football-chant clapping in the verses starts to grate after a while, and whoever decided to include sleigh bells in the same rhythm needs to have a long think about what they did. After a while, it’s all I can hear: this song would be so much better with, well, basically any other standard percussion here.

Tim: Hmmmm…all true, technically, but what you’ve really described here is just all the clichés that typically come with a standard Christmas song. Sure, they might get trying (particularly now you’ve pointed them out to me), but I do at least prefer that to what might otherwise be a boring 2-4 beat clap.

Tom: I also have two notes on the video. First: that shot of Tim Wheeler singing while staring awkwardly into the distance really doesn’t need to be used as much as you think it does. Or at all.

Tim: Smiling would help, just a notch.

Tom: And second: wow, those couples must have had to kiss for a long, long time for those final shots.

Tim: Oh, well at least we’re finishing on a happy note.

Gwen Stefani feat. Blake Shelton – You Make It Feel Like Christmas

“When my foot starts automatically tapping along to a song, I figure that’s a good sign.”

Tim: Gwen, who we all know (and who I was astounded to learn the other day is nearly 50), and Blake, her boyfriend who was apparently recently named the sexiest man alive – who knew? This here, the title track from her new Christmas album, and damn is it a good one.

Tom: So I’ve gained an appreciation of country-pop lately, and bloody hell, does Blake Shelton have a perfect voice for it. And you can feel its influence here: that introduction is very much half Shelton’s country, half Stefani’s pop. Plus, there are actual religious references in the chorus — that’s all country.

Tim: This, unlike yesterday, does have something. Well, not one thing in particular, but a collection: it’s fast, it’s bouncy, it’s a nice back and forth duet, and all in all it’s just…good.

Tom: When my foot starts automatically tapping along to a song, I figure that’s a good sign. All the elements here are really basic — that bassline is decades old, for starters — but they’re used perfectly. And it’s only two and a half minutes, which is exactly as long as it needs to be.

Tim: It’s got a great vibe to it, and while the sense and feelings are there very much as they were yesterday, this does so much more with them, and gives us a song that I actually really do want to hear again, and again, and again.

Tom: I don’t think it’s going to enter the Canon of Christmas Songs, but it’ll do nicely for this year.