80 Holiday Songs You Better Have…Or Else

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Posted December 23, 2017 by J Matthew Cobb in Features
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c-60“Christmas in Hollis”
(1988)
Writer: Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels, Jason Mizell
Producer: Run-D.M.C.
from the album A Very Special Christmas / Christmas Rap

 

With Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa” in the sampling chamber, a super-popular Run-DMC, living in excess from the hit-making Raising Hell LP, constructs a swag-smacked tribute to their Queens neighborhood. It first showed up on the charity compilation A Very Special Christmas, with proceeds to go to the Special Olympics and has since grown to become one of the finer relics of golden age hip-hop.


 

c-59“The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”
(1958)
Writer: Ross Bagdasarian, Sr.
Producer: Ross Bagdasarian, Sr.
from the album Let’s All Sing with the Chipmunks

 

“The Chipmunk Song” was written, produced and sung by Chipmunks’ creator Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. under the career alias David Seville. The Chipmunks’ vocals – Alvin, Simon and Theodore – were rendered with a high-pitch cartoonish twitch, similar to performances on Seville’s “Witch Doctor.” Unique for a novelty holiday song, it took home three Grammy wins for Best Comedy Performance, Best Children’s Recording and Best Engineered Record Non-Classical, even a stunning nomination for Record of the Year. The song became so successful that it launched the next phase of the Chipmunks’ domination: first comic books, then animated cartoon shows.


c-58“Grown-Up Christmas List”
(1990)
Writer: David Foster
Producer: David Foster, Humberto Gatica
from the album River of Love

 

David Foster first revealed this holiday tear jerker on a 1990 duets compilation with the soulful Natalie Cole on vocals. Contemporary Christian-goes-pop singer Amy Grant would put her unique stamp on it, but Cole, with her “Miss You Like Crazy” pipes, delivers the official standard. And her 1999 updated version with the London Symphony Orchestra, full of spellbound strings and rapturous vocal belting, is just as rewarding to the ear.


 

c-57“2000 Miles”
(1983)
Writer: Chrissie Hynde
Producer: Chris Thomas
from the album Learning to Crawl

 

In 1983, Pretenders lead vocalist Chrissie Hynde penned this calm soft rock gem. Thanks to its Irish folksy tinges, wintry vibes and its illustrated lyrics of painful separation from a loved one (“2000 miles is very far in the snow/I’ll think of you wherever you go”), it may have helped them get over the band’s unfortunate loss of two original members, both succumbing to drugs.


 

c-56“Christmas Time”
(1985)
Writer: Bryan Adams, Jim Vallance
Producer: Bob Clearmountain, Bryan Adams, Jim Vallance
released as a 7″ single

 

Housed in buttery pop-rock and Bryan Adams’ raspy vocal, this 1984 original offers a dose of togetherness while wishing Christmas was every day. It clearly deserves more radio play.


c-55“Feels Like Christmas”
(1983)
Writer: Al Green
Producer: Moses Dillard
from the album White Christmas

 

Set to disco strobe lights, a sanctified Al Green living out his calling on the gospel label Myrrh returns to his classic Hi sound for this string-heavy workout accented with his mountaintop falsetto shrills.


 

c-54“What Christmas Means to Me”
(1967)
Writer: Anna Gaye, Allen Story, George Gordy
Producer: Henry Cosby
from the album Someday at Christmas

 

“Little” Stevie wasn’t penning his songs quite yet when “What Christmas Means to Me” originally dropped, but it has that golden Motown magic we’ve associated with his earlier hits like “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).” Other remakes have popped up with more sheen (98°) and sassy fillers (best heard on Hanson’s ’97 version, with the extra festive chorus), but who can resist the power of Stevie’s robust vocals and harmonica?


 

c-53“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”
(1966)
Writer: Albert Hague
Producer: Chuck Jones, Ted Geisel, Jesse Kaye
from the album Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas

 

Taken from the Dr. Seuss children’s made-for-TV tale, this deep-voiced ghoulish song done with an Addams’ Family tonality was carried by Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice behind Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger. Many have attributed the performance to the animated film’s narrator Boris Karloff, but recent reissues and compilations have properly accredited Ravenscroft with the vocal.


 

c-52“Happy Holiday/The Holiday Season”
(1963)
Writer: Irving Berlin, Kay Thompson
Producer: Robert Mersey
from the album Purple Rain

 

With this smart festive medley, pop jazz crooner Andy Williams spun the most buoyant Big Band offering with the Robert Mersey-produced “Happy Holiday/The Holiday Season.” Taken from his landmark best-selling record The Andy Williams Christmas Album, this gem soars with its zig-zag strings and cheerful backing harmonies.


 

c-51“Winter Wonderland”
(1964)
Writer: Richard B. Smith, Felix Bernard
Producer: Clyde Otis
released as a 7″ non-album single

 

Before Aretha dropped her “Respect” anthem, she snuggled up on cozy Sarah Vaughn jazz and easy listening pop. On “Winter Wonderland,” this 1964 rarity from the soon-to-be Queen of Soul, she chases a Patsy Cline-esque arrangement and shows a few musical glimpses of her queenly reign to come (“as we gro-oo-oo-ve by the fire”).


