There are as many Christmas music traditions as there are stockings hung with with care.
For some, the process of awaiting ole St. Nick requires a classic soundtrack, filled with old favorites. For others, something newer makes sense.
Our lists are varied enough to accommodate both impulses.
So, yeah, we have Nat King Cole, Vince Guaraldi, Darlene Love, Burl Ives, Louis Armstrong and Andy Williams. But also Steve Earle, Ronnie James Dio, Steve Lukather, Chicago and Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
You are as likely to find John Coltrane and his ageless take on “Greensleeves,” as you are Alabama’s homage to down-home holidays, “Christmas in Dixie.” We have Jose Feliciano, and Chicago. Tony Bennett, and Booker T. and the MGs.
[BEST OF 2012: We're ranking everything, and we do mean everything, from this past year - rock, pop, jazz, country, reissues, studio efforts, live stuff. SER even has a list devoted completely to Beatles-related items.]
Actually, this only makes sense. For all of the communal spirit that seems to fill each of our hearts on Christmas, ultimately we celebrate this holiday in our way, with our own traditions. These lists bear that out.
Asked to create a countdown of five Yuletide songs — and only five — our panel of holly-jolly musical enthusiasts offered these suggestions …
S. VICTOR AARON
1. JOHN COLTRANE, “WHAT CHILD IS THIS? [GREENSLEEVES]” (1961): Any song from Africa/Brass can go on the island with me, but Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things”-styled reinvention of this Medieval English folk tune has the added bonus of long being associated with that special time of year.
2. NAT KING COLE, “THE CHRISTMAS SONG” (1961): Cole’s phrasing and pitch on this song is absolutely perfect, and that’s not a bad ditty Mel Tormé came up with, either.
3. JIMMY SMITH, “BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE” (1966): The warm, swinging tones of Smith with Wes Montgomery is like a furnace for cold ears on a chilly, late December day.
4. VINCE GUARALDI TRIO, “CHRISTMAS TIME IS HERE” (1965): This is the best song from the best-ever Christmas album, and still brings me back to watching the Peanuts Christmas Special on TV as a kid, and getting all stoked up for holidays.
5. CHICAGO, “THIS CHRISTMAS” (2003): Donny Hathaway’s jazzy soul carol gets the Chicago horns treatment, which makes a good contemporary Christmas song all the better.
1. THE BEACH BOYS, “LITTLE SAINT NICK” (1963): Reprising the entire arrangement of “Little Deuce Coupe,” and changing the lyrics to a Christmas theme, this super catchy tune gallops with glee just like Santa’s reindeer when they sprint from house to house, delivering toys to all the good girls and boys. And let’s not forget those godly harmonies!
2. THE BLUES MAGOOS, “JINGLE BELLS” (1967): Leave it to the Blues Magoos to record a heavy, grungy, freaky cover of the holiday classic. Must be heard to be believed!
3. THE ROYAL GUARDSMEN, “SNOOPY’S CHRISTMAS” (1968): Stacked with chiming sleigh bells, choir-boy choruses and lyrics promoting peace, this is pure gold pop.
4. JOHN LENNON, “HAPPY XMAS [WAR IS OVER] (1971): Pinned tight against Phil Spector’s booming Wall of Sound, “Happy Xmas” flourishes with gospel harmonies set to a pop format, blooming with beauty and grace. Peace, love and faith in the future are the positive, encouraging words complementing the stunningly sonic presentation. Simply timeless!
MATERIAL ISSUE, “MERRY CHRISTMAS WILL DO” (1991): ‘Tis the season to be jolly, but that is clearly not the case here. Carved of Material Issue’s trademark properties, involving tight instrumentation, sharp as a tack melodies and arresting vocals beaming with clarity and feeling, “Merry Christmas Will Do” unveils the sad story of a guy calling an ex-girlfriend on Christmas day. He knows she has moved onto another relationship, but he obviously still loves her. It’s easy to picture the poor fellow, sitting alone in a darkened room nursing his broken heart, ringing up his former gal pal, hoping her new partner doesn’t answer the horn. Listen and let the tears fall!
1. ARTHUR FIEDLER AND THE BOSTON POPS ORCHESTRA, “A CHRISTMAS FESTIVAL” (1959): A full blown, almost 9 minute, symphonic medley of popular carols and songs from the album of the same name. The track starts strong, quiets down, gradually grows in intensity, and ends with a very bombastic but electrifying take on “O Come All Ye Faithful” that comes blasting out of your speakers complete with tympani, pipe organ, and anything else Fiedler could add to the mix.
2. GREG LAKE, “I BELIEVE IN FATHER CHRISTMAS” (1975): Some say it’s an anti-Christmas song but Lake says otherwise. The melody is stolen from a classical piece, “Troika,” by Sergei Prokofiev. Like much of ELP’s music, this 45 RPM version with a full orchestra is prog-rock on uppers but it’s also a huge triumph.
3. THE CARPENTERS, “MERRY CHRISTMAS DARKLING” (1970): And now for something understated. Richard’s song, magnificently sung by Karen, is one many people can easily relate to at holiday time. Little sister’s golden voice was in top form.
4. ELVIS PRESLEY, “MERRY CHRISTMAS BABY” (1971): The King sings the blues. It’s slick, not down and dirty blues like much of the best of the genre, and his slightly humorous take is a bit campy, but Presley’s exceptional voice (the man could sing anything) and the crackerjack band behind him carry the tune home.
5. NAT KING COLE, “THE CHRISTMAS SONG” (1961): A classic. This last version is the definitive one. Mel Torme’s melody is very difficult to sing but Cole nails it effortlessly. Trust me, it’s not that easy.
1. BING CROSBY, “WHITE CHRISTMAS” (1947): Sure, Bing Crosby was a media superstar in his time, and Irving Berlin was one of America’s most popular songwriters. But Crosby’s Irish/English middle of the road upbringing was much different than that of Berlin, who was a Russian born Jewish immigrant, raised in poverty on New York’s Lower East Side. “White Christmas,” one of the most beautiful and enduring songs of the holiday season, is as much a testament to Berlin’s talent and craft as a songwriter as it is a testament to Crosby’s perfect vocal delivery of this simple eight-line lyric.
2. VINCE GUARALDI TRIO, “O TANNENBAUM” (1965): If you’re one of the last waves of the baby boomer generation, this 1965 soundtrack to the TV Christmas special works its magic every time. If even for just a few moments, the reality of a child’s perspective of beauty, perfection and a life well lived feels more real than one’s own adult cynicism and compromise needed to exist in the modern world.
3. HENRY ROLLINS, “‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS” (1991): I can’t say I get it, but I really do like to listen to it at least once or twice during the holidays … probably just on the off chance I will actually get it eventually.
4. GEORGE WINSTON, “THE HOLLY AND THE IVY” (1982): There’s not much to December, just some understated arrangements and beautiful played solo piano by George Winston. Overall, it’s very stately, yet very humble. If Brian Eno’s Ambient One: Music for Airports had a few melodies, it might sound like this.
5. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, “SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN” (1975): I’d love to know what cracks Bruce up during the final, extended chorus. I’m guessing Clarence dressed as Santa singing the “Ho ho ho ho” part?
1. DARLENE LOVE, “CHRISTMAS [BABY PLEASE COME HOME] (1963): I’m not sure I would’ve liked to have been a fly on the wall of sound when Phil Spector told his future wife Ronnie Spector she wasn’t cutting it as the lead vocalist on this song, replacing her with Darlene Love. In any case, the shimmering, full-throttle immediacy of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” makes this a stand-out track from the outstanding masterwork A Christmas Gift for You from Phil.
2. THE PRETENDERS, “HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS” (1987): I had a tough choice between with Chrissie Hynde’s touching, caressing vocal and the Karen Carpenter’s soothing warmth on the Carpenters version. But the clincher was the Pretenders’ sparse simplicity in contrast to some of the distracting orchestral and choral fussiness on the Carpenters version. Then there’s Richard’s hair …
3. CHUCK BERRY, “RUN RUDOLPH RUN” (1958): Meanwhile, I’m still thinking … What’s Christmas without background music for my duck-walking Santa routine?
4. THE TEMPTATIONS, “SILENT NIGHT” (1970): It doesn’t matter which of the two versions is played. Alternating them would be good, though I still couldn’t practice my “Temptation Walk.”
5. LOVIN’ SPOONFUL, “FULL MEASURE” (1966): “I heard them say it at Christmas, now I can say it too — the feeling of giving, it’s as good as I’m getting from you.” I’m probably the only one in the world to call this a Christmas song, but it gets to the heart of giving and love while a certain holiday warmth in vocals and melody can make you believe in the Christmastime magic that can set you free. It’s like egg nog for the soul.
