A year ago I made the foolish decision to listen to all the Christmas number 1s, in order, during a single four-hour-plus sitting. Luckily, this insane idea paid off as the feature proved rather popular. I joked at the time about following it up with something similar, covering all the festive number 2s. But why would anyone want to do that?
Well, as we all know, the Christmas number 1 has been such a prestigious prize since the 70s, the runner-up is often considered just as worthy. Plus, some of the most popular and best Christmas songs of all time were notable by their absence last time around. So, why not follow up Christmas number 1s with Christmas number 2s?
Just to clarify, I’m not talking about toilet activity following Christmas dinner. Although, to be honest, listening to some of these songs has been as difficult as passing a yule log.
So, here we are again. 76 festive and not-so-festive songs, in one sitting, lasting four-and-a-half hours. Like last year, if a single was a double A-side, I’ll include both. Unlike last year, this time around there’s two EPs to include. I’ve decided to listen to every track on these and come up with an opinion on the EP in general based on the material within. As before, I’ll pick a best and worst for each decade, and then an overall best and worst. If you’ve never read Every Christmas Number 1, or want a refresher, here it is.
Deep breath, and here we go again.
We start right back at 1952, the year the chart began. You Belong to Me by Jo Stafford just missed out on the first Christmas number 1 spot behind Al Martino, but was to overtake him eventually, making Stafford the first female number 1. Pre-rock’n’roll, a lot of the early 50s tracks are so dated now, but it’s not too bad compared to other singles from the era. The next two tracks in a row came from Hull crooner David Whitfield. Now here’s a voice that grates on me, but at least 1954’s Santo Natale is an actual Christmas song – the last in this list until 1975.
The first decent song up is the classic Rock Around the Clock. One of the most important number 1s of the decade had slipped from pole position by the time Christmas 1955 rolled around. One of two covers of Singing the Blues to get to number 1, Guy Mitchell’s in 1956 has grown on me somewhat since I first reviewed it, and it was quite nice to hear it again. Unlike Adam Faith’s What Do You Want? (1959), which irritated me today. You’re not Buddy Holly, Adam. I hadn’t heard Ma He’s Making Eyes at Me before, by Johnny Otis and his Orchestra with Marie Adams, and I’ve already no memory of it whatsoever. Although I’ve a better appreciation of 50s music these days, I’m still not a huge fan, and I was pleased to get it over with quickly, by and large. This first 30 minutes of my listening marathon didn’t show the 50s in as good a light as some of the music I heard when reviewing all the chart-toppers of the decade.
Lord Rockingham’s XI – Hoots Mon (1958): It was very close between this and Rock Around the Clock, and although Bill Haley’s pioneering rock’n’roll bop changed the charts forever, it hasn’t aged as well as this fun instrumental (with eccentric stereotyped Scottish interjections), which I’d have imagined would have made any 50s festive party go with a swing. Altogether now, ‘Hoots mon, there’s a moose, loose, aboot this hoose!’
David Whitfield – Answer Me (1953): Slow, slushy, overblown and trite. Poor old Whitfield really doesn’t rate highly with me. But it’s nothing personal – Frankie Laine’s version of the same song was rated my worst Christmas number 1 last year, so it’s the song as much as it is Whitfield’s performance. Thanks to the likes of Haley, Elvis and Buddy Holly, these type of songs disappeared eventually.
By the time the most exciting decade in pop began, the youthful excitement of rock’n’roll and skiffle had fizzled out, leaving a big hole filled by almost everything Elvis released, which was often poor once he’d left the army, or tracks from Cliff Richard and The Shadows. Again, not that great either. Presley’s It’s Now or Never was up first, and as I said when I reviewed it a few months back, I can admire the vocal prowess on display, but it just makes me want a Cornetto, and that’s not festive at all. Tower of Strength though, by Frankie Vaughan, is a frankly barmy display of bluster, reminscent of Tom Jones before anyone had heard of him, back in 1961. Things got rather dull and safe afterwards with Cliff and co’s double-bill of The Next Time and Bachelor Boy. Cliff crops up as a number 2 (snigger) over the festive season just as often as he would at number 1 – four times. I’d yet to hear the worst he had to offer at this point though.
