The Christmas album veteran (he released five between 1968 and 2011) is about to celebrate his 93rd festive season
One of my favourite musical Christmas memories came when I was at a very low point in my life. It was Christmas morning. I had just gone through a divorce. I was separated from my children, all alone in a hotel, feeling low. In my room, I started to hear music and thought I had left the TV on, but I checked and it was off. It got louder, and I realised it was coming from the hallway, so I opened my door and there was a choir, singing On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever). Duke Ellington was doing one of his sacred concerts at the Presbyterian Church nearby, on Fifth Avenue, had heard I was down, and sent over his choir to cheer me up. It was the most beautiful gift I have ever received.
I grew up in the Depression, so the focus was more on family and being together than about gifts piled under the tree. Food was a big part too.
My [Italian-American] mother Anna made a world-class lasagne every Christmas, and my sister Mary made it after she passed away. On my 85th birthday, the recipe was recreated for 600 guests and it felt like my mom was part of the evening. I wish every day could be like the holiday season, where we express our appreciation for our family and friends.
I love the way the streets of Manhattan transform at Christmas, how all the shop windows set up their elaborate holiday scenes. I am a painter, too, and have done many winter scenes from my studio window while the snow is coming down. One of my favourites, of Radio City Music Hall in a snowstorm, I chose for my holiday card for the American Cancer Society this year. The money raised goes towards cancer research. I’ve been doing them for 25 years.
Why have I made so many Christmas albums? My premise as a performer has always been to make people feel good and holiday songs are like old friends: you may not have heard them in a while, but whenever you do they bring back good memories. They make you feel happy.
Top 10 The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
Probably my favourite song and no one sang it better than Nat King Cole. I sang it with Diana Krall on TV to celebrate the lighting of the Rockefeller Center tree this year. When Diana sang the line: “To kids from one to 92” in rehearsal, she laughed then hugged me, and I wasn’t sure why. Then she said: “But Tony, you are 92!” I couldn’t believe I finally got a chance to perform that lyric at that age. White Christmas
Still the bestselling single record of all time, by the ultimate master songwriter, Irving Berlin. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Her performance of this song in Meet Me In St Louis is pure magic.
4. Tony Tamburello Christmas in Herald Square
A lesser-known holiday song, written by a long-time friend.
Written in the 1940s, when it had special meaning, since it’s about a soldier promising to get home in time for the holidays.
6. Tony BennettChristmasland
One of my favourite tracks from my  Snowfall album.
7. Tony Bennett Snowfall
I also love this from the same album: an evocative song that captures the insular feeling you get when you are walking in nature, the snow is falling, and everything gets very quiet and serene.
8. Julie Andrews My Favourite Things
Not typically a holiday song, but I like its positive message… a song to celebrate the season.
9. Bob Hope Silver Bells
I had a good time recording this with the Count Basie Big Band [for 2008’s A Swingin’ Christmas]. The photographer took off a Norman Rockwell holiday dinner painting, and we had the whole band with me at the table with the turkey.
One of my favourites to sing at this time of year. I loved Mildred Bailey’s 1937 version too, but nothing can top Billie Holiday’s.
Former carol-singing teenage busker, Christmas music aficionado and ex-Pulp frontman
In the early days of Pulp, when we were 15, 16, we’d go into Sheffield city centre on Christmas Eve and busk. The buses would stop at four, so everybody would be rushing around doing last-minute shopping or getting drunk. We’d do all the old classics – O Come All Ye Faithful, Silent Night – although we’d only know the first verses. The second verses would be all [sings] la-la-la-laaa. The third verse would be the first one again. Not that it mattered. We raked it in.
Music is the best part of Christmas to me, that and twinkling lights. I enjoy finding new Christmas songs. Perhaps it’s because when I was a kid, having Christmas at my grandparents with my mum, they only had two Christmas records. One was called Christmas With the Stars, on Pickwick, which had Max Bygraves and Des O’Connor on it. The other was the Tijuana Brass Christmas album. We played them one after the other all day, so I heard them hundreds of times. Still, I love the familiarity of them.
