All right, kids, pull your chair up next to the fire, make sure your hot cocoa has a liberal splash of peppermint schnapps, mute that horrid eunuch Michael Buble warbling away on whatever passes for a network Christmas special these days, and lend an ear to the Holy Bee’s Top 25 Christmas Songs — and the artists who did them best. Some of the songs are permanently associated with a single artist, and no other version (if even attempted) comes close. Others have been done more times than Tila Tequila (rim shot.) (10 Yrs. Later Ed. Note — Please disregard incredibly outdated reference.) And even though I say “25,” faithful readers know I always throw in extra.
First of all, let’s dispense with those 3 Perennial Chestnuts that are more jingles than songs: “Jingle Bells,” “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” and “Deck The Halls.” A staple of grade-school recitals, these super-simple ditties that anyone can pick out on a piano after few minutes of fooling around barely qualify as “songs.” We can acknowledge that they’re a huge part of the fabric of Christmas and move on.
Second of all, while I cast a pretty jaundiced eye on religion, the music lover in me has a lot of fondness for some of the Jesus-oriented songs. Some would say that the sentiments expressed in the religious songs are the whole reason for Christmas to begin with, and to them I say feh. Solstice festivals at the end of the year had been a facet of civilization since time immemorial. Then the Christians came along and, with no scriptural nor any other kind of evidence, high-handedly plopped their savior’s birthday right on top of the year-end celebrations that predated their belief system by several millenia. They co-opted it because they knew people were already having a good time around that time of year, and they wanted a piece of the action for their golden boy. Well, I’m co-opting it right back, and I’m taking the term “Christmas” and several of the songs with me. Secular humanism for the win!
#25. “The Nutcracker Suite.” Not really a song per se, this is a sort of sampler of various musical pieces, hitting the highlights from a much longer work, Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker. Originally a flop at its 1892 debut in St. Petersberg, Russia, the U.S. took the The Nutcracker to its collective bosom when it began regular Yuletide performances in the 1950s. BEST VERSION: The Brian Setzer Orchestra knocks the hell out if it with an arrangement that combines rock & roll energy with big-band swing.
#24. “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” Simple to the point of imbecility,
this sounds like the ramblings of a friendly guy on the barstool next to you. “I dunno if there’ll be snow/Have a cup of cheer…” The singer sounds as if he’s had a few cups already. BEST VERSION: Burl Ives’ 1965 recording is the one most people are familiar with, having been written for the Rankin-Bass Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special which featured Ives as narrator/singer the year before. The TV version is slightly different, and the later recording became the definitive rendering.
#23. “Christmas Time Is Here.” The slow, sad-sounding theme to the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s healthy to have a little melancholy injected into your year-end celebrations. You’re one year closer to the grave, after all! (Ho ho ho.) A Charlie Brown Christmas has become so firmly entrenched as a holiday tradition, some people even think of the jauntier “Linus & Lucy” theme (i.e., “The Catchy Peanuts Piano Music Everyone Knows”) as “Christmas music,” but I associate more with Halloween. The Great Pumpkin special opens with it, whereas it’s buried halfway through the Christmas special. Best Version: The original by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.
#22. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Also associated with A Charlie Brown Christmas (sung at the end while gathered around Snoopy’s doghouse), “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” has a history common to many older carols — lyrics and music from entirely different sources, in some cases composed centuries apart. The version of “Hark!” we all know comes from combining the words of a rather dour 1739 hymn by Charles Wesley with a sprightlier musical accompaniment composed in the 1830s. BEST VERSION: Weezer. Yes, you read that right. Clocking in at under two minutes, Weezer bash through it with total punk-pop abandon. I suspect this version would have that stuffy old sourpuss Charles Wesley spinning in his grave.
#21. “Do You Hear What I Hear.” Written as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Melodically very pretty, with an air of mystery. But I always laugh at the line “a child shivers in the cold/let us bring him silver and gold,” as if the poor little guy could warm himself with a pile of coins and jewelry. (The biggest Christmas lyrical howler is found in “I Saw Three Ships,” where they came “sailing in” to Bethlehem. Pretty shaky grasp of geography there.) Best Version: Bing Crosby, the King of Christmas Music, put out his version of it in 1963, and it has never been bettered. (Andy Williams tried.)
