Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 22, 2003
POP CULTURE: Christmas Songs
OK, in the spirit of list-making, I've drawn up a list of my favorite popular music performances of Christmas songs. Not necessarily favorite songs, as much as favorite recorded performances. Thus, for example, I haven't included "Joy to the World" here, even though it's just about my favorite Christmas hymn, because I have yet to hear any one artist put to record a version of the song that can match a church choir raining down the hymn as you process out of Mass on Christmas morning, an experience that's about as close to God as man gets on this earth. A few others missed the cut as well because I couldn't think of one definitive performance, like "Let it Snow! Let it Snow!," and I left off the songs from one of my favorite Christmas movies, "Scrooge," starring Albert Finney, since on their own they aren't really that Christmasy. I wound up with 17 tunes that made the cut.
Here we go:
17. Bing Crosby - Adeste Fidelis (O Come All Ye Faithful) - Crosby does the Latin version of this, interspersed with the modern hymn in English, in a way that perfectly captures the virtues of the old Catholic Church.
16. Bruce Springsteen - Merry Christmas Baby - An excellent tune, albeit a bit less Christmasy than some of the others on the list. Clarence Clemons' sax carries this one.
15. Elvis Presley - Blue Christmas - Elvis wouldn't seem to go with Christmas, but he gets it right with "Blue Christmas."
14. Various Artists - Do They Know It's Christmas? - Yes, it combines 80s cheesiness with liberal condescension, but the impulse - giving to the less fortunate at the holidays - has its heart in the right place, and this is a fun song.
13. John Lennon/Yoko Ono - Merry Xmas (War is Over) - See #14; Lennon's wacky peacenikery strikes the right note for a Christmas aspiration, even if it was foolish politics at the time (after all, the Vietnam War didn't really end until one side was overrun and enslaved by the other).
12. Burl Ives - Holly Jolly Christmas - I left off the list songs that were truly inseparable from TV specials, like the themes for the Grinch and the Heat Miser, but this tune (always identified with Rudolph) makes the cut. Ives' voice is like a warm fireplace and a cup of hot chocolate all by itself.
11. Johnny Mathis - Winter Wonderland - One of the oddities of Christmas music is that people will listen to artists from genres they wouldn't listen to normally; you wound't catch me listening to Johnny Mathis any other time of year. But at Christmas time, he's one of the ones who makes his annual reappearance.
10. Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song - You know, the "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" song, Cole's signature tune.
9. Mariah Carey - All I Want for Christmas is You - I'm not much of a Mariah Carey fan, but there's some decent stuff on her Christmas album, and this old-time Motown-style tune is really good; if she did a whole album like it, she could revive her career in very short order.
8. Bing Crosby - White Christmas - The all-time classic.
7. Darlene Love - Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - I first came to know this one through the U2 version, which is quite good, but Love's voice gave this song just a little extra emotion. I'm very partial to "A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector," which remains the greatest Christmas record ever made (in spite of Spector himself being a psychopath); besides the two songs listed here, many others were close runnerups to other versions.
6. Gene Autry - Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - Autry's gentle, genial version still tops what's come after it.
5. Leon Redbone/Dr. John - Frosty the Snowman - Thumpity thump thump, thumpity thump thump . . . Redbone and Dr. John complement each other perfectly.
4. Harry Connick jr. - (It Mus've Been Ol') Santa Claus - It's very hard to write a new Christmas song that stands up to the classics, but this one, from Connnick's Christmas album from about 10 years ago, is as close as it gets, with just the right mix of humor and Christmas magic.
3. The Ronettes - Sleigh Ride - Another Phil Spector production.
2. Bruce Springsteen - Santa Claus is Comin' to Town - Bruce just owns this tune. I saw him perform it live in 1992, complete with a dancing Christmas tree onstage, albeit without Clarence Clemons. Brought the house down.
1. Bing Crosby - I'll Be Home For Christmas - Well, that's what we all want - home for Christmas. Of course, this song had its heydey when millions of Americans could only listen to it on Armed Forces Radio somewhere in the South Pacific, or in Europe or anywhere else but home.
Honorable Mentions: "Christmas is the Time to Say I Love You," by Billy Squier; and "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," which barely elicits a chuckle today but which I thought was the funniest thing I ever heard when I was about 8 years old.