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1. ANDY WILLIAMS, “CHRISTMAS BELLS” (1974): A timeless recording of beauty, raising one to the heavens whenever it’s played.
2. BOOKER T AND THE MGs, “WE THREE KINGS” (1966): An unusually solemn and moody slow instrumental version by this legendary combo. It’s both haunting and brings forth images of the three wise kings, journeying across the desert to their sacred destination.
3. LEROY ANDERSON, “SLEIGH RIDE” (1959): It’s just pure joy and happiness when this perennial Christmas instrumental classic plays every year at this time. Most orchestras have based their version on the Anderson original.
4. VINCE GUARALDI, “CHRISTMAS TIME IS HERE” (1965): Wonderful childhood memories come flooding back for me when this gentle, warm and fuzzy tune plays every year. Vince Guaraldi has captured the feeling of Christmas not only with this song but on the whole ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ soundtrack from which it’s drawn.
5. DERRICK HARRIOTT, “ORIGINAL REGGAE CHRISTMAS SONGBOOK MEDLEY” (1979): This fantastic 11-minute medley of traditional Christmas songs came out of left field, and it’s still a bouncy delight from start to finish. Harriott, a Jamaican producer and singing legend, pulled this together with a crew of other reggae talents like the Tamlins, Joy White, Reasons and U-Brown.
1. THURL RAVENSCROFT, “YOU’RE A MEAN ONE, MR. GRINCH” (1966): One of the best parts of Christmas for me is the first showing of the classic cartoon version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” It’s my favorite of the annual specials, and Christmas hasn’t started for me until I see it and hear this song.
2. TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA, “CHRISTMAS NIGHTS IN BLUE” (2004): One of my favorite TSO songs is not one of the sweeping, epic classical compositions, but this simple, yet incredibly catchy song that tells the story of a magical Christmas night in a New York City bar with Jelly Roll Morton playing holiday songs. It’s jazzy, bluesy and just hot as all hell.
3. TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA, “FIRST SNOW” (1996): I normally try to avoid more than one song/album from a single artist on these lists, but for Christmas it’s not possible for me. My favorite memory of this tune is taking my son to see the band live for the first time, and the wonder on his face when, as they played this song, snow began to fall from the roof of the arena. It’s one of the coolest parts of the TSO live show — and that’s saying something.
4. RONNIE JAMES DIO, TONY IOMMI, RUDY SARZO AND SIMON WRIGHT, “GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN,” (2008): It took a great deal of convincing by his wife to get Ronnie James Dio to agree to sing a Christmas song for the 2009 metal holiday compilation she was working on, but when she finally convinced him, it was one of the best parts of a surprisingly very solid collection. Dio and Iommi combine for a gloomy, heavy Sabbath-style take on the song.
5. TIM ‘RIPPER’ OWENS, STEVE MORSE, MARCO MENDOZA AND VINNY APPICE, “SANTA CLAUS IS BACK IN TOWN” (2008): Though he catches a lot of flack from Judas Priest and Iced Earth fans, I’ve always been an unapologetic fanboy of Tim Owens’ vocals, and he shreds on this old-school hard rock take on the song.
1. CHUCK BERRY, “RUN RUDOLPH RUN” (1958): You won’t find these guitar licks on Bing Crosby’s classic yuletide collection, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The Grateful Dead, Keith Richards, Jimmy Buffett and Billy Idol have all recorded this tune, but can’t match that Uncle Chuck’s relentless energy at the microphone and on the strings.
2. ALABAMA, “CHRISTMAS IN DIXIE” (1982): A Christmas celebration, northern Alabama style. Randy Owens and the boys have never sounded so sappy (excluding the redneck anthem “She and I”), but it works with this Southern holiday staple. In some parts of Alabama, I hear this album is still complementary holiday swag when purchasing a handle of Jack Daniels during December. That’s the spirit!
3. JOSE FELICIANO, “FELIZ NAVIDAD” (1970): Jose is probably the most storied cover musician (of all music) ever (excluding Elvis, of course) with chart hits like the Doors’ “Light My Fire” and countless others. But this Christmas song written by Feliciano himself is without a doubt his most widely known composition. There isn’t a kid or adult in America that doesn’t associate those Spanish guitar rhythms and trumpets with December.