#20. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Who doesn’t love a Christmas song that’s really a thinly-veiled threat? “He sees you when your sleeping/He knows when you’re awake/He knows if you’ve been bad or good…” was probably the cause a few million cases of childhood paranoia around late November/early December each year. And to the impartial observer, it would seem the rich kids are always really good, and the economically-disadvantaged kids are apparently chock-full of secret moral failings.Best Version: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band.
#19. “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.” Originally an 1849 poem, this set of words actually has had two entirely different melodies composed for it. The melody known as “Carol” (1850) is the one most familiar to American listeners, and has a gentle, lilting quality to it. The melody known as “Noel” (1874) sounds more formal, and is usually the way the song is performed in the UK and Canada. BEST VERSION: The Louvin Brothers. As if anyone needed an excuse to listen to more Louvin Brothers, their Christmas album is awesome.
#18. “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Like “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” “Here Comes Santa Claus” is of the sub-genre I call “Kiddie Christmas” music, focusing on bags of toys, being naughty or nice, and fidgeting your way to sleep on Christmas Eve, every nerve alert and your little ears straining to catch the sound of hoofs (hooves?) on your roof. Best Version: The 1947 original by Gene Autry. The arrangement has all the hallmarks of the mid-20th century “Kiddie Christmas” genre: simple sing-along words, sleigh bells, celestes, muted trumpets, and trilling clarinets. In fact, you could do worse than to pick up any one of several Autrey’s Christmas compilations (old-schoolers should seek out the original, 1957’s Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, which contains this and its follow-up, 1952’s “Up On The House Top,” and several others done in a similar style.) Oh, and Elvis Presley does a hilarious version on his Christmas album (more on that just below) that sounds like he’s doing a deliberately bad impression of himself.
#17. “Santa Claus Is Back In Town.” Many will cite “Blue Christmas” as the go-to holiday song from Elvis, and they won’t get much arugument from me. It’s definitely great. But in exploring his magnificent 1957 Christmas album (cleverly titled Elvis’ Christmas Album), this composition from the famous songwriting team of Leiber & Stoller is the one that stands out. Actually bluesier than “Blue Christmas,” ol E’s intense vocal performance reminds us why he was quickly dubbed the King of Rock & Roll. BEST VERSION: Elvis did the only credible version, but the band Canned Heat did a re-write on it and turned it into the raucous “Christmas Blues” in 1968.
#16. “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.”Aha, my first cheat. Two songs for one number. I tie these together
because both original versions feature the guitar work of one of the great underrated guitarists of the 1950s, Hank Garland. Garland’s electric Gibson Byrdland guitar can be heard on songs by Elvis, Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, the Everly Brothers, Charlie Parker, and many others, and is responsible for those clean, twangy licks that raise these two songs to classic status. (A 1961 car accident left him alive, but unable to play guitar for the rest of his life. He died in 2004.) Best Versions: The originals, of course, by Bobby Helms (1957) and Brenda Lee (1958), respectively. Both artists worked mainly in the country field, but decided to cash in on the rock & roll “fad” that would surely run its course in another few months. (I always thought it was kind of creepy that Lee recorded that song at the age of thirteen, but already had the voice of a forty-year-old, pack-a-day cocktail waitress.)
#15. “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” The carol that puts me in mind of a Victorian English Christmas. Like “Hark!,” the lyrics pre-date the music by almost a century. Because of the odd (to modern folks) placement of the comma, no one is quite sure what the title/first line is actually supposed to mean. It’s most commonly believed that “rest” was once synonymous with “keep,” making the title mean “God keep you happy, guys.” (Replacing the “you” with “ye” is a modern invention to make it sound more old-fashioned. It’s grammatically incorrect, too, as the “you” in this case is a nominative case form.) Best Version: Smokey Robinson & The Miracles from the 1973 compilation A Motown Christmas. Not very Victorian, I guess, but damn good. The Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan also did a nice medley version which combined it with “We Three Kings.”
