[Also check out The AV Club on Christmas stuff that doesn't suck.]
I’m a big fan of the garishness of Christmas; the light displays that make the Vegas strip look positively puritan in comparison, the cringe worthy holiday specials, and, most of all, the music. I’m not talking about the traditional songs of the ‘Silent Night’ variety, my preference is for the purely secular tunes that are so good that Jewish artist like Neil Diamond and Kenny G have been known to ‘lose their religion’ just to record a few of them. And, most of all, the weirder, stranger, and cornier these songs are, the more I like them.
To put this in context, my all time favorite Christmas album (that I have had on cassette since I was 15) is the first ‘A Very Special Christmas’ album. The first in a series of albums recorded to benefit the quite noble cause of The Special Olympics whose ‘all star’ casts could result in some pretty hysterical results… and, occasionally, oddly moving (Bob Seger’s rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” or The Pretenders take on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”)… and, sometimes, even completely appropriate (John Mellencamp’s fiddle driven take on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is absolutely perfect). So, here are some of my favorite ‘non-traditional’… and sometimes just flat out odd… holiday tunes. I look forward to hearing some of yours.
First of all, my all time favorite Christmas song is probably “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).” I was first introduced to this song through the U2 cover on the afformentioned ‘A Very Special’ Christmas album but, of course, have grown to love the Darlene Love original. What I love about the song is, Christmas or not, it’s such a great pop tune. Originally included on the Phil Spector produced ‘A Christmas Gift For You’ album (which, to my knowledge, is the only Christmas album to make Rolling Stones top 500 albums of all time) this has been a go to secular Christmas tune for years and has been recorded by so many artist over the years that, in fact, it’s sort of become a standard in it’s own right. Also, that Phil Spector production, with it’s chimes and echo, is absolutely perfect for creating that holiday vibe.
My favorite Christmas song as a kid was this version of “The 12 Days of Christmas” that was on a Disney Christmas album (that, yes, was owned on Vinyl). The song itself, is ridiculous enough. The various gifts, especially taken out of the historical context, are completely absurd (I’m also pretty sure that ‘ten lords ‘a leaping’ was excessive back then as well). I kind of suspect that this was actually written by a school teacher as a means of instructing her students memory and how to count backwards. However, what was great about the Disney version was that all of the various characters were given a specific line and Goofy, of course, was given the climactic line about “5 Golden Rings!” but, whenever his turn came around, he would always triumphantly belt “5 Onion Rings!”
I’m pretty sure I wore the record out listening to that one song… also drove my parents nuts.
And now, for the stranger stuff…
“Mistress For Christmas”- Ac/Dc- This is not a Christmas song… it’s just an Ac/Dc song that happens to mention the word ‘Christmas’. Totally inappropriate … which makes it the most appropriate choice for an Ac/Dc Christmas song. My favorite part is Brian Johnson’s jive/blues speak at the intro of “Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Jingle all de day.”
“Christmas In Hollis”- Run DMC- I was going to say that this was probably the first Christmas rap songs… but I’m pretty sure that, oddly enough, The Waitresses (of “I Know What Boys Like” fame) hold that honor with “Christmas Wrapping.” It might not be the first but, in my mind, it’s still the best. Also, it is the only ‘original’ Christmas song on the original ‘A Very Special Christmas’ album (all the others are traditional or covers). The line “It’s Christmas time in Hollis, Queens/ Mom’s cooking chicken and collared greens!” makes me smile every time.
“Having a Reggae Christmas”- Bryan Adams- this came out some time in the 80s and had a music video featuring Pee-Wee Herman… because when I think Christmas… I think Paul Reubens and, of course, mellow island rhythms.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”- Band Aid- Ok, yes, this song did bring the plight of famine to eyes of the western world and would, eventually, give us Live Aid and, even today, has morphed into the ‘One’ campaign and other organizations dedicated to debt relief but, c’mon, how cheesy is this song? It’s so very 80’s. My friends and I gather around every year to sing the ‘Bono Line’ while doing our best Bono impressions, (sing it with me) “Tonight thank God it’s them Instead of You!”
“Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight)”- The Ramones- actually, this one isn’t that bizarre; once you get past the novelty of a ‘Punk Rock Christmas Song’, Is it really all that different from something like “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” or “Blue Christmas”?
“Step Into Christmas”- Elton John- The phrase ‘Step Into Christmas’ has always really bothered me… for some reason it just makes me think of poo.
“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band- Ok, this one is totally traditional at this point, but my favorite part of this version, which was recorded live, is Bruce asking Clarence Clemons “you been a good boy this year, practicing real hard so Santa will bring you a new Saxophone?” Absolutely, adorable.
And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the David Bowie/Bing Crosby duet on “Little Drummer Boy.”
Now, will somebody please explain Mannheim Steamroller to me?