#10. “Merry Christmas, Baby.” Possibly because of their gospel roots, R&B singers seem to love Christmas music, and there are several worthy compilation albums out there that bring together some of the best R&B takes on classic Christmas music. (Sadly, there are also compilations that bring together some of the worst, so buyer beware.) In addition to R&B renditions of the traditional carols, there’s also a huge array of original R&B holiday songs, from Charles Brown’s heart-breaker “Please Come Home For Christmas” (also covered in a hit version by — yeeesh — The Eagles) to Louis Armstrong’s goofy “‘Zat You, Santa Claus?” But the grandaddy of them all is “Merry Christmas, Baby,” originally recorded in 1947 by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, and covered by everyone from Chuck Berry to Christina Aguilera. BEST VERSION: Otis Redding. Recorded at his peak with the powerhouse Stax-Volt house band, Redding schools them all. You can find another version on Elvis Presley’s second Christmas album, 1971’s Elvis Sings The Wonderful World of Christmas, which can’t hold a candle to his first. Elvis sounds tired and jaded, and probably has one eye on the gingerbread at this point, but it does contain a version of “Merry Christmas, Baby” that’s worth hearing. If you can get past the quasi-blues musical arrangement that probably sounded fine in ’71, but today sounds exactly like a Cialis commercial, you’ll be treated to a casual and funny version of the song, something that sounds like the band warming up in the studio prior to recording whatever they were supposed to recording. It also sounds like the band thought song was going to be faded out for its ending, but the take that made it onto the album goes way past that point, with Elvis (whose pharmaceutical assistance is quite audible) tossing out increasingly bizarre asides to the musicians, and attempting to scat between verses.
#9. “Christmas Must Be Tonight.” Apologies to Creedence Clearwater Revival, but there simply was no better (North) American band from 1968 to 1971 than The Band. Which I guess is a moot point here, as “Christmas Must Be Tonight” dates from their less-consistent later years. Originally intended to be a special, non-album single release for Christmas 1975, it was dumped at the last minute, and ultimately included on their patchwork final release, Islands, in 1977. Good thing, too, as the dire Islands needs a lift, and “Christmas Must Be Tonight” re-visits the strengths of the Band’s glory days — Rick Danko’s soulful vocals, Garth Hudson’s mystical organ, and a rural, rustic arrangement that hearkens back to an era (music writer Greil Marcus calls it the “old, weird America”) that none of the Band members could possibly be old enough to remember — half-history, half-fantasy, it all comes from chief songwriter Robbie Robertson’s fertile imagination. BEST VERSION: The Band. My research indicates Hall & Oates also took a stab at it, and there’s an iTunes-only version by Band heir-apparents My Morning Jacket that just came out a few weeks ago.
#8. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” At this point, we should discuss the merits of Christmas albums. There’s always a few new ones each year, generally by flash-in-the-pan mediocrities (most often from competition TV shows) hurriedly shoved out as a cynical cash-grab to pad out their sales figures, which will soon go into steep decline when the American public, with its squirrel-monkey attention span, moves on to the next TV-endorsed mediocrity. When it gets right down to it, the best Christmas albums all came out between 1945 and 1965. I feel that way not because I’m necessarily the world’s biggest Andy Williams or Gene Autry fan, but because by comparison, the newer ones sound kind of vapid and overly slick. Working beyond this Golden Age, your best bet is compilations — collections of songs by various artists. And even during the Golden Age, one of the best Christmas albums was a compilation. Well, sort of. All of the various artists were on the same label (Philles Records), all of the songs were recorded at the same time for the same record, and the whole project had a single producer: Phil Spector, the label’s co-founder. The future convicted murderer gathered together his top four artists — The Ronettes, The Crystals, Darlene Love, and, uh…Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans (how did that happen?), put together amped-up versions of some Christmas favorites featuring his big, booming Wall Of Sound production technique, and let loose this gleeful explosion of holiday bliss — on November 22, 1963. Understandably, it kind of fizzled at the time. But A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records (later pressings of the record replaced “Philles Records” with “Phil Spector”) had staying power, and now it stands proudly atop the Christmas album heap. BEST VERSION: When that creepy cat lady Susan Boyle is deservedly long-forgotten, Darlene Love and her “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” will continue to have eternal life. (Two or three Christmases ago, Boyle was a household name, but just for a moment there, you thought to yourself, “Susan who?” didn’t you? See? It’s already happening. And what Christmas song did she do definitively, for all time? Exactly. Not a damn one.)
