In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas. Actually, it’s not so much a feeling as a sound. And that sound is currently dominated by Christmas music.
Or maybe we should say holiday music, or winter music, since a bunch of these “Christmas” songs don’t mention Christmas: “Frosty the Snowman,” “Winter Wonderland,” etc.
Call it what you will, it’s almost inescapable now through Christmas Day. And it’s enough to turn anyone Scrooge-ward.
There are dozens if not hundreds if not thousands of versions of the same two-dozen holiday “classics” sung by everyone from David Hasselhoff to Twisted Sister. Every so often a new holiday tune appears and quickly wears out its welcome (“All I Want for Christmas Is You,” “Last Christmas” – we’re looking at you).
There are, thankfully, a few diamonds to be plucked from this musical debris, recordings that express holiday joy without being cloying, that bring an actual smile to your face when you hear their first few notes.
These are those rare holiday tunes you can hear more than once a season without wanting to ax-murder a Christmas tree.
Ladies and gentlemen, season’s greetings and start your playlists:
Various artists – A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector
Yes, Spector was a murderer and an all-around creep besides. He did, though, make some great records and this is his crowning achievement. Spector’s Wall of Sound production feels tailor-made for holiday music and the Ronettes, Crystals and especially Darlene Love rise to the occasion with some of their best performances. There’s one original here, Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” which has been covered numerous times. This, however, is the only version you need to hear. Accept no substitutes.
The Beach Boys – “Little Saint Nick”
Santa’s sleigh is reimagined as a souped-up hot rod in this gleeful track, which draws its horsepower from the Beach Boys’ trademark harmonies. Speaking of “run, run reindeer” …
Keith Richards – “Run Rudolph Run”
If you’re appalled by the idea of the most stoned Stone singing a Christmas tune, stick with Chuck Berry’s far tighter original version. Neither Keef’s vocals nor his guitar work could pass a field sobriety test but that’s part of the raucous, ramshackle charm of this one-off oddity.
Bruce Springsteen – “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”
Live, Springsteen generates joy to a degree usually reserved for children on Christmas morning. Small wonder, then, that this performance, recorded in 1975, is genuinely wondrous. Bruce and the E Street Band turn the tune into genuine, thrilling rock ‘n’ roll.
Louis Armstrong – “Cool Yule” and “Zat You, Santa Claus”
Satchmo swings along with Santa “from Coney Island to the Sunset Strip” on the former track and hopes that thing going bump in the night is the jolly old elf himself on the latter.
Vince Guaraldi Trio – “Linus and Lucy”
We’ve loved this ditty since the first time we saw “A Charlie Brown Christmas” way back when. Spring for Guaraldi’s soundtrack album if you enjoy your holiday favorites with the slightest hint of melancholy.
B. Bumble & the Stingers – “Nut Rocker”
“The Nutcracker” is a Christmas perennial, so we’re nominating this rocking remake of the ballet’s “March” for holiday favorite status.
Charles Brown – “Please Come Home for Christmas”
We salute the Eagles for rescuing this song from obscurity with their 1978 cover. Brown’s original, though, is the version you’ll want to hear again.
Donny Hathaway – “This Christmas”
A soulful, sophisticated celebration of Christmas from the late singer.
Run-D.M.C. – “Christmas in Hollis”
Built around a sample of Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa,” “Christmas in Hollis” celebrates Christmas, Santa, Mom, chicken, collard greens and “chillin’ and coolin’ just like a snowman.” Smart, funny, timeless.
The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl – “Fairytale of New York”
A cinematic tale of high hopes and heartache told by two down-on-their-luck Irish immigrants and performed with sympathetic brilliance by The Pogues with the late and much-lamented Kirsty MacColl.
The Ventures – “Sleigh Ride”
The kings of ‘60s instrumental rock interpolate their own “Walk, Don’t Run” into the holiday perennial for a twangy holiday treat.
Elvis Presley – “Santa Claus Is Back in Town”
Sure, “Blue Christmas” is great, but this is the growling, grinding Elvis that struck fear into the hearts of 1950s parents and other guardians of decency. And that’s why it’s here.