I’ve always wanted to write a Christmas song but never managed it. I loved singing carols at school and always wanted to capture that sort of magic in a song. The closest I got was with Pulp doing a song called Snow in the early 80s, but it was pretty depressing and we never recorded it. So to make up for it I’ve picked 11 Christmas songs, although one’s a 40-second jingle, really. Is that all right?
1. Choir of King’s College, CambridgeThe Rocking Carol
We did this all the time at school – it reminds me of being little.
2. Des O’ConnorYes, There Is a Santa Claus
On my grandparents’ aforementioned Christmas With the Stars album. It features Des convincing a child that Santa exists. And yes, it’s just as bizarre as you’d imagine.
3. The Joy Strings O Little Town of Bethlehem
O Little Town of Bethlehem sung to the tune of the Animals’ House of the Rising Sun – and it works!
4. The Radiophonic Workshop Christmas Commercial
Forty seconds of a cash register singing Jingle Bells which I DJ’d before a Soulwax show last Christmas. Everyone sang along.
5. JD Twitch Psylent Night
An ambient Christmassy thing full of atmosphere that came out as a single a few years ago.
6. Yoko Ono Listen, The Snow Is Falling
This is a really nice song full of wintry sound effects.
7. Beach Boys Morning Christmas (Holy Evening)
A really mournful, melancholy one, because that’s what Christmas can be. I mean, even the Christmas story is pretty melancholy – you know where Jesus’s story ends up.
8. Rotary Connection Shopping Bag Menagerie
An anti-commercial, psychedelic soul Christmas single. It’s all about people working hard the whole year to buy presents, then their family members going off them in about 20 minutes.
Such a lovely, soft song, all about Jesus getting born.
10. Josh T PearsonSweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ
Not the most romantic song ever, but it mentions Christmas at one point, and lots of relationships get strained at Christmas, or get together at Christmas parties, don’t they?
11. Kate BushAmong Angels
Long and spacious and perfect. Takes all your stresses away after Christmas shopping.
Saint Etienne singer, celebrating 25 years of their indie festive favourite, I Was Born on Christmas Day
I love Christmas, always have done. We used to have raucous ones when I was young. I’m an only child, always surrounded by adults singing and dancing; my dad was a director, my mum an actress and they’d bring in all these waifs and strays for the day. There would always be music on: the Beatles, T Rex, the Carpenters, the Stones. On Boxing Day morning, I’d be tiptoeing around empty bottles, full ashtrays and sleeping adults. Not that it’s done me any harm!
We still have busy Christmases now – I’ve got a potential 15 guests this year. My sisters-in-law are bringing turkey wrapped in foil and I’m mainly doing things like roast potatoes and pigs in blankets, thank goodness. Christmas is a bit like childbirth – you always go: “I’m never doing this again” but a while later, you just remember the good bits. Saying that, my sons are 16 and 14 now and they’ll be subjected to mum dragging out the board games as usual.
Christmas music has always been important to Saint Etienne. Every year, we absolutely have to do something – either play a gig or do a DJ night somewhere [this year, the band held Christmas parties in Saltaire and Brighton]. I like to do a raffle too and throw in a bottle of advocaat. We did a Christmas fan album, A Glimpse of Stocking, a few years back, and, of course, we did I Was Born on Christmas Day in 1993, inspired by poor old Bob [Stanley, fellow Saint Etienne member] having his birthday on Christmas Day. We have to do a proper full Christmas album at some point. I’m not letting that go.
