This is the 86th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
In the last week of 1984, the top two singles on the UK Singles Chart featured George Michael, and were both about Christmas. That would be a noteworthy accomplishment for any artist on any chart, but it was especially remarkable in the UK. For decades, UK record executives, recording artists, and music journalists have placed a high value whatever song is Number 1 on the UK Singles Chart the week of Christmas. The importance of the “Christmas number one” dates back to the creation of the UK Singles Chart in the 1950s; Dickie Valentine had the first overtly Christmas-themed Christmas number one with “Christmas Alphabet” in 1955.
But the modern practice of treating the Christmas number ones as a contest worthy of national attention has been traced back to 1973. That year, the top two singles the week of Christmas were both Christmas-themed, and both by glam bands. Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” edged out Wizzard’s “I Wish it Could Be Christmas Everyday.” In the holiday seasons that followed, Slade continued to make money on that single, and UK newspapers continued to stoke interest among the public.
The obsession with Christmas number ones and Christmas singles became so ingrained in the culture of the UK that when George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley were interviewed about new Wham! material in the spring of 1984, they expressed excitement that Michael had already written their Christmas single. Ridgeley confessed that the song “sends a tingle up my spine.” A few months later, Michael told Smash Hits he had high hopes for the song, saying, “As an artist, you want to reach as many people as possible. My aim is for our Christmas single – it’s called ‘Last Christmas’ – to sell a million and a half.”
That goal has since been realized, and then some: By the time of Michael’s death on Christmas Day of 2016, the song had sold more than 1.8 million copies in England alone. But it never hit Number 1. That’s because it happened to come out the same year that Bob Geldof assembled his supergroup Band Aid to record “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” That song was a beast, as it remained the best-selling single in the UK for 13 years.
That “Last Christmas” came out the same year as “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” ended up helping Wham! with what could have been a PR crisis. The company that published Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” thought that “Last Christmas” bore more than a coincidental similarity and thus filed a lawsuit. The case was settled out of court and Michael gave his first year’s proceeds from “Last Christmas” to Band Aid.
But even with the lawsuit or the looming presence of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” the success of “Last Christmas” is an awe-inspiring feat. It has returned to the UK Top 40 several times since it was released in 1984, and is the best-selling UK single to not reach Number 1. And while no version of the song has outsold the Wham! original, several versions of “Last Christmas” have been released in the last three decades.
“The Beatmas” was a 1994 Christmas-themed album by Rubber Band, a Danish group specializing in retro nostalgia. They performed every cover as if it might have been performed The Beatles, and on “Last Christmas,” the band members did a convincing job of nailing The Beatles’ sound of the mid-1960s.
Club De Soul’s “Last Christmas 94-95” recast the song as beat-driven dance song that sounded suitable for a crowded gay bar or a playlist for the gym… but probably nowhere else. Buckle up, though, as that will describe many of these covers.
Eurodance singer Whigfield covered “Last Christmas” in 1995, giving it a Hi-NRG treatment that made it faster and more intense than Club De Soul’s cover. It was catchy, but in blitzing through the song, she glossed over some of the campy parts that Michael made so satisfying in the original.
Those who know Billie Piper as an actress from “Doctor Who” and “Penny Dreadful” might be surprised to learn that she is also a musician. In 1998, Piper released her “Last Christmas” cover as a B-side to her song, “She Wants You.” Faithful to the original, the song infused R&B with pop in keeping with much of the pop music that appeared on radio in the late ’90s in the UK and the US.
“A Rosie Christmas” was a 1999 compilation album spearheaded by Rosie O’Donnell to raise money for For All Kids Foundation. O’Donnell joined a variety of celebrities on Christmas classics, though she did not join Savage Garden’s Darren Hayes on his version of “Last Christmas.” Too bad, too, because that would have been the salt that his sugary performance needed.
Mek & The X-mas Peks, of Denmark, covered “Last Christmas” and several other Christmas standards for a self-titled album in 2000. Blending rockabilly and straight-up rock, Mek & The X-mas Peks took “Last Christmas” away from its poppy roots, but don’t worry. You’ll still tap your foot to this.
Jimmy Eat World released a “Last Christmas” cover in 2001, the same year the band had a hit with “The Middle.” If your only reference point for Jimmy Eat World is “The Middle” — and that was true with me — then the band’s “Last Christmas” will sound a little softer and less whiney than you’re used to from the band. But they still managed to eke out quite the emo vibe.
Actress Hilary Duff’s debut album “Santa Claus Lane” was a collection of Christmas covers that featured her sister Haylie Duff, as well as Christina Milian and Lil’ Romeo. Hilary Duff’s take on “Last Christmas” didn’t have the same goofy charm as the “Our Lips Are Sealed” cover she recorded with Haylie. Her “Last Christmas” was fine, but it was only fine.
Erlend Øye is probably best known — to certain audiences, anyway — as being part of Kings of Convenience and The Whitest Boy Alive. Others might recognize him as the vocalist on Röyksopp’s “Remind Me.” Øye’s “Last Christmas” cover appeared on the 2002 album, “Seasonal Greetings.” With just Øye and a guitar, this might have been the most earnest cover of “Last Christmas” yet. Certainly the saddest.
In 2004, The Revolvers gave “Last Christmas” a pop-punk makeover, checking off all the boxes that define the genre. Fast drums? Crunchy guitars? Bratty, whiny vocals? Check, check, and check.
“Cheetah-licious Christmas” was the first studio album by Disney-created project The Cheetah Girls. The group’s “Last Christmas” cover built on the Wham! original, though The Cheetah Girls gave it R&B flavor with a funkier backing track.
In 2006, while on a break from Sixpence None the Richer, singer-songwriter Leigh Nash recorded the Christmas-themed EP “Wishing for This.” Her “Last Christmas” might sound more upbeat than people are used to from her, though admittedly, that might be because some fans might only know her from Sixpence None the Richer. And that means they probably only know “Kiss Me,” or the band’s covers of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “There She Goes.”
That same year, Ashley Tisdale covered “Last Christmas.” Tisdale’s “Last Christmas” was fine, but she managed to iron out any of the character of the Wham! version without injecting much of her own.
Berlin band The Bosshoss created a niche by performing contemporary pop songs as if they were classic country songs. The band’s members have dubbed that style “country trash punk rock,” and applied that to “Last Christmas.” One of the vocalists sounded as if he was channeling Johnny Cash. The other sounded like he was channeling a lovesick cow.
You expected that guy to moo, didn’t you?
On Richard Cheese’s 2006 album “Silent Nightclub,” Cheese announced, “We were going to do a swingin’ lounge version of ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham!, but that song sucks.”
German dance group Cascada gave “Last Christmas” a similar treatment it gave “Kids In America,” “Wouldn’t It Be Good,” and “Because The Night”: it sped up the song and put it over a Hi-NRG backing track. And as much as I have ripped on other dance versions that did the same thing, I have soft spot for Cascada and would probably forgive any cover the group did.
Just as Rubber Band released an album of Christmas songs in the style of The Beatles, German AC/DC tribute band Riff Raff released a similar album in the style of AC/DC. Thus, on 2007’s “Riff Raff Performs Christmas Songs: Rock’N’Roll Mutation Vol. II,” we got to hear a German band cover a British pop band in the style of an Australian rock band. As one does for Christmas.
In 2007, before she became a pop icon, a pre-“1989” Taylor Swift put a country-fied “Last Christmas” cover on “Sounds of the Season: The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection.” Hearing the song in the styles of pop country radio is almost as jarring as hearing Swift performing in the genre.
Lovably ridiculous Swedish group Alcazar covered “Last Christmas” in 2009, and as catchy as the Europop version was, the real treat was the video, in which the group’s members cavorted around pink and silver Christmas trees.
