The aspect of the Christmas season that seems to get the biggest brunt of complaints is the music. That perplexes me the most. Outside of the tendency for these songs to contain the sound of sleigh bells, how exactly do they sound different from other year-round songs? Or is it just the lyrics they hate? If that’s the case, it should be noted that a lot of classic so-called “Christmas songs” make no mention of the holiday whatsoever. Seriously, read the lyrics of “Frosty the Snowman”. Not a word about Christmas. Same with “Jingle Bells” which was originally meant to be a Thanksgiving song. “Let it Snow” was written in July of 1945 during one of Hollywood’s hottest days on record. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was never intended to be a Christmas song, either. It was written by Frank Loesser and performed by him and his wife at their housewarming party in 1944. Even “Joy to the World” was meant to be just a straight up hymn of worship (actually referencing Judgment Day rather than Jesus’ birth). So, what exactly are you Scrooges bitching about?
Last December, I wrote an article recommending Christmas movies for people who don’t like Christmas movies, so I thought it would be fun to try the same thing with music this year. Below are ten bona fide Christmas albums which, if you can’t stand them, then your problem isn’t that you hate Christmas music, it’s that you hate good music.
The Very Best of Bing Crosby Christmas – When it comes to Christmas tunes, nobody delivers the goods better than crooners (as sales of Michael Bublé’s new Christmas album have indicated) and nobody croons better than Bing. Nothing against Harry Connick Jr, Mel Tormé or Dean Martin, but listening to this album is the aural equivalent to drinking a hot mug of eggnog mixed with amaretto, soft butter and melted marshmallows. As an added bonus, a great deal of these carols feature accompaniment by the Andrews Sisters, with whom Bing did some of his best work. The only real drawback of this collection is the absence of “Mele Kalikimaka”, but if you wanna hear that one, you can always watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Ray Charles’ The Spirit of Christmas – Speaking of Christmas Vacation, this album contains (and is indeed named for) the song played over Clark Griswold watching his old family Christmas movies in the attic. Mr. Charles has a way of making even the oldest and most common of songs seem like they were written especially for him (“America The Beautiful”, for instance) and here he classes-up tunes often regarded as hokey in such a way that you can almost feel yourself becoming an even cooler person just listening to them.
Elvis Presley’s If Every Day Was Like Christmas – Another individual who had a knack for putting his own spin on Christmas classics was The King. For example, his most famous Christmas song was easily “Blue Christmas” (which is on here, of course), but not many people know that the song was recorded over three times before Elvis ever released his own (and thus the definitive) version. Most of the other songs on here you’ve heard before, but rarely so sexy. In fact, Irving Berlin wanted the album banned because he thought Elvis’ version of “White Christmas” was profane. I wonder what Episcopalian priest Phillips Brooks would have made of Elvis’ rendition of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.
Blue Yule – Cut from the same cloth as Elvis’ musical stylings, this is the ultimate Christmas blues collection. Containing songs by such heavies as Johnny & Edgar Winter, Canned Heat and John Lee Hooker, there’s no shortage of guitar, horns and piano pounding out melodies while various bluesmen beg Santa Claus to bring their baby back. Blues has a bit of a reputation for being redundant, but this is actually quite an eclectic and refreshing mix of the genre. If you intend on spending Christmas alone - heartbroken and drunk - this album is required listening.
Alligator Records’ Genuine Houserockin’ Christmas – This record is predominantly blues as well, but a bit more upbeat with some jazz numbers thrown in and even some bluegrass to be sure. Chances are you aren’t too familiar with many of the performers on this album, but they are impressive nonetheless – particularly the female vocalists. The stand out track on this collection is probably “Back Door Santa” by the Holmes Brothers which is a funkified version of the sexually-suggestive Clarence Carter song, but that’s really just a judgment call on my part. I imagine everyone would have their own favorite from this underrated compilation. One thing’s for sure: If it’s just you and your lover spending Christmas together, putting on this record will exponentially increase your odds of getting laid.
The Brian Setzer Orchestra’s Christmas Rocks! – For anyone who wants to hear the souped-up versions of Christmas carols, this is the album for you. In fact, if you’re a swing-dancer, you probably already own it. Just about every cross-section of Christmas music is represented here, from “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” to “The Nutcracker Suite” and, for some reason, an instrumental version of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. It’s definitely a toe-tappin’, head-bobbin’ marathon of music, so if the usual stuff puts you to sleep, this’ll most certainly wake you up.
Underground Garage Presents Christmas A-Go-Go – Cranking it up a notch from Mr. Setzer (although, this record does contain his “Santa Drives a Hot Rod” as well), this is another collection that doesn’t hold back. You couldn’t come up with a more random list of off-the-wall Christmas covers if you tried. They’re all good, too. Not much more can be said about a Christmas album that features songs by Keith Richards, The Ramones, Bob Seger, The Kinks, Soupy Sales, and Joe Pesci (Yes, that Joe Pesci)!
Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics – Speaking of off-the-wall… You’re either a fan of “South Park” or you’re not. However, like their feature film effectively demonstrated, these guys really know how to compose a catchy tune (offensive content notwithstanding). In addition to being the perfect album for holiday cynics, you’d hafta be pretty thick-skinned to not laugh at least once. Who can resist Ike Broflovski singing “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” and segueing into “Itsy-Bitsy Spider”, or Mr. Garrison illustrating the jingoism of Christians’ delusional War on Christmas with “Merry Fucking Christmas”, or the aptly-named “The Most Offensive Song Ever” where Mr. Hankey and Kenny explain how Mary can still be considered a Virgin (with Kenny’s lyrics mercifully muffled by his parka)? No, it’s not meant for everyone, but it hits the spot for those it is meant for.
Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas - From the lighter side of animated holiday specials comes this, the Holy Grail of Christmas albums. Although, the title is a bit of a misnomer since only a fraction of the songs on this record actually appear in the television special. That hardly matters, though, because one cannot go wrong with these jazz instrumentals beautifully performed by Mr. Guaraldi and company. It is, quite simply, the most perfect background music for the holiday season. Fewer things will put you into the spirit of Christmas than this album accompanied with dim-lighting, a lit fireplace, a glass of red wine, and some dark chocolate. Again, maybe I’m just speaking personally, but I sincerely doubt you could do better.
Booker T. & The MG’s in the Christmas Spirit – Last, but not least, this album is kind of a happy medium between “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Blue Yule”. The always-reliable Booker T. Jones and his ensemble present a nice compilation of instrumental R&B tunes. Like some of the aforementioned artists, these guys inject these songs with their own unique flavor to the point where it sometimes takes you a while to identify exactly which Christmas song they’re performing. I often find myself humming along and not realizing what I’m humming until I get to the chorus. The melody is intact (they’re not butchering these songs at all), they’re just played in such a unique way, they give the impression of original compositions. Of all my favorite bands, I’m most pleased that Booker T. & the MG’s were the ones who released a Christmas album. Although a Weird Al Christmas would be pretty awesome, too.
So, forget Mannheim Steamroller and Boney M. and all those other excruciatingly cheesy Christmas serenaders. These ten albums should be more than enough to provide your holiday playlist with ample high-end music to endure the holidays. If none of the above are able to satisfy you, then I have only one other song I can offer you: