The Xmas factor: what makes a great Christmas song?

Shane and Kirsty, Justin and Mariah, Benton the dog – they've all tried to capture the spirit of Christmas. But who does it best? Jude Rogers finds out with our panel of judges

Last month the Reverend Dr Giles Fraser resigned from St Paul's Cathedral, saying he could imagine Jesus being born at the Occupy camp. This month, the jeans-and-T-shirt-wearing reverend is on our panel of Christmas song judges – tasked with finding the perfect piece of festive pop by giving marks out of 10 to six yuletide hits. Also on the panel are: hitmaker Mike Batt, who wrote David Essex's A Winter's Tale (and, er, The Wombles' Wombling Merry Christmas); Emma Hornby, senior lecturer in music at Bristol University; and Christmas party-planner-to-the-stars Firgas Esack. Here's what they thought.

The rough-and-ready classic

Fairytale of New York, by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl

Batt: One of the best Christmas songs, because it sounds like a real person telling a real story, which is refreshing. There's a natural cynicism in Shane MacGowan's voice but it's gone here, which says a lot. The song's also stopped from being mawkish by the grittiness of the insults. Any song with "scumbag" in it isn't aiming for No 1 – and I think people appreciate that. Score: 9

Hornby: This is not a Christmas song at all. It's just a man with not a very nice voice singing a simple melody, going round and round, not quite in tune. When MacColl comes in, it's just folk modalities with fiddle and accordion. But at least she can sing! Score: 0

Fraser: This has no religious content but – crucially – it doesn't try to have any. I like that it takes Christmas away from an idea of materialism. There's an earthiness to it that's much more part of the message. MacColl singing "you're handsome" to Shane MacGowan, though? I can't believe that at all! Score: 7

Esack: A good song if you want a bit of anarchy – which is funny, because it's got such a sad lyric. People just hear the raucous celebratory shouting and join in. We did a party for Spearmint Rhino recently where all the guys were pole-dancing. This could have been the soundtrack, but we had a 7ft rapper instead. Score: 7

Total: 23/40

The money-spinning duet

All I Want For Christmas Is You, by Mariah Carey and Justin Bieber

Fraser: I've just come back from Bethlehem, talking to people who live there, preparing for Christmas in extreme poverty. It's an insult to them, a song like this. It's set in a bloody shopping centre: this is Christmas as shopping! The two products on show being Mariah Carey and that other twerp. Score: 0

Esack: The original works in a tongue-in-cheek way, but this is too naff. We put on an event recently where Bieber was a guest, but he didn't get into the party spirit: he nipped out the back with Selena Gomez. If Mariah Carey was at a party, she'd just be whinging about her weight. It's a Christmas party, Mariah: we need a chocolate fountain! Score: 5

Batt: This song is not about God or having a party. It's a song about love, although the video is all about sex. Mariah Carey in a pornographic Father Christmas costume rubbing herself up against a wall without laughing – says it all really. Score: 6

Hornby: The Christmasiness is in the orchestration: it's basically a bell song. We get sleigh bells, jingle bells, tubular bells and angel chimes, which suggest angels going round a church with burning candles. Is there anything in their voices? Nothing at all! Score: 8

Total: 19/40

The God-fearing granny-pleaser

Mistletoe and Wine, by Cliff Richard

Hornby: Whoever wrote this was a musical genius. It evokes carol-singing, the church and communal music-making. The vocals also move in thirds: it's not the tune for Silent Night, but it could be. It has a trumpet, which evokes the ending of O Come All Ye Faithful. It has women singing, too, and at the end comes the pièce de résistance – a solo choirboy, just like in Once in Royal David's City. He even has proper Anglican pronunciation. Score: 10

Fraser: A total sell-out of a song. When someone so self-consciously religious does something that is just slushy sentimentality, I get really disappointed. It's not enough, Cliff, to throw in a few words about "children singing Christian rhyme", or a baby. Because everyone goes, "Aww, a baby, how nice." The idea of God being born so weak and powerless would have been terrifying to people back then. Score: 1