As I reached the era of The Beatles, pop was taking giant leaps forward, and although the number 2s are stil lacking any references to the silly season, there’s some classic pop served up for me, including Petula Clark’s brassy Downtown (1964), Donovan’s trippy Sunshine Superman (1966) and the infectious chorus of The Foundations’ Build Me Up Buttercup in 1968. However, such was the chart dominance of the Fab Four, they had two Christmas number 2s while they sat at the top of the charts. This presented me with an almost impossible decision.
The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour EP (1967): So, it became a choice between this and perhaps the greatest pure pop song in history, She Loves You. 1963’s best-selling song was a breath of fresh air both today and as I I’ve made my way through every number 1 of the 60s, and its importance cannot be overstated. However, much as I love it, I’ve always loved the psychedelic period of The Beatles the most, and the Magical Mystery Tour EP is not one, not two, but six whole tracks of some of their finest work. Plus, in a sense, it is Christmassy, as the music featured on their patchy but interesting Boxing Day TV special in 1967. And it features I Am the Walrus, always fascinating and savage, but particularly so when up against some of the other songs I’d be hearing today. Plus George Harrison’s EP closer, Blue Jay Way, was the song that made me obsessed with The Beatles, after I had an out-of-body experience to it. And no, I wasn’t under the influence.
Cliff Richard – Wind Me Up (Let Me Go) (1965): Bachelor Boy at least had a memorable chorus, and is unintentionally funny, but this track, which I’d never heard before, was instantly forgettable. Despite the fact The Beatles stole his British pop crown, Cliff clearly still had a hell of a following in 1965, otherwise, how do you explain this selling so well? The only impact it had on me was to make me imagine an actual wind-up Cliff Richard toy. Which would be pointless. Just like this song.
There’s a noticeable slide in quality once The Beatles split. One thing I’ve learnt from the BBC Four repeats of Top of the Pops is that the 70s may have been a diverse, fertile and often wonderful decade for music, there was also an awful lot of shit doing well. Things started off okay with McGuinness Flint’s When I’m Dead and Gone, which wasn’t unlike something Faces would have released, but it didn’t move me. T Rex’s Jeepster (1971) was more like it, and my choice for the runner-up of the 70s. Not as great as Bolan’s number 1s, though. Bachman Turner Overdrive’s one-hit wonder You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet from 1974 can’t help but raise a smile – the trouble is it’s very hard to hear it without thinking of Smashey and Nicey, and thus just feels a bit of a joke, rather than a harmless bit of feelgood rock. Same goes for the Village People’s YMCA (1978). Very difficult to hear that and not think of the million spoofs over the years. And of course, it was meant as a bit of fun disco in the first place. While I’m not sure I believe in the idea of guilty pleasures when it comes to music (a song is either good or not, cool shouldn’t come into it), I’ve always enjoyed Showaddywaddy’s Under the Moon of Love (1976). But would I ever listen to it by choice? No. I’m no ABBA fan either but I appreciate there are some classics in their catalogue. I Have a Dream (1979) isn’t one of them. Plus, it reminds me of Westlife’s version, which I rated the worst Christmas number 1 last year.
Almost scraping the bottom of the barrel were Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band’s The Floral Dance. 1977 may have been the year of punk but it was also the year of this dross. Everyone knows Terry Wogan’s version is the one to hear. And then there’s Gary Glitter’s I Love You Love Me Love from back in 1973. Glitter is a difficult subject, obviously. Is it possible to separate the monster from the music? I discussed this in my review of Great Balls of Fire. I ranked that as the best number 1 of the 50s. Yet the man behind it married an underage relative, and therefore, Lewis is a horrible dickhead. However, Glitter isn’t just a fallible human being, he’s evil. I’d say it is very, very difficult to get anything positive out of his music anymore. I Love You Love Me Love, like most of Glitter’s hits, sounds great, thanks to Mike Leander’s production, but it’s sleazy, and not in a good way, and that’s even before you factor in Gary Glitter’s crimes. I felt like I needed a wash after it was done. I’d always assumed Wizzard were at number 2 that Christmas, behind Slade. Shame.