#14. “Carol Of The Bells.” The only song on this list that’s nearly impossible to sing along with. When done correctly with a choir in full cry, “Carol Of The Bells” is downright spooky. It dates from the Ukraine in the early 1900s, and is a good palate-cleanser when the rest of your Christmas playlist gets a little too sickly-sweet. It even sounds good when those freaks from Trans-Siberian Orchestra are bludgeoning it to bloody tatters as part of their shrill jackhammer of a Christmas “song” “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24).” BEST VERSION: The Robert Shaw Chorale is the one you should seek out, but the one by the John Williams Orchestra from the Home Alone soundtrack might be more commonly available, and is also great.
#13. “The Little Drummer Boy.” I resisted this one for the longest time. It’s incredibly cloying, forces its sentimentality down your throat, and the words are the usual historical/geographical mess that shouldn’t bother me but does (snare drums did not exist in Judea at the end of the B.C. era, c’mon guys!) But that tune…it finally got to me. BEST VERSION: Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. Their rock version is what convinced me to love it at last. The 1977 duet between the odd couple of Bing Crosby and David Bowie is also pretty cool. (From Der Bingle’s very last TV Christmas special, this version is actually a medley, combining it with something called “Peace On Earth,” whipped up on the spot by the Bing’s writers because Bowie, like a younger Holy Bee, couldn’t stomach the syrupy sweetness of the original song.) And the song is not as old as some people think, first composed as “Carol Of The Drum” by a music teacher in 1941, but almost totally unknown until the best-selling version by the Harry Simeone Singers in 1958.
#12. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer and Run, Rudolph, Run. The tale of a misfit caribou calf with a freakish proboscis, Rudolph was created by ad copywriter Robert L. May for a Montgomery Wards giveaway storybook in 1939. (His original name choice? Reginald. Seriously.) Songwriter Johnny Marks (May’s brother-in-law and later writer of “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree”) put the tale to music and it was first recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. BEST VERSION: Dean Martin. Martin’s first Christmas album, 1959’s A Winter’s Romance, is well worth a spin, and contains a casual, Rat Pack-y version that happens to be my favorite. Typical of Martin, he gets bored partway through the performance and begins screwing around with the words. A Motown Christmas has a good soul version by the Temptations, and of course there’s Autry’s “Kiddie Christmas” original.
Chuck Berry later updated the story with “Run, Rudolph, Run,” in 1958. Often cited as a pretty blatant re-write of his “Little Queenie,” every source I’ve uncovered states that “Little Queenie” was released a year later, in 1959. (But 1950s rock/R&B recording sessions were patchwork affairs, and songs were often released way out of recording order, sometimes years later.) BEST VERSION: You can’t go wrong with Chuck Berry‘s original, but Keith Richards made a solid rendition of the song his first solo single in 1978.
#11. “Sleigh Ride.” Originally a 1949 instrumental popularized by Arthur
Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. Lyrics were added a year later, and were basically a more sophisticated version of “Jingle Bells,” detailing the joys of freezing your ass off riding in an inconvenient and ineffecient wheel-less wagon being dragged by a resentful, flatulent beast of burden. Fortunately, you can’t smell the odors eminating from the enormous animal directly in front of you because your nose is about to turn black and fall off due to frostbite. Some people enjoy that, I guess. BEST VERSION: If you demand the purity of an instrumental version, the Boston Pops would be the way to go. (The surf-rock band The Ventures did a good instrumental version, too.) If you want vocals, Harry Connick Jr. tops my list. And for some reason, the version by Jim Nabors amuses me to no end, but it’s so horrendous it’s not even available on You Tube. Nabors’ prissy, super old-fashioned, semi-operatic baritone voice makes him sounds like Uptight Whitey McWhite (from Whitesville) and makes the sleigh ride sound like a planned-in-advance fifteen minute break from the singer’s usual routine of sitting ramrod straight in a wingback chair. Seriously, Pat Boone is Soul Brother #1 by comparison.
COMING SOON(ER THAN USUAL)…#10 through #1, and my Most Despised Christmas Songs.