In this year, the year of Our Lord 2016, it seems almost too cynical to dick on the annual saccharine, capitalist sob-fest that is the John Lewis Christmas advert. The fact is, a lot of people quite enjoy them, and who am I to tell them that they are wrong? After all, after the year we’ve had, aren’t people entitled to enjoy a Christmas advert about a dog who likes to bounce on a trampoline? Of all the things to moan about this year, the John Lewis Christmas advert isn’t really that high on the list.
But that said, while I’m fine to turn a blind eye to doe-eyed children and sad looking animals, what continues to stick in my throat like a jagged crisp that just won’t go down is the awful, awful soundtrack. I’m not the kind of High Fidelity dad-type person who thinks some songs are too good to be covered, or the kind of thick-necked angry dullard who doesn’t enjoy a modern take on an old song, but really, I mean really, what the John Lewis ads inflict on us year after year doesn’t just take the biscuit, it steals it right out of your mouth and is sick on it.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the eight official John Lewis singles to date and rank them from just a bit bad to really full-on bad.
8. Somewhere Only We Know – Lily Allen
Perhaps the reason this is the least bad of all the John Lewis covers is that ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ was already quite sappy to begin with, so Allen’s twinkly rendering isn’t too much of a kick in the teeth. In fact, if we’re being honest, it’s actually pretty good. To start with, there’s Lily’s voice, fragile and lovely over the sparse piano. Then there’s the eerie undertones towards the end as the track becomes wintry and foreboding, all sad and desolate. But then there’s the swell of hope, the strings and piano coming together for a subtle but satisfying finish. Easily the best of the bunch, Allen’s offering only just manages to tow the line between sugary sweet and full-blown diabetic.
7. One Day I’ll Fly Away – Vaults
It’s always a shame when an up-and-coming, fairly indie cred band sells out and do an overwrought cover for John Lewis, but Vaults aren’t the first and they won’t be the last. In fairness, there’s not much to hate here, it’s a fairly uninspired and insipid cover, hopelessly inoffensive and forgettable, and there’s no denying there’s a pleasant longing in Blythe Pepino’s powerful voice, although this is almost drowned out in parts by a heavy handed orchestra that sounds as if it has about twenty musicians too many. Bland but not terrible, this is about the best you can reasonably hope for from a John Lewis ad.
6. Your Song – Ellie Goulding
You know things are bad when Ellie Goulding is having to tone it down for fear of being too interesting. Goulding’s usually breathy, ethereal vocals have been reeled in to sing over another fucking piano, blandly going through the motions of the Elton John classic. This was Goulding’s biggest hit to date, released before she made it to household name status and a fairly safe bet to get a bit of chart success under her belt before the release of her second album. It’s a shame that the likes of the dazzling ‘Starry Eyed’ were followed by this – a dull, plodding dirge that feels destined to end up on every Mother’s Day album until the end of time.
5. The Power of Love- Gabrielle Aplin
Reedy-voiced female singer/songwriters are something of a John Lewis speciality with women who can sigh in tune the apparent favourites. There’s no denying Gabrielle Aplin is quite good at that, her voice by no means unpleasant, but it’s like the ghost of a voice, a voice that has had its very essence sucked out, leaving only the husk of a voice, a whisper of what it once was. Aplin’s dull version of the Frankie Goes To Hollywood track is another by-the-numbers piano translation that builds to an unnecessarily dramatic conclusion that is neither moving nor interesting. This is a track that has had its soul ripped out and replaced with off-white interior design solutions, tasteful and modern, muted and vacuous.
4. Sweet Child O’ Mine – Taken By Trees
No one asked for another cover of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’. Literally no one asked. And yet somehow here it is, all mellow and plinky-plonky because John Lewis won’t go near a song unless it sounds like a child is taking their grade 4 piano exam halfway through it. That said, Victoria Bergsman sounds wonderful here, almost ironically detached, semi-slurring her way through this tired cover, probably knowing full well that she deserves better. Annoying and cloying, this about as uninspired as a cover version can get.
3. Half The World Away – Aurora
So bad that her own voice sounds like its upset by its own awfulness. Crushingly insipid, the track aims for quirky and dreamy but lands somewhere between bad and really bad. Is this what the execs at John Lewis like? It’s like listening to white noise, a barely-there background hum that you recognise exists but are unable to decipher from the rest of the low-level noise around you. It’s only when Aurora’s voice gets a little too high pitched that you recognise it’s there, and only in the same way you’d acknowledge a fly, swatting it away before going back to whatever you were doing. Almost bold in its awfulness, not even Oasis deserved this.
2. Real Love – Tom Odell
Tom Odell was born to sign the John Lewis Christmas ad song. In fact, it’s not inconceivable that he was bred in a lab especially for the occasion. There’s so little to say about something that sounds like nothing, little more than a puff of air or a big sigh. There’s a piano, because of course there fucking is, Odell’s characterless voice, and what else? A few strings, obviously, but nothing that would distract you from thinking about bed linen, kitchen utensils or garden furniture. And I suppose that’s exactly the point.
1. Please, Please, Please Let me Get What I Want – Slow Moving Millie
And here it is, the icing on the turd cake. If someone were hearing music for the first time, and by some twist of fate this were the first song they were listening to, they would deduce that yes, music is bad, it is overrated, it is for chumps. There is no need to listen to music if this is what music is because music is, in fact, bad. Any trace of the yearning despair of The Smiths’ original is lost here, replaced with yet another nondescript reedy voice to reduce a great song to little more than background noise. But that is what John Lewis does. It hoovers up any emotion, any quirk, anything remotely interesting and leaves you with a carcass and a piano along with a friendly reminder that Christmas is around the corner and you still haven’t done your shopping. Now go and buy a fucking trampoline you filthy animal.