What is it about the Christmas season that compels us to abandon all reason, turn up our radios, and sing at the top of our lungs in squeaky falsettos about wanting a hula hoop? Hell if I know. Nevertheless, if you’re anything like me, then a week or so ago you went into your iTunes library and went about the task of checking off all your holiday music, ’cause ’tis the season, y’all!
While there will no doubt be many opportunities for you to hear the latest Christmas ditties by Michael Buble and Justin Bieber this holiday season, our list retains a decidedly classicist tone. That is, if your idea of classic is songs by some of the biggest acts of the Seventies and Eighties. Our list of the 20 best holiday songs includes a little soul, a little hip-hop, a bit of funk, a couple of cartoon characters and a lot of holiday cheer. So, grab your egg nog, throw a shit ton more alcohol in it, sit in your favorite chair next to the tree, and take a gander at (and a listen to) our choices for the songs that we think are best for the sports of hall-decking and sleigh-ridin’.
20. “Someday At Christmas” by Stevie Wonder
My initial knowledge of the song “Someday At Christmas” came from The Jackson 5’s 1970 recording of it, and Michael Jackson’s reading of the song’s anti-war sentiment was quite poignant, especially coming from a 12 year old. Stevie Wonder’s original, coming just a few short years prior, is equally poignant. Not surprising, seeing as how Stevie was a teenager himself when he recorded this song. It’s easy to get caught up in the jadedness that defines being an adult more than anything, but this song’s simple plea for people to prioritize peace on Earth and goodwill towards men should appeal to the innocent in all of us. It may have been written just as the Vietnam war was getting underway, but this song’s message still rings true today. (Big Money)
19. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by U2
U2 were on top of the world in 1987, thanks to the monumental achievements of The Joshua Tree. Within a year, they were on most critics’ shit list for the overambitious Rattle and Hum, a semi-tepid hodgepodge of starstruck, Big Statement nonsense that would set the tone for most of U2’s misfires for the next two decades. The exact sweet spot between those eras, though, was their cover of Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the unimpeachable Phil Spector classic, for the excellent A Very Special Christmas benefit album in 1987.
Tackling a song this big would be a huge risk for anyone, but U2 somehow managed to pull it off by sticking to the sound of the original while adding their signature wall-of-guitar texture. It wasn’t the beautiful mess you get from Spector’s Wall of Sound productions – The Edge’s guitar has to ring above Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen’s on-point rhythm section, after all – but it’s a solid track made capital-G great by Bono’s impassioned vocal. It’s not at all right to compare him to Love’s clean but yearning voice, but the passion he delivers to the song (particularly those yearning “baaaaaaaaby please come home!” ad-libs) is, nearly 25 years later, a solid reminder of how quickly those boys from Ireland could lift you up on a tidal wave of good old-fashioned rock. (Mike D.)
18. “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
This rendition of the fat man’s jam was the first time that the E. Street Band recorded some Christmas cheer, but it would not be the last (see also: 1987’s cover of the Charles Brown classic, “Merry Christmas Baby”). First released on the second volume of In Harmony, a charity compilation from 1982. The song’s popularity (spurred by seasonal airplay and live performances) led to its inclusion as the b-side to the somber Born in the USA single “My Hometown.” The recording comes from a 1975 show in Greenvale, New York, though it’s become a frequent inclusion in the Boss’ set when the season is right. The band stays true to what by then was a Christmas standard (though it was first performed in 1934), yet various elements such as the glockenspiel, the big man’s sax, and Bruce’s playful vocal all add up to an unmistakeably E Street branding of a holiday classic. As the Big Man says, “You better be good for goodness sake.” (Dr. Gonzo)
17. “Wonderful Christmastime” by Wings
My God, this song is silly. But, as the man who made the song once said, you’d think that people would have had enough of silly Christmas songs. But I look around me and I see it isn’t so. Well, OK, that’s not exactly what Paul McCartney said, but you have to admit that the man has a point. Very few songs capture the silliness of the holidays better than this one, which was a moderate hit upon release in the late Seventies and soon turned into a standard. While the thought of a choir of singers practicing the words “ding dong, ding dong” for a solid year might be a head-scratcher, at some point this song is going to get you. Might as well give in. Besides, De La Soul went on to sample this and make it a (non-holiday related) hip-hop jam. And you can’t front on Paul anyway. He’s the cute Beatle. (Big Money)
16. “Another Lonely Christmas” by Prince & The Revolution
As a Prince fan, this has become a holiday staple for me, which is amusing given its rather grim sentiment. Issued as the b-side to 1984’s “I Would Die 4 U,” “Another Lonely Christmas” follows in the tradition of “Blue Christmas” and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” in that it juxtaposes a joyous holiday with the protagonist’s longing for his true love. The twist here is that the true love in question died on Christmas Day seven years earlier. And of course, the only way that little Princey can cope with the holidays is to drink banana daiquiris to excess while he reminisces about all of those magical nights filled with pokeno and skinny dipping. The 7″ edit of the song eventually appeared on 1993’s The Hits/The B-Sides compilation, but the real gem is the 12″ edit, which extends the narrative slightly, but also lets that swelling arrangement flex out a bit. And for the obsessive or at least inquisitive, there’s the Christmas in Uptown bootleg, which documents Prince guiding the Revolution through the construction of the song. Some may find it excessive, but I personally consider it required listening at least once during the holidays. (Dr. Gonzo)
15. “Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto” by James Brown
The Godfather of Soul recorded many Christmas songs over the years, but this 1968 cut reflected his growing social awareness. Featuring a classic tight arrangement complete with horns, “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” cast attention on inner city poverty at a time when the country was in turmoil. The song is more restrained than Brown’s funkier efforts but no less powerful. It’s well worth seeking out one of the compilations of JB’s holiday music such as Funky Christmas or The Complete James Brown Christmas. (Jay Kumar)
14. “This Christmas” by Donny Hathaway
Penned and performed by one of the greatest voices of all time, “This Christmas” is a lighthearted romp steeped in soul. Originally released in 1970, it has gone on to become a standard, covered by everyone from Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle to Chris Brown (also providing the title to a surprisingly heartwarming holiday movie that co-starred the troubled singer). If the festive horns don’t get you, hearing Donny imploring listeners to “shake a hand, shake a hand” will. This song has become so associated with Donny that when The Whispers decided to record a tribute to Donny after his tragic 1979 death, the melody they decided to interpolate was that of “This Christmas.”
13. “Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley
At a mere 2:09, Elvis’ version of “Blue Christmas” can’t be accused of outstaying its welcome. His wasn’t the first version of the song (it was a country song almost a decade before), but the King of Rock and Roll put his own style on the song and in the process made it a holiday staple. A mid-tempo swinger with Presley’s signature croon, the song itself is actually a bit of a downer, an ode to unrequited love that always seems worse during the joyful season of Christmas. But the backing chorus and shuffling drums keeps spirits just merry enough that you don’t need to drown your sorrows in eggnog. It’s the perfect track to belt out alone in your apartment, hot chocolate in hand, as you hang a few decorations. Not that I’ve ever done that… (Stephen)
12. “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” by David Seville
“Ok Simon?.. Ok Theodore?.. Ok Alvin.. Alvin, ALVIN!!”
If you don’t know what this is from, you must be a Scrooge. It’s The Chipmunks with “Christmas Don’t Be Late” and even if you weren’t alive when it first came out in 1958, you have probably heard it about a dozen times or more in your life time.
From the spoken beginning to every word in the song, “Christmas Don’t Be Late” is a timeless classic that’s difficult not to sing along with during the holiday season. “Want a plane that loops the loop,” “I still want a hula hoop!” tells of every kid’s (or kid at heart’s) wish list and brews up the excitement of Christmas morning and opening up presents. For this reason, this song is perfect for getting into the Christmas/holiday spirit and therefore sits on the top 20 list.
Aw man, now I can’t get it out of my head.
“Let’s sing it again” “Yeah, let’s sing it again!” (Cassandra)
11. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Darlene Love
My first introduction to this song was the opening credits of the 1984 film Gremlins. My young brain at the time connected the song with film, assuming that in fact the backing chorus was singing “Gremlins” rather than “Christmas.” Sure, that renders the lyrics complete nonsense, but you can see the logic, right? RIGHT? Originally intended for The Ronettes, Darlene Love ended up recording the track instead, for Phil Spector’s 1963 compilation A Christmas Gift for You. The album is a consistently enjoyable holiday romp, wall of sound style, with a number of great performances from The Ronettes, The Crystals and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, but it’s Love’s performance of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” that steals the show. The chimes, bells and timpani give the song its oomph, while Love’s impassioned vocal of holiday longing for her lost love gives the track an overflow of soul. The many covers that have been recorded over the years (one of which is featured elsewhere on our list) are testament to the song’s quick incorporation into the Christmas music canon. Nearly 50 years later, the songs still sounds fresh, urgent and emotive. (Dr. Gonzo)
Part two tomorrow…
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