2021 Christmas music

Christmas music

The mere thought of Christmas can get your senses abuzz, and we’re not just talking about the Christmas music in this list. It’s the taste of gingerbread. The sight of your favourite holiday film. The cold winter wind. The grating sound of a choir of tone-dead toddlers slogging through an off-key version of ‘Jingle Bells’ for the 74th time.

When most of us think of Christmas music, we think of the worst ones. But in actuality, pop music has gifted the world with its fair share of perennial bangers. You usually have to skip past The Beach Boys and Biebers to get there, but holiday cheer has found its way into pop, hip-hop, R&B, metal, punk, indie… you name it. And as a gift for you, we’ve assembled 50 Christmas songs so incredibly catchy, you just might want to listen all year round. Good luck finding the nog in August though.

1. ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ by Mariah Carey
It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when Mimi’s inescapable ear worm was just a forgotten novelty song from yet another standard-issue pop-singer holiday album. Now, in a post Love Actually world, hearing ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ for the first time in a year is one of the most reliable signs that the holidays are here. The song came and went when released in 1995, but snowballed in cultural cachet in the aughts, slowly climbing in popularity every year before finally topping US charts in 2019 and the UK charts in 2020. Complaining about its ubiquity has become a pastime for killjoys at pubs, but it’s their loss: From the twinkly intro to Mariah’s tour-de-force delivery, everything here is as timeless as it is flawless.

2. ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham!
A ballad of doomed romance, ‘Last Christmas’ features sleighbells and synths, plus some truly memorable knitwear in the video. But what really sets ‘Last Christmas’ apart is George Michael’s heart-on-sleeve delivery: his genuine heartbreak horror (‘My God! I thought you were someone to rely on’) and wistful, sexy whispers. The words ‘Merry Christmas’ never sounded so sultry.

3. ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ by Darlene Love
Is this the most moving Christmas tune of all time? Probably – the combination of Darlene Love’s impeccable pleading vocal, Phil Spector’s gloriously tinselly production and Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry’s magical songwriting could make anyone, even the biggest Scrooge, melt like a snowman under a hairdryer. It’s just an absolutely perfect Christmas song.

4. ‘Stay Another Day’ by East 17
East 17’s all-time Christmas classic wasn’t supposed to be a Christmas song at all. As the Walthamstow, England group’s songwriting member Tony Mortimer told us recently, it’s actually an incredibly sad song inspired by his brother’s suicide. That raw emotion seems to seep into the group’s gorgeously sombre four-part harmonies and even the inevitable Christmas song sleigh bells, producing a peerless exercise in festive melancholy.

5. ‘White Christmas’ by Bing Crosby
The power of Christmas nostalgia itself is greater than real memories. Hence, all of us can hark back with Bing on this Irving Berlin-penned ’40s number to a white Christmas just like the ones we used to know, even if our true past is full of crushing disappointments (December 25, 1993 – no Hornby train set).

6. ‘Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl
When was the last time you properly listened to Kirsty MacColl and The Pogues’ epic Big Apple-set fable? Shut your eyes and give it a go, and if you aren’t a nervous wreck by the fade-out, your heart (like that jumper from your nan) is two sizes too small. ‘Fairytale…’ is a perfect four-minute narrative of hope, despair and heartbreak – and, despite the profanity, it ends with love.

7. ‘Christmas Wrapping’ by The Waitresses
If you love new wave bands like Blondie and Talking Heads, this is surely the Christmas song for you. It begins cynically with singer Patty Donahue declaring ‘I think I’ll miss this one this year,’ before an unexpected romance blossoms in the closing stages and warms her jaded cockles. As festive tunes go, this one’s as dry and delicious as champagne paid for by your boss.

8. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ by Band Aid
Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s 1984 reaction to the Ethiopian famine, with contributions from Phil Collins, Sting, Macca and Bono, was a publicity machine of epic proportions. It worked: ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ stayed at the top spot for five weeks, and was the biggest UK chart success of the decade. Put that all aside, and it’s also just a great (and surprisingly unconventional) pop song, meteorological misunderstandings about snow be damned.

9. ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ by Brenda Lee
Being Jewish, songwriter Johnny Marks didn’t celebrate Christmas, but in the ’40s and ’50s he wrote some of the greatest Christmas songs of all time. Among them are ‘Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ ‘I Heard The Bells of Christmas Day,’ and this – an easy-on-the-ear rock ’n’ roll tune sung by a 13-year-old Brenda Lee, which really needs no introduction.

10. ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ by John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Euphoric and scathing, as hopeful as it is resigned, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s definitive festive peace-on-earth song has transcended its original anti-Vietnam War purpose to become a Christmas stalwart.

11. ‘Merry Christmas Baby’ by Ike and Tina Turner
Tina howls and growls her way through Christmas, R&B style, and tops it all off with a spirited freestyle nod to ‘Jingle Bells’ for good measure.

12. ‘Christmas Rappin’’ by Kurtis Blow
At the beginning of this somewhat unlikely 1980 Christmas smash, you can hear the moment at which hip hop arrived. Interrupting a starchy recital of ‘A Visit from St Nicholas,’ Kurtis Blow launches into his own inner city yarn about Santa showing up to a Harlem Christmas party, producing a Yuletide classic – and rap’s first major-label hit.

13. ‘Sleigh Ride’ by The Ronettes
Ronnie Spector’s distinctive and sensual vocals could easily melt any Christmas snow. On this highlight from the classic Phil Spector Christmas album, she purrs about getting cosy under a blanket on a sleigh ride while her fellow Ronettes ‘ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding’ in the background. Spector’s arrangement may be full of trilling bells and clip-clopping hooves, but the melody’s irrepressible warmth hints at the fact that this song was composed (by light orchestral maestro Leroy Anderson) during a July heatwave.

14. ‘Step Into Christmas’ by Elton John
Sir Elton annonces ‘welcome to my Christmas song’ at the top of this piano-driven banger, signaling to us all that this is a Christmas song with zero alterior motives except to become a yuletide classic. Mission accomplished.

15. ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ by Chris Rea
This loungey number about being stuck in Christmas traffic from husky-voiced housewives’ favourite Chris Rea has had surprisingly lasting appeal. Not only has it charted twice in the UK (reaching 53 in 1988 and 33 in 2007) but it even cracked Norway’s Top Three a few years ago. Clearly people of all generations and nationalities are able to enjoy this harmless slice of Christmas cheese.

16. ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ by the Jackson 5
There are versions of this song by everyone from Bieber to Bublé, but Michael and the gang’s effort is the grooviest and the most fun. And since the song is mainly used as a bargaining tool by parents, it does make sense to have kids on the mic.

17. ‘Christmas in Hollis’ by Run-DMC
Certainly the most well-known Christmas hip hop tunes and one of the best, too, Run DMC’s witty Crimbo tale is the story of Run finding Santa’s bill-stuffed wallet in the park on Christmas Eve. ‘But I’d never steal from Santa, cause that ain’t right,’ says Run, in a fine show of festive spirit. It all makes for an ultimately catchy number that provides you with a bit of bounce if you’re feeling flat after too much Slade and Macca, or just too many mince pies.

18. ‘Blue Christmas’ by Elvis Presley
The King adds some characteristic swagger to this cover of the 1948 country original. Spawning plenty of tributes of its own, Presley sealed the deal for ‘Blue Christmas’ – it’s now a festive staple.

19. ‘Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto’ by James Brown
The godfather of funk gives Father Christmas his marching orders, insisting he head straight to the ghetto and ‘tell ‘em James Brown sent ya.’ It may raise a smile, there’s something serious at the heart of this all-horns-blazing tune: JB wants the kids on the wrong side of the tracks to enjoy the sort of Christmas he never did.

20. ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’ by Paul McCartney
Good old Macca. Whereas Lennon could be relied upon to make impressive political statements (when he wasn’t laying about in bed all day), McCartney is the master of the charmingly naïve pop opus. This little ditty — which is essnetially Paul goofing around on a synth — isn’t going to shake up your festive paradigm, but it won’t half stick in your head.

