By Michael Stevenson
20. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” Jimmy Boyd (1952)
Jimmy Boyd was only 13 when he recorded this naughty little gem. The Catholic Church condemned the song for implying even a “tenuous link” between sex and the religious holiday,” and radio stations in several markets (including Boston) banned it for some time. Under the mistletoe, Mommy not only kisses Santa, but “tickles” him. And Daddy never suspects a thing – pathetic cuckhold that he clearly is. Or…?
19. “Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth” Bing Crosby and David Bowie
Bowie hated “Little Drummer Boy” and insisted on infusing the “Peace on Earth” tune to create this beautiful medley. Bing was a complex guy – a lousy father and skirt-chasing boozer – but as an old man, he was hip enough to sing a Christmas medley with Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie. Love this still!
18. “Baby Its Cold Outside” (Duet by Ray Charles/Betty Carter)
This is such a great song, and there’s been lot’s of fine versions over of the years, including over the end-credits of the sometimes-hilarious movie “Elf.” But no version can touch this one by Brother Ray and Betty Carter. I particularly love Betty’s vocals on this. Are the lyrics offensive in the year of #METOO ? #perhaps
17. “Carol of the Bells”
This song is based on a pagan folk chant welcoming Winter Solstice. It was Christinitized by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1904. Awesomely cool song, and Ukranian-cool, which is the best kind of cool.
16. “Feliz Navidad” (Jose Feliciano 1970)
Might be the best known and most sung Christmas song in the world. And as Steve Buscemi’s character says in Fargo, “with Jose Feliciano, you’ve got no complaints.”
This song also contains all the Spanish words I know.
15. “Thank You Very Much” (from “Scrooge” 1970)
From my favorite film version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” this song was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Song in 1970. Strangely enough, the original “Scrooge” soundtrack was never released on CD. Great cockney voices, great dancing, and a great lyric: “And if I had a bugle I would blow it / To add a sort of ‘ow’s-your-father touch/ But since I left my bugle at home /I’ll simply have to say / Thank you very, very, very much!”
14. “Winter Was Warm” Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics) sung By Jane Kean
Sad, beautiful song from “Mister MaGoo’s Christmas Carol,” which is a Stevenson family holiday cartoon staple. What a great idea – winter was warm. This tune always brings a tear to my eye, and in the cartoon it brings a tear to MaGoo’s eye (the ‘good’ eye that MaGoo could occasionally will to open)
13. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” – sung by Darlene Love
The best of Phil Spector’s Christmas recording. Darlene Love has performed the song every year since 1986 on the final new episode before Christmas of Late Night with David Letterman.
12. “Merry Christmas From Ken Griffin”
As a kid, this severely-scratched LP was among the most-played at Christmas time. Ken Griffin’s organ brought pleasure to many during the holiday season (perhaps even multiple pleasures.) Ken died of a heart attack on the road in 1956, but left behind this “Moby Dick” of organ music, complete with all the Christmas standards, from “The First Noel” to “Jingle Bells” (I prefer Griffin’s version of “Jingle Bells” to Ella Fitzgerald’s… and I am not at all kidding.) Listen in HIGH FIDELITY here (sounds best when playing with your toys, such as Rock’em, Sock’em Robots)
11. “My Favorite Things” (John Coltrane, 1961) The wintertime imagery of the lyrics had made this tune from “The Sound of Music” a holiday standard by the early ’60s. But I like it best with no lyrics voiced, and only John Coltrane blowing away on soprano sax. My dad would bring home a free multi-performer Christmas album when he purchased new snow tires from the local Firestone dealer. Vic Damone, Dinah Shore, Dennis Day, Jerry Vale and the usual suspects. But Coltrane was never on the annual Firestone Christmas LP.
10. “Happy Christmas” (aka “War Is Over”) – John & Yoko.
“War is over, if you want it…” We want it. I wonder if there has ever been a Christmas without a fucking war going on somewhere? Some of the images in this video are hard to watch, but that’s what make them so appropriate.
9. “Dah Who Doraze” (aka “Fah Who Foraze”)
From “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – Do you think The Who’s would concern themselves over the phony Fox News ‘War on Christmas’? …No. They would say, “Christmas day is in our grasp , so long as we have hands to clasp.” Who knew.
8. “If We Make It Through December” – Merle Haggard
“I don’t mean to hate December | It’s meant to be the happy time of year
And my little girl don’t understand | Why daddy can’t afford no Christmas here…” God Bless him,Haggard was one of the greatest. With the exception of this beautiful song and Brenda Lee’s gleefully goofy “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus,” I pretty much cannot stomach country Christmas songs. Sorry.
I7. “Fairytale of New York” -The Pogues
The line “I’ve got a feelin’ this year’s for me and you” nearly makes me cry every time I hear it. Rest in Peace, Kirsty MacColl. Sláinte to Shane Mac, Christy Moore and to the boys of the NYPD.
16. “O Holy Night” – Rickie Lee Jones with the Chieftains
This version is from the Chieftains’ splendid “The Bells of Dublin.” Rickie’s lead vocal, almost whispered at times, coupled with the dissonant uilleann pipes, provide a beautiful contrast to the grandiose “fall on your knees!” lyric. (Though I can dig it grandiose, as well)
5. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” 1984 performed by Band Aid
Far groovier than “We Are the World” and a great 80s-era rock artifact, I only wish Joe Strummer had contributed vocals on a verse (wonder if Geldolf asked him?) The song has raised more than $24 million to feed the world.
4. “Christmas Time is Here” (from “A Charlie Brown Christmas”) Vince Guaraldi Trio
The entire Charlie Brown soundtrack is the perfect antidote to shitty Christmas music (which is to say, most Christmas music.) I love the dancing at the Christmas party in the cartoon, with Schroeder rocking-out to Vince Guaraldi’s piano
3. “The Christmas Song” (written by Mel Torme) best performed by Nat King Cole
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” Mel, you had me at hello.
2. “White Christmas” (written Irving Berlin)
Best versions are of course by Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, and although I generally dislike R&B treatments of Christmas songs, I’ve grown to love the version by the Drifters (featured in “Home Alone”) perhaps best of all!
1. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” 1944 (written by Hugh Martin)
There’s wonderful versions of this Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, Chrissie Hynde and Cat Power, but Judy Garland’s screen performance from 1944’s Meet Me In St Louis stands alone.
Why is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas my favorite Christmas song? I think it is the sadness in the song. First, I’m mostly Irish and the poet Yeats said, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” On top of that, I find this song deeply spiritual. “Next year all our troubles will be miles away” is more of a request than an affirmation (like Shane MacGowan singing “I’ve got a feelin’ this year’s for you an’ me,” or Haggard telling himself “If we make it through December, everything’s gonna be alright”). Is there a sadder, more beautiful Christmas prayer than asking that “next year all our troubles will be far away?”
– Listen to an excellent radio interview about the beauty of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on National Public Radio
You can hear all these songs on my Spotify Christmas Playlist