4. STEVE EARLE, “CHRISTMAS IN WASHINGTON” (1987): Shortly after Clinton won re-election in ’96, Texas singer/songwriter and activist Steve Earle wrote this plea, calling for his heroes to come back and cure this “uneasy feeling” in his chest. Referencing Woody Guthrie, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, the tune displays some of the underground rocker’s most controversial lyrics — which is saying boatloads, considering Earle’s catalog. You’re not going to hear this track on your Santa satellite mix.
5. DARLENE LOVE, “CHRISTMAS [BABY PLEASE COME HOME] (1963): I first came to know the song as a kid watching Late Night with David Letterman around Christmas. Love has performed this tune on Dave every Christmas since the mid-80s and it’s still getting better every year, with a sax solo that would make Big Clarence proud. The passion and heartache Love exudes in this Phil Spector tune is unrivaled in any genre, no matter the season.
1. NAT KING COLE, “THE CHRISTMAS SONG” (1961): This Mel Torme-penned classic perfectly summarizes all the joy and wonder of Christmas. Add Cole’s warm, rich vocals, and you get the ultimate cozy Christmas carol.
2. VINCE GUARALDI TRIO, “CHRISTMAS TIME IS HERE” (1965): One of the most underrated jazz pianists of all time, Guaraldi’s stunning version combines holiday spirit with just a touch of melancholia. It’s simply a master class in subtlety and technique.
3. ANDY WILLIAMS, “IT’S THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR” (1963): Williams will always be remembered for his robust voice, and he uses it to full effect on this festive song.
4. JOSE FELICIANO, “FELIZ NAVIDAD” (1970): The extremely talented guitarist injected some international traditions into holiday music, and Christmas is all the better for it.
5. THE DRIFTERS, “WHITE CHRISTMAS” (1954): Sure, the Bing Crosby original set the standard, but the Drifters’ doo-wop makeover lends a playful touch to the rather sober track.
1. CHICAGO, “HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS” (1998): While I thoroughly enjoy Chicago’s takes on most Christmas carols (with some exceptions), this is the only of their carols that has become “the definitive version” of a given carol.
2. HALL AND OATES, “JINGLE BELL ROCK” (1983): H&O re-imagined this Bobby Helms classic and made it their own in the 80s, I daresay their take on this Christmas gem has aged better than many of their non-Christmas material of the same era. A pre-SNL G.E. Smith on guitar doesn’t hurt the song any either.
3. ROCH VOISINE, “O HOLY NIGHT” (2000): Roch has a beautiful voice that is perfectly suited for this carol. Easily my favorite of the traditional religious Christmas carols and Voisine’s vocals easily make his my favorite version.
4. STEVE LUKATHER AND SAMMY DAVIS JR., “JINGLE BELLS” (2003): Done with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach by Lukather. I love Lukather’s retro guitar solo and the blend of the classic Sammy version mixed with Lukather’s more contemporary approach to the song. I always like to keep an eye out for this gem.
5. ROBERT LAMM, “O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM” (1991): I found this rare gem on Napster back in the late ’90s. I’d argue that Lamm’s version of this Christmas classic are far better than some of his treatments of other Christmas classics on the Chicago Christmas CDs.
1. THE TEMPTATIONS, “RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER” (1970): Celebratory, but not entirely reverent, the Temptations took a kid’s song and transformed it into a funked-out and rollicking Yuletide hoot. “Hey, Rudolph!” the Temps yelp in unison, before repeating the conventional chorus. Talk about shouting out with glee.
2. LOUIS ARMSTRONG, “COOL YULE” (1953): Christmas has never sounded more hip. “He’ll come a-calling when the snow’s the most, and all you cats are sleeping warm as toast,” Satch scats with a happy growl. “And you’re gonna flip when old St. Nick takes a lick on the peppermint stick.” Cool, indeed.
3. TONY BENNETT, “SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN” (2008): A highlight from the aptly titled A Swinging Christmas, Tony’s Grammy-nominated, Bill Holman-arranged effort featuring the Count Basie Big Band. Bennett (always game, always approachable) remains the last of the great interpretive singers, and as winning as ever.
4. BURL IVES – “HOLLY JOLLY CHRISTMAS” (1965): His voice, and specifically this song (so goofy, so happy, so warmly conveyed, so perfectly welcoming), is the soundtrack of my childhood Yuletide memories.
5. RAMSEY LEWIS, “HERE COMES SANTA CLAUS” (1961): Lewis, it seems, can make anything listenable, even transcendent. Don’t believe it, look no further than this spiritual and swinging version of a blandly corny hit single for Gene Autry. I absolutely love it.
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