Our favorite holiday songs from the last 20 years
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last year’s AVQA on our favorite Christmas music revealed a notable pattern. Most of our staffers pointed to older songs: the Bing Crosby/David Bowie “Little Drummer Boy” (1977), The Kinks’ “Father Christmas” (also 1977), The Waitress’ “Christmas Wrapping” (1981), “Jingle Bell Rock” (1957) and “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” (1958), and so forth. It almost seems like no one believes there’s been good holiday music since The Pogues’ “Fairytale Of New York.” But that isn’t true, right? What’s your favorite holiday song released or recorded in the past 20 years?
I had to check the date on this one, and it just barely squeaks in under the wire, but Barry Levinson’s Toys came out December 18, 1992, so as I write this, it’s less than 20 years old. (By the time this publishes, we’ll be a day past that deadline… but it still counts. Ha.) Toys, as Nathan wrote years ago, is a crazed fiasco of a movie. But it did give the world a highly idiosyncratic, entertaining soundtrack, including the original song “The Closing Of The Year,” which starts off in whispery Enya mode, and turns into a big glossy, jangly number, complete with children’s chorus, Wendy & Lisa, and a jangling bell choir. It’s unrepentantly cheesy, and I love it. Even now that it’s 20 years plus one day old as you read this.
While I think all of Low’s 1999 Christmas is nearly perfect, I’ve got to go with the opening track, “Just Like Christmas,” for my pick. I love that song so much, it’s hard to elaborate on exactly why. It’s Christmas-y without being overbearing, sweet without being cloying, and merry without being annoying. I love “Just Like Christmas” so much, I play it all year round—though I try to hold back for the months immediately proceeding the holiday season, so I don’t burn out on spins. My now-husband and I even seriously considered making it our first dance song at our very non-wintry wedding earlier this year, but ultimately decided it had just a few too many jingle bells for that purpose.
Ringo Starr may have only had the fourth best voice in The Beatles, and it’s probably overly kind to say his solo efforts have occasionally been a bit slight, particularly if you’re discussing his early-’80s output. But between 1998 and 2007, he collaborated with Mark Hudson —yes, of Hysterical and Razzle Dazzle Show fame—to release several catchy and charming albums, one of which has the distinction of being the first Christmas album ever released by a Beatle. I Wanna Be Santa Claus finds Starr tackling several seasonal standards, from “White Christmas” to the inevitable cover of “The Little Drummer Boy,” but there are also several originals, and the one which leads off the album, “Come On Christmas, Christmas Come On,” puts a smile on my face without fail when December rolls around. Admittedly, there isn’t a whole lot to it (the repetitious title is kind of a tip-off about the lyrics’ overall creativity), and as holiday glam-rock stompers go, it’s never going to beat out Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday.” But I love it anyway.
Confession: I suggested this AVQ&A just so I could lay claim to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” which is actually one of the few contemporary holiday songs to make our last AVQ&A on the subject. Even though it was released less than two decades ago, it’s already crossed into the “classic” designation, which is really, really hard for a non-cover holiday pop song to do. (I think Wham’s “Last Christmas” might be the next-strongest contender for the title of “modern standard,” but that one’s just a little too old for this question.) There’s a reason for this: It’s a great damn song, well-crafted and well-sung, with the perfect amount of sentiment, and a sort of anti-commercial message to boot. It’s joyful and sincere-seeming without that sort of clenched-teeth, forced holiday spirit that seeps through so many of these kinds of songs. It’s already been covered dozens of times with varying degrees of success—including by Carey herself in “Extra Festive” and “Superfestive” editions, the latter a duet with, tragically, Justin Bieber—but nothing compares to the original, except maybe the version Carey just performed with The Roots and Jimmy Fallon, which has already been added to my holiday playlist. Every year, it’s the first Christmas song I listen to, a harbinger of the holiday spirit that I really, sincerely believe I will never tire of.
In 2006, Billy Idol released Happy Holidays, a truly pointless, irredeemable album of Christmas standards. Too bad he didn’t opt to pen some original Yuletide tunes—like, for instance, “Yellin’ At The Xmas Tree,” an insanely catchy track from his 2005 full-length, Devil’s Playground. A close cousin to The Kinks’ heart-warming yet subversive “Father Christmas,” Idol’s “Xmas Tree” recounts a joyously miserable, working-class Christmas Eve full of drunkenness, bitterness, and lots of chiming bells. Granted, it’s nowhere near as good as “Father Christmas,” but it’s close enough for me.
My original response to this prompt was “Christmas All Over Again” by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, the final, chime-ringing distraction that kicks off the plot of Home Alone 2: Lost In New York. But we’re being sticklers for release dates here, and ”Christmas All Over Again” came out in October 1992, so Petty and his Phil Spector pastiche get the lump-of-coal treatment. Instead, I’ll give a shout-out to my Michigander buddies at Suburban Sprawl Music, whose annual Holiday Sampler compilations have offered the seasonal canon plenty of worthy additions in the past 10 years. The best of the bunch come from label head Zach Curd—his smooth R&B re-imagining of “A Christmas Carol” is as funky as an old, British fogey like Ebenezer Scrooge is allowed to get.
