But go back to the original, 30 years old now. It appeared after an opening trio of Celtic punk salvos on a record called If I Should Fall From Grace With God. Try to hear that “Once Upon a Time in America” piano introduction like you’ve never heard it before. Pretend you haven’t become inured to Shane McGowan’s guttersnipe croak and the rough-hewn words he wrote to go against Jem Finer’s slow-building sea shanty of a tune. And above all, listen to how the whole song get swept off its feet by Kirsty MacColl, who comes in rudely, like “the old slut on junk” McGowan describes, but with better pipes, as she casually tosses off the most politically incorrect of epithets and damns the lies her male counterpart has been telling up until then. “In operas, if you have a double aria, it’s what the woman does that really matters,” McGowan said later. “The man lies, the woman tells the truth.” After hearing her performance, he re-recorded his own vocal, realizing that he would have to match her splendid alchemy of viciousness and forgiving grace.
If you can somehow manage to scrape away the kitsch that’s accumulated on the song over time and hear it fresh, you might just get a little catch in your throat.
Peter Blauner on the lucky one.
“Fairytale of New York” is one of the few songs where I have a distinct memory of the first time I ever heard it: late at night on a J Files retrospective for MacColl, aired not long after she’d died. The song just utterly blew my late-teenaged self away, and it’s been one of my favorites songs—not even just Christmas songs, but songs—since.
Other favorite tracks for this time of the year include the Dropkick Murphys’ “The Season’s Upon Us“, The Darkness’s “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)“, Jonathan Coulton’s “Christmas is Interesting” and “Chiron Beta Prime“, Trans Siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas Eve / Sarajevo 12/24” and, on the more unironically sentimental side, Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun“, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence“, and Titus Jones’s “Can’t Shake Off Christmas Rock“.
Merry non-denominational seasonal festivity, everyone. I hope you spend it in whatever way makes you happy.