I think it may have something to do with 7 th Grade Choir and “Holiday Hoedown,” or maybe it was Gramma’s awful 8-track of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir featuring Snow White Sucking Helium, but I am deeply obsessed with Christmas music. The Husband-Type Man and I are bad influences on each other in this arena, and have no real governor in our brains that says “Hey, maybe, just maybe ‘Christmas with the von Trapp Children’ ain’t gonna be worth the nine bucks at Amoeba.” Instead, we spur each other on to increasingly obscene heights of Holiday Music Mania. Between the Kevin & Bean Christmas albums, the scratchy LPs I stole from Gram, and the special things we manage to unearth for each other and as gifts, it might be possible to think… um… that maybe we have… more Christmas music than the average person might… well, might think healthy. This year, when I broke into the stash, I discovered that there are over 2000 Christmas mp3s alone scanned on Medusa.
That shit ain’t right.
Needless, this has lead to some deep discussion about the Bests and Worsts of Christmas Music
So while I eagerly await the arrival of my amazon.com shipment containing the Bonanza Christmas on the Ponderosa soundtrack with Michael Landon warbling “Shenandoah,” I figgered, why not cobble together some suggestions for the holidays? Besides, I’m sick of working on end-of-semester papers.
The Best (in no particular order)
Christmas Piglet – Presidents of the United States of America
It’s not Christmas until me and The Husband-Type Man blast "Christmas Piglet."
The first time we heard it, we laughed until it hurt. It’s sheer brilliance, from “holy piglet, aren’t you cold?” to the way the vocals clash so it sounds like they’re saying “Crisp little piglet.” Now, we always kick off the barrage of holiday hits with the inaugural run of “Christmas Piglet”… which usually dissolves into much moshing and headbanging. “Aw, Chris’mas piglet!” Plus piglets are always awesome. Every Christmas song should end with “Piglet!”
Patrick Swayze Christmas – Crow T. Robot from Mystery Science Theater 3000
Stunning. Truly stunning. Inspired by the classic flick Roadhouse, the MST3K gang trilled this ditty on the ep with “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” (which I remember seeing on the Tom Hatten Family Film Festival back in the 70s). This can be the Swayziest Christmas of them all!
O Holy Night – Tracy Chapman
Most people claim “O Holy Night” as their favorite Christmas carol, but I gotta admit, I usually hate it. More often than not, from Wistey Hooton to Neil Diamond to N*Sync to Mariah Carey, it becomes a big ol’ obnoxious glory-note-fest, with exhausting vocal runs and shrieks and bellows. But Tracy Chapman does something totally different with it. It’s gentle, reflective, poignant, and just slightly dark. Beautiful.
Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth – Bing and Bowie
Aw, man. Who would’ve thought, at the time, that combining Der Bingle and the Thin White Duke would work so well? Both men’s voices are so rich and blend beautifully, and the “Peace on Earth” medley makes a truly tardly song something special; Bing can manage to croon “rum pum pum pum” so it makes a gently anachronistic framework to David (“God,” tm Birmie) Bowie’s soaring, just-this-side-of-schmaltzy plea.
Coventry Carol – Alison Moyet
Simply put, a beautiful song performed by a beautiful singer.
Celebrate Me Home – Kenny Loggins
Is this considered a Christmas song? It’s about being home for the holidays, you know. And I love it. LOVE! Plaintive and happy all at once. I love the notion of being “celebrated home” with music and family. Not that I can relate to that or anything. Hi, Mom!
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – Barenaked Ladies/Loreena Mckennitt
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with this song. Like with so many Christmas Carols, when it’s bad, it’s horrid. I was also scarred by an experience at Hypocrite High School, in which one of our multi-weekly chapel meetings included a local church’s jazz band made up of “troubled kids” or somesuch. Anyway. 1) They sucked. 2) They were all cool jazz, which I hate. 3) They did an interminable version that they called “God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen.” And it wasn’t even the holiday season; it was MARCH! Jeepers. So that atonal bleating peppered my knowledge of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” for, like, a decade.
But when it’s good, there’s an awesome, haunting quality to it (see also: “We Three Kings”) that I dig. Loreena McKennitt’s version is really nice that way. But I also dig the Barenaked Ladies’ rendition (with Sarah McLachlan); it’s not as formal or overwrought as others.
Marshmallow World – Dino
Ah, Dean. When he sings about a “marshmallow world,” it sounds like he’s just pulled his dick out of a dame’s mouth, busted a nut on her forehead, zipped up hastily, and beat tracks into the recording studio. That “yum yummy” stuff he means ain’t just candy. Or if it is, it’s being licked off his balls by the Del Rubio Triplets.
