Christmas music is big business these days, but before long before Mariah, Christina and Michael Bublé, prog rock artists were serving up their own interpretations of the holidays. Artists like Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and assorted members of Yes often (but not always) drew on English church and folk music and incorporated classical pieces to provide a uniquely British — and thus very proggy — take on the season.
Of course, some sounded more Christmassy than others. Some had more of that ineffable quality that causes the chest to swell with the Christmas spirit. Here are twelve prog rock Christmas songs from the sixties, seventies and eighties, ranked in descending order of Christmassy-ness.
12. Keith Emerson: “Captain Starship Christmas” (1988)
“Captain Starship Christmas” gets points for its chirpy children’s choir and its “Christmas message coming from outer space” theme (see also Jon Anderson’s 3 Ships and Chris De Burgh’s “A Spaceman Came Traveling”) but points off for the goofy synth sounds and totally eighties production.
11. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Nut Rocker” (1970)
“Nut Rocker,” a cover of a 1962 take on Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” by B. Bumble & the Stingers, is a fun track, but in arranging the already loose adaptation of the classic Christmas ballet for a high-octane prog rock performance, Messrs. E, L & P left behind some of the essential Christmassy-ness of the original. Transforming the piece was kind of the point, of course, but for the purposes of this list, the move bumps the track down a few notches.
10. Annie Haslam: “Ave Verum” (1985)
I’m already breaking my own rule about ranking songs by Christmassy-ness. “Ave Verum” comes in low on my list not because it isn’t Christmassy — it is “Ave Verum,” after all — but rather because Haslam doesn’t do much to distinguish her version of the song from any number of others. Still, it’s Annie Haslam, so you can’t go entirely wrong.
9. Robert Fripp: “Silent Night” (1979)
I like this one. To me, the ambient, Frippertronics approach to the song evokes a fresh snow on a wintry night, undisturbed and almost preternaturally calm. The track leans a little more toward the Fripp-y side of the scale than the Christmassy side, though, so I’m keeping it in the lower reaches of the Top 10.
8. The Dumbells (Roxy Music): “Giddy Up (Sleigh Ride)” (1980)
I badly want to believe that this track released by members of Roxy under a pseudonym features the “Sleigh Bells” setting on the Roland TR-808 drum machine. That alone would qualify it for a Top 10 spot.
7. Mike Oldfield: “In Dulci Jubilo” (1975)
In 1975, Mike Oldfield scored a Top 10 hit in the UK with a recording of an old German Christmas carol arranged for guitars, synthesizer and a couple of wind instruments that date back to the Renaissance period. You can’t make this stuff up. “In Dulci Jubilo” doesn’t rank higher by my “Christmassy-ness” measure only because the tune might not be as familiar to American ears. (Read: my philistine self had never heard it before.)
6. Jethro Tull: “A Christmas Song” (1968)
Spoiler alert: half of the top half of this list is occupied by Jethro Tull songs. I didn’t want to have any one artist dominate but you can’t deny the facts. Tull wrote and/or recorded so many excellent Christmassy or wintery songs over the years they could have collected them for a stone-cold classic Christmas album — which they in fact did in 2003.
5. Jethro Tull: “Ring Out, Solstice Bells” (1976)
Ian Anderson could probably write stirring Christmas songs in his sleep. Like the alchemists of old, he and Tull conjure Christmas gold through the perfect admixture of melody, lyrics and arrangement (the ever-present flute doesn’t hurt). Technically not even a Christmas song, the merry tune was a UK Top 40 hit in November 1976 as the lead track on the Ring Out, Solstice Bells EP.
4. Jon Anderson: “Save All Your Love” (1985)
Recorded during Jon Anderson’s mid-1980s Hollywood phase, 3 Ships, the elfin singer’s Christmas LP, is awash in sterile digital synths and weighed down by one or two head-scratchers of song choices. Yet it somehow works — probably because of Anderson’s wide-eyed sense of wonder and (depending on the material) truly angelic voice. Bonus points for the subtle sci-fi nod in the album cover artwork, which suggests that the titular 3 ships with wise men bearing gifts for the baby Jesus came to us from some distant planet.
3. Jethro Tull: “Another Christmas Song” (1989)
The title makes it sound like an afterthought but “Another Christmas song” is easily my favorite in Tull’s Christmas oeuvre. The lilt of the melody is a perfect match for the wistfulness of the lyrics and I could listen to the the flute and guitar interplay all night long. The 2003 version skips the eighties production flourishes and sounds even more Christmassy as a result, but I’m still a fan of the original.
2. Chris Squire and Alan White: Run with the Fox” (1981)
The church organ, Chris Squire’s choir-boy-all-grown-up tenor voice, the lyrical references to the Boxing Day tradition of the fox hunt. As a Christmas song, “Run with the Fox” couldn’t be more English. It also has just the right touch of prog, especially with a lyrical assist from King Crimson co-founder Peter Sinfield (making the first of his two appearances in the Top 2 of this list). My favorite lines: “Let us live to tell the story, here on Earth and out in space / Forward on the road to glory, history records the chase.”
1. Greg Lake: “I Believe in Father Christmas” (1975)
Is this in any way a surprise? From the opening strains of the bell-like descending guitar line to the final swells of the orchestra and choir with obligatory tympani crashes, the song oozes Christmassy-ness. Bandmate Keith Emerson suggested incorporating the “Troika” portion of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite while Lake and former bandmate Peter Sinfield wrote lyrics decrying the commercialism of Christmas. Despite its anti-commercialism sentiment, the song ascended to No. 2 on the UK singles chart, kept from the top spot only by the mammoth Queen hit “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s pretty much the perfect prog rock Christmas song.