21. ‘Santa Tell Me’ by Ariana Grande
Ari didn’t score a Mariah-level megahit with this peppy, upbeat ode to joy, but she came closer than almost any other pop star in the 30-ish years since ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You.’ Unlike Kelly Clarkson – who scored a memorable hit by channeling Darlene Love – Ari’s song fits right in her catalog of bops… meaning you can comfortably transition between this plea to St. Nick and her recent hit about a late-night tantra session with relative ease.

22. ‘8 Days of Christmas’ by Destiny‘s Child
With an injection of sass and unabashed materialism, Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle turned a cosy old holiday favourite into a bumping R&B Christmas carol for our times. A fine achievement.

23. ‘Run Rudolph Run’ by Chuck Berry
Recorded at the height of his powers, Chuck Berry rolls out his characteristic frenzied 12-bar blues in reverence of everyone’s favourite reindeer. Despite not even managing to break the top 50 when it was first released, it has become an enduring holiday favourite and spawned plenty of covers.

24. ‘O Tannenbaum’ by Vince Guaraldi Trio
A bit like the Frasier theme tune, it’s impossible to listen to this version of ‘O Tannenbaum’ (from the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas) without doing the classic jazz lean-and-nod. Basically, press play and you’re suddenly cooler. This could be a good one to change up the vibe from Christmas lazing to some Christmas loving.

25. ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ by Sufjan Stevens
No one does Christmas quite like our Sufjan. Not content with releasing a 42-track Songs For Christmas album in 1996, this year he put out Silver & Gold – a whopping 101-song collection celebrating Jesus’s birthday. Picking a favourite out of his festive back catalogue is tough, but we rate ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ – a reworking of the traditional favourite on ‘Songs For Christmas’ – as our favourite track. Sparse and haunting, but also uplifting, it’s a beautiful little call to rejoice.

26. ‘Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy’ by Bing Crosby and David Bowie
This surreal encounter on Bing Crosby’s 42nd Christmas Special between The Thin White Duke and the good ol’ boy of American family TV has become the stuff of legend. After Dave mistakes Bing for a butler and Bing jibes at Bowie’s music taste, they launch into a medley of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘Peace On Earth.’ The results are… astounding.

27. ‘Zat You, Santa Claus?’ by Louis Armstrong
Despite the fact it’s recorded by one of the greatest jazz musicians ever to walk the planet, this Crimbo song keeps a surprisingly low profile when the Xmas tunes are rolled out. It didn’t make too much of a splash for Louis, either, but you know what? It’s him having fun, as shown by the jolly, cheeky lyrics and jumpy trumpet lines that fuel the song. And when it comes down to it, Christmas should be fun. Good on you, Louis, let’s hope that Santa does indeed slip that pleasantly pleasant present under your door, as requested.

28. ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ by Bobby Helms
Following its release in 1957, this rockabilly ditty topped the Christmas charts five years in a row, making it a veritable holiday classic even by the early ’60s. Today it retains a towering presence in the Christmas canon, as synonymous with the holiday as tinsel and paper crowns.

29. ‘Underneath the Tree’ by Kelly Clarkson
Sure, Kelly Clarkson’s foray into festive music is kind of a shameless attempt to write a new ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’ smashed together with Darlene Love’s ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),’ but it gets away with it. Why? Partly because the songwriting offers just the right blend of schmaltz and Spector-style sass, but also because Clarkson’s superb vocal performance radiates a sincerity that’s completely infectious. Oh, and her high note towards the end is a moment.

30. ‘Father Christmas’ by The Kinks
In the particularly rollicking, punk-adjacent riot, Ray Davies not only spoils Santa’s true identity, he also threatens to kick his ass if he doesn’t give him some money. At its heart, it’s a sad song about poor kids’ disappointment on Christmas. It’s also a hilarious, snotty, overlooked piece of Christmas counter-programming from one of rock’s all time greats.

31. ‘River’ by Joni Mitchell
Think you had a bad Christmas last year when you burned the turkey? Spare a thought for Joni Mitchell, who’s heartbroken and wants to escape the Xmas merriment all around her. From the ‘Jingle Bells’-drenched-in-melancholy piano opening, it’s clear this isn’t going to be a jolly ride, but it’s still beautiful and delicate. By the end, all you’ll want to do is skate away with Joni (her oft-repeated cry throughout the song) and help mend her broken heart. Perhaps that’s why it’s one of her most covered songs, having been recorded by over 500 people.

32. ‘Dear Santa (Bring Me a Man This Christmas)’ by The Weather Girls
It’s not just a drizzle of dudes that gets The Weather Girls going. From the same album as ‘It’s Raining Men’ (and pulling all the same moves with a festive twist), ‘Dear Santa’ is a seasonal stormer that represents the grooviest Christmas list ever written. Bonus points for the ‘fa-la-la-la-la’ backing vocals.

33. ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ by Wizzard
You could just listen to this perfect slice of pure ’70s pop, from the tongue-in-cheek ‘ker-ching’ of a ringing till to the fade-out of a children’s choir and twinkling bells. You could do that. Or take the plunge into the strange acid trip of Wizzard live and witness Roy Wood’s haunted eyes set in a face dripping with snowy glitter. Scary Christmas.

34. ‘2000 Miles’ by The Pretenders
It sounds like a take on the classic ‘it’s Christmas, I miss you’ theme, but Chrissie Hynde’s frosty ballad gets much sadder when you know it was written for the band’s guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who had died the previous year. Honeyman-Scott’s replacement Robbie McIntosh pays tribute with some gorgeous arpeggios: the closest a guitar gets to the sound of snowfall.

35. ‘In Dulci Jubilo’ by Mike Oldfield
If you needed any more proof that the ’70s were a weird, weird time, consider this: one of the decade’s most popular and enduring Christmas hits is a prog-folk version of a JS Bach setting of a carol dating back to the fourteenth century. Sometimes the old tunes are the best.

36. ‘Glittery’ by Kacey Musgraves
The alt-country icon managed a minor miracle by turning the abysmal spoiled-brat anthem ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’ into something listenable, but she also managed to carve out a place on the yule playlist with this stripped-down slice of sweetness from her holiday special. It’s a Christmas love song dripping in cute, and an expertly crafted slow-dance amid all the sleigh bells.

Image: Roc-A-Fella
37. ‘Christmas in Harlem’ by Kanye West featuring Cam’ron, Jim Jones, Vado, Cyhi Da Prynce & Pusha T
This GOOD Music Christmas posse track serves up just about everything you’d expect from Kanye and Ko (except massive delays). A pre-gospel-phase ‘Ye raps about unwrapping (removing the knickers from) his Christmas present, Jim Jones proposes we party till dawn and Big Sean says… well, not much at all. But with a slick soul-sampling beat from Hit Boy and bags of braggadocious charm, this is a head-bobbing holiday treat.

38. ‘Just Like Christmas’ by Low
Crammed full of sleigh bells and lyrically sparse it may be, but somehow indie rockers Low managed to do the unthinkable in 1999: create a genuinely cool Christmas song. ‘Just Like Christmas’ is a wistful, lo-fi, modern Christmas anthem.

39. ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ by Slade
Noddy Holder and his troupe of platform-wearers continue to blight our television screens each December with their frightening fashion sense. There’s a reason for that, of course. It’s the joyful simplicity of 1973’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody,’ which is guaranteed to inject that euphoric, slightly drunken, Christmas-love vibe into the festive season.

40. ‘Hey Sis, It’s Christmas’ by RuPaul
This highlight from RuPaul’s Christmas album isn’t a spangly dance banger, but a bone-shaking festive bop with an old-school hip hop flavour. It’s also completely infectious, especially when Ru purrs: ‘Hey sis, it’s Christmas / You can cross me off of your wish list.’ Who could resist her?