Christmastime – Aimee Mann and Michael Penn
Who says Christmas songs have to be all upbeat and happy? This heartbreaker is sublime, providing a counterpoint to the whole Happy Suburban Family!!!! crap that the most atrocious made-for-TV holiday movies promote. I love it when Aimee and Michael sing together anyway, and the melancholia herein is an ideal showcase for their combined voices.
Washington Square – Chris Isaak
Speaking of non-upbeat Christmas stuff…. Gads, this is lovely! And it’s not just ‘cos Chris Isaak is dreamy.
Mele Kelikimaka – Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters/Reel Big Fish
Yes! Kick ASS! It’s such a silly song in the first place, and so fun to sing along with. But I’m hard-pressed to choose between Bing and Patty and Maxene and LaVerne’s version versus Real Big Whoop’s. On the one hand, there’s groovy old-time swingin’ music, swoonin’ and croonin’. On the other? Um… well… there’s spanking and infantilism. Both spectacular good fun in their own way. And let me throw in an honorable mention for Chris Isaak’s smooth, smooth version.
Silent Night/7 O’Clock News – Simon and Garfunkel
Jayzum. It’s hard to listen to anything else after this one. It so easily could’ve been hokey and overdone, but instead, the slowly-rising volume of the news stories in the background with Paul and Artie’s boyishly mature harmonies meld into a relic from the past that continues to be politically, socially and musically relevant. Politics and Christmas? Yeah. It ain’t all ‘bout fruitcake.
Happy Christmas (War is Over) – John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Shut up. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if the lyrics are simple and if Yoko is caterwauling in the background. I’m still a hippie at heart, and this song still can make me believe, even for a very short instant, that most of mankind would prefer peace on earth.
Band Aid – Do They Know It’s Christmas
You can attribute it to the fact that I was a 14-year-old Durannie when this came out, but, considering that My Boyfriend is one of the vocal lowlights of this song, there’s clearly more to it than that. It’s altruistic and even a little sappy, but sincere… not to mention a cultural touchstone- heck, cultural watershed! Some bitch about the “there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime” because, well, of COURSE there won’t be, because it’s not CHRISTMAS in Africa the same way it is in England. But that’s kinda the point… while happy middle-class folk are eating figgy pud and shopping for pressies at the local Marks and Spencer, in stark contrast, there are people not so far away dying of starvation and disease and unaware of any “holiday” season in the western traditional sense. So if we’re gonna bang on about “peace on earth!” and “give me presents!” and all that, maybe we should think about what that means on a global/human scale for even just a couple seconds. And actually, if you really listen to the lyrics, it can sound pretty cynical; THTM pointed out just how double-edged the line “well, tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you” can sound. I concur… especially the way Bono sings it. Makes you think.
Back Door Santa - Clarence Carter
Mommy thought I’d made this one up, but it’s a real, live, honest-to-goodness blues song (although Jet did a groovy cover on one of the Kevin & Bean Christmas Albums)… and is supposedly a play on The Doors’ “ Back Door Man.”
They call me the back door Santa
I make my runs about the break of day
They call me the back door Santa
I make my runs about the break of day
I make all the little girls happy, while the boys are out to play
I ain't like the old Saint Nick, he don't come but once a year
I ain't like the old Saint Nick, he don't come but once a year
I come runnin’ with my presents, every time they call me dear
Dress THAT in red velvet! Uh HUH!
Merry Christmas Baby – Rudy Ray Moore
You know South Park’s Chef? Yeah, this is where he really got it.
Bobby and I were already in love with the blaxploitation Dolamite flicks (Mutherfucker!), so I just about turned inside out with excitement some years ago when I found a Rudy Ray Moore Christmas Album… called This Ain’t No White Christmas, even! Aw, Bobby… that was what Christmas was all about, wasn’t it, honey?
Anyway, “Merry Christmas Baby” starts off dirty and just gets dirtier. And nastier. And Rudy Ray Moore-i-er. And- yeah.
What’s frightening, though, is one can also listen to Rudy Ray Moore’s routines for examples – dirty, dirty, dirty ones, natch – of what Henry Louis Gates identified as “signifyin’.” So it’s fun AND educational!
Dominick the Donkey – Lou Monte
It really, truly is a song about Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey… with bad jingle-bells and “hee haws” and Italian accents and everything. So bad. So good. So goodly bad.
Home for the Holidays – Perry Como
If there was a song that encapsulated all my associations with Christmas from childhood, this would be it. I might as well be 8 years old, riding in the old brown LTD to Food Basket with Gramma and Papa to help pick out the Christmas tree (which would be festively adorned with those frosted lights and tinsel icicles). And it’s a sweet holdover, my own personal associations with it aside.
