Although I do not celebrate Christmas I do enjoy many of the songs that have been written about it. Granted, I think it’s a bit much when I start hearing Christmas songs in October. If it were up to me, the playing of Christmas songs would begin after Thanksgiving. With that, here are my twelve favorite Christmas recordings.
12. Twelve Days of Christmas – Straight No Chaser
In 1998, a men’s a cappella group at Indiana University performed a comedic version of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” that had been arranged more than three decades earlier at Williston Prep School in Easthampton, Massachusetts. But Straight No Chaser added a mix of “Dreidel” and Toto’s “Africa” and made the parody their own. It would unexpectedly go viral on YouTube in 2006 and resulted in a recording contract from Atlantic Records.
11. Happy X-Mas (War is Over) – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band
O.K., I know this is an anti-war song. But it manages to transcend its political message with the young voices of the Harlem Community Choir.
10. Santa Claus is Coming to Town – Bruce Springsteen
Recorded during a concert in December 1975, The Boss begins by gently teasing the now departed Clarence Clemons and other members of the E Street Band if they’ve been good this year. But what stands out most about this version of this Christmas classic is how Springsteen sings the song. While most pause between “you better watch out/you better not cry/you better not pout/I’m telling you why,” he sings it like it was a continuous sentence. In a clever twist, the song ends with the first few bars of “Jingle Bells.”
9. Jingle Bells – Frank Sinatra
It was the lead track on the Chairman of the Board’s 1957 Christmas album A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra. The song begins with backup vocals by The Brewster Singers which were arranged by Gordon Jenkins and make this recording a cut above. “I love those J-I-N-G-L-E Bells.”
8. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer – Dean Martin
Ol’ Blue Eyes wasn’t the only Rat Pack member to get into the Christmas spirit. In 1966, Dean Martin recorded a Christmas album of his own. How can you not like someone who sings, “Rudy the Red Beaked Reindeer”?
7. White Christmas – America
At the risk of sacrilege, while the Bing Crosby recording of the Irving Berlin classic is memorable I prefer a more contemporary version. In 2002, the pop duo America recorded an album of Christmas songs titled Holiday Harmony. The arrangements of several of the Christmas songs they recorded were similar to those of some of their biggest hits. In the case of “White Christmas,” the sound was reminiscent of their 1974 hit “Tin Man.” Indeed, when they perform “White Christmas” in concert it segues into “Tin Man.”
6. Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth – Bing Crosby & David Bowie
On paper, this is the strangest duet in the history of recorded music. Bing & Ziggy Stardust on the same song? While taping his annual TV Christmas special in London in September 1977, the producers arranged for Bowie to sing “Little Drummer Boy” with Crosby. The only problem was that Bowie detested the song. The producers came up with a compromise. Bing & Bowie would sing “Little Drummer Boy” but composed a song called “Peace on Earth” that Bowie would sing as a counterpoint and wove it into the melody. Yet somehow it worked.
This would prove be Crosby’s last Christmas special. Sadly, a month after the recording, Crosby died of a heart attack after playing a round of golf in Madrid.
5. Remember (Christmas) – Nilsson
When Bing Crosby asked David Bowie if he listened “to any of the older fellas,” Bowie replied, “John Lennon and the other one, Harry Nilsson.” While Lennon is remembered for “Happy X-Mas (War is Over),” Nilsson was far less remembered for “Remember (Christmas)” from his 1972 album Son of Schmilsson. Although the song doesn’t actually have the word Christmas in it, the arrangements take you to December and make you think of a time that is very likely never to return.
4. Wonderful Christmas Time – Paul McCartney
The former Beatle wrote and recorded this song in 1979 without Wings although they would appear in the music video with him. I’ve always loved the warmth and good cheer that emanated from this song. I could never find this record in the stores. One night I remember leaving my radio on in the hope of hearing the song so I could record it onto a cassette and at about 4:45 a.m. I leapt out of bed and pressed the record button.
3. Merry Christmas Baby – Charles Brown
This is Christmas at its most bluesy. I like Brown’s understated piano and the soft rhythm guitar. Whenever I hear this song on the radio I feel like I’m front of a cozy fire.
2. Merry Christmas Baby – Otis Redding
The arrangement is 180 degrees away from Charles Brown’s version but every bit as good. Released in 1968, the year following his death in a plane crash, Lord only knows how many Christmas songs the King of Soul could have left with his vocal imprint.
1. I Believe in Father Christmas – Greg Lake
Released in 1975, it was the only solo hit for Greg Lake who is best known as the lead singer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It does take a rather cynical look at Christmas. “They said there’ll be snow at Christmas/They said there’ll be peace on Earth/But instead it just kept on raining/A veil of tears for the Virgin’s birth.” It is a reminder that we can do better in the New Year, though it seems that New Year has yet to come.