80 Holiday Songs You Better Have…Or Else

Posted December 23, 2017 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

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“Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas”
Writer: Steve Cropper, Carla Thomas, Vinny Trauth
Producer: Steve Cropper
from the album Soul Christmas


After hitting it big with the Top Ten hit “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” Stax queen Carla Thomas followed it up with a holiday update on “Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas.” Propelled by Booker T & the M.G’s and Steve Cropper’s songwriting assistance, this bubbly piece of iconic Memphis soul stands out for how it sneaks a narrative on young love inside a smitten crush: “Another year has passed and I can’t erase/The memory of your smiling face.”


“Sleigh Ride”
Writer: Leron Anderson, Mitchell Parish
Producer: Norman Granz
from the album Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas


Released in 1960, scat jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald purrs like a kitten on this infectiously swinging take of “Sleigh Ride.” It is her amazing annunciation of words, perfect pitch and deep dips on the low notes that ultimately make this one of the finer vocal arrangements done on this “wintry fairyland” ditty. Also part of its charm, instead of relying on constant jingling bells like most desperate Christmas music, producer Norman Granz focuses on the tings of the drum brushes on cymbals to create the holiday ambiance.


“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”
Writer: John Frederick Coots, Haven Gillespie
Producer: Bruce Springsteen, Mike Appel, Jimmy Iovine
released as B-side of “My Hometown” (1985)


Recorded during a live show in December 1975, Bruce’s Santa PSA boasting heartland rock drama first appeared commercially on wax as the B-side to 1985’s “My Hometown.” Over the years, it’s grown into a golden standard in his shows – even if it’s not the holiday season.


“A Holly Jolly Christmas”
Writer: Johnny Marks
Producer: Milt Gabler
from the album A Holly Jolly Christmas


Actor Burl Ives contributed the narration to the 1964 TV special Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and even sung the Johnny Marks-penned “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” one of the song selections featured. The following year, Ives returned to the studio to cut a re-recording, this time with a slower rockabilly groove. This version is the ultimate take, and reigns as the far superior “Holly Jolly” over the dozens of remakes made by other acts.


“Run Run Rudolph”
Writer: Johnny Marks, Marvin Brodie
Producer: N/A
released as a non-album 7″ single


Rock ‘n roll legend Chuck Berry took the chunky ingredients of his “Little Queenie” and “Johnny B. Goode” hits and dropped it atop a tale about the popular copyright-protected Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which shamefully left ‘Rudolph’ writer Johnny Marks and partner Marvin Brodie with all the royalties. Still, Berry’s contribution created a perfect rock ‘n roll pastime for the holidays. All subsequent covers pale in comparison to the original.


“Christmas Wrapping”
Writer: Chris Butler
Producer: Chris Butler
from the album A Christmas Record


In 1981, the “I Know What Boys Like” band worked up a fun New Wave holiday treat, paid homage to the bubbling hip-hop movement, hence the pun inside the song’s title. And with their punk roots, it also allowed them the space to write a holiday song with a little bah-humbug spirit (“No, thanks, no party lights/It’s Christmas Eve, gonna relax, turn down all of my invites”), right before it caps with a “very happy ending.” Patty Donahue’s half-sung, half-rapping on the verses along with its infectious funky bass lines also mimed Blondie’s “Rapture,” a groundbreaking jam becoming one of the year’s biggest surprise No. 1 hits. The Waitresses’ holiday carol didn’t have the same response on the charts, only peaking at number 45 in the UK, but manages to get rounds of radio airplay during the holiday season.


“White Christmas”
Writer: Irving Berlin
Producer: N/A
from the album Song Hits from Holiday Inn, later as shellac 78 RPM single


With over 100 million copies sold, no other holiday song has sold with the grandeur of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” Much of its acclaim comes from a low moment in American history. When Crosby appeared alongside Fred Astaire in the Paramount 1942 film Holiday Inn, the nation was rocked by the attacks on Pearl Harbor, which forced the US to enter into World War II. With the armed forces being removed from families during the holiday season, Irving Berlin’s lyrics of “where the treetops glisten,” the constant reminiscing of better days and the finishing touches of melancholy (“just like the ones I used to know”) resonated with the public. Berlin would strike gold with frequent re-releases and re-recordings of the Crosby tune, particularly in the 1954 musical film White Christmas. But it’s the 1947 version that is best remembered and that lives on in a digital world of holiday compilations.


“The Mistletoe and Me”
Writer: Isaac Hayes
Producer: Isaac Hayes
released as non-album 7″ single, later reissued on It’s Christmas Time Again (1981)


Rolling off the success of 1968’s Hot Buttered Soul, symphonic soul maestro Isaac Hayes pours his heart into this finely rendered original. And although Hayes is most known for being a first-rate arranger, he probably pens the most romantic poem connecting mistletoe to the holidays: “Fate is Santa Claus and Cupid’s his helper/ I’m so grateful because they brought us together.” On the bookends of the song are gorgeously arranged nuggets of “Jingle Bells,” “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” executed by Memphis-cooked guitars and a blissful flute. It just goes to show you how rapturous Hayes’s genius really was.


“Christmas Time Is Here”
Writer: Vince Guaraldi
Producer: Sol S. Weiss
from the album A Charlie Brown Christmas


Leave it to Charles Schulz’s Peanuts to give us one of the greatest jazz slow jams ever. Pianist extraordinaire Vince Guaraldi laid down the music for A Charlie Brown Christmas, even the popular upbeat “Linus and Lucy” gem. But the glorious six-minute instrumental take of “Christmas Time Is Here,” captured brilliantly by Guaraldi’s warm piano, Jerry Granelli’s drum brush rustling and Fred Marshall’s double bass, is simply a smooth jazz masterpiece. And although the Peanuts gang added words to the Charlie Brown special, supplied by Peanuts exec Lee Mendelson and is featured on the soundtrack, Guaraldi’s wordless event conjures all the good feelings one should have for the holiday season.


“Little Saint Nick”
Writer: Brian Wilson
Producer: Brian Wilson
from the album The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album


Surf’s up with this Brian Wilson original. It smartly blends the Beach Boys’ Cali-relaxed dreamy vocals and Chuck Berry smarts (“Run run reindeer”) with a tale about Christmas “that you’ve all been told.” But they don’t tell it like the days of yore. When they’re referring to the Big Man dressed up in red as a “real famous cat,” you best believe they are making Christmas hip again.

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About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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