The home stretch to the holidays is coming to a close. Chances are there are plenty like me that are well sick of the endless tide of holiday reminders that started well before the final remnants of Thanksgiving had truly been digested. However, as the choir in a Vince Guaraldi song sings, “Christmas time is here” for better or worse.
The holiday season has a different meaning for each one of us. I’m not going to attempt to spell out my meaning in this post. That would get really dark, probably sappy and way too reflective. However, year in year out I get more and more tired of being bombarded by the absolute tsunami of horrendous christmas/holiday songs that the radio, Pandora or Spotify tends to fart out into my ears from mid-November to year end. At one point at work, mid-scoff at Maroon 5’s remake of a John Lennon holiday classic, a co-worker said I should take my Scrooge and hibernate till the new year. “Well, if whatever method you’re delivering these abhorrent sounds to my ear would change it up, I’d be a happier who in Whoville.” She then threw the gauntlet down to make a playlist. I was as excited as Ralphie in A Christmas Story was to write his ‘theme’.
Therein lies the genesis of this list, I came up with 20 (ish) songs for a playlist at work to get me and my co-workers through the holiday season in a bit more bearable fashion. So far, I’ve had no complaints. Are there undeniable songs missing? Yes. Such is the folly of a list like this. However, this may get some discussion going, maybe even while chestnuts are being roasted on an open fire or keg-standing some egg nog. Either way, drink and roast responsibly and have a joyous holiday season.
20. The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl
“Fairytale in New York”
It’s probably counterintuitive to start a holiday music list with something that begins with such optimism only to take a different turn. However, one could say that many a holiday has done the same thing in their life. I’m no exception that’s for sure. It’s the grand, theatrical sweep guided by the interplay between Shane MacGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl that experience highs, lows and all while the bells are ringing out for Christmas day.
19. The Vandals – “Oi to the World!”
While most remember the No Doubt cover prominently placed on A Very Special Christmas 3, and probably for good reason. The Vandals pack a holiday classic full of their silly humor in a way that actually doesn’t grow tiresome over time. Frankly, the chorus says it all, “Oi to the world and everybody wins.”
18. James Brown – “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”
James Brown was the absolute man. No question about it. While arguments could be had about the lyrical content in his music, he never phoned in ‘feeling’ or ‘soul’ into a track. “Tell em’ James Brown sent you/…You know that I know what you’ll see / For that was once me.” He could even straight talk through the holiday cheer. “Don’t leave nothing for me / I’ve had my chance you see.” Amen, Soul Brother #1!
17. Band Aid – “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”
In 1984, I was barely aware of what was relevant. Retrospect is a funny thing, much of the time because when one goes back for the full story, there’s way more to it than seemed to be available at the time. I still find it cool that Bob Geldof, a man who sang about not liking Mondays and played the lead in the film for Pink Floyd’s The Wall, saw a series of news documentaries about famine in Ethiopia and decided to call his friends and attempt to do something about it. The sad part is I think the world at large still takes Bono’s “tonight thank god it’s them instead of you” way too literally.
16. Loretta Lynn – “To Heck with Ole Santa Claus”
Most parents I know absolutely live for and love to see the joy on their kids’ faces as they savagely rip open presents Christmas morning. It still seems that every kid has that one occurrence of a gift on their list that wasn’t delivered. Country legend Loretta Lynn has their backs this time with probably the best song to wish ill on anything. Full disclosure, a close second is Ice Cube’s “No Vaseline.”
15. Big Star – “Jesus Christ”
Big Star seem like a band that really gave up at the beginning. From the band’s name to the title of their debut album, #1 Record, despite probably wanting to be big stars with number one records, they seemed resigned to it never happening. The world in posterity has been better to them, thank heavens. This unlikely ditty from a never-released album displays the band at what they had that few since have; an effortless grace at churning out hook-laden power pop the likes the indie rock community would fawn over for decades. For a response to former-member Chris Bell’s born-again Christianity, it’s nice to know that post-Big Star Bell had people in his corner.
14. Brenda Lee – “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”
“You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear / Voices singing let’s be jolly / Deck the halls with bows of holly.” No matter the degree to which the cockles of one’s heart may be cold, I think we all do. Children of the 80s and 90s might associate this with a memorable scene from Home Alone Kevin McAllister went to lengths to protect his home from the Wet Bandits. At almost 60 years old, it’s still telling that we all, somewhere in our minds, celebrate the holidays in the new old-fashioned way.
13. David Bowie/Bing Crosby – “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”
I’ll never forget the first time I saw this clip on Vh1 in the mid or late 90s. I found it hilarious that Bowie, an artist I was then beginning to admire at the time, invaded Bing “the king of White Christmas” Crosby’s territory. Usually, just after the first ‘Pa-rum pa-pun-pum,’ I’m over this holiday standard. However, by the end of this version, my thoughts then were the same as Crosby’s at the end of the track, “a pretty thing, isn’t it?”
12. Prince – “Another Lonely Christmas”
Holidays alone can be a liberating type of relaxation…for a little more than a few minutes. The idea of an obligation-free holiday regardless of persuasion can have all the appeal of a fake sick day from the office until the realization of what you’re really missing bowls over you like a mack truck hauling yule logs. Prince lays out a melodrama in this B-side to “I Would Die 4 U” concerning a man who’s lover passed away and he’s alone at Christmas. It’s eccentric, echo-laden and cavernous as the protagonist’s present and memories are so blurred that moving forward may be a bridge too far. It’s hard to be alone at Christmas being haunted by what used to be. Who knew Prince could channel Dickens like this?
11. Kurtis Blow – “Christmas Rappin'”
On the surface, this might seem like early hip-hop aiming to cash in on holiday cheer. The oft-overlooked fact of the matter is that this cut and “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang were released within weeks of each other in 1979. And let’s be frank, Kurtis Blow is correct has he interrupts an industry-standard telling of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” stating “That’s played out!” only to retell his vision of Santa as a b-boy over a disco beat injecting holiday cheer into hip-hop in a way that’s only been recreated once since. He also drops some communitarian knowledge in rapping “Cause money could never ever buy the feeling / The one that comes from not concealing / The way you you feel about your friends.”
10. Elmo & Patsy – “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”
A woman forgets her medication, drinks too much egg nog ends up with hoof prints on her forehead and Clause marks on her back? Yep, industry-standard Christmas.
9. Wham! – “Last Christmas”
While George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley certainly crafted some pop classics in their heyday as Wham!, “Last Christmas” probably hasn’t aged in quite the way they wanted. A Christmas song exemplifying the perfection of chemistry as well as the sheer absurdity of 80s synth pop cannot be found anywhere else. Whether the applause thrown its way is ironic or un-ironic (I’m firmly in the latter), this song is something undeniably special because of the smiles it brings to a room. There will have been many times this holiday season alone where I’ve sang this at the top of my lungs in my car. As Moose Clewell would say, “Honey Badger don’t care.”
8. Run-DMC – “Christmas in Hollis”
If you’ve not heard this, listen to it. As they say, “Open your eyes lend us an ear / We wanna say Merry Christmas and a happy new year!!!!”
7. Ramones – “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight Tonight)”
“Christmas ain’t the time for breaking each other’s heart.” Enough said. The world still misses you, Joey.
6. Vince Guaraldi Trio – “Christmas Time is Here”
There’s a strange dichotomy of emotion at the holidays. Half being the promise of hyper joy and the other the fear of ominous dread. Immortalized by A Charlie Brown Christmas, the delicate piano and choir of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here” beautifully illustrates the melancholia of Christmas in the same way the animated special featuring The Peanuts did while transcending it to become a staple in many homes at the holidays.
5. Eurhythmics – “Winter Wonderland”
Full disclosure. I can’t stand this song AT ALL. That is, until the seemingly untamable power of Annie Lennox’s voice starts to drive. I often can’t stand it when pop singers with vocal talent waste it on thoughtless drivel. But goddammit this holiday cut is magical.
4. John Lennon / The Plastic Ono Band – “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”
I’ve said more than once that the holidays are reflective times for most of us. The late, great John Lennon probably taught me that.
3. Beach Boys – “Little Saint Nick”
In this list, we’ve had Santa as a b-boy, a villain and a grandma murderer. Why not a hot rod head who wants to deliver sunny Christmas cheer to the masses as well?
2. Slade – “Merry Christmas Everybody”
“Does your granny always tell ya the old songs are the best / then she’s up an rock and rolling with the rest.” There might not be a better Christmas original than this put out by anyone since rock changed the world in the 50s. Within these 3 minutes are distilled the complete spectrum of the happy side of the holidays. This is one of the only Christmas songs worthy of a listen the other 364 days of the year.
1. A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector
Leave the recent history from Phil Spector out. Forget that I’m breaking my own pattern by putting an album at number 1 rather than a song. The 13 tracks here are ESSENTIAL holiday listening. They conjure up the nostalgia for Christmases past, a joy for the present and an optimism for the future in a way that no holiday music before or since has. Phil Spector’s wall of sound studio musicians rarely sounded better than here and with voices like The Ronettes, The Crystals and Darlene Love en tow, there’s no way this collection of holiday standards remains anything but timeless.