Between his vocoder-heavy rendition of New Order’s “True Faith,” his tasteful yet inessential Symphonica album and that 2012 Olympics closing ceremony where he chose to perform a song even his most ardent fans weren’t particularly familiar with, it’s fair to say that George Michael wasn’t firing on all creative cylinders before his untimely death in 2016.
However, the ten-time Billboard Hot 100-topper did manage to produce at least one late-career gem worthy of joining his canon of ’80s, ’90s and early ’00s greats. Sadly, its festive subject matter means it’s annually overshadowed by another seasonal offering from the days when Michael appeared to share a hairdresser with Princess Diana.
Yes, 35 years after its release, Wham!’s “Last Christmas” continues to dominate yuletide soundtracks. In the last 12 months it’s been covered by Fifth Harmony graduate Ally Brooke and singer-songwriter James TW, achieved its peak Hot 100 position at No. 25 (the lack of a commercial release meant it never actually charted in 1984) and inspired the plot and title of a romcom with a Shyamalan twist.
From its picture-perfect snowbound video to its tinselly synth-pop sound, it’s not hard to see why the track that Michael penned in his childhood bedroom remains such a staple of the holiday season, nor why “December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas)” made such little impact on its 2009 commercial release.
Michael’s late-career yuletide greeting did fare a little better in his homeland, reaching No. 14 largely thanks to a performance on The X Factor’s 2009 finale, then by far and away the biggest U.K. TV event of the year. In fact, it could have charted even higher had underprepared record stores not run out of physical copies the day after.
But even with Michael’s generosity in making it a free Christmas Day download in 2008 — this was, of course, a pre-Spotify era where listeners still paid for individual tracks — “December Song” remains little more than a footnote in an intermittent and prematurely-ended career.
It wasn’t even originally intended to be a George Michael song. In an interview on Gerry Ryan’s Irish radio show, best friend and occasional co-songwriter David Austin (“You Have Been Loved,” “John and Elvis Are Dead”) claimed that the track was composed for none other than the Spice Girls.
But it wasn’t meant to be and after sitting on it awhile, Michael and Austin considered passing on the song to Michael Bublé, the undisputed modern-day King of Christmas who may well have added the track to his all-conquering 2011 festive LP.
However, perhaps recognizing that he’d co-written his best song in years, Michael eventually, and wisely, decided to record it himself. Although the Spice Girls and Bublé would no doubt have put their own inimitable stamp on the beautifully melancholic ballad, Michael was always far more suited to conveying his own personal memories about Christmases gone by (“There was always Christmas time/Jesus came to stay/I could believe in peace on Earth/And I could watch TV all day”). And his melodious silky-smooth vocals also lend a timeless quality to a track that appears to have been inspired by the Great American Songbook.
In fact, Michael even bookends “December Song” with a sample of the spine-tingling choral harmonies from Frank Sinatra’s “The Christmas Waltz.” Ironically, the Rat Pack icon’s recording also took some time to gain its status as a holiday classic. Released as a B-side to his 1954 take on “White Christmas,” the track gained a new lease on life three years later when it was reworked for the A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra LP. It’s since become a Christmastime staple covered by everyone from Bing Crosby to She & Him.
Perfectly recapturing the childlike sense of wonder that emerges during the holidays, the charming animated video adds to the nostalgic vibes, leaving barely a dry eye in the process. Here, a young Michael and his pet hamster climb into a surreal fantastical world of snowball-throwing panda bears and Christmas trees made of TV sets. The gorgeously drawn promo then ends with the boy waking up on the big day in the arms of his mother; the pop icon’s passing on Dec. 25, 2016, has only further heightened its sense of poignancy.
The fact that “December Song” didn’t even make the soundtrack of a George Michael-themed Christmas film proves just how much it’s undervalued. But while it continues to be dwarfed by Michael’s other festive hit, it’s by far the more fitting epitaph.
Author: Jon O’Brien
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