Top 10Father Christmas
A hysterical, really new-wave, 1980s Kinks song with a message, telling you to remember “the kids without toys when you’re drinking your wine”. Coventry Carol
All Sufjan’s Christmas albums are gorgeous, but this song is especially beautiful. Coldest Night of the Year
Drifty, slow and wintry, but a little bit saucy as well. Blue Christmas
Because of the slinky ooooohs! I Will Cry at Christmas
Such a moving song and in one of the most moving scenes of the film Lawrence of Belgravia, about the musician Lawrence [frontman of Denim]. Winter
I love Mick singing: “Yeah, and I wanna wrap my coat around you.” I bet he said that to all the girls! New Year
[Unofficial fourth Saint Etienne member] Debsey and I sang this a few years ago and it’s a brilliant lost classic.
8. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street BandSanta Claus Is Coming to Town
Bruce makes the imagery in the song so urgent. I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t love Bruce. Little Saint Nick
Always gives me a proper shiver. Marshmallow World
A Christmas without the Phil Spector Christmas album isn’t really Christmas at all.
Rising, Christmas-loving R&B star, heiress to the pop throne of mum Neneh Cherry
Christmas – the whole of December, to be honest – is a special, full-on time for my family. My mum’s half Swedish, so we’ve got to do the Swedish Christmas traditions before anything else. That means meeting every Sunday of Advent, lighting a candle, and then their Christmas is actually on Christmas Eve. We have the full works – meatballs, smoked salmon, cabbage and this Swedish soft drink that’s like a weird Coca-Cola. Mum always gets us Christmas pyjamas, which we have to put on. The next morning, it’s British Christmas: more presents, a full house, my mum doing 300 different meals for people who are vegan and gluten-free, plus does amazing roast potatoes. A total legend. She’s got it all on lock.
Christmas music is really important in all that. We’re not all standing around the Christmas tree singing or anything, but every year, we play the same albums. Most are classics from the 60s or 70s – it’s like they’ve been with us always, like family. They get played over and over. It’s like a really comforting ritual, reminding us where we are and who we’re with. Christmas is about those memories you have together, isn’t it? They make everything warm.
Top 10Deck the Halls
His voice is the sound of Christmas for me. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
I’ve loved this since I was a kid. Michael Jackson at that age is just magical. All I Want for Christmas Is You
The ultimate Christmas pop song, so well written and put together. Santa Baby
Such a sexy Christmas song. Eartha Kitt is unstoppable! 8 Days of Christmas
I’m a huge fan of R&B, so this is a no-brainer. Jingle Bell Rock
This always reminds me of the Christmas scene in Mean Girls, which Ariana Grande reinterpreted recently in her video to Thank U, Next. The Christmas Song (live)
His voice is so, so timeless.
8. Boyz II Men & Brian McKnightLet it Snow
Another total R&B classic. Wonderful Christmastime
What’s there not to like about this? Last Christmas
No Christmas top 10 is complete without this banger.
US singer-songwriter; lover of classic pop and recent Christmas convert
I hated Christmas in my 20s. I was single and had just moved to Nashville, where I’d be asked to do these Christmas compilation albums. I’d always write something about being alone or feeling like a weirdo. I remember people in the studio watching me record them and going: “Er, right!” But my family were spread apart, so I felt totally disconnected. And it’s a reflective time – it’s the end of the year and you’re thinking about what you’ve done and what’s to come. That can be tough.
But things began changing when I started going to friends for Christmas instead. My parents were into Christmas when I was a kid and it’s still great to see them, but they’re happy for it to be all done in an hour now and then us go and have fun. Anyway, December starts for me with Hanukah now, because my fiance is Jewish. I love the simplicity of it: eight nights, eight candles lit, eight presents. There are practical gifts – socks and pants, things I actually like! Last year, he got me the Boyz II Men Christmas piano book and we spent the whole night playing songs from it. His family go full-on for Christmas, too, playing the Beatles’ Christmas flexi-disc records, plus their tree is always massive. That was a shock.
I loved doing a Christmas single last year [Everybody’s Having Fun (It’s Christmas Time)], as Christmas music has always been a big deal for me. As a kid, I loved the Motown Christmas Album, Phil Spector, Stevie Wonder. Music’s about bringing light to a really dark, cold time.
