Music in Film: the 10 best Christmas movie soundtracks of all time

Top 10 Ivan Radford
5 Dec 2012 - 07:21

With the festive season approaching, Ivan provides his run-down of 10 all-time classic Christmas movie soundtracks...

Oh, the weather outside is frightful, a sure sign that people will soon start ranking, once again, the best Christmas films of all time – a crazy thing to do, because we all know it’s still Die Hard. But what about film music? From Vaughn Monroe serenading the end of John McClane’s adventure to Danny Elfman’s Nightmare before the big day, soundtracks are a big part of that seasonal feeling. And so, as December draws in, here are the top 10 Christmas movie soundtracks of all time. (Probably.)

10. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Made in MGM’s heyday, this romantic musical is based on a series of shorts by Sally Benson, but really is a showcase for Judy Garland’s legendary larynx. The Wizard Of Oz star came into her own in the 1944 movie, supported by Conrad Salinger’s orchestrations and Roger Edens’ score. Produced under the eye of musical mastermind Arthur Freed, Meet Me In St. Louis’ main theme feels a tad clichéd, but taps directly into its leading lady’s swooning emotions. Slow strings and twiddling flutes slush around like a Saturday afternoon under the duvet, making way for blazing trumpets on the now-iconic The Trolley Song. But the show is stolen by the introduction of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, a tender number with a surprisingly subdued accompaniment as Garland solidifies her status as one of the greatest voices in Hollywood history.

9. The Polar Express (2004)

Robert Zemeckis’ 3D mo-cap mess may be a sea of dead-eyed mediocrity, but Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack is anything but. Chugging along like all good train-based music, the composer carries that momentum throughout the score, lobbing out big band hokum (Hot Chocolate – the lyrics? “Hot, hot, ooh, we got it hot!”) like it’s a Duke Ellington B-side. But Silvestri hits the still notes too, calling in Glen Ballard (co-writer of Man In The Mirror) to pen the charming ballad When Christmas Comes To Town and the rousing Oscar-nominated number Believe. It all comes together, via the sweet Spirit Of The Season, on Seeing Is Believing, a moving medley of everything that’s come before – plus Jingle Bells for good measure.

If that’s not enough, of course, there’s always Steven Tyler singing Rockin’ On Top Of The World with a group of CGI Aerosmith lookalike elves. But even that absurdity can’t compete with the sound of Tom Hanks singing the titular track: “With a little luck we'll be on time, there's no need to stress,” he chunters. “That's the way things happen on The Polar Express!” Manifest. Best. Guest. Who knew there were so many words to rhyme with “express”? Hanks does his best to list them all. His enthusiasm is worryingly infectious.

8. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Christmas is coming and it’s more commercialised than ever. No wonder Charlie Brown is so depressed – and he doesn’t even have The X Factor to deal with. Vince Guaraldi’s bluesy score, a jazzy arrangement of Christmas carols and other standards, nails that balance between festive joy and seasonal malaise. A stripped-down combo of piano, bass and drums, Guaraldi’s trio improvise around O Tannenbaum and The Christmas Song with a dexterity that flourishes on the lively piano-driven Linus and Lucy – an infectious tune that soon became the signature theme for all of the Peanuts animated features. Amid all that, Guaraldi still finds time for a simple choral version of Hark, The Herald Angels Sing that provides the film’s heart-warming finish. The movie only lasts 25 minutes. Thankfully, the soundtrack goes on for twice as long. Christmas blues to make you smile.

7. Holiday Inn (1942)

Is there a Christmas song better known than White Christmas? One of the best selling singles of all time, Bing Crosby’s cheerful ditty began way before the film of the same title: in 1942’s Holiday Inn. Irving Berlin’s songs earned Paramount’s musical an Oscar that year and Robert Emmett Dolan's score stitches them all together with class. The overture blends Happy Holiday and White Christmas for a gorgeous opening before jumping straight into mouth organs and festive bells – accompanied, naturally, by dancing. But those who like their Christmas soundtracks with an edge can find seasonal cheer here too: alongside White Christmas’ wholesome lyrics, Holiday Inn is also worth a listen for its other song, Abraham, which Bing Crosby sings blackface. Historical context aside, it’s a proper toe-tapping tune.

6. The Snowman (1982)

Orange nose. Green hat. Walking in the air. Over in the States they have How The Grinch Stole Christmas, but for us Brits, the quintessential kids Christmas animation is The Snowman. Translated wordlessly to the screen, Raymond Briggs’ picture book relies on Howard Blake’s score to provide its colour. The stomping woodwind and tip-toeing harp conjure up our hero’s sludgy escape, climaxing, of course, in that familiar rising and falling piano and haunting choirboy voice. Aled Jones found global fame with his 1985 cover, but Peter Auty’s original vocals are the real treat – they even make up for James Nesbitt’s narration (replacing Bernard Cribbins) on the latest album release. Skip through those tracks and just listen to Blake's instrumental work instead. It’s got even more heart than a John Lewis advert.