The Puppini Sisters have pretty solid schtick: Take the Andrews Sisters-esque style popular in the ’30s and ’40s and apply that retro swing formula to modern songs. On 2010’s “Christmas With The Puppini Sisters,” the group used that style on a variety of Christmas songs. The slowed-down “Last Christmas” might have been too slow, and too long.
Carole King’s “Last Christmas,” on her 2011 album “A Holiday Carole,” remade the song in the mold of the ’70s radio pop that King helped define. In a vacuum, if a listener had never heard the Wham! version, one could think it was King who wrote the song, not Michael.
“The Second Three Years” was a compilation of live songs and unreleased material from English folk singer-songwriter Frank Turner. It was a follow-up to his first compilation, “The First Three Years.” On Turner’s live version of “Last Christmas,” the audience can be heard, though Turner still managed to drown them out with impassioned wailing.
Ariana Grande’s “Last Christmas” stripped out most of Michael’s lyrics, keeping only his chorus. Her substituted lyrics were a little more generic:
I hate that I remember
I wish I could forget
What you did last December
You left my heart a mess (a mess)
Boy, you blew it
How could you do it, do it, oh, yeah, oh, yeah?
And then later:
Thought we belonged together
At least that’s what you said
I should’ve known better
You broke my heart again (again)
Boy, you blew it
How could you do it, do it, oh, yeah?
KC and The Sunshine Band’s “Last Christmas,” from 2015’s “A Sunshine Christmas,” did not sound like the band’s signature songs from the late ’70s. The band’s funk settled down into an easy listening sound: This cover resembled Smash Mouth more than KC and The Sunshine Band. And that’s meant as the burn you might it is.
“Braxton Family Christmas” was a 2015 album that reunited Toni Braxton with her sisters Traci, Towanda, Trina, and Tamar. Toni Braxton might have had the most name recognition on her own, but on The Braxtons’ “Last Christmas,” all five sisters got a chance to shine. The slowed-down version had many of the R&B flourishes that defined Toni Braxton’s albums and The Braxtons’ 1996 album, “So Many Ways.”
Kim Wilde’s cover of “Last Christmas” appeared on her 2015 album, “Wilde Winter Songbook.” Though most of her covers that we’ve featured so far have been upbeat, this was a slower, sounding more like a mellow bossa nova track than the dance-driven fare we’ve reviewed thus far.
Carly Rae Jepsen released her own “Last Christmas” cover in 2015. Jepsen’s vocals were much breathier than Michael’s, but she hit that perfect balance between hammy satire and earnest delivery, and that’s what made the Wham! version so delicious in the first place.
As the indie duo Summer Camp, married couple Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey released a slowed-down, dreamy “Last Christmas” in 2015. As was the case on the Summer Camp cover of “Christmas Wrapping,” the fuzzy keyboards were a perfect balance to Sankey’s smooth voice. This appeared on an EP, but given how well the duo recast these songs, I would listen to a whole Summer Camp album of Christmas songs.
Released in 2017, Gwen Stefani’s “You Make It Feel Like Christmas” featured versions of Christmas songs throughout years, which is how “Santa Baby,” “White Christmas,” “Silent Night” and “Last Christmas” ended up together. If Stefani’s voice wasn’t so recognizable, one would think this retro-flavored throwback had come from the ’60s.
That “Last Christmas” appeared on so many Christmas albums along songs that span decades — if not centuries — demonstrates how quickly it became an iconic staple of the season. These versions are only a fraction of the “Last Christmas” covers that have been recorded; SecondHandSongs lists more than 125 versions, which is five times the number of covers listed for “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”
In hindsight, it seems a given that “Last Christmas” would have been the Christmas number one if not for “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” But “Last Christmas” did OK anyway. And Wham! was in good company, because another modern classic failed to be a Christmas number one: Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” came in at second over the week of Christmas in 1994. The Christmas number one that year was East 17’s “Stay Another Day.”
Yeah, I don’t remember that song either.