Christmas Music

Phil Spector Christmas Photo

I recently wrote about my least favorite Christmas songs, and lest some think me a Scrooge, a Grinch or any another fictional crab, let me quickly pronounce myself a lover of almost all things Christmas. I especially love Christmas music, including carols, mid-Century pop classics, 14-Century Benedictine chants, ballet soundtracks, oratorios and mellow jazz versions of “Let It Snow.”

I even like rock n’ roll Christmas songs. Rock musicians have been producing Christmas songs almost from the birth of Rock ‘n Roll itself, including Elvis (“Blue Christmas”) and Chuck Berry (“Run Rudolph Run”). Even Brenda Lee, not exactly a rock icon, came up with “Rock Around the Christmas Tree.”

With its exuberance and hard-driving energy, rock ‘n roll is better-suited for the Dionysian side of the Christmas festivities than many other music genres such as Country, which delivers Christmas offerings that are often mawkish.  For me, a great Christmas rock ‘n roll song should make you happy, as in “damn right, screw all the whining and complaining, this is a great time of year.” And the best rock Christmas songs do exactly that.

With that in mind, here are six great rocking Christmas songs

6. Santa Claus is Coming to Town – Bruce Springsteen. In some ways this is the quintessential rock n’ roll Christmas song because it puts some major energy into a pretty mediocre tune. I would rank this higher except that I get the impression that great Bruce Springsteen feels like he’s slumming when he plays something so frivolous.

5. Sleigh Ride – The Ventures. The Ventures were a great surf band from the 1960s, who are probably best-known now for the theme song from “Hawaii 5-0”. The band consists of a drummer, three guitarists and no vocalists, so “Sleigh Ride,” which was so famously performed by the Boston Pop without vocals, is perfect for them.

4. Here Comes Santa Claus – Los Straightjackets. Los Straightjackets are the modern heirs of the drums/guitars/no vocalist tradition, albeit now with a rockabilly flavor. As you can tell from their name, the band’s calling card is humor, and the way they perform “Here Comes Santa Claus” always makes me smile.

3. Christmas Wrapping – The Waitresses. It’s ironic. The Waitresses were a short-lived new wave group from the 1980s and their best-known song is a Christmas song, almost a novelty song. I’m sure they had hoped to go down in history for something edgier. The title “Christmas Wrapping” is a modest pun on “rapping,” which was just becoming popular when the song was produced in 1981. This is one of those songs that was little-appreciated when it came out, but came to fame gradually — and now it’s considered one of the best holiday songs of the past fifty years

2. Elf’s Lament — Bare Naked Ladies. This is the cleverest Christmas song ever. Considering the plight of the elf, this song describes the attempts of Santa’s helpers to unionize (“Toiling through the ages, making toys on garnished wages/There’s no union/We’re only through when we outdo the competition,” etc.) Ha ha.

1. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love. In 1986, Dave Letterman asked Darlene Love to sing this great Phil Spector-produced song and it was such a hit that he’s asked her to come back every year since. Watching Darlene Love on Dave Letterman has become – along with “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and the Schweddy Balls skit on SNL – one of the great TV traditions, but this video shows the original performance from 27 years ago. Worth watching all the way through to the end of the video for nostalgia’s sake.


Christmas Shoes

The older I get, the more that Christmas becomes a mix bag. The food makes me fat, I get anxious about buying presents, and I never get enough Christmas cards. But I do love Christmas music. I even grudgingly tolerate the songs that others abhor (Paul McCartney’s “A Wonderful Christmas Now”, Wham’s “Last Christmas”, and “The Little Drummer Boy.”)

There are, however, a small group of Christmas songs that drive me up a wall, either because they’re not really “Christmas songs” or are contrary to the spirit of Christmas. To that end, here’s my take on the five worst Christmas songs.

     5. My Favorite Things – I know that hardly anyone has seen “The Sound of Music” so let me set the stage for this song: when the Von Trapp kids are scared by a summer thunderstorm Maria distracts them with a ditty that consists primarily of unimaginative rhymes (poodles/noodles, mittens/kittens) that have nothing to do with Christmas.  Can we posit that merely mentioning sleigh bells in one verse and snowflakes in another doesn’t make a song seasonal? I’m sure the estate of Rogers & Hammerstein is thrilled that this continues to appear on Christmas albums, but it does nothing to raise my Christmas spirit. While we’re at it, check out this video by Lorrie Morgan in which she portrays a homeless woman who breaks into magnificent mansion that she apparently lived in as a child. She’s soon channeling her inner Julie Andrews, fantasizing about dancing with a handsome dude while flashing back to memories of being a scared girl upstairs in her old bedroom. It’s all pretty creepy and sad and inappropriate for a Christmas album.

     4. River – This is a great Joni Mitchell song from her massively depressing album “Blue.” The thrust of the piece is that the unstable narrator has dumped her nice boyfriend, regrets it and wishes there was a river she “could skate away on.” How this ended up as a Christmas song is inexplicable. Presumably it’s because the opening lyrics are: “It’s coming on Christmas/They’re cutting down trees/They’re putting up reindeer /And singing songs of joy and peace/Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” You don’t need to be a Nobel Prize winning music critic to understand that the point of that verse is to contrast the happiness she should be feeling at Christmas with her inner sadness at losing “the best baby I ever had.” Don’t people even listen to the lyrics of songs before they put them on Christmas albums? This reminds me of how Leonard Cohen’s despairing “Hallelujah” has been appropriated as an all purpose memorial dirge, although it’s anything but. As for “River”, here’s Lea Michele from “Glee” trying to turn it into something as memorably morose as “ Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

     3. Santa Baby – The anthem for sluts and gold-diggers everywhere. The song itself is mildly witty and at least it’s completely honest in its advocacy for the transactional nature of Christmas. You can’t complain about the subtext of the song since it’s all text: the dame wants a sable, a convertible, a diamond ring, decorations from Tiffany’s, etc. She claims to deserve it because she didn’t hop into bed with anyone except her main sugar daddy for an entire year. This version by Madonna is particularly wrong because she’s imitating Marilyn Monroe, who had a sly knowingness about her own manipulativeness, something that Madonna lacks completely, kewpie doll singing notwithstanding.

     2. Baby It’s Cold Outside – If you type “Christmas rape” into Google, this song comes up. Once again, I don’t understand how this particular tune came to be associated with Christmas. The holiday isn’t mentioned at all – just snow and freezing temperatures. I’m hardly an advocate for politically correctness but any song about a man trying to coerce a woman into sex doesn’t really capture the Christmas spirit. The song apparently originates from the movie Neptune’s Daughter, a 1949 MGM musical comedy starring Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Ricardo Montalbán, Betty Garrett. The clip below is from the movie and what’s interesting about it is that there’s a second “seduction” scene in which the woman forces herself on the man. This is an interesting twist, to be sure, but it only amplifies the coercive nature of the interaction.

Need more convincing? Check out this funny video (“Baby, It’s Date Rape Time.”)

     1. Christmas Shoes – This is probably more famous for being the worst Christmas song of all time than it is for being a Christmas song on its own. It describes how a guy goes shopping on Christmas Eve and comes across an impoverished boy who wants to buy shoes for his dying mother — because when you’re dying the thing you really want is for your kid to blow all his money on some shoes you can be buried in. In any event, as noted, I’m not the first person to have identified the particular horror of this song, the whole point of which is to make your feel guilty about every minor complaint you might make at any time during the holiday season. The comedian Patton Oswalt did a hilarious riff on this song, so we’ll close with that. Season’s greetings everyone!