5. Gremlins (1984)

One of film music’s all-time greats, Jerry Goldsmith approached Joe Dante’s classic with a suitably dark sense of humour. Full of keyboards and pitch-bending synths, it’s as 1980s as it gets. It begins with a full-on fanfare, a la classic Hollywood, before descending into a warped world of cheeky offbeat clashes (Mrs Deagle is a highlight) and unexpected stabs of violence (Kitchen Fight). The rushed pizzicato strings on Late For Work are a neat satirical swipe of suburban life in the run-up to Christmas, disturbed by the booming menace of Too Many Gremlins. The wonderful package is capped off by the instantly recognizable main theme, The Gremlin Rag, which somehow manages to be trashy and brilliant at the same time. Bonus points for including a whole track devoted to Gizmo playing the trumpet. This is one CD you don’t want to spill water on.

4. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Thanks to his long-standing collaboration with Tim Burton, Danny Elfman has composed three fantastic Christmas movie scores. Batman Returns and Edward Scissorhands are excellent, but The Nightmare Before Christmas feels the most complete. A stark contrast to Hollywood’s classic winter musicals, the ambitious project gives Elfman a chance to show deceptively versatile his twisted harmonies are. Leitmotifs pop up repeatedly as songs overlap and you can clearly hear that the voice cast are enjoying themselves. Chris Sarandon delivers Jack’s Lament with Shakespearean relish before leaping through the note-perfect pastiche of festive numbers, What’s This? But it’s the spooky set pieces that steal the show. Even Bing Crosby would struggle to rival the cool of Oogie Boogie’s Song.

3. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

“There’s magic in the air this evening, magic in the air. The world is at her best, you know, when people love and care.”

There’s something about Paul Williams and puppets that just works. After turning Kermit into a chart-topping success with Rainbow Connection, the songwriter returned for the furry troupe’s best ever outing. From the Sondheim-worthy wit of Scrooge's bitter lyrics to the adorable Christmas Scat, there’s not a duff song among them. One More Sleep Til' Christmas is legally required listening every 24th December, and even When Love Is Gone (famously cut out of the theatrical release by Disney), which I used to fast-forward on VHS as a child, has a dramatic importance that pays off at the end. But Williams’ songs would be nothing without Miles Goodman’s beautiful score. The Footloose and Little Shop Of Horrors composer weaves in Good King Wenceslas and others into the simple fabric, helping to establish that pseudo-realistic world The Muppets so comfortably inhabit. A rare chance to hear Michael Caine’s vocal talents, The Muppet Christmas Carol just goes to show that you don’t have to have a star singer to put on a show-stopping production. After all, who needs Judy Garland when you’ve got a singing frog?

All together now: "After all, there's only more sleep till' Christmas..."

2. Home Alone (1990)

Do-da, do-da, dooo-daaa. It’s not Christmas until you hear Somewhere In My Memory. John Williams’ main theme is one of many reasons that makes Home Alone a much-loved classic. Is it the flurrying flutes? The tinkling xylophone? The syrupy French Horn? Whatever it is, that slow build-up from solitary woodwind to primary school choir never fails to melt your innards. Everything else is icing on the cake. It just so happens that the icing is damned near perfect, from a cracking version of O Holy Night to an arrangement of Carol Of The Bells that subtly segues into the percussion-driven Setting The Trap. Add in quiet bouts of piano and several reprisals of the main theme and you have one of the finest moments in Williams’ career. Plus the knowledge that you’ll never be able to listen to The Drifters’ cover of White Christmas without picturing Macauley Culkin in the bathroom.

1. Die Hard (1988)

Like Danny Elfman before him, Michael Kamen was responsible for more than one classic Christmas movie score in his lifetime. But while Brazil’s music is all well and good, Die Hard goes one better. From the opening titles, filled with cheerful bells and sinister brass, this doesn’t sound like your usual Christmas soundtrack. The suspense-filled John’s Escape, complete with twangy guitar, is as far from festive as you can imagine. But listen closely to Terrorist’s Entrance and you start to spot the clues: there are hints of Beethoven’s 9th, foreshadowing the ending, mixed with atmospheric synth, but on top of that (and the furious string arpeggios) some muted trumpets raise their bells and parp out a discordant fanfare of Winter Wonderland. That suspenseful riff appears all over the place, tinkling in the Singin’ In The Rain-esque Assault On The Tower and climaxing in The Battle/Freeing The Hostages.

That ability to rework themes and weave them into effective action tracks is what made Michael Kamen such a genius – and what helps to give Die Hard its uniquely Christmas feel. After all, you can’t be the best Christmas movie of all time without having the best Christmas score to go with it. The fact that it includes Run-DMC’s Christmas In Hollis merely seals the deal. There’s no point putting it on your Santa wish list, though, because there aren’t any copies of the CD left; it was so good that everyone bought it.

Your turn now: what movie soundtracks get you in the Christmas spirit?

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