Esack: There's some naff you can get away with: we have the Cheeky Girls at our events quite often. But sadly not Cliff. Wired for Sound is a great party tune, though. Score: 2

Batt: It's slightly pious, but that's Cliff. And the children's choir is a real cliche. But I wrote Wombling Merry Christmas, so I'm not scared of cliches. Score: 7

Total: 20/40

The festive novelty

Benton! Jesus Christ! by the Hoxtons

Esack: This one wouldn't get people dancing, but it would get people talking. A good ice-breaker maybe at the start of the night, especially if we had a projection screen. If we could get the dog to come to the party, that would be even better. Score: 6

Batt: I like a good novelty single. Something like Hole in the Ground by Bernard Cribbins – clever lyrics, well-produced and funny. So I don't want to sound like a miserable git, but this is absolute crap. And I like songs that annoy people. Score: 2.5

Hornby: I'll tell you what I've written down: "One for dancing to, I suppose, for a certain section of society." Just shouting the words "Jesus Christ" enough times doesn't turn something into a Christmas song. Rubbish! Score: 0

Fraser: The original clip is hilarious. I liked the Zulu one, too, and I must admit this made me laugh. But the way "Jesus Christ" is now used as an expletive, and a polite one at that, well, we can probably relegate this to having zero religious content whatsoever. Score: 1

Total: 9.5/40

The indie cover

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, by She & Him

Batt: Not impressed. A fabulous song sung in a very ordinary way by people meant to have a cool following. That's a shame, as it's one of our best standards. Katie Melua does it much better. Score: 3.5

Hornby: This one is fascinating. There are no intrinsic Christmas signifiers. They use an organ, but a Hammond organ, a good step away from the church. It nods to singing in thirds, but only nods. But in American films, this song means Christmas, from The Godfather to When Harry Met Sally. It doesn't matter who's singing it, and that's interesting. It's got a life of its own. Score: 7

Fraser: I wanted to like this, but I didn't know what it was for. And the lyrics are all about family, friends, saying everything will be fine. It's Christmas as reassurance, and I don't think Christmas is that. Christmas says: "God exists in the middle of the shittiness of the world." If you try to sentimentalise Christmas, you take it into the non-real world. And that's why I hate it. Score: 3

Esack: This is classy and cool, a modern twist on lounge music. It'd be great at a fashion party, something formal, dressed up, quite girly, lots of sparkles. It would work well alongside that Slow Moving Millie single, or Saint Etienne's I Was Born on Christmas Day. Score: 9

Total: 22.5/40

The one with a social conscience

Happy Xmas (War Is Over), by John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band

Fraser: John Lennon understands Christianity better than all the others put together. Peace has two different meanings: peace and quiet, and people not killing each other. People fighting for the latter kind of peace lead knackering, difficult lives. This understands that peace on earth is a political statement, rather than generalised sentimental benevolence. Score: 8

Esack: John and Yoko are style icons. It's a bleak and expansive song, but very stylish. This would work well at an art space, or a warehouse. I can see Christmas trees with white lights, people gathering around ice sculptures and drinking vodka to warm them up. Score: 8

Batt: The statement "War is over, if you want it" is one of the most naive statements ever. "And what have you done?" Sat in a bag and talked about peace. But this is a very simple melody, as the best melodies should be. He uses the same chords, so there's a mantra feeling. The lyrics are banal with very obvious rhymes. "Let's hope it's a good one without any fear" is very contrived, almost amateurish. Score: 5

Hornby: A real carol-singing moment, here. It sounds like John and Yoko are going around people's doors. And they have sleigh bells, tubular bells and a choir, all the way through. Score: 8

Total: 29/40

So what, according to our panel, is the greatest Christmas pop song ever? Step forward John & Yoko, whose Happy Christmas (War Is Over) scored 29/40. And in second place, with 23 points, comes Fairytale of New York. Do the peace campaigners deserve the top prize? Tell us what you think, and listen to our festive playlist at guardian.co.uk/music.

• This article was amended on 19 December 2011. In the original the headline was The Xmas factor: what is the best Christmas song ever? This has been amended.

Contributor

Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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