Christmastime is Here – Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown soundtrack
Aw, just magic. This song sounds like the first snowfall, gingerbread fresh from the oven, shiny wrapping paper and ribbons, and pine needles. Like candy canes when they were a real treat, not plastic-wrapped stale things. How can it sound so happy and sad at the same time? But, ah, isn’t that the ultimate mystery of most Krimma tunes…?
Christmas Island – The Andrews Sisters
That awful noise? Just me chirping along with Maxene, Patty and LaVerne! Silly, lounge-y, tiki-tiki holiday goodness, perfectly evocative and/or kitschy nostalgia all in one! “How'd you like to stay up late like the islanders do?/Wait for Santa to sail in with your presents in a canoe….” Actually, when you think about it, Christmas Island wouldn’t be such a hot place to spend Christmas back in the 1950s, but… but remember when anything “island” was exotic and exciting!? I wonder if they have hula dancers there!
Christmas Bride – Ray Conniff Singers.
How is it that, with my abhorrence of schlock, I can love this song so much? It must be Gram’s fault, her and her scratchy Christmas records (including the aforementioned Perry Como, but NOT the Mormon Tabernacle Choir 8-track!) from when I was little. I’m well aware of the sexism of the lyrics, the tooliness of the harmonies, and the stupidity of the song’s pretense, but… I still love it and you can’t stop me! Ha!
Santa’s Got a GTO – The Ramonas
No, not the Ramones… the Ramonas. This is the title track on the Rodney Bingenheimer Christmas album, which he made to, um… pay off the probate on his mom’s estate after she died. So it’s a kind-of charity album. Anyway, this is a good, fun, rowdy punk rock song.
Gabriel’s Message – Sting
Sting is so utterly Stingy in his Stingified Stinginess. The musical arrangement and vocal effects are both exaggerated and haunting, yet there’s just enough quintessentially borderline-deprecating Stinginess to take it that little bit over the top and still make it work.
Merry Christmas Darling – The Carpenters
Karen totally nails it. Tender, with just the right amount of bittersweetness. And I’ll admit, it makes me weep.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside – Tom Jones and Cerys
For the most part, this song is traditionally a sweet holiday ode to date rape. You know, boys pressuring girls to go a little further, aided, if need be, by a furtive splash of strong alcohol in order to get their sweaty paws up a girl’s angora sweater. When Doris and Bing sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” it’s hard not to imagine that, come Valentine’s Day, Doris will tremulously be telling Bing they’re “in trouble” and “you told me nothing happened that night!” But when Tom and Cerys sing it, one gets the feeling that they’re already tearing each other’s clothes off – or at least flirting about it – to mutual enjoyment. Oh yeah!
Riu Chiu – The Monkees.
No, that’s really The Monkees. This song is an old sixteenth century Spanish traditional folksong, entreating the Virgin Mary/the river to protect the town from the wolf “waiting to bite.” If you take the time to translate the lyrics, there’s a lot of sexual innuendo in there, btw. Anyway, lovely harmonies, and not your typical holiday schlock.
Jingle Bells – Glenn Miller
Those fucking barking dogs. Admittedly, I didn’t like “Jingle Bells” before the Barking Dogs, but that only made a bad thing worse. Hence, I’ve decided, after many, many tries at various versions, the only good renditions of the usually-craptastic “Jingle Bells” gotta be swingin’! Frankie’s not bad. Even Brian Setzer’s version is pretty kickin’. But the one I dig most is Glenn Miller’s. “I’ve got my horn to keep me warm!” HOT! Swing it, now.
Ave Maria – The Carpenters
There are two versions of “Ave Maria,” and this one is the more straight translation of “Hail Mary.” And when Karen sings it, not only am I in tears, I’m ready to become a Catholic. Total goosebumps.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Judy Garland
I would give up every other holiday tune for this one. Sublime. Perfect. Heartbreaking. Definitive. Of course, the downside is that it makes me bawl like a little baby. I have to listen to it in private a few times to get all the tears out of my system first. Otherwise I might be caught off-guard like I was one year at the K-Mart in Princeton, and ended up leaking tears all over the holiday lights aisle. I love Meet Me in St. Louis anyway, but I don’t even have to see Judy and Margaret O’Brien – the most disturbing child actor of the Golden Age of Hollywood – sitting in a window seat to be affected. Only Judy could take this song beyond typical holiday schmaltz and saccharine; unlike, say, Doris Day or Barbra Streisand, when J. sings “we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” you believe in your soul that it’s going to take every ounce of emotional strength she possesses… not that it’s some little icky problem with, like, running out of scotch tape that’s standing in the way of a happy holiday. Hang on… I need to find my hanky….
That, accordingly, brings us to…