80 Holiday Songs You Better Have…Or Else

Posted December 23, 2017 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

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“White Christmas”
Writer: Irving Berlin
Producer: N/A
released as a non-album 7″ single


In full doo-wop soul fashion, the Drifters turned a lily white Irving Berlin classic into a groovy evergreen joyride for Ahmet Ertegun’s Atlantic. Thanks to Clyde McPhatter’s lead and the booming bass notes of Bill Pinkney, this 1954 classic was able to rise to number two on the R&B charts.


“At Christmas Time”
Writer: Luther Vandross
Producer: Luther Vandross
from the album Funky Christmas


Before exploding as a solo act with “Never Too Much,” Luther Vandross moonlighted with a short-lived five-piece vocal group named after him. And one of the remarkable standouts of that period was this holiday ballad, soaring with his signature velvety lead vocals, Quiet Storm bliss and a stirring string arrangement handled by Motown legend Paul Riser.


“Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”
Writer: Mack Rice
Producer: Allen Jones, Henry Bush
from the album It’s Christmas Time Again (1982)


Using a taste of dirty blues, the “Born Under a Bad Singer” guitarist and singer works up a macho protest for Santa to get his stocking stuffed. And he absolutely smashes this Mack Rice workout, thanks to King’s downhome blues playing and those naughty lyrics (“I don’t want no turkey/Don’t care about no cake/I want you to come here Mama ‘fore them children wake.”)


“What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas”
Writer: Homer Banks, Carl Hampton
Producer: Al Bell
from the album It’s Christmas Time Again (1982)


If you’re lovelorn or depressingly single for the holidays, tie a ribbon around this tree. This Stax-released holiday tale is full of creamy harmonies and dramatic storytelling by the famous Chicago girl group: “Tis the season to be jolly/But how can I be when I have nobody.” Constructed by the R&B songwriting duo Homer Banks and Carl Hampton, the gents behind “If Loving You Is Wrong” and a handful of the Staple Singer hits, this now R&B radio standard is probably their finest piece of work outside of their glowing recording period with Columbia.


“Santa Baby”
Writer: Tony Springer, Phillip Springer, Joan Javits
Producer: N/A
released as a non-album 7″ single


With a flirty delivery, Eartha Kitt purred her way into households with this adult version of Santa begging. She names a list of extravagant gifts, including yachts, sables, a duplex and checks and even decorations bought at Tiffany’s. Ironically by 2008, the year of Kitt’s death, the song finally was certified gold. Plenty have re-recorded the cute jazz ditty, even an embarrassed Madonna, but Kitt’s original reigns as the ultimate standard.


“Christmas Lights”
Writer: Chris Martin, Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, Will Champion
Producer: Coldplay, Rik Simpson, Brian Eno
released as a non-album digital download


Chris Martin’s balmy vocal on this one-off affair is typical Coldplay, but the lyrical display is storytelling magic. After a drunken night on “Oxford Street,” the lead fights back his loneliness (“when you’re still waiting for the snow to fall /Doesn’t really feel like Christmas at all”) by hoping the radiant Christmas lights will “bring her back to me.” It’s probably one of the finer holiday selections done in recent memory.


“Silent Night”
Producer: Gil Askey
Writer: Franz Gruber, Joseph Mohr
from the album Give Love at Christmas


Despite only having a fraction of the original members, this 1980 performance of “Silent Night” may just be the last great magnum opus by the Temptations. After wondering around at Atlantic for a few years hoping to survive disco, the legendary soul group managed to find themselves back at Motown. And one of their first assignments was to work on another holiday album. Of those sessions, this Gil Askey-produced six-minute gem done with gospel passion is now considered Christmas gold. Dennis Edwards renders the preachy lead and pours his heart on sermonic ad-libs about salvation and love, while Melvin Franklin’s booming bass and Glenn Leonard’s dreamy falsetto (erroneously mistaken as Eddie Kendricks) carries out the rest.


“Don’t Shoot Me Santa”
Writer: Brandon Flowers, Dave Keuning, Mark Stoermer, Ronnie Vannucci, Jr.
Producer: Stuart Price, Alan Moulder, Flood
from the album (Red) Christmas EP


From 2006 to 2016 the Killers have dropped an AIDS-charity holiday single, leading up to the big compilation of Don’t Waste Your Wishes in 2016. But there’s something uniquely clever about their second holiday single “Don’t Shoot Me Santa.” It bites into their dark humor and finds a gun-toting Santa on a Western-styled witchhunt to silencing a begging Brandon Flowers. And there’s such sweet irony here. He’s telling Santa “I’ve been a clean little boy, I promise you” and wants St. Nick to believe him. It’s incredible storytelling etched around a moving piece of Killers rock.


“I Want to Come Home for Christmas”
Writer: Marvin Gaye, Forest Hairston
Producer: Marvin Gaye
posthumously released; from the album The Marvin Gaye Collection (1990)


Deeply bothered by the ravages of war, Marvin Gaye along with friend Forest Hairston began working on his musical answer to anti-Vietnam protests using the heart tugs of “snowflakes fall” and “Santa Claus.” The song was completed with one take and with the legendary Funk Brothers by his side, but Berry Gordy – despite the release of the sociopolitical masterpiece What’s Going On – somehow resented the idea and tabled the recording (and a planned Christmas album) indefinitely. It managed to crawl out the vaults after Gaye’s untimely death on a box set and has grown to become a classic in the eyes of music critics and Motown collectors.



“Thank God It’s Christmas”
Writer: Brian May, Roger Taylor
Producer: Queen, Reinhold Mack
released as a non-album 7″ single


Their first and only attempt at Christmas music, Queen nails a gorgeous “Thank God It’s Christmas” to the wall of enduring holiday rock.  The layers of breezy synths, occasional sleigh bells and Linn drum-sounding beats, all provided by Roger Taylor, piles up the ingredients of ‘80’s nostalgia. But it is Freddie Mercury’s spine-tingling performance on this faux-Prince Linn that shoots this one-time effort to the top.

NEXT: #20-11

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About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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