1. Diana Ross This Christmas
Starts slow, picks up and has the best melody ever.
A speedy version in a crazy time signature – completely insane. We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Funky instrumental music. I put this on while getting ready. Here Comes Santa Claus
Christmas jazz piano always works. For me it’s this or Charlie Brown’s Christmas Album. Merry Christmas Baby
Because I love hearing James Brown singing in a jazz style. Silver Bells
A hip-hop artist doing a great Christmas duet. With his mom!
7. Sharon Jones & the Dap-KingsEight Days (of Hanukah)
There aren’t many Hanukah songs, but Sharon Jones wrote a great one. White Christmas
Duets always get you into the Christmas spirit.
9. The Beach Boys Christmas Day
A favourite from my childhood.
10. Jimmy Smith and Wes MontgomeryBaby It’s Cold Outside
More jazz! It really shines at Christmas and the sleigh bells help.
Bearded north pole-dweller, master Christmas crooner and slightly Scrooge-like synthesiser fan
Christmas is disgusting. Nauseating. It’s all about eating too much, horrible consumerism and death. Still, I enjoy it these days. I go back to my sister’s in Denver, on Christmas Eve, to this little place in the countryside, with this really Christmassy vibe – it reminds me what Christmases used to be like when I was young.
They were idyllic. All the excitement going to the basement to get the decorations for the tree. Putting this light-up snowman outside on the porch, with icicles 6ft long hanging above it. My mom was the kind of mom who’d make sticky buns from scratch on Christmas morning, and she’d have canned vegetables for the day months before, so we’d have fresh green beans with our gammon. She died just before Christmas in 1995, but it’s nice that Christmas Eves now have the joy that we had as kids. Christmas Day? That’s at my brother’s with his kids, who are becoming teenagers, tearing open gifts. Much too hectic. Give me peace and some butterscotch pie.
Christmas music for me, at its best, comes from the 1960s and 70s when people were still discovering sound, all curious about what was possible to do with it. I hear something like Mariah Carey and something just dies inside of me. We live in such a weird world now with so much of everything, where satellite channels play Christmas music every day, but to me, Christmas is best simple. It’s about adults singing in harmony and older, classic tunes. It’s also people you love getting together and about creating new traditions with family and friends.
As for Christmas music – I’m going to do a Christmas album one day and Richard Hawley’s going to be on it. He is! And I’ve picked 12 songs. Sorry. Merry Christmas!
1. Esquivel Jingle Bells
The kookiest, weirdest version I’ve ever heard, for a space-age bachelor pad, as they say in the lyrics. It makes me very happy.
Great 1960s da-ba-da-ba-dee Christmas jazz.
3. Ramsay Lewis Trio Christmas Blues
Beautiful smoky Christmas jazz.
4. Oscar Peterson What Child Is This?
Pure taste. Plus it’s meandering and melancholy, which is what Christmas is.
5. Lou Rawls My Christmas, Baby
This is sexy Christmas. This is not for the family.
6. Jimmy Smith White Christmas
Sixties jazz-organ joy, starting off all slow, before the horns blow up.
7. The Moog Machine O Little Town of Bethlehem
I mean, O Little Town of Bethlehem done on a Moog. What else do you want?
This is on an album from last year (Hi-Fi Christmas Guitar) that looks and sounds like it came out in 1961. Imagine if Twin Peaks did Christmas songs. This is it. Christmas Time Is Here (vocal version)
I’ve been listening to this since I was a child and it never gets old.
10. Tammy Wynette Away in a Manger
She looks like Mother Mary on the album cover, but you know she’s got a flask of whisky somewhere.
11. Jackie Gleason and his Orchestra Christmas Moon
My Christmas anxiety destroyer, taking me away on soaring, velvety strings.
12. Johnny Mathis Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
I mean, Jeez. Perfect. What Christmas should be.
Listen to all the artists’ choices above in the Observer New Review’s mega Christmas playlist