The Christmas songs of the past 20 years that I’ve listened to most are probably Loudon Wainwright III’s “Suddenly It’s Christmas” (“Christmas comes but once a year / and goes on for two months”) and Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas From The Family” (“Fred and Rita drove from Harlingen / I can’t remember how I’m kin to them / But when they tried to plug their motor home in / they blew our Christmas lights”). But I want to honor the spirit here and steer clear of anything that might be interpreted as Grinchy. So I’ll go with “Spotlight On Christmas” from Loudon’s boy Rufus Wainwright. It’s the rare song that makes a pitch for remembering the spiritual qualities of Christmas as well as the commercial, gift-giving nature of the holiday, without coming on like a Baptist minister with a bug up his ass.
I don’t think Santa Claus would approve, but I always enjoyed “Homo Christmas” by Pansy Division, the queercore band that emerged in the early ’90s. There’s something delightful about a band of gay dudes singing silly songs about having sex without shame or embarrassment. Even in the 20 years since “Homo Christmas” was released, things have changed enough that what seemed slightly scandalous then just seems fun and funny now. (Hooray for that, in any case.) But please note that the lyrics are not safe for work, nor is the bass player’s T-shirt in this video.
Here are two: I’ve always loved Frightened Rabbit’s “It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop,” which is one of the best reflections of how we’d love the Christmas spirit to last all year ’round, but it’s remarkably hard to have it last for the whole of December 25, no matter how much we might wish to be Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol. And the other is one I’ve just discovered, The New Pornographers’ “Joseph, Who Understood.” I’m a sucker for anything that retells the Christmas story from a different perspective than we’re used to, and A.C. Newman and Neko Case give their best shot at getting into the mind of Joseph, earthly father of Jesus, and they mostly come up with winners. In particular, I like the way his constant refrain of “Mary, is he mine?” gives way to “Mary, he is mine,” which basically sums up the question of raising a kid who isn’t biologically yours.
My favorite part of Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas music is the way it always seems to be building toward something. Either it’s the hushed reverence of Christmas Eve caroling, or the anthem-like cheering of an approaching parade, but the anticipation is always more important than the moment itself. The ridiculously titled “Hey Guys! It’s Christmastime!” falls into the latter category. It’s a jangling, cheerful list of all that’s great about the season, and all that might be great if we only have the courage to follow through. “I might kiss you on the back of your neck,” Stevens sings, “because it’s Christmastime”—it’s romantic and hopeful and slightly melancholic, all at the same time. The older I get, the more I love this time of year for the anticipation, not the follow-through. The year is ending, and not everything worked out like we wanted it to, but the new year is coming, so maybe things will work this time. Maybe we’ll run away. (Although a one-horse open sleigh doesn’t sound like much of a getaway vehicle.) I won’t, of course, but I like the feeling that I might, and this song helps me believe.
As a Jew, I’m culturally and legally forbidden from listening to Christmas music, (but not from making it, oddly enough, as Irving Berlin has proven) so I tend to pick up my Yuletide tunes from odd places, like a Christmas-themed mix-tape DJ and Stones Throw founder Peanut Butter Wolf put out a while ago that include the awesome K-Nock and 24K song “Where Dey At Yo!” a catchy cry of desperation from a woman who wants just one thing for Christmas: a real, good man. What constitutes a good man? In K-Nock’s estimation, it’s “a man without a lady / A man that ain’t got three or four babies.” She elaborates that she wants a man who ”don’t fart and don’t sell drugs,” but she’ll settle for “any kind of man with some half-decent credit.” The song illustrates an eternal truth: men suck, even at Christmastime. They’re pretty committed year-round to being what K-Nock describes as “blunt smokers / broke jokers with a whole lot of drama / and every last one got a crazy baby-mama.” It’s certainly no “O Holy Night,” and that’s much of its earthy, smartass, irritable charm.
It isn’t a happy holiday song by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve always had great respect for Rilo Kiley’s “Xmas Cake” from the Maybe This Christmas, Too? compilation. It’s another in the long string of brokenhearted, seemingly hopeless story-songs that Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett collaborated on during the band’s career—the most successful being “Does He Love You?” off 2005’s More Adventurous. The wintry instrumentation wraps around lyrics about hitting your lowest point emotionally and economically at the peak of the holiday season, but it does pull a Gone With The Wind and emphasize the “tomorrow is another day” glimmer of hope. I haven’t been a mopey, morose holiday person since my mid-teens, but for whatever reason, sad-sack Christmas songs like this really get me, because I like a counterbalance to the heavy dose of saccharine in most standards.