My favorite traditional Christmas song is "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," a powerful celebration of the triumph of the skies that still sends a righteous chill throughout my festive soul. I love a lot of the expected holiday favorites, especially "O Come All Ye Faithful,""Jingle Bells" (which lovely wife Brenda and I once played together on plinky-plink guitar as part of a group recital, back when we were both fumbling six-string students at Ye Olde Music Seller in North Syracuse in the early '90s), "Sleigh Ride," even "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!," as dangerous a sentiment as that can be here in Central New York. While there are a number of pop or rock Christmas tunes that can bring forth my inner Grinch faster than poor Grandma's wonderful Christmas shoes can dodge a murderous reindeer, I can't think of any trad Yuletunes that really grate on me, and I actively enjoy most of them.
Among pop recordings, Nat King Cole's rendition of the Mel Torme and Bob Wells classic "The Christmas Song" will likely always be my favorite among favorites. John & Yoko's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" will never wear out its welcome in my ears, and Phil Spector's collection A Christmas Gift For You remains a classic for all the right reasons. And I'm still enthralled with The Beatles' annual Christmas messages. Even right now, Pentatonix has a current a cappella cover of the late Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" that's really, really good. When my This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio co-host Dana Bonn and I did our first radio series, We're Your Friends For Now, back in 1992, we were bummed that the show didn't stay on the air anywhere near long enough for us to do a Christmas show. TIRnRR itself debuted just after Christmas in 1998, so we didn't get around to doing the first-ever Dana & Carl Christmas show until December of 1999. We just did this year's edition this past Sunday, and we certainly invite you to download and enjoy The 18th Annual THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO Christmas Show at your own jolly leisure.
In the Christmas spirit of all of the above, I want to share a list of a few more of my many favorite holiday records, both obscure and well-known. This is by no means a comprehensive list! But I encourage you to investigate each of these, especially any of them that may be unfamiliar to you now. Every future favorite begins as something you just haven't heard yet. May your days be merry and bright!
THE IDEA: It's About That Time
If Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song" is my favorite Christmas record, The Idea's "It's About That Time" narrowly edges out John & Yoko's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" as my all-time favorite pop-rock Yuletune. Fittingly, Yuletunes is also the name of the superb Christmas compilation that introduced me to this unerring evocation of the season's joy. Yuletunes also contains superlative seasonal sides by the likes of Shoes, Material Issue, Bill Lloyd, and many of Santa's other capable helpers.
BIBI FARBER WITH THE MICHAEL LYNCH ORCHESTRA: Gonna Ask Santa Claus
My favorite new Christmas track of the last ten years (or more), and not nearly as well-known as it should be.
THE GEMS: Love For Christmas
An obscure 1964 single by a mostly-forgotten girl group, featuring a then-unknown Minnie Riperton.
BING CROSBY & DAVID BOWIE: Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth
BING CROSBY & FRANK SINATRA WITH FRED WARING & HIS PENNSYLVANIANS: We Wish You The Merriest
My confession: I've never particularly cared about Frank Sinatra. It's not that I dislike Ol' Blue Eyes, it's just that I don't have any real affinity for much of his music. I do recognize his appeal, and even appreciate it sometimes--"One For My Baby," for example, is a magnificent record--but I can't pretend to be a big fan of the Chairman of the Board. But this holiday summit meeting between Frankie and Bing? This swings, and even I can't resist it.
EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER: I Believe In Father Christmas
As a pop-punk guy in the late '70s, I had little use for prog in any way, shape, or form. I didn't make any exception for ELP, either, though in later years I fell back into thrall of their more pop tracks ("Still...You Turn Me On" and "From The Beginning," and eventually "Lucky Man," too). But, even at the fiercest point of my Sex Pistols-inspired embrace of no-future proto-anarchy, I never grew tired of ELP's sad and wonderful Christmas track, a track made even more poignant and teary-eyed as this damnable year robbed us of both Emerson and Lake. 2016 is getting coal for Christmas this year.
SI CRANSTOUN: Sleigh Rider
I believe it was NYC DJ Dave Boogieman who hipped me to this fab, swingin' Christmas record. Intrepid pal Dave Murray subsequently turned me on to Cranstoun's nearly-as-great "Christmas Twist," a song which offered the added benefit of the cutest Santa's Helpers I ever did see.
CHRISTOPHER GREY: I Can't Sleep On Christmas Eve
Ho Ho Spice, a terrific holiday compilation to benefit hospice care, introduced me to this track. Great cause, great collection, great time to buy! https://www.amazon.com/Ho-Spice-Various-Artists/dp/B0002B9486
THE MONKEES: Riu Chiu
Well, ya just need to have this, ya curmudgeonly ol' Scrooge. Recorded live and a cappella by this obviously talentless, beneath-contempt manufactured boy band for their crass 'n' commercial weekly TV series...oh, I can't even maintain the faux cluelessness. Further evidence of The Monkees' sheer, casual greatness. The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame is also getting coal this year. (As a bonus, also seek out "Christmas Is My Time Of Year," the 1976 Christmas track by Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones & Peter Tork.)
ANNY CELSI: Christmas In The Pines
I love Anny Celsi. Anny's done three albums of superb, beguiling pop music (plus a fourth one as Annyland), and her song "Empty Hangers" holds a permanent berth on my all-time Top of the Pops. This Christmas track is a winning, wistful comfort.
MARGO GURYAN: I Don't Intend To Spend Christmas Without You
Perhaps slightly better-known via Claudine Longet's version, I have a narrow preference for this demo by the song's author, Margo Guryan. An essential track in either form.
DANCE HALL CRASHERS: I Did It For The Toys
A rockin' tune about sleepin' with ol' Kris Kringle in the hope of scorin' extra Christmas gifts. See, that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!
THE KINKS: Father Christmas
Heard this on the radio during Christmas break my freshman year in college (December 1977), and had to have it. I picked up the 45 at a shopping-mall record store in Cleveland (along with "Punk Rock Xmas" by The Ravers) while visiting my sister just after a Christmas spent with my brother's family in Nashville.
THE WAITRESSES: Christmas Wrapping
I loved this song from the first second I heard it, and it remains my favorite track among The Waitresses' catalog.
THE GRIP WEEDS: Christmas, Bring Us
Perfectly swell track from The Grip Weeds' cool holiday album, Under The Influence Of Christmas.
THE DARKNESS: Christmas Time (Don't Let The Bells Ring)
Wow, what a great, over-the-top hard rockin' pop track!
WIZZARD: I Wish It Could Be Xmas Every Day
SLADE: Merry Xmas Everybody
It's possible that Darkness track wouldn't even exist without Wizzard and Slade preceding it in the '70s. As my pal Rich Firestone points out, UK pop fans are as tired of these perennials as we Yanks are of "All I Want For Christmas Is You," but it's so rarely played in the States that we've not yet had an opportunity for overload.
SOLOMON BURKE: Presents For Christmas
JAMES BROWN: Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto
Thanks again to Dave Murray for introducing me to both of this songs, courtesy of a Christmas cassette he slapped together for me in the early '90s.
FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: The Man In The Santa Suit
MIKE VIOLA & THE CANDY BUTCHERS: Give Me A Second Chance For Christmas
Essential seasonal fare from the two guys--Adam Schlesinger and Mike Viola--responsible for the title song from the Greatest Movie Ever Made.
THE SONICS: Santa Claus
This guy's gettin' nuttin' fer Christmas! Two-fisted '60s punk with seasonal swagger.
THE SMITHEREENS: Waking Up On Christmas Morning
From Christmas With The Smithereens, and yet another example of a great Christmas rock 'n' roll record that I wish was being over-played in place of that Paul McCartney...thing.
TINA SUGANDH: White Christmas
Credit to Rich Firestone for including this--my favorite version of this chestnut (roasting on an open...y'know)--on a Christmas compilation a few years back.
THE FLIRTATIONS: Christmas Time Is Here Again
The Flirtations' "Nothing But A Heartache" was a prevailing and pervasive fave throughout my formative years, and this is just as great as that.
LISA MYCHOLS: Listen To The Bells Ring
No one in the world loves Christmas more than Lisa Mychols loves Christmas. Her first album, Lost Winter's Dream, was a Christmas record, and she's made a bunch more cool Yule tracks since then. Her most recent is a nice cover of "I'll Be Home For Christmas," a collaboration with Tom Richards as The Fabulous Playground Family.
GARY FRENAY: Christmas Without You
Gary's lovely tribute to his late father is moving and heartfelt, but I never truly appreciated its depth until eight years ago, during the Christmas season that followed an unexpected, devastating loss in my family. I played the song at the end of TIRnRR's Christmas show that year, segued into John & Yoko, and found myself unable to continue speaking. I broke down sobbing, and Dana had to finish the commentary without me.
THE EVERLY BROTHERS: Christmas Eve Can Kill You
Christmas ain't always merry.
MINDY SMITH: Santa Will Find You
But Santa will find you. Sometimes, belief is all we have. And sometimes, that's enough.
This doesn't quite scratch the surface of the huge iceberg worth of my fave-rave Christmas tunes. There's the Xmas! album by The Beatmas, the first and best of the faux Fab Four Christmas records, and scattered bits of holiday brilliance by The Icicles, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Elvis Presley, The Ramones, The Montgomery Cliffs, The Pretenders, Kelley Ryan, The Royal Guardsmen, The Spongetones, The Catholic Girls, The Cheepskates, The Rooks, The Jellybricks, Wednesday Week, Big Star, and so many, many others. The night will not be silent. Merry Christmas to all, and to all...there's good rockin' tonight.
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