What an odd phrase this is. It’s nice that it’s inclusive and just covers all the bases. But, in that inclusivity, it’s also quite non-specific. If I said this to you as the sun rose on the Spring Solstice, it would work. If I said this to at the height of the Summer sun, it would work. Very non-committal. Would not use again. C-
Anyway, thanks for joining me this week. I thought I’d share a missive full of nothing but my favorite versions of my favorite Christmas songs with a brief explanation of why I like them. Less think piece-y than usual which might be a good thing. I’ve added them all to a playlist along with others I love which you can find at the bottom for various streaming services, if available.
El Vez - Feliz Navidad
There’s something completely unhinged about this version of the José Feliciano classic. First, El Vez is a magnetic performer here in his sort of Elvis meets Freddie Mercury vibe. Second, the breakdown the band does in the second half song is strong and in some vibes extends into an incredible jam. There is an entire El Vez Christmas album called Merry Mex-mas.
James Brown - Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto
I don’t have to tell y’all about James Brown. This song was written by a few of the usual songwriters in his band named Alfred Ellis, Charles Bobbitt, and Hank Ballard (who gets a call out in the song). Brown’s album A Soulful Christmas was released in 1968. I appreciate the social plea in the song combined with a seemingly restrained performance from Brown. It kicks off an album of 100% original Christmas songs which is impressive in its own right.
Bing Crosby - Mele Kalikimaka
Bing Crosby is a staple of any Christmas music roundup. This particular song is great because it combines that Crosby lackadaisical, crooner style with a strange 1950s obsession with “exotica” (which grew in popularity as soldiers returned home to the US from the South Pacific). Lots of small GI starter homes in this country had basements kitted out with tiki carvings and other appropriated buts of Polynesian culture. This song came in right at the beginning of that fad. Interestingly, the phrase “mele kalikimaka” is reverse-engineered into Hawaiian from English.
The Moonglows - Hey Santa Claus
The Moonglows were a 1950s doo-wop group that combined some powerful R&B elements not normally heard in doo-wop. That’s cool but I really love this song because it shows up in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation which is my favorite Christmas movie.
Bahamas - Christmas Must Be Tonight
I’m a sucker for a strong original Christmas tune. Bahamas brings that in spades here. Telling the nativity story against the backdrop of that usual great Bahamas guitar tone catches my ear every time.
Manchester Orchestra - Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Last week, Manchester Orchestra surprise-released a Christmas EP on their Patreon. If you like the band, I recommended subscribing. This version of a sentimental, maudlin Christmas song is wonderful. When the lead singer, Andy Hull, hit the bit about our being together “if the fates allow,” I was in tears. That being together means a lot more this year than it might have before.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel - The Punch Brothers
Chris Thile has proven himself to be not only an incredible musician but also a deft arbiter of taste on his radio show, Live from Here, which replaced A Prairie Home Companion. Before all of that, he put together the band, The Punch Brothers, and lucky for us, they covered this oddly anxious version of the staple carol. Thile’s singing here is a nicely casual and laid-back counterpoint to the energetic, near frenetic playing.
The Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl - Fairytale of New York
This is a controversial song because of some epithets used in the lyrics. I believe that the characters in the song are true to their admittedly vile character and use those words as true to their character. None of us can know the heart of songwriter Shane MacGowan. This is not a happy song. It’s a deeply sad song. As I read the articles about the meth arrests and opioid overdoses here at the confluence of the Christmas holidays with the pall of the pandemic, the song is sadly fitting.
Bruce Springsteen - Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town
Let’s end on a note of pure, unadulterated joy. Sure, we’ve lost the Big Man but the ebullient playing and singing on this Springsteen version of the classic is a balm for whatever ails you. You can find some other great live versions of this song on Youtube like this version from a 1978 show in Houston.
Those are some my very favorite Christmas songs. I hope you enjoy them!