While there are plenty of Christmas songs that I admire, there are few that I enjoy, and even fewer to which I would listen outside the month of December. Mostly, for me, holiday songs merge into an aural soup of cheeriness. I’ve toned down my initial response to the tinkly blast since I last approached this subject—no more blunt “I hate Christmas music” declarations—but I’m still no fan.
What follows are my exceptions to the rule, seven songs that bring a smile to my face and a shake to my hips every time they come on the radio. Consider them my Christmas gifts to you. See you in the new year.
1. John Lennon, “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)”
I’ve made my case before (see aforementioned link), so I’ll just quote myself from three years ago: “Like the Beatles’ back catalog, ‘Happy Christmas’ feels ramshackle, from the slightly off-tune kids to the mighty, fuzzy drums to the clang and clutter of the whole arrangement. It sounds like something my friends and I could do on an inspired day. But that melody stays with me, the lyrics are simple but profound, and the musicianship is tight. The Beatles looked like four ordinary boys, and I guess they fooled us into thinking that they were, too. It’s a façade, of course. Their songs are quite lovely, tuneful, catchy, and impossible to replicate. [The song] is the closest Lennon came to recapturing the magic of his former band.”
2. Otis Redding, “Merry Christmas, Baby”
The snowflake-like percussion brings wintry charm to the backbeat, and then there’s the Memphis horns. The key change around 1:40 brings the song into a higher, more joyous register. And then, of course, there’s the best instrument in the song—Otis Redding’s gravelly, sexy voice. Redding’s delivery would make any woman come closer to his Christmas, ahem, fireplace, and half the men, too.
3. Bruce Springsteen, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”
This song seems to inspire high-voltage performances—see, also, the Jackson Five’s full-throttle version—but this is the most electric. Springsteen’s live take, with the full E Street Band, is jangly and propulsive in the same vein as the 1960s-era Byrds and mid-1980s R.E.M. The band goofs around and makes it into an arena vaudeville number—an oxymoron?—and the version swells, lulls, and swells back up again until it hit’s a final roar.
4. The Jackson 5, “Up on the Housetop”
The Christmas song as funk and proto-rap, with new lyrics specific to the Jackson boys and those Motown horns, “Up on the Housetop” is so danceable that it makes your feet hurt. Michael’s voice sells that cheesy line about “love and peace for everyone,” and everything else about this, a song hard-strutting enough to be appropriate for a rapper’s key sample.
5. Harry Connick, Jr., “I Pray on Christmas”
Connick’s original earns its place in the Christmas pantheon. It’s got the gospel—listen for that swaying, low “Oh, sweet Jesus” in the background—and the saloon sauciness of New Orleans piano pop of the 1950s and 1960s. “I pray on Christmas, that the Lord will see me through” is the inspirational lyric of Christmas songs, because it acknowledges that the holiday is a time of stress, doubt, and anxiety. (This one’s for La Bella and Lois.)
6. The Temptations, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
My dad’s favorite group brings Eddie Kendricks’s gorgeous falsetto and Paul Williams’ beautiful baritone together to redeem a song that’s so overplayed and cheesy that it’s hard to endure. Oh, and the Motown funk helps, too.
7. Clarence Carter, “Back Door Santa”
“Daddy, why did you laugh when he said ‘I ain’t like ol’ St. Nick. He don’t come but once a year?” “Well, sweetie, it’s called a double-entendre, and— um, maybe you shouldn’t hear this song.” “But I wanna hear the rest. How does he make all the little girls happy when the boys go away?” “Go to your room.”
8. Run D.M.C., “Christmas in Hollis”
Sampling from #7, Run D.M.C. nevertheless own this original from the opening breakbeat. Santa chills in a Queens park with a reindeer, and it gets funnier from there. Merry Christmas, y’all.
And, as a bonus, Straight No Chaser singing "The 12 Days of Christmas":
All songs will stay active until 31 January 2009.