10. Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy (1977) – David Bowie & Bing Crosby
David Bowie agreed to appear on a TV Christmas special with Bing Crosby because his mother liked the elder crooner. Bowie hated the song he’d been asked to perform, Little Drummer Boy, so the program’s creative team worked out a new counterpoint, Peace on Earth, for him to sing while Crosby handled the traditional tune. They rehearsed for an hour and recorded the song on September 11; Crosby died five weeks later. He called Bowie a “clean-cut kid and a real fine asset to the show.” Laid-back cool with cross-generational appeal.
9. Merry Xmas Everybody (1973) – Slade
According to Wikipedia, the UK’s most popular Christmas song ever. For years, I thought of this as “the better John Lennon holiday song,” mistaking Noddy Holder’s lead vocal for Lennon. (A discarded version was recorded at The Record Plant in NYC, where Lennon was working on Mind Games at the time.) Holder says he wrote the lyrics to cheer up the British working class, because “economically, the country was up the creek.” Captures a rambunctious, optimistic spirit of the season that doesn’t get old.
8. Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto (1968) – James Brown
On April 5, 1968, the night after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, James Brown performed a concert at Boston Garden. It was nearly cancelled by Mayor Kevin White, because White feared racial violence would erupt in the city’s center. A last-minute decision was made to simulcast the concert live on television, in hopes that people would stay home and watch instead of rioting. It worked. Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto was the lead-off track on Brown’s A Soulful Christmas album later that year – funky horns and Brown’s signature tight rhythm set off the lyrics, “You know that I know what you will see / ‘Cause that was once me…” At Christmas, Brown dressed up as Santa Claus and handed out thousands of certificates for free dinners in New York’s poorest neighborhoods.
7. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (1963) – Darlene Love
Phil Spector co-wrote this song, and Darlene Love sang the hell out of it (one of rock’s greatest performances.) U2 delivered an excellent cover in 1985 – Love sang backup vocals on the track – but they were only following Spector’s template (U2’s discography is indebted to Spector; their rendition is certainly homage.) David Letterman featured Love performing the song every year from 1986 through 2014, missing only one year because of a writer’s strike.
6. Christmas Time is Here (1965) – Vince Guaraldi Trio
The indelible sound of Christmas to millions of children who grew up in the late 1960s and 70s (me included). Snow falling, cartoon kids skating, Snoopy as comic foil. Lush West Coast jazz, with indistinct lyrics (reportedly written on a napkin by TV producer Lee Mendelson) performed by the choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California. Remarkably, it hasn’t been spoiled by countless plays over shopping center speakers through the years.
5. White Christmas (1968) – Otis Redding
Released posthumously, after Redding died in 1967. A perfect blend of organ and yearning vocal. Bing Crosby’s version is the best-selling single of all time, over 50 million copies and counting (Guinness lists the song itself as a 100-million seller, across all versions.) But Crosby’s version is so… white. Redding adds sex and soul, transforming Irving Berlin’s raw material into an unexpected love song. When the horns kick in with a descending line under “May your days be merry and bright,” you’re right with him, regretting and missing lost Christmas loves.
4. Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town (1975) – Bruce Springsteen
Recorded in 1975 and released as the B-side to My Hometown in 1985, Springsteen’s take on the Phil Spector arrangement of John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie’s classic is elevated by the bandleader’s goofy charisma – a revelation to many of us who’d never heard Springsteen live before then. “You guys all been good and practicin’ real hard? Yeah? Clarence, you been rehearsin’ real hard now, so Santa bring you a new saxophone, right?” The sleigh bells and glockenspiel under the spoken introduction provide the perfect seasonal touch (sleigh bells make just about anything a Christmas song), but when Clarence Clemons kicks in for the sax solo, it’s the perfect rock ‘n’ roll gift. His “Ho-ho-ho‘s” are icing on the cookie. Maybe the most innocently silly/happy Christmas recording ever.
3. The Christmas Song (1961) – Nat King Cole
Written in 1945 by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé during a sweltering summer – they were thinking of cool imagery for relief from the heat. Nat King Cole made at least four recordings of the song over the years; the most commonly played version is from 1961. Chestnuts roasting, Jack Frost nipping, Yuletide carols, folks dressed up like Eskimos – it’s a more iconic and evocative vision than Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. Cole’s vocal is supple and homey; an essential contribution to the American songbook.
2. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1941) – Judy Garland
Recorded for the movie Meet Me In St. Louis, the original track has a melancholic edge that was scrubbed out of later renditions. Too bad – the original is all the more touching for it. Garland’s character Esther sings the song to her younger sister Tootie, who is upset that the family will soon move from their beloved St. Louis home. Reduced expectations are what the song is about: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas.” Little. Not the best ever, like so many other songs, which lie. “Let your heart be light.” And crucially, “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” instead of the insipid “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” changed at Frank Sinatra’s wrongheaded request. Of course, Judy Garland herself objected to Hugh Martin’s original lyrics, which included the lines “Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last/ Next year we may all be living in the past / Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Pop that champagne cork / Next year we may all be living in New York.” Ralph Blane’s melody ranks among the loveliest tunes ever (although Martin later claimed sole authorship of the song.)
1. Fairytale of New York (1987) – The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl
Gorgeous, soul-satisfying storytelling. A drunk in a holding cell on Christmas Eve reminisces about his lost love, who sings back to him in his imagination. “I could have been someone / Well so could anyone / You took my dreams from me / When I first found you.” The chorus gets better with every repeat: “The boys of the NYPD choir / Still singing Galway Bay / And the bells are ringing out / For Christmas day.” Sometimes censored by radio stations for the lines “You’re an old slut on junk,” and “You cheap lousy faggot.” The band finds the prohibition amusing, which suggests we should, too. Merry Christmas!