My Favorite Holiday Songs

’Tis the season, and the all-Christmas music stations are up and running. Therefore, what better time to share my list of my favorite Holiday songs?!

As I’ve mentioned previously, my Favorite lists are NOT meant to imply universal objectivity in any subject. These lists reflect my tastes, and my reasons why I like certain things more than others. For holiday songs, however, there are just so many good ones, so I decided that it should be a “12 Favorite” list, to commemorate the 12 days of Christmas (though why there are 12 days I still don’t understand). For this list, as with most things, I lean towards rock-n-roll. However, a few more traditional songs made my list. Read on, and send me a comment if you’re so inspired!

And now, the list >

  1. Merry Christmas, Baby – Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: This song was written MerryChristmasBabyby Lou Baxter & Johnny Moore, and originally recorded by Charles Brown in 1945. Since then, it has been covered by tons of other artists, from James Brown to the Beach Boys to Elvis to Otis Redding to Christina Aguilera. But for my money, Bruce and the band absolutely nailed everything good about holiday songs in their version for the original A Very Special Christmas benefit album, and later released on the 12″ single of the Edwin Starr cover War that Bruce had recorded and released on the Live boxed set in 1986. It was the second live Christmas song Springsteen released, following the classic Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (see #3 below). Recorded live during his famous 1980 New Year’s Eve show at Nassau Coliseum (which is now available for official download), this song maintains elements of its soul origins, with a great groove and a cool sax line and simple yet elegant lyrics. The performance is a knock-out – the whole band sounds like they’re having a ball, and the it’s a love song to boot! Check out a great version from Conan O’Brien’s old NBC show, when Bruce and the band dropped in during the first leg of the 2002-2003 Rising tour – with Conan sitting in on guitar.
  2. Baby, It’s Cold Outside – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Jordan: Classic singers, beautifully babyitscoldoutsidecrafted song, and a million versions recorded, yet for me, no one can top Ella and King Louis. This is the perfect romantic Christmas song – flirty and suggestive. Written by Frank Loesser in 1944, he sold it to MGM for the movie Neptune’s Daughter where it was originally recorded by Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams in 1948, for which Loesser won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. It’s debut performance was at the 1949 Oscar show, where it was sung by Mae West and Rock Hudson. It was then recorded four times in the first half of 1949 alone, with this Ella & Louis version being the 4th, released in June of that year and spending seven weeks on the Billboard charts. Some consideration should be given to the interpretation that the song can be heard as being a bit sexually harassing on the part of the male voice, but I choose to enjoy it as Ella resisting only in words, not in actions, and being fully complicit in the flirtation. I hope you hear it that way too.
  3. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town – Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: I first heard springsteen santathis when it was released in 1981 the record Sesame Street In Harmony 2 – a children’s record that is no longer in print. Later, he released this as the B-Side to My Hometown in 1985. This song rocks like a Springsteen song should rock – it just happens to be a Christmas song. He still trots it out annually at the end of nearly every December show he does, whether he’s on tour or just doing holiday benefit shows in and around New Jersey. The band sounds great, he’s clearly having a ball, and again, Clarence delivers a great sax solo. This song gets overplayed, but still is a welcome old friend come holiday time, and never goes out of style.
  4. Christmas Wrapping – The Waitresses: This quirky tune is a great story song and waitresses wrappinghearkens back to the new wave sound while retaining a classic holiday song vibe. The band was famous for singing I Know What Boys Like and the Square Pegs theme song, but this is the only Waitresses song still getting radio play (even if only for one month a year). It also has a great story about a guy who the singer runs into repeatedly over the course of one year, who piques her interest but they can never get together. Finally, they see each other in the supermarket on Christmas Eve buying canned Cranberries, and the song wraps up with a “very happy ending.” Interestingly, there is a really outstanding, almost timeless soulsy horn riff in this song too – maybe that’s what it takes for a holiday song to make my list…?
  5. Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy – Bing Crosby & David Bowie: the singing is bowie-crosbyabsolutely first rate, as these two VERY different singers blend two songs into a stunningly beautiful mash-up (one of the first??). This was filmed for Crosby’s 1977 Christmas Special and I can only imagine that Bing had to have resented the role he plays in the clip, painfully working through the forced chitchat with the Thin White Duke. I especially feel some tension (manufactured or otherwise) in the line “Oh, you too?” in response to Bowie saying that he even has a go at White Christmas, Crosby’s signature song. But any awkwardness disappears when the singing begins. Their voices sound great together during the first verse of Little Drummer Boy, before Bowie takes off with an incredible performance of Peace On Earth over Bing’s continuing Little Drummer Boy foundation. Classic holiday stuff.
  6. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love: I chose this version over the U2 Phil-Spector-Christmasversion because Bono’s voice tips into the histrionic, whereas Darlene Love gives a warm performance amidst Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” production. I always imagine her singing to her lover in anticipation, as though he’s only five minutes away, as opposed to the more plaintive, almost frantic plea I hear from U2, where I imagine the subject of the song isn’t coming home at all. In any case, this is a great holiday song, written by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry with Phil Spector, and I’m sad that Love won’t be performing it on Letterman this season now that Letterman’s show is off the air, after doing so for more than 20 years.
  7. 2,000 Miles – The Pretenders: From their 1985 album Learning to Crawl comes this 2000 milesbeautiful song that just happens to take place during the Christmas season, as opposed to being “about” Christmas or being recorded specifically for a Christmas album. It’s a song of longing for a loved one, and yet the chorus always brightens my day. Strangely, it’s rumored that Chrissie Hynde wasn’t writing about a lover who was far away at Christmastime, but actually was writing the song for her former guitarist, James Honeyman Scott, who died from an overdose the year before the song was recorded. But I choose not to hear that in this beautiful song, and fall back to romanticizing it as a great Christmas song.
  8. (It Must Have Been Ol’) Santa Claus – Harry Connick, Jr.: Another original! This is a really connick christmasfun song about a kid who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus meeting and going out on an adventure with Santa on Christmas Eve. Connick recorded it on his 1993 album When My Heart Finds Christmas, which has sold over 3 million units to date. It has a real New Orleans swing, a cool big band sound, and a great story. There’s a fun call-and-reponse with the band, and even a key change (a modulation). There’s a great live version from an AOL Sessions session he did a number of years ago that, though not in HD, still captures the fun of the song nicely. The cover of the album is not appealing unless you like Restoration Hardware catalogs, but I couldn’t find any other good pictures. Happy holidays anyway!
  9. Blue Christmas – Elvis Presley: This is one of the saddest of all Christmas songs, but I love blue christmas elvisit. It’s Elvis, after all, and has been a holiday staple since 1964, after being recorded and and released on a 1957 LP. He had the Jordanaires backing him during that period. and they do wonders with the background vocals. The song was written by Jay Johnson and Billy Hayes in the ’40’s, and was recorded a number of times before Elvis got to it. While I love Santa Claus Is Back In Town too, Blue Christmas is really an Elvis song of the highest order AND a great Christmas song, so here’s both of them together from Elvis’ televised 1968 concert on NBC – Merry Christmas!
  10. I Believe In Father Christmas – Emerson, Lake, and Palmer: This is a beautiful song aboutelp father christmas wanting peace on Earth, which Greg Lake originally wrote and released in 1975 on a break from ELP. The single went to number 2 in the UK that year. Two years later, ELP re-recorded a stripped down version for their album Works Volume 2 in 1977 which I like much better, as the original is really, really over-produced and busy. This fourth original Christmas song on my list is simple, straightforward, and heartfelt, and feels like Christmas to me whenever I hear it, which is funny because the lyrics (written by Peter Sinfield) were meant to decry the commercialization of the holiday.
  11. Christmas In Hollis – Run D.M.C.: Also from the 1989 A Very Special Christmas record (see chritmas in hollisMerry Christmas Baby above), this is the best (and perhaps only) crossover hip-hop holiday hit. Regardless of the genre, it’s just a great song about the holidays. It’s funny, has a positive message (for the kids), and manages to communicate ideas in a way that help me to get a picture of what the bands’ lives were like as kids. I connected with this song though my personal experience couldn’t be further from Darryl or Reverend Run’s.
  12. The Chanukah Song – Adam Sandler: The only popular Chanukah song, Adam Sandler debuted his Chanukah masterpiece on SNL in 1994, and has since gone on to re-write it at least 3 additional times (there are now 4 versions on YouTube). For me, the original is the best, though I do love the reference at the end of version 2 in which he sings “Bruce Springsteen isn’t, but my mother thinks he is.” instead of “Tom Cruise isn’t, but I heard his agent is.” Have a happy, happy Chanukah this weekend, everybody!!!!

Honorable Mention: The entire An Oscar Peterson Christmas album – Oscar Peterson; God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings – Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan; Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 – Trans-Siberian Orchestra; Everybody’s Waitin’ For The Man With The Bag – The Brian Setzer Orchestra; The Christmas Song – Nat King Cole; Sleigh Ride – The Ronettes; Please Come Home For Christmas – The Eagles.

My Favorite Fictional Bands

I love good music, which is really what this blog is about. I love it no matter where it comes from. I’m particularly fascinated by great music created for TV shows or movies.  I have a robust playlist of fictional band music, which seemed like an interesting subject to explore.

As far as I can tell, this genre seems to have started with the Monkees riffing on the Beatles for American television, which then spawned a slew of other pop-oriented, non-threatening fictional bands, from The Partridge Family to the Brady Bunch to the Archies. Later, spoof bands like The Rutles, and then Spinal Tap, made their way into the public consciousness. And fictional bands have continued making good music in movies and on TV, on up through this year, when Denis Leary’s The Assassins (from FX’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll) knocked me out with their original tunes.

And that’s the point. What really interests and excites me is when filmmakers take the time to create original music and produce it so that it sounds like it could have been recorded and released by an actual band. Initially, this list was going to only include bands that produced original music, but then things started getting sticky – namely, that would exclude the Blues Brothers, which is antithetical to everything this list should be. So I added some parameters. If a fictional band could not meet the initial “rule” then they had to have produced more than one song. This continues to exclude excellent performances like High Fidelity’s Barry Jive & the Uptown Five (Jack Black singing Let’s Get It On) and Crucial Taunt from Wayne’s World (Tia Carrerre singing The Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz), and countless others. Finally, a fictional band had to be comprised of people for whom being in that band was not their primary occupation before they joined (and preferably, afterwards as well, though there is one exception to this). So if a band could meet at least two of those three parameters, they qualify for my list. Yours can be different of course – let me know what you think in the comments.Continue reading →

My Favorite Album Covers

One of the things I loved most about buying music as a kid was the overall album experience. You didn’t buy singles on your computer – you physically went into a record store (or department store) and looked through the shelves of records. They were mostly LPs back when I was a kid, and then it was CDs when I was in college and in my 20’s. But you only knew a song if you had heard it on the radio or MTV, and there was almost no way to preview an entire album before you had to shell out $9.99 for an LP/CD, so part of the decision-making process as to whether I was going to spend my hard-earned money was based on how good the cover looked.

These days, cover art is almost always an after-thought, and it shows in the choices most artists are making. Covers are generally seen only on your mobile phone screen when a song from that album is playing, and let’s face it – most of us don’t look passively at our devices while listening to music. We’re doing something else, either on that device or something else entirely. And like the value of “albums” of music overall, the value and appreciation of album cover art has been diminished as times have changed.

That said, here are my favorite album covers of all time. Not necessarily the best covers or most influential covers, although some of these appear on such lists. These are the covers I want my daughters to be sure they are familiar with as touchpoints to a different age – when music appreciation included sitting listening to an album side by side, hearing most of the songs for the first time and in the order the artists intended, and poring over the covers (front and back) to absorb all I could about the overall message that artist/band was sending out.Continue reading →