41. ‘Santa Claus is Sometimes Brown’
Robert Lopez of LA punk outfit The Zeroes wears his El Vez persona like a glove, and his Merry MeX-Mas album is chock full of classics in the waiting, from the honky-tonk ‘Orange for Christmas’ to his semi-cover ‘Brown Christmas.’ But on ‘Santa Claus is Sometimes Brown,’ he filters the King’s pur through a glass of tequila for a sultry blues explosion of come-hither holiday charm.

42. ‘What Christmas Means to Me’ by Stevie Wonder
If you can’t be bothered to listen and find out, it turns out that singing carols, decorating the tree and, of course, being with his baby is what Christmas means to Stevie. Give it a listen anyway, though, because with that irresistible Motown swing and a harmonica solo thrown in this is (ahem) a cracker.

43. ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ by Harry Belafonte
Trivia fans take note: this is the only song ever to hit Christmas Number One twice, for two totally different artists. ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ was recorded first by American calypso star Harry Belafonte in 1956. His slow-and-steady, ultra-classy arrangement was a massive hit and it still delivers the Christmas magic 65 years later. You’ll have to wait and see whether Boney M’s 1978 disco version can do the same.

44. ‘What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swinging)’ by Louis Prima
Given his penchant for kissing mommy under the mistletoe, we’d imagine Santa’d be more than down for a little group love, honestly (yeah, yeah, we know it’s not that kind of party). Jazz legend Prima’s jaunty sing-along is so catchy that it even gives us a bonus track: Kanye and Kid Kudi sample ‘What Will Santa Claus Say’ as the backbone of ‘4th Dimension,’ their haunting collaborative hit as Kids See Ghosts.

45. ‘’tis the damn season’ by Taylor Swift
Among the many ghosts of Taylor Swift’s pre-pop past is a Christmas album that will hopefully not get re-recorded by the artist a la Red and Fearless. None of the tracks from The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection hold a candle to ’tis the damn season,’ from the post-folklore and post-capitilisation album evermore. In full storyteller mode, it finds the singer staying at her parents house for the holidays, getting nostalgic for the small-town sights and a familiar touch. Can you belt it out like ‘jingle bell rock?’ Nah. But it might inspire you to call your high-school crush for a stroll when you’re bored.

46. ‘Christmas Will Really Be Christmas’ by Lou Rawls
The great Lou Rawls’s plea for equality and peace over the holidays has a certain urgency thanks to its soulful horns and the fact that his holiday wish remains just that… a wish. Give Lou a spin, then seek out Austin soul group Black Pumas take: an organ-heavy reworking of Rawls’s overlooked classic of downbeat optimism.

47. ‘Wonderful Christmas Time’ by Diana Ross
Ross’s rendition of Macca’s festive favourite is definitely a Supreme cover version — drenched in strings and sleigh bells, it sounds a little more wholesome and old-timey than the trippy original, especially when you factor in her still-magical Soprano. It’s one to roast chestnuts to, for sure.

48. ‘Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)’ by The Ramones
Joey Ramone’s plea to his lover to put their scrapping aside for the holidays is undoubtedly the punk Christmas anthem. Beneath its acquiescent lyrics, mind, is a typically fiery Ramones riff that’s more likely to fuel high tensions rather than ease them around a warring Christmas dinner table.

49. ‘Christmas Vacation’ by Mavis Staples
Yes, this is the theme to the Chevy Chase classic of the same name, but even the most ardent fans seldom realize that soul icon Mavis Staples is the one crooning out the somewhat corny ‘Hip, hip hooray, for Christmas vacation.’ That this isn’t a staple (sorry) is absolutely shocking, given the pedigree behind the mic, the status of the film and the quality of the song itself.

50. ‘Frosty the Snowman’ by Cocteau Twins
The 1950 classic gets an early-’90s ethereal keyboard treatment courtesy of Scottish dreamers the Cocteau Twins. Singer Elizabeth Fraser could have plumbed the aching sadness of snowman existence but instead her vocals are all shimmering colours and dancing forest fairies. When the overlapping harmonies come in around 1:36 you know that this Christmas is going to be pretty magical.

51. ‘Little Things’ by ABBA
It took ABBA – or maybe it was their digital hologängers – 40 years to drop new music. Shockingly, it took them even longer to drop a Christmas song. For all its newness, ‘Little Things’ would have sounded like a throwback even if it was released back in the band’s heyday of 1973. Does that mean ABBA is timeless or that Christmas music is unchanging? It doesn’t matter: When ABBA does twinkly and sentimental, it’s gold.

52. ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ by Greg Lake
This is Christmas cynicism at its most tuneful. Intended as a denouncement of the increasing commercialisation of the festive season, Greg Lake inadvertently crafted a folk-prog Christmas classic. Ironically, it’s now one of the go-to songs for cash-cow Christmas compilations.

53. ‘Santa’s Got A Bag Of Soul’ by Soul-Saints Orchestra
This funky-as-you-like number might sound like rare groove from ’60s America, but is actually the product of mid-’90s German band The Poets of Rhythm, playing under a different name. Who cares about the provenance, however, when the beats are this big?

54. ‘Christmas at Ground Zero’ by ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic
Only Al Yankovic could find Christmas cheer amid nuclear annihilation. Al recorded this early hit using Phil Spector’s patented ‘wall of sound’ production in an effort to replicate the Darlene Love and Ronettes classics… and oh by golly worked. Al’s jaunty song – complete with air-raid sirens harmonizing with jingle bells – sounds completely authentic despite his vintage Cold War paranoia and talk of nuclear mutants roaming the Earth. In fact, it makes a strong case for an Omega Man holiday special.

55. ‘It Doesn’t Often Snow at Christmas’ by Pet Shop Boys
Originally released as a fanclub-only single in 1997, Tennant and Lowe’s Christmas offering is a sweetly sardonic dance banger which name-checks Bing Crosby and ‘this year’s festive number one.’ It captures the mix of ambivalence and warmth that Christmas can somehow conjure up pretty perfectly.

56. ‘Dominick the Donkey’ By Lou Monte
Novelty songwriter Lou Monte – with a rumoured assist from the Gambino crime family – was looking for a Rudolph-level hit with this tale about a donkey enlisted by Santa to climb the hills of Italy. That… didn’t happen. But in crafting a song specifically for Italian Americans – and in legendary lines like ‘ A pair of shoes for Louie and a dress for Josephine / The label on the inside says they’re made in Brook-a-leen’ – he entered the obscure novelty song hall of fame. A karaoke banger for those who truly bang.

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57. ‘Carol of the Bells’ by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Neither Siberian nor an Orchestra, the TSO nonetheless gave the world something nobody else knew it needed: a fist-pumping, steadium-ready, doomy metal version of ‘Carol of the Bells’ complete with needling synth lines, chugging guitars and ripping guitar solos of the Slash variety. It’s Christmas. The nog’s flowing. Time to get a little hardcore with your cheer.

58. ‘Never Felt Like Christmas’ by Lizzo
Lizzo brings the same great vibes she brought to the haters-be-damned anthem ‘Good as Hell’ to this soulful, surprisingly straightforward Christmas throwback punched up by horns (but shockingly no flute). It’s essentially the tale of being un-Grinched by love. Even the fruitcake gets newfound respect.

59. ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ by Bob and Doug McKenzie
Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis’s contribution to the Christmas canon is a riff on the holiday classic performed as their well-lubricated alter egos Bob & Doug McKenzie. The first coup? Replacing a partridge in a pear tree with an off-time ‘a beer.’ It’s a boozy, rambling blast from the Strange Brew stars.

60. ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ by DMX
And lo, an angel came down and said ‘let us celebrate the season by having a legendary rapper best known for songs about excessive partying and necrophelia scream-sing one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time.’ And so the late DMX barked out ‘Rudolph’ with his signature growl and swagger. And it was good.