’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 >
- Merry Christmas, Baby – Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: This song was written by 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.
- Baby, It’s Cold Outside – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Jordan: Classic singers, beautifully crafted 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.
- Santa Claus Is Coming to Town – Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: I first heard this 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.
- Christmas Wrapping – The Waitresses: This quirky tune is a great story song and hearkens 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…?
- Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy – Bing Crosby & David Bowie: the singing is absolutely 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.
- Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love: I chose this version over the U2 version 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.
- 2,000 Miles – The Pretenders: From their 1985 album Learning to Crawl comes this beautiful 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.
- (It Must Have Been Ol’) Santa Claus – Harry Connick, Jr.: Another original! This is a really fun 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!
- Blue Christmas – Elvis Presley: This is one of the saddest of all Christmas songs, but I love it. 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!
- I Believe In Father Christmas – Emerson, Lake, and Palmer: This is a beautiful song about 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.
- Christmas In Hollis – Run D.M.C.: Also from the 1989 A Very Special Christmas record (see Merry 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.
- 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.