Do you hear what I hear? The year's festive music wrapped up

R'n'B stylings of classic holiday hits and Cockney staples.

Music is the primary source of what Blackadder’s Prince Regent calls “the Xmas atmos”. Christmas music in shops shifts the public into the act of retail. When the shopping is done and we are at home with anticlimax on the horizon, we employ it anxiously to keep the atmos going.

This year, the job goes to Mary J Blige, whose A Mary Christmas features R’n’B stylings of classic holiday hits. Much modern Yule music seems oddly un-Christmassy, at least in the sense of bells and chanting. Blige’s luxuriant vocal adds a sophisticated gospel touch to lyrics such as “per-up-per-pum-pum”, while “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” is a full-on adult moment, the orchestra and vibe-effect keyboard conjuring images of the sheepskin rug and the man in the polo neck. Listening to Blige on Spotify, I uncovered a Christmas duet she recorded with Rod Stewart a while back: even those two were kept in check by the strange scansion (“We three kings of orientar . . .”) that makes the old religious songs so atmospheric.

The weirdest Christmas song this year is Susan Boyle’s “duet” with Elvis, “O Come All Ye Faithful”. Boyle is the first British artist given permission to co-opt Presley’s vocal track for new material; she got the go-ahead after telling Priscilla that her father had been a fan. Like Tony Blair, Boyle now has a lucrative career on the US circuit, where she performs in churches. Her Christmas album (Home for Christmas) features an original composition called “Miracle Hymn” that, melodically, lies somewhere between “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”. The youthfulness and cut-glass purity of her voice is still striking. Her “per-up-per-pum-pums” are more clipped than Blige’s. Imagine taking on “The Little Drummer Boy” in the summer (Christmas albums are always recorded months in advance), knowing that two doors down someone else is recording the same thing. There’s nothing to do but try to scale new heights of purity (listen to this year’s “Ave Maria”, by Leona Lewis).

In my household, the seasonal staple is A Cockney Christmas with Chas’n’Dave, which is an antidote to the modern pop Yule, being rough around the edges and full of colliery brass. “Coventry Carol” sounds wonderfully out of place in their music-hall world, tales of slain babies recounted sincerely in East End accents. We also have an annual viewing of R Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet, which, for those not lucky enough to have seen it yet, is a 33-episode, low-budget “hip-hopera” in which the R’n’B legend narrates various fictional intrigues and sex scandals in 133 minutes of half-sung libretto, all in three notes.

Susan Boyle at Magic FM studios recording her Magic FM Christmas Special with Neil Fox on 12 November 2013. Photo: Getty.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue