Posterity has an excellent ear for popular music. Setting aside gold records and Grammys, posterity smiles on kings (Elvis) and commoners (Sam Sham and the Pharoahs), with quality its only standard.
But Christmas is posterity’s weak spot. When December comes around, posterity is a sentimental fool, rewarding the good and the bad in equal measure. As a result, classics such as The Drifters’s “White Christmas” are forced to share the Yuletide spotlight with “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” and “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.”
Posterity just isn’t doing its job at Christmas time. That’s where this list come in. What follows are 16 of the coolest and most underplayed Christmas songs ever, songs that deserve at least as much airtime as John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
I gotta grumble a little here: this list is a bit heavy on the more modern stuff to suit me. Sorry, but I do NOT want to hear John Cougar Mellonhead groaning about working-class Christmas in Indiana. Nor am I interested in having Springsteen bellow at me about how Santa Claus is coming to New Jersey. When it comes to Christmas music, I want Mel Torme. I want Nat King Cole. I want Sinatra and Dino. I want Der Bingle. God help me, I want Andy Williams.
I sure don’t want Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, or Peabo Bryson doing that warbling-wandering contemporary-R&B singer thing of meandering all over the scale in contempt of the actual damned melody, trying to “make it their own,” along the lines of those gut-curdling sportsball Star Spangled Banner butcherings we’re all way too familiar with by now. JUST SING THE DAMNED SONG ALREADY, DAMMIT. It ain’t “your own,” and it ain’t ever gonna be. Christmas music belongs to everyone, and if you can’t just leave a beloved traditional Christmas classic alone and sing it more or less straight, then write one of your own and sing it any damned way you like.
That said, though, there are instances of modern-era artists jazzing up a classic which yield some good results, mostly because the remake is done tastefully, artfully, and respectfully rather than as an exercise in self-indulgence by an artist bereft of the faintest clue as to how the thing might properly be done. In amongst the pointless dreck the author digs up some gold:
1. “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” – Elvis Presley (1957)
“Santa Claus” isn’t just Elvis’s best Christmas song, it’s one of the most powerful recordings of his career. Released by RCA, “Santa Claus” exhibits all the virile recklessness that characterized Elvis’s earlier work for Sun Records. The track plays like a spontaneous recording, as if Elvis and the band were playing the song for fun, and someone just happened to tape the session.
Actually, that’s how a LOT of Elvis’s music got recorded: Elvis would be just noodling around on piano, the band would pick it up, and the tape would roll. Or it’d be vice the versa, with the band leading the way and Elvis getting inspired to jump in. And he’s right, this is a good ‘un. In truth, Elvis did a fine job with the whole album it comes from. But, I mean, come ON: it’s Elvis, man. Early Elvis too, before he shit the bed and became a bizarre parody of himself, and an object lesson on the perils of excess celebrity and wealth.
The author goes on to echo the now-de rigeur gripe about “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (it’s “creepy”), which for the life of me I still just don’t get, and don’t really want to. He saves himself by recommending Sonny Boy Williamson, Los Straitjackets, and even The Youngsters’ hilarious “Christmas In Jail.” For myself, I’ll commend to your attention the Christmas albums of John Fahey, The Ventures, Canadian Brass, and of course Cantus and Chanticleer.
As for new original Christmas music, earlier this evening I chanced to hear this NPR interview with JD McPherson featuring in-studio live perfomances of a few tunes from his newly-released Christmas album:
McPherson is a songwriter, singer and guitarist who is described by music critic Ann Powers as a supreme rock reinventor. McPherson grew up far away from the hubs of the music world on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma. His father runs the ranch. His mother is a preacher. Before becoming a full-time musician, McPherson taught art for four years to students in middle school. His Christmas album “Socks” is his fourth album.
Welcome all of you to FRESH AIR. It’s so exciting to have you here, and the new Christmas album is great. JD, I’m going to ask you to introduce the first song and to introduce the members of the band.
JD MCPHERSON: Certainly. So my name’s JD McPherson, and over to my left is everybody else. That’s Doug Corcoran, the utility guy who plays everything. Jimmy Sutton on bass. Ray Jacildo plays keys with background vocals, and our friend Jason Smay on drums.
Now as it happens, the above-mentioned Jimmy Sutton is an old friend of mine. Back when the Playboys were just getting established as a for-real touring band we did shows with Jimmy’s old outfit, the Moondogs. We also stayed at his house a few times when we were passing through Chicago; he’s a great guy, and an enormously talented musician. Haven’t seen him in a good few years, unfortunately, so it was great to hear him on the radio yakking away with the Fresh Air host.
As for JD’s Christmas rekkid: although it’s by no means what anybody would call traditional holiday fare, I liked what I heard of it. Here, have yourself a taste:
Not bad, eh? And thus does this old dog learn himself a new trick.