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The insider's guide to Christmas music

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(CNN) -- Bells, choirs, snow machines, children swaying, improbable, disastrous duets... Christmas music has a lot to answer for.

For years record companies have used the annual spending frenzy as an excuse to pollute the airwaves with shameless novelty records while even supposedly credible artists frequently let their guard down amid the festive cheer.

But fear not: the Briefing Room's Christmas music guide is here to sift through the dross in search of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

So why is Christmas music so bad?

The real problem is really nothing to do with the songs themselves: we're just so over-familiar with them that we've blunted our critical faculties. Hearing the same set of festive favorites as we trudge from one store to the next in a pre-Christmas present buying frenzy, it's no wonder the opening strains of "White Christmas" have been known to send the odd highly-strung shopper loco.

So which are the Christmas classics that it's ok to like?

Elvis set the bar pretty high with "Blue Christmas," the standout track from his 1971 album "The Wonderful World of Christmas" on which The King also takes on "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and "The First Noel." Dean Martin's 1966 version of "Let It Snow" is probably the best of the Brat Pack's many seasonal offerings, while "The Beach Boys' Christmas Album" has a couple of contenders among the saccharine dross. But probably the pick of all Christmas records is Phil Spector's "A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector," featuring songs by all of Spector's "Wall of Sound" regulars including The Ronettes doing "Sleigh Ride" and The Crystals singing "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." Those lucky enough to get their hands on an original LP can also enjoy a centerfold spread of the eccentric producer dressed as Santa Claus.

What about something more contemporary?

Well, The Pogues' boozy ballad "Fairytale of New York" remains as popular now as when it was released almost 20 years ago, regularly topping polls of the best Christmas songs ever, despite -- or perhaps because of -- being a tawdry tale of drunkenness, drug addiction and broken dreams. The Ramones' "Merry Christmas, I Don't Want to Fight Tonight" finds the punk pioneers getting in the party spirit. More recently, Fountains of Wayne's "I Want an Alien for Christmas" and Saint Etienne and Tim Burgess' "I was born on Christmas Day" (Saint Etienne being seasonal serial offenders having also covered Billy Fury's "My Christmas Prayer") are perhaps the best options for alternative ears. The "Season's Beatings" series pulls together an eclectic mix of Christmas-themed hip hop, with the latest volume including contributions from Snoop Dogg, covering James Brown's "Santa Clause Goes Straight To The Ghetto," and Ice Cube ("Put It In Ya Egg Nog.") Previous volumes also included Run DMC's memorable."Christmas in Hollis."

OK, enough of the good stuff. Remind what I need to avoid.

Where to start? David Bowie's disastrous duet with an ageing Bing Crosby on "Little Drummer Boy" in the 1970s was probably a career low for both men -- some achievement for Bowie given that he also went on to star in "Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence." Recent generations of British children grew up with a visceral loathing for veteran rocker Cliff Richard thanks to his annual assault on the festive charts. Neither Lennon ("Merry Christmas (War is Over)") nor McCartney ("Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time") can be proud of their contributions to the festive canon. Wham's "Last Christmas".... Grandmother's favorite Aled Jones warbling through "Walking in the Air"...

Enough! please stop....

Mariah Carey ripping through any number of glass-shatteringly bad festive ballads.... Boney M's "Mary's Boy Child"... "(Do They Know) It's Christmas" in its various charitable incarnations...

I can feel a bout of Christmas rage coming on...

Funny you should mention that. Three years ago Manchester Airport was forced to ban perennial Slade favorite "Merry Xmas Everybody" from its playlist after it was found to be the record most likely to prompt incidents of air rage. "It's not that we don't like the song -- it has just been a little bit overplayed," said the airport in a statement.

So what's the answer?

Well, the Web site Podbopexternal link has been doing its bit to rehabilitate the Christmas record, releasing five festive tunes a day since early December, including contributions from the likes of My Chemical Romance (improbably covering the aforementioned Ms. Carey) to vintage jazz renditions of carols from the 1920s. If there's nothing there you like then there really is no hope...


story.crosby.jpg

Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" -- the best-selling Christmas single ever.

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