Greg Lake – I Believe in Father Christmas (1975): Ah, thank you Greg Lake, for making me feel clean again. Generally the runner-up songs from the 70s were a disappointing listen, but here was a proper classic. The first festive number 2 in 21 years stands largely apart from most famous Christmas songs in its philosophical approach and criticism of the commercialisation of the holidays. Ahead of its time, and yet looking to the past with is adaptation of Sergei Prokofiev’s Troika portion of his Lieutenant Kijé suite, its message has only grown in relevance over the years. If I hear it in the right mood, it’s in my top three Christmas songs of all time.
Chuck Berry: My Ding-a-Ling (1972): Worst of a bad bunch was this live recording by rock’n’roll legend and sex offender Chuck Berry. Yes, Glitter wasn’t the only pervert to have a number 1 and Christmas number 2. Yet this innuendo-laden novelty track is even more offensive, because it’s irredeemably shit. How can the man behind some of rock’n’roll’s most influential tunes have released this? Mary Whitehouse tried to get it banned apparently. For once, it’s a shame she didn’t succeed.
The number 2s for the decade I grew up in get off to a sad start with the sadly ironic (Just Like) Starting Over by John Lennon, who had been murdered a few weeks earlier. Far from being his best work, it’s still criminal that this was beaten to Christmas number 1 by There’s No One Quite Like Grandma. Yet again, Cliff shows his face the following year. Daddy’s Home is slushy nonsense, but not the worst the decade has to offer. Slade make a surprise return in 1983. 10 years on from Merry Xmas Everybody, which I voted the best festive number 1 of all time, they tried again with a timely slice of stadium rock. It’s not great, but at least it’s Slade.
At last, another yuletide classic! It’s Last Christmas, by Wham! I’ve grown to love this song more and more as the years go by, and it took the untimely death of George Michael for me to discover what a bloody decent man he was on top of all his talent. He played every track on this, and it’s leagues above its fellow A-side in 1984, Everything She Wants, and could have easily been my favourite of the 80s, but it faces strong competition. Not from Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love for You in 1985, though. It ticks all the boxes for an 80s slushy lets-get-it-on-style track, but it’s not really my bag. Unlike Caravan of Love by The Housemartins the following year. My third favourite of the decade takes me back to my childhood and this beatiful a cappella cover with a Christian message would have stood out as a great number 1 during the selfish Thatcher era. The 80s number 2s come to an end with Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue’s Especially for You (1988), which is difficult to dislike, and finally Let’s Party by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers. I can still remember how excited I was to open this on Christmas Day and run upstairs to my brother’s record player to put it on. Tragic, eh? Well, perhaps, but come on, it features all the Christmas classics like, er, March of the Mods, and a version of I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday that isn’t even the Wizzard original as they couldn’t get the rights… Yeah, well, I was only 10, alright?
The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl – Fairytale of New York (1987): It would take a strong song to rank above Last Christmas as the best festive number 2, and this is it. Famously kept off the top spot by Pet Shop Boys’ Always on My Mind, many consider this the best Christmas number 1 there never was, and its hard to argue with that. The beauty of MacColl’s angelic vocal contrasts perfectly with MacGowan’s shambolic wailing, and that’s before you take a look at the lyrics. Featuring lost hope, alcoholism, drugs, prison and swear words, its a truly unique work.
Shakin’ Stevens – Blue Christmas EP (1982): I’m going to give Cliff Richard a break here. Daddy’s Home may be crap, but at least it was over quickly. Shaky’s EP is four songs long, and without the charm of his 1985 Christmas number 1, Merry Christmas Everyone. The title track is ok, but the other material was pretty painful, and his voice is all over the place. It’s hard enough listening to over four hours of songs in one session, but four in a row by Shakin’ Stevens is a step too far.
You can laugh at me if you want, but the 90s tracks get off to a good start with Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby. Come on, it’s enjoyable enough – and ice is associated with Christmas, is it not? It’s certainly better than the next few sappy ballads, anyway. Diana Ross’s When You Tell Me You Love Me (1991), Michael Jackson’s Heal the World (1992) and Take That’s Babe (1993) are all sure signs of the direction the charts were heading, with sentiment and pomposity becoming commonplace in the singles released every December. Heal the World is particularly sickly, especially with the children at the start.
The comedy tracks are much more enjoyable, and it’s surprising it’s taken this long for any to appear. I have warm memories of The Mike Flowers Pops pretending their easy-listening version of Wonderwall was the original at the height of Britpop, and Chocolate Salty Balls (PS I Love You) (1998) might be a cheap joke but it’s always good to hear Isaac Hayes. I don’t want to speak ill of Dunblane’s cover of Knockin’ On Heavens Door in 1996, as it was for a great cause, but it’s too overblown and would have worked better if they’d held back a little. It sounds 10 years out of date.
And then, once again, there’s Cliff. I both admire and shake my head at the idea of him thinking he was entitled to be the last number 1 artist of the 20th century. At least he tried to release something momentous for such a huge event. The problem is, the words to The Lords Prayer set to the music of Auld Lang Syne was a terrible idea. However, it would have made a more fitting Christmas number 1 than Westlife’s double-bill of total dross, I Have a Dream/Seasons in the Sun.
Mariah Carey – All I Want for Christmas Is You (1994): Only at Christmas would I ever rank pampered prima donna Mariah Carey as the best anything. Resolutely not a fan of her over-the-top style of singing normally, she did the right thing here by toning it down and yet still going hell-for-leather in performing this total barnstormer that still lights up the dancefloor at every Christmas party. It sounds just like something from Phil Spector’s 1963 album A Christmas Gift to You, but outdoes every track on it. At the time of its release I had just become a dyed-in-the-wool indie fan, but I remember secretly thinking it was better than Oasis’s Whatever, which I was hoping would be number 1 come 25 December 25. Of course, East 17’s Stay Another Day defeated both in the end.
Teletubbies – Teletubbies Say ‘Eh-Oh!’ (1997): As much as Christmas is for children, and if you have to hear a kids’ song in the charts, now is the time, there was no need for the theme tune to this show for babies and toddlers to have been released, let alone do so well. It was basically a cash-in for the BBC. It’s not the worst number 2 ever, and Teletubbies works wonders with children. It’s just downright odd to listen to. It’s basically the theme tune on a loop, and there have been many better theme tunes over the years. It also brings to mind that creepy baby face in the sun from the programme, that used to freak me out when I was at university. Why was I watching Teletubbies at university? Good question.
What awful timing. Just as I begin to get tired of this experiment, I reach the most painful decade to listen to. Bar a few exceptions, every song was painful for me to sit through. Wet ballad after wet ballad. And yet, X Factor songs don’t feature much. Probably because they were constantly getting to number 1 at the time. Both One True Voice’s Sacred Trust in 2002 and Joe McElderry’s The Climb aren’t worth another listen though. I remember lots of fuss over veteran songwriter Gordon Haskell finding fame with How Wonderful You Are in 2001, but it just made me want to take a nap.
I hated The Darkness at the time. Didn’t find the joke that funny, and they were everywhere. But I’ve warmed to them over the years for at least providing an antidote to teen hunks singing about not having penises. At least Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End) was a stab at a good old-fashioned Christmas singalong, whether it was tongue-in-cheek or not. In fact, such is the poor quality of this batch of tunes, I even found myself debating whether it should win this section. I don’t understand why Ronan Keating felt the need to cover Cat Stevens’ Father and Son in 2004, as Boyzone had already made it a hit in 1995. Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, features, but it’s still not a patch on the original. Never liked Nizlopi’s vastly overrated JCB Song (2005) – the lyrics may be worthy and meaningful, but my ears won’t let me get past the awful affectation to Luke Concannon’s voice. Take That’s big comeback single Patience the following year has been praised by critics as an excellent return to form and a sign of the group’s maturity, but both that and Katie Melua’s version of What a Wonderful World, with Eva Cassidy singing from beyond the grave, left me cold.
Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah (2008): Originally on Grace (1994), the singer-songwriter’s sole album before his tragic death by drowning, Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s powerful ballad was released as an antidote to X Factor winner Alexandra Burke’s missing-the-point-pile-on-the-gospel rendition for a chart showdown in 2008. Simon Cowell sadly won out yet again, but it was a victory in itself that this spine-tingling version could climb so high in such a desolate decade of pop.
Westlife – What Makes a Man (2000): Hooray for Bob the Builder! Can We Fix It? kept yet another soggy slowie off the Westlife production line from being the first Christmas number 1 of the 22st century. What Makes a Man stands out as a particularly tedious waste of time amongst a sea of similar ‘tunes’.
Nearly there… Luckily for me, the 2010s have seen an improvement over the previous decade… although talk about damning with faint praise… There’s still a tendency towards boring ballads (see Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself in 2015), but generally there’s more variety. I can’t say I enjoyed much of it, but then again, I’m 39, it’s not meant for me. I don’t understand the popularity of Rihanna, and her 2010 track with Drake, What’s My Name?, sets my teeth on edge.
Rag’n’Bone’s Human (2016) is okay, I guess. It’s certainly better than Eminem and Ed Sheeran’s River, which brings my ordeal to a close. For all his credibility and attitude, why does Slim Shady collaborate with so many boring, beige pop stars? Many will be asking why I haven’t rated Pharrell Williams’ Happy (2013) as the best seasonal number 2. As nice as it is, I find it a little too in thrall to the soul classics of the 60s that are far better. Also, it’s been played to death over the last five years.
Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars – Uptown Funk (2014): Okay, you could give the exact same arguments as above for this. Yes, it’s also one of the biggest songs of the 2010s, and yes, it’s clearly unoriginal. However, I’m a huge funk fan, particuarly of Parliament and Funkadelic, and Uptown Funk brings to mind Atomic Dog-era George Clinton. I’ve yet to personally tire of it, and if anything it’s taken on a new lease of life for me as my eldest daughter loves it. So there.
Little Mix – Cannonball (2011): My eldest also loves Black Magic by Little Mix, and I agree, it’s a great pop track. Sadly, I don’t get to hear that today, I have to suffer this instead. The first girl group to win X Factor, their debut single has none of the energy and anthemic chorus of Black Magic. It’s just yet another lush but empty ballad, complete with black-and-white video of the group’s ‘journey’. I hope to never again have to put myself through such tat, at least, not until my daughters are teenagers and then I clearly won’t have a choice anymore.
The Best UK Christmas Number 2 Ever is…
The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl – Fairytale of New York (1987): Although in general my marathon session of Christmas number 1s was more enjoyable than this year’s, the decision to pick the best of the bunch was quite easy. Today proved much harder. My winner, I Believe in Father Christmas and All I Want for Christmas Is You are all among the best Christmas songs there is. In the end, I decided that Fairytale of New York was the best all-rounder. Lake’s single is wistful, makes you think, and gets to the nitty gritty of Christmas. But you wouldn’t want to hear it at a party. Carey’s single is the opposite. It’s a belter of a tune, but it’s not deep. Fairytale of New York is all of these things. And it manages to be dark and poetic, and a song to sing when blind drunk on a night out, all at the same time. It’s also poignant, since the death of MacColl, and seems to grow in stature with every passing year.
The Worst UK Christmas Number 2 Ever is…
Westlife – What Makes a Man (2000): Congratulations Westlife! It takes a special kind of crapness to be responsible for the worst Christmas number 1 and number 2! Last year I said they had committed ‘Pop music at it’s very dreariest’, and What Makes a Man is more of the same. There’s little more I can add to this really, as it’s so dull, it\s hard to get angry about. It’s just depressing.
