For 11 months of the year my iPod warbles merrily away, churning out music of every possible flavour and kind — jazz, classical, pop, rock and ambient sounds. There are very few genres of music that I am not prepared to introduce to my earoles. But once shuffle is switched on there’s a danger that unexpected things will occasionally pop up – Italian lessons, totally weird ambient music from outer space, some horrendous Indonesian pop song downloaded for a quiz, all these can unexpectedly play, but happily it doesn’t occur too often. Much more commonly the shuffle will have an inexplicable enthusiasm for playing Dusty Springfield, Alfred Deller, harpsichord music, or a particular composer. Last week it went for Vaughan Williams, for no reason. It’s as if the shuffle was haunted by a lovely person with a particular penchant for certain music. But there is one kind of music I will not under any circumstances tolerate for 11 months of the year… and that is Christmas music. Woe betide the sound system if ‘Jingle Bells’ blares out in July. If that happens the iPod may suffer a horrible fate, like being threatened with a bucket of water, permanent silence… and rude words. So the iPod is very well behaved, and plays very little Christmas music for 11 months of the year, except at Christmas time, which is OK by me. Then on December 1 something very strange happens. I just long to hear Christmas music in all its wonderful forms – classical, pop and even folk, which is not a great favourite of mine at the best of times. Then, like the magic of the season itself, the Christmas playlists are set free to fly, and they are truly lovely.
Right now I am having a bad attack of ‘Gaudete’ and there are some delicious versions lurking within – Howard Goodall’s gorgeous rendition, Libera & Robert Prizeman’s which is both twinkly and mystical, and then there is John Rutter’s with the Farnham Youth Choir which is intensely fruity at times. And who, Oh who will ever forget the silly ‘corks up the nose’ Steeleye Span version of ‘Gaudete’, eh? I have only three varieties of my favourite ‘Carol of the Bells’ – The Carpenters, a middle of the road instrumental thing, an amazing Christmas Sound Effects version lasting just 30 seconds (tinkles and twinkles like a chance meeting with Tinkerbell) and a truly charming track from Libera, that is sweeter than a sweety.
Every year I make a massive compilation of Christmas music, combining old ones, new ones, crummy ones and silly ones. It’s tricky putting exquisite choral music alongside pop Christmas songs, in fact it’s downright impossible. Wham just doesn’t sound any good alongside Kings College Choir. So the pop music and the jazz are kept apart from the classical, but apart from that, there are no rules. And so, all one has to do… is drift into the snowy fairyland of Christmas music where sickeningly sugary American sentiment sounds absolutely fine. Now is the moment (and only now) I will listen to Natalie Cole and Michael Bublé trilling ‘My Grown Up Christmas List’. Only this month will I tolerate the horror of Wizzard screaming ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday’, or swoon to the fabulous gutsy racket of Brian Rayner Cook blaring out ‘Sleigh Ride’ at 10 zillion decibels.I can’t recommend any albums this year because I haven’t looked at this year’s offerings, apart from the hideously over-hyped album ‘Christmas at Downton Abbey’… and tell me, please, what is that about? 45 tracks I have decided to live without, particularly the second one – a depressing rendition of ‘O Holy Night’. If one is going to have a compilation at least choose a great version of ‘O Holy Night’, like The Bach Choir and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, something much loved in this household. Meanwhile, back at Downton Abbey, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Julian Ovenden (who both apparently appeared in the saga) sing loads of stuff on this ancient Christmas cracker of crumbs. They do lots of allegedly jolly stuff that sounds as though they were having fun on their own, chirruping something quite different from the person next to them. It’s a real hysterical free-for all on ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’. So where is Dame Maggie Smith? She could surely chime in with a cackle or two, bash a triangle or shake a tambourine to bring another historical dimension to the proceedings.
But if you like lovely wistful jazz Eddie Higgins ‘Christmas Songs’ is lovely, and David Rees-Williams ‘Ex-Mass’ has some stunning tracks. And the very best and most charming laugh in terms of seasonal albums has to be Clare Teal’s ‘Jing, Jing-A-Ling’ a real trip into the 50s, and beyond. And if you want to venture into the dark side of Christmas, you can always try something totally beyond the pale, like Flatulina’s ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’, but please don’t tell anyone I mentioned this. Now who says that I don’t think about you at Christmas? GO! Wrap your earoles round a few of those tracks and have some sparkly fun. Yippee! Skippy!