Best Christmas music
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We’ve heard the worst possible Christmas music, which is pretty much all of it. A few editors wrote some good recommendations (e.g. The Muppets & John Denver), but is there anything that really stands out to you? I like Sufjan Stevens’ Songs For Christmas, but there seems to be a dearth of decent holiday rock. Any suggestions? Happy holidays! —Drew
We did an inventory back in 2008 of holiday entertainment that doesn’t fill us with rage, which is about as close as we normally get to positivity at this time of year, when all our deadlines are early and we’re churning out twice as much content as usual. That piece covered the only holiday music I actually look forward to—that John Denver and the Muppets Christmas album I keep bringing up, a staple of my family holidays every year—but it also gave me a new one that I still come back to year after year. Most readers here likely know it already, but for those few, like me, who managed to miss it until someone brought it up in an AVC piece, I’m continuing to share the wealth that is the Bing Crosby/David Bowie “Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth” mash-up. Holiday-related music generally does nothing for me, but this one still sends warm, pleasant shivers up my spine every time.
I feel like I’m going to be drawn and quartered if I admit that I actually quite like about half the holiday songs which were called out as the worst, so rather than cite any of those here, I’m actually just going to recommend Rhino’s compilation Just Can’t Get Enough: New Wave Xmas in its entirety. From Captain Sensible’s “One Christmas Catalogue” to Squeeze’s “Christmas Day,” plus the now-classic teaming of the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl on “Fairytale Of New York,” this is the only Christmas CD I spin with any consistency. I feel obliged, however, to give a special shout-out to the disc’s lead track: “Thanks For Christmas,” by Three Wise Men. I think it’s pretty well documented at this point, but just in case you weren’t aware, Three Wise Men are, in actuality, XTC, and it never fails to make me chuckle that the holiday which celebrates the birth of Jesus inspired one of pop music’s most notorious atheists (Andy Partridge) to write one of his catchiest ditties.
Because of the religion I grew up with, Christmas to me was mostly about getting a day off of school and/or work, with the unfortunate side effect that nothing fun was open. To a Jewish kid, Christmas day may be a holiday, but it sure as hell isn’t full of joy. Which is why I never get sick of Robert Smigel’s SNL masterpiece “Christmastime For The Jews,” sung by the incomparable Darlene Love. In the song, Smigel and Love create a wonderful world where members of the tribe create Seinfeld scenes out of Nativity displays, wimpily fight each other in bars, play for the Lakers, and watch Fiddler On The Roof with actual Jewish actors. We eat our Chinese food, circumcise squirrels in the park, and fall asleep at 10:30 to visions of “Daily Show reruns dancing in their heads.” Not only does the song hit home in many, many ways, it turns what can be a pretty depressing day into what almost seems like a day to look forward to every year. Almost.
Deep down, I seem to have a thing for wistfulness, and my favorite Christmas song is “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” partly because the clinching line, “If only in my dreams,” always kills me. But the question was about rock, right? I don’t want to say that the whole concept is an oxymoron, but except for Grinchy tunes like Loudon Wainwright III’s hilarious “Suddenly, It’s Christmas” and Phil Spector’s mighty Christmas album (a pop masterpiece that you may not feel comfortable ringing in the season with until, how to say this, Lana Clarkson’s body gets a little colder), most attempts at Christmas rock are tainted with a novelty-song cuteness that undercuts the “rock” part, even if the songs make you smile the first half-dozen times. The great exception is Elvis’ “Merry Christmas, Baby,” a simmering, bluesy salute to the pleasures of the flesh that could melt the snow off your sidewalk. The fact that it could have been recorded by a good Southern boy who believed in Jesus and cared what his Mama heard said about him down at the hair salon is my idea of a Christmas miracle.
I like my Christmas cheer how I like my compliments: backhanded. Which is why my favorite Christmas song is “Father Christmas” by The Kinks. Released in 1977—and clearly influenced by the British punk movement that openly cited The Kinks as an influence—the song is so brilliantly bitter, it puts your run-of-the-mill Christmas cynicism to shame. As with almost any Ray Davies song, though, “Father Christmas” operates on many levels: as sarcasm, as iconoclasm, as immaculate crafted yet ass-kicking rock. Yet it maintains that patented Davies twinge of self-skewering cheek and weary soulfulness. Also, it just so happens to be the first song I ever covered onstage, so I have a big, sloppy soft spot for it, regardless of the season.
I like a lot of Christmas songs a lot, like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” and The Chipmunks’ “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” but I love The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping.” If I could marry a song, it would be “Christmas Wrapping.” I can’t put my finger on what makes me like it so much, mainly because there are just so many things about it I love. Whether it’s the lead singer’s rap-talking, the epic guitar riff right at the beginning, or the slightly off story the lyrics are telling (“You mean you forgot cranberries too?”), it’s just a bundle of holiday cheer wrapped up in a perfect package that seems meant just for me. Add the fact that it’s infinitely danceable–or at least sassily struttable–and that’s it. “Christmas Wrapping” is the one for me.
There are a few contemporary-ish Christmas songs I like (“All I Want for Christmas Is You” is probably my favorite Mariah Carey song) but for some reason, I like my holiday to sound like my parents’, so I prefer the old-school stuff. Brenda Lee’s “Rockin Around The Christmas Tree” makes me want to put on a festive skirt and drink eggnog, and I feel inexplicably romantic whenever I hear Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock.” I won’t turn down some Elvis Presley Christmas music either. And finally, to make amends with those who disagreed with me so heartily regarding Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time” in the worst-music AVQ&A, I always get a kick out of The Beatles’ Christmas-album tunes, due to their festive tossed-off, slap-happy sound.