#7. “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” From the 1944 musical Meet Me In St. Louis, originally performed by Judy Garland‘s character to cheer up her younger sister, who was upset over the family’s impending upheaval from St. Louis to New York. As performed in the film, it’s a pretty depressing little number. I certainly wouldn’t be cheered up by it. In fact, listening to the original lyrics and Garland’s down-in-the-dumps performance, I’d be ready to put my head in a noose. BEST VERSION: Frank Sinatra remembers that it’s OK for Christmas to be somewhat sad and reflective in small doses, but shouldn’t be suicide-inducing. With a few lyrical adjustments (“until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” becomes “hang a shining star upon the highest bough”) and an overall mellower tone, the song retains its melancholy, but feels like it’s more concerned with starting a new chapter in a new year, rather than mourning an old one.
#6. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” “So this is Christmas/And what have you done?” John Lennon never hesitated to point a finger at who was causing the decline of civilization — it was mostly us. Average people content to not get involved, to roll over and elect politicians who were bought and paid for by corporate interests to continuously enmesh us in morally unjustifiable wars because we’re too distracted by iPhone apps to object to the consistent screwing we’re receiving. (No, iPhone apps did not exist when Lennon recorded the song in 1971, but the point is still valid.) Lennon believed all that bullshit could stop if people wanted it badly enough. Forty years later, some things are better, some things are worse, so it basically balances out. Nothing is going to change any time soon…”People get the government they deserve,” goes the acid remark attributed (probably incorrectly) to Alexis de Tocqueville, and it’s pretty hard to dispute. Remember, the full slogan concocted by Lennon back in 1969 reads “War is over…if you want it.” BEST VERSION: If there’s a version that’s not John Lennon backed by the Harlem Children’s Choir (and, yes, Yoko), then I don’t want to hear it.
#5. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” This one began life as an obscurity buried in a forgotten M-G-M musical of 1949 (Neptune’s Daughter — skip it), a not-really-Christmas duet between a guy trying to get a girl to spend a cold winter’s night with him, and the girl making increasingly pathetic excuses to leave. It flashed to life again briefly in the Mad Men-cocktail lounge-loving late ’50s and early ’60s, then languished until revived — quite charmingly — by professional charmer Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell in the 2003 comedy Elf. Ever since, it’s been an unavoidable holiday staple. Best Version: Dean Martin. With good ol’ Dino crooning it, the listener knows that a) the girl is going to stay, and b) she’ll be fine. (Also, Deschanel has recently re-visited the song with her indie-rock duo She & Him, and the roles are reversed — she’s the seducer, and musical partner M. Ward is the poor sap with one eye on his watch and the other on the door.) [2017 EDIT: Seeing as how this six-year-old blog post is getting more hits this year than it did when first posted, in light of recent disturbing, predatory events in the entertainment industry…yeah, the song can be seen as problematic, but I’ll stand by it (if not necessarily its #5 placing.) The subtext of the song is really about social mores and restrictive expectations for single women of the ’40s. In other words, she wants to stay, but has no sexual autonomy in a judgmental and patriarchal society, and is afraid of the 70-year-old equivalent of being slut-shamed. If the song is still a little uncomfortable for you, mentally dump it, put Aretha Franklin’s version of “Winter Wonderland” in at #25, and move everything else up a notch. And honestly, I don’t know why I placed “Cold” so high in the first place. I think I just really like Dean Martin, and Elf. ]
#4. “Christmas Vacation.” The surprisingly soulful opening theme song for the 1989 comedy classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. The annual viewing of the movie on or around my birthday (Dec. 3) has made the song a kind of audio ribbon-cutting, marking the official beginning of Christmas in Holy Bee Land. “It’s that time/Christmas time is here/Everybody knows there’s not a better time of year…” (Another great “season opening” song is Perry Como’s 1951 “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.”) BEST VERSION: Mavis Staples from the original soundtrack.
#3. “The Christmas Song.” Also known by its opening line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” this has been the closing song for every Christmas mix I’ve ever made. Musically sparse and lyrically clunky, this Mel Torme-penned standard transcends its technical limitations on spectacularly mellow reindeer wings (?) of pure mood and feel. BEST VERSION: Nat King Cole. Cole recorded this four times between 1946 and 1961, with the last version being the best (and best-known.)