Never again. I’ve suffered enough. The surprising lack of true Christmas songs in this marathon listen made it feel more like a bunch of random songs, a large amount of which I’d never choose to listen to. Even a decade I thought would throw up some goodies like the 70s managed to disappoint. And there were a few classics conspicuous by their absence. I’d always assumed that Stop the Cavalry and I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday would be in there. It’s always great to hear my top three though, and they and a few others saved the day. It makes you question your sanity, though, when you find yourself picking All I Want for Christmas is You over the Magical Mystery Tour EP. But that’s Christmas for you. They don’t call it the silly season for nothing.
Do you agree? Have I been too harsh on Westlife? Can’t stand hearing MacGowan’s barely comprehensible ramblings? Stick a comment below.
And no, I won’t be listening to every Christmas number 3 next year. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.
Every UK Christmas Number 2 (1952-2017)
1952: Jo Stafford with Paul Weston & His Orchestra – You Belong to Me
1953: David Whitfield with Stanley Black & His Orchestra – Answer Me
1954: David Whitfield – Santo Natale
1955: Bill Haley & His Comets – Rock Around the Clock
1956: Guy Mitchell with Ray Connif & His Orchestra – Singing the Blues
1957: Johnny Otis and His Orchestra with Marie Adams – Ma He’s Making Eyes at Me
1958: Lord Rockingham’s XI – Hoots Mon
1959: Adam Faith – What Do You Want?
1960: Elvis Presley – It’s Now or Never
1961: Frankie Vaughan – Tower of Strength
1962: Cliff Richard – The Next Time/Bachelor Boy
1963: The Beatles – She Loves You
1964: Petula Clark – Downtown
1965: Cliff Richard – Wind Me Up (Let Me Go)
1966: Donovan – Sunshine Superman
1967: The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour EP
1968: The Foundations – Build Me Up Buttercup
1969: Kenny Rogers and the First Edition – Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town
1970: McGuinness Flint – When I’m Dead and Gone
1971: T Rex – Jeepster
1972: Chuck Berry – My Ding-a-Ling
1973: Gary Glitter – I Love You Love Me Love
1974: Bachman Turner Overdrive – You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet
1975: Greg Lake – I Believe in Father Christmas
1976: Showaddywaddy – Under the Moon of Love
1977: Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band – The Floral Dance
1978: The Village People – YMCA
1979: ABBA – I Have a Dream
1980: John Lennon – (Just Like) Starting Over
1981: Cliff Richard – Daddy’s Home
1982: Shakin’ Stevens – Blue Christmas EP
1983: Slade – My Oh My
1984: Wham! – Last Christmas/Everything She Wants
1985: Whitney Houston – Saving All My Love for You
1986: The Housemartins – Caravan of Love
1987: The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl – Fairytale of New York
1988: Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue – Especially for You
1989: Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers – Let’s Party
1990: Vanilla Ice – Ice Ice Baby
1991: Diana Ross – When You Tell Me That You Love Me
1992: Michael Jackson – Heal My World
1993: Take That – Babe
1994: Mariah Carey – All I Want for Christmas Is You
1995: The Mike Flowers Pops – Wonderwall
1996: Dunblane – Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
1997: Teletubbies – Teletubbies Say ‘Eh-Oh!’
1998: Chef – Chocolate Salty Balls (PS I Love You)
1999: Cliff Richard – The Millennium Prayer
2000: Westlife – What Makes a Man
2001: Gordon Haskell – How Wonderful You Are
2002: One True Voice – Sacred Trust
2003: The Darkness – Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)
2004: Ronan Keating featuring Yusuf Islam – Father and Son
2005: Nizlopi – JCB Song
2006: Take That – Patience
2007: Katie Melua and Eva Cassidy – What a Wonderful World
2008: Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah
2009: Joe McElderry – The Climb
2010: Rihanna featuring Drake – What’s My Name?
2011: Little Mix – Cannonball
2012: James Arthur – Impossible
2013: Pharrell Williams – Happy
2014: Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars – Uptown Funk
2015: Justin Bieber – Love Yourself
2016: Rag’n’Bone Man – Human
2017: Eminem featuring Ed Sheeran – River