I’m probably not alone in thinking that The Reigning Sound’s Greg Cartwright (né Greg Oblivion) is one of the most legit songwriters currently plying his trade. Especially in his work with Reigning Sound, Cartwright can seem earnest without coming off like a dork, a sad-sack, or a prima donna—call him a sincere schlub. And only a songwriter as good as Cartwright could pull off a track like “If Christmas Can’t Bring You Home,” which is openly Christmas-y, down to the “Joy To The World” riff in the intro. “If Christmas Can’t Bring You Home” taps into that heartfelt desire to spend Christmas with people you care about (it always reminds me of Chip Lambert’s chaotic race home for the holidays in The Corrections) because, as Cartwright sings, “If Christmas can’t bring you home, baby, nothing could.” As much as it’s about the holiday, it’s also about place, about having somewhere and someone to come home to. What more honest comfort could there be?
I wish there were more and better options for Jews on Christmas, but in the spirit of things, I’ll get weak in the knees and cop to a yuletide favorite. Sinéad O’Connor’s “Silent Night” stops me dead in my tracks. It doesn’t matter what the song means, or whose tradition it represents. I can’t even hear the words. I just hear that voice, and Peter Gabriel’s ambient production, which sounds like it’s sneaking up on Sinéad without trying to disquiet her. You don’t need Jesus to compel you toward something this gorgeous. Although I’m sure he’d agree.
I’m all over the place with Christmas music, mainly because I love most of it. Holidays at the Martins homestead have always been… immersive. My mom keeps several storage bins of winter wonderland carefully packed and stacked until the dust of Thanksgiving settles and the house is converted into the happiest place on Earth. (Sorry, Disneyland). I love it, and I love the score that accompanies my annual sojourn to a simpler time when life’s proverbial stocking was always full. My favorite album, hands down, is Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas. It’s amazing. To choose a song, “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” Her melismatic tribute to yuletide romance could melt the iceman. My top song for pure treacle is “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney; the bubbly synth lines and buzzing tempo are the aural equivalent to drinking a flute full of Martinelli’s cider. And then there’s “Carol Of The Bells,” which sounds like the inside of a snowstorm. It’s moody and baroque and full of freaky progressions, and if a handful of carolers showed up at my door singing it, I’d assume it was the end of days. It’s an ancient song that’s been remade a thousand different ways, so I suppose I’m partial to the John Williams version, since it was composed for the greatest Christmas movie of all time, Home Alone.
So many good choices have been mentioned already, I feel like I have to go with someone who’s been underrepresented: James Brown, who regularly put out Christmas albums and singles at the height of his career. And not covers, mind you, but original numbers on par with his non-Christmas output. And like the best of Brown’s other tracks, the best of the Christmas-related ones are funky, moving, and often more than a little peculiar. “Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto” commands Santa to address inequality, “Santa Claus Is Definitely Here To Stay” finds Brown free-associating about hard times and the Christmas spirit, and so on. But Brown’s best Christmas song is 1966’s “Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year,” wherein Brown thanks God and his fans for a “wonderful year” and talks about how “Christmas gotta be the kind of Christmas we remember a long time ago” and a chorus of back-up singers repeat the title sentiment over and over. What does it all mean? And why does Brown periodically scream “Noooo!” That’s a Christmas mystery.
I wrote a whole blog post several years ago about my favorite forgotten Christmas pop song: Jack Jones’ “This Is That Time Of The Year.” But I love a slew of others, including a couple by Lou Rawls—“Christmas Is” and his version of “Little Drummer Boy”—Alison Moyet’s version of “The Coventry Carol” from the first A Very Special Christmas anthology, The Ventures’ “Sleigh Bells,” and many, many more. When it comes to Christmas songs, pop stars can either go traditional, or stick to their usual styles and just add a little jingle. I vastly prefer the latter approach.
This is pretty much as down-the-middle as a choice can get, but one of the only Christmas songs that doesn’t have me frantically reaching to change the channel is Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band’s cover of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” It’s bittersweet to hear it this year, especially when hearing the late, great Clarence Clemons chime in vocally throughout the number. But the call-and-response among the band is always fun to hear, and Roy Bittan’s piano sounds exactly like the holiday season should. Plenty of Christmas songs evoke the sadness of the times. Here’s something that makes the holidays seem like a raucous celebration that should last all year long.
The funky horns and playful “Jingle Bells” hook make Run DMC’s “Christmas In Hollis” a classic, but so does the song’s playful, genuine nature. There are plenty of fun old-school hip-hop tropes—dreams of buying luxurious boats and cars, the phrase “cold hundreds of G’s”—and the sets and costumes of the video were campy almost 25 years ago when the song came out. But, ultimately, the song never falls into camp, unlike so other many Christmas songs, because it’s catchy fun, and proves a holiday song can have a sense of humor without being over the top.
I could probably spend the rest of the week answering this question, but I have a feeling nobody wants that. Suffice it to say that I think Christmas music gets a bit of a bum rap, mostly because the stores and radio stations around this time of year play the same six or seven songs over and over. But there’s so much more out there! There’s Low’s beautiful album Christmas. There’s the raucous, fun Marah Christmas album from a few years back. There’s the music of Fred Waring And The Pennsylvanians; if you ever run across their hushed LPs for the season in a thrift shop, snap them up. And there’s a vibrant, thriving scene of indie Christmas music, with collectors ripping and sharing old records that have never appeared on CD. (The best way to keep track of all of this is the blog Santas Working Overtime. But if I were to recommend just two pieces of music, I’d pick the lovely, ruminative Frightened Rabbit single “It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop,” one of my favorite songs about the impermanence of the holiday season, and I’d pick the whole of Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, which is so good, I’ll break it out in July sometimes, just for fun.