#2. White Christmas. First heard in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” (written by Irving Berlin) became a sentimental favorite with both U.S. soldiers spending their first Christmas of World War II away from home, and those that awaited their return. (In December 1942, American forces were in either the tropical Solomon Islands, or the deserts of North Africa. In either case, nothing sounded more appealing than a white Christmas. Armed Forces Radio kept the song in constant rotation.) “White Christmas” had a life of its own throughout the 1940s, reaching the Billboard charts’ #1 spot a record three times between 1942 and 1946. So many pressings of the song were made that the original master recording was worn out, and a new note-for-note re-recording had to be made by Crosby and his orchestra in 1947. (This is the version generally heard today.) Even in the age of the digital download, “White Christmas” retains the Guinness World Record of biggest-selling single to this day, with more than 50 million copies sold. (For comparison, the second-biggest single is Elton John’s Princess Diana tribute “Candle In The Wind 1997” which comes in at 33 million.) It was included in Crosby’s Christmas album (which has been continuously in print in various formats for 66 years), and a quasi-remake of Holiday Inn built around the song (titled, naturally, White Christmas) was the top box-office draw of 1954. So yeah, the song was (and is) kind of a big deal as a cultural phenomenon. And you know what? Unlike a lot of “cultural phenomenon” songs, it’s actually pretty good. (“Macarena” moved 11 million copies.) BEST VERSION: Bing can’t really be beaten, but the Drifters’ 1954 R&B version is top-notch (even Irving Berlin himself said he liked it.)
#1. “Good King Wenceslas.” A left-field choice, to be sure, but there are a thousand “Top Christmas Songs” lists out there and almost all of them have either “White Christmas” or “The Christmas Song” as #1. (Then there’s those deeply disturbed ones that have Wham!’s “Last Christmas” or that Mariah Carey thing at #1.) [2017 Edit: I’ve grown to love Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas.” But it ain’t no #1.]
“Good King Wenceslas” is my personal favorite Christmas song of all for a couple of reasons. 1) It has a rich history, appealing medieval feel, and bone-chilling winter imagery. 2) Nothing is better for whistling to yourself while trimming a tree or trying to find a parking space at the mall on December 23. (The story the song tells actually takes place on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26.)
The lyrics were composed in 1853, and tell the story of a real-life Duke of Bohemia from early medieval times who was famously charitable to the poor. (He was sainted and made a “king” retroactively.) The music, though, dates from the 1200s (!) and was originally a spring carol (I didn’t even know they had those) called “Tempus Adest Floridum.” The first set of lyrics celebrated budding flowers and a return of warmer weather. Evidently, classical music purists turn their nose up at “Good King Wenceslas” as a “bastardization.” Which is why they don’t get invited to many Christmas parties. BEST VERSION: Crash Test Dummies, even though the lyrics are truncated. Here’s the full-length Irish Rovers version, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.
“Frosty The Snowman” –Written in 1950 for Gene Autry specifically as a sequel to “Rudolph,” I have to say I prefer the first song. But this one’s all right, especially as done by the Ronettes on the Phil Spector Christmas album.
“Wonderful Christmastime.” Bad by any objective standard? I suppose an argument could be made. Do I like it? You bet. We all have our blind spots. For some peculiar reason, I decided years ago it’s good luck to hear this being played in a public place during the holidays (mall, grocery store, etc.) Can’t explain why.
And it just wouldn’t be a Holy Bee essay if I didn’t share with you some Christmas songs that I really don’t care for:
“Twelve Days Of Christmas” — Don’t you get tired of this damn thing by about the sixth day? What a chore of a song. (If you need to hear some version of it, the a cappella group Straight No Chaser deconstruct it pretty handily.)
“All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”; “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” — My tolerance for Christmas “novelty” songs extends as far as a grudging acceptance of the “The Chipmunk Song.” The rest can all go die in a fire.
“We Need A Little Christmas” — Originally from the 1966 musical Mame, this one’s stridently “Broadway” with a capital B, and just a little too chipper. Irritating.
“Santa Baby”; “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” — Sexualizing St. Nick? Ewwwwwwww. (Clarence Carter’s R&B classic “Back Door Santa” is the exception.)
“Silent Night”; “O Holy Night” — Yes, I know you love them. But to my ears they’re dreary as hell and slow, slow, slow. At least “O Holy Night” has some kind of climax, though. “Silent Night” plods along grimly to nowhere. (As a complete set of lyrics and music composed together, “Silent Night” is considered the oldest Christmas song still regularly performed, with the German version dating from 1818. As we’ve already seen, many carols have older words, a few have older music, but none have both. And I guess Al Green does a tolerable version of it.)
The soulless, overblown robot symphonies shoveled out by Mannheim Steamroller are like a loud drunk yelling in your ear during the office Christmas party and will merit no further discussion here.
And if it came down to ever hearing the nauseating “Christmas Shoes” one more time or giving up Christmas altogether, I would have to give it serious thought. I’ll paraphrase myself from an earlier Christmas essay: Whoever wrote that pig-turd of a song should only be kept alive long enough to watch his own entrails being eaten by large tropical rodents.