“Please Come Home for Christmas”
(1978)
Writer: Charles Brown, Gene Redd
Producer: Bill Szymczyk
released as a 7″ non-album single

 

Blues evocator Charles Brown wrote it and recorded this back in 1960, and many have taken a shot at the soulful, doo-wop-tinged gem (Jon Bon Jovi, Harry Connick, Willie Nelson, Aaron Neville, even boy band 98°), but the Eagles’ 1978 cover is a fresher update. The bluesy arrangement is still there, but coated with a tint of blue-eyed soul (swooned by lead vocalist Don Henley and a short guitar solo by Don Felder. Their take rose to number 18 pop.


“River”
(1971)
Writer: Joni Mitchell
Producer: Joni Mitchell
from the album Blue

 

With only a piano accompaniment, this intimate non-single from the brilliant Blue album finds Join Mitchell tossing in a subtle “Jingle Bells” melody into a set of depressing lyrics about having “a river I could skate away on.” But the performance is stellar and so blue it attempts to knock “Blue Christmas” out of first place.


 

“Feliz Navidad”
(1970)
Writer: José Feliciano
Producer: Rick Jarrard
from the album Feliz Navidad

 

The “La Bamba” of Christmas music, this simple sing-a-long performed by Puerto Rican singer-songwriter José Feliciano comes with bilingual choruses and a gloriously spirited arrangement that’s almost hard to replicate.


 

“Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”
(1968)
Writer: Alfred Ellis, Charles Bobbit, Hank Ballard
Producer: James Brown
from the album A Soulful Christmas

 

Released during one of Brown’s creative peaks and sandwiched between two No. 1 R&B hits (“I Got the Feelin’,” “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”), “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” gave wind to Brown’s yearning for black empowerment. With “The Twist” originator Hank Ballard composing most of the lyrics, James Brown and his tight band delivered a funky plea to Saint Nick for those living in the hood. “Never thought I’d realize I’d be a singing a song with waters in my eyes,” Soul Brother Number One begs towards the end.


 

“Another Lonely Christmas”
(1984)
Writer: Prince
Producer: Prince
released as a 7″ non-album single

 

The Purple One finds a way to put the grooves of “Do Me Baby” into a hypnotic, haunting tale drowning in holiday gloom, as he mourns a lover’s death (“Then you died on the 25th day of December”). As he belts “you are the only one I care for,” you can hear Prince rattling with a broken heart across a bevy of grungy slow jam-meets-rock instrumentation. As the B-side to “I Would Die 4 U,” this song has taken on a life of its own, especially with devout Prince fans. And it probably comes second to the Emotions’ aching Christmas ballad.


 

“Merry Christmas Darling”
(1970)
Producer: Jack Daugherty
Writer: Frank Pooler, Richard Carpenter
released as a 7″ non-album single, re-released on the album Christmas Portrait (1978)

 

This romantic holiday keepsake finds Karen Carpenter’s sweet vocals atop a glazed piece of ‘70’s adult contemporary balladry. Two versions actually exist of this, but it’s better to seek the 1970 original, where Karen exercises a little more soulfulness.


“Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects”
(2009)
Writer: Sharon Jones, Bosco Mann
Producer: Bosco Mann
released as a 7″ non-album single, later released on It’s a Holiday Soul Party (2015)

 

With James Brown philosophy and some Motown-meets-Stax sheen, Sharon Jones belts this realistic portrait of inner city life with Marvelette soul. Of course, producer, co-writer and Dap-Kings leader Bosco Mann designs this in such a way that it feels like a nostalgic jukebox winner.


 

“Shake Up Christmas”
(2010)
Writer: Butch Walker, Pat Monahan
Producer: Butch Walker
releases as a 7″ non-album single, later re-released on Save Me, San Francisco (2010)

 

With very few newly-composed holiday songs to enjoy, Train’s “Shake Up Christmas” makes wiggle room into our already-stuffed ears for the festive season. Pat Monahan’s tenor cozies up to this mash-up of hip-hop and pop rock and cradles us into two stories about a boy and girl “shaking up the happiness” at Christmas time. With its add-on of the Coca-Cola jingle, the song managed to squeeze its way into the Hot 100 and a host of music charts worldwide.


 

“Last Christmas”
(1984)
Producer: George Michael
Writer: Georige Michael
released as a 7″ non-album single, later released on Music From the Edge of Heaven (1986)

 

Drippy synthpop serenades the upper decks of this holiday treat by the “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” duo. It was tucked on the backside of the gold-certified “Everything She Wants” and worked as a trusty springboard for George Michael’s exit from Wham! into a solo career. In the UK, the song – like Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas (which Michael also appeared on) – thrived with multiple chart entries and peaking at number 2 in 1984 and number 3 in 2017.


 

“Sleigh Ride”
(1993)
Writer: Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parrish
Producer: Organized Noize, Pebbles
released as a non-album single, re-released on Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

 

A hip-hop adaption of the Leroy Anderson/Mitchell Parish instrumental fantasy, the Organized Noize-produced “Sleigh Ride” decked the halls of the Home Alone 2 soundtrack. Inside this urban spiced jam,  T.Boz and Chili trade newly-constructed verses with a spirited Left-Eye cranking up the hypeman chants and “up, up and away” rapping.

NEXT: #40-31


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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