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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“Wonderful Christmastime”
(1979)
Writer: Paul McCartney
Producer: Paul McCartney
released as a non-album 7″ single

 

Coated with Mac’s pop magic and an unusual display of space age prog-rock, this 1979 solo hit (done without Wings, despite their inclusion in the eerier concept video) usually gets hammered with angry Muzak listeners with every passing holiday. The alien synths are the song’s best friend, as they point to the pilgrimage of adventurous musicians going the distance into the unknown universe of synthpop. Of course, the future of synthpop was scaled back a lot, retracting from Gary Numan’s “Cars” in exchange for the bubblier sounds of Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out.” But that’s probably what makes this misunderstood holiday offering so timeless. It’s a Polaroid capture of the former Beatle trying out newer technologies in a very carefree, whimsical fashion. What better way to do it than on holiday music. It’s also been covered plenty times by other big names in music (Kylie Minogue, Demi Lovato, Jimmy Buffett, Chicago) and is considered to be an “evergreen” in royalties. So eat your heart out, suckers!


c-09“All I Want (For Christmas is You)”
(1981)
Writer: Dave Peverett
Producer: Nick Jameson
released as a non-album 7″ single

 

Before Mariah came aboard and drilled her similarly titled Christmas classic into our craniums, the “Slow Ride” rock band fired up a zesty “let’s go to the hop” rock ‘n roll smash on wax. This feisty workout penned by frontman Dave Peverett, full of handclaps and a wish list of things that come after “you,” feels like a climax at a 1960’s American Bandstand Christmas party.


c-08“Merry Christmas, Baby”
(1968)
Writer: Lou Baxter, Johnny Moore
Producer: Steve Cropper
released as a B-side (“White Christmas”); later released on Soul Christmas

 

Chuck Berry’s take on Johnny Moore’s “Merry Christmas, Baby” is perfect for those lounging in a dim jukejoint, but Otis Redding wins the coin toss for the most precious cover. The 1968 track, produced by Steve Cropper, is accented with Booker T’s glowing organ and the M.G’s sassy horns, plus jingly bells to get us in the holiday mood. It was served as the B-side to “White Christmas,” but it’s quite obvious that Stax should’ve flipped it.


 

c-07“All I Want for Christmas Is You”
(1994)
Writer: Mariah Carey, Walter Afanasieff
Producer: Mariah Carey, Walter Afanasieff
from the album Merry Christmas

 

Inspired by Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” Mariah Carey along with longtime co-writer Walter Afanasieff strung together an uptempo ditty done with jingle bells, Carey’s signature belting and gospel-fried backing vocals. It is known for duplicating Phil Spector’s bulletproof Wall of Sound, but the addictive holiday song, which jumped into the Top 10 in 2017 for the first time after its release two decades ago, has a deep secret. “That entire song is just me at the computer,” Afanasieff revealed during a 2014 interview with ASCAP. “The only other thing that’s real is the vocals. It’s all programmed [and] computers.”


 

c-06“Merry Xmas Everybody”
(1973)
Writer: Noddy Holder, Jim Lea
Producer: Chas Chandler
released as a non-album 7″ single

 

Hitting number one in the UK, “Merry Xmas Everybody” finds rock band Slade dropping a delicious slice of glam rock upon the masses just in time for the It sold over a million copies and strangely has become the group’s most successful single. Not bad for a song that was composed in the same amount of time it takes to take a bath. “I thought it was a stupid idea, but then I decided to do it,” bassist Jimmy Lea told Uncut magazine in 2013. “This took about twenty minutes while I was in the shower.”

Remnants of the song also came from a throwaway track co-writer Noddy Holder, a “hippy dippy flower power song” called “Buy Me a Rocking Chair.” That song was never heard. Although the song has endured as a perennial favorite for millions of Brits, it never charted in the US. But it does have one remarkable American connection: It was pieced together at the famed Record Plant in New York.


 

c-05“This Christmas”
(1970)
Writer: Donny Hathaway, Nadine McKinnor
Producer: Don-Ric Enterprises
releases as a non-album 7″ single

 

Using his gospel era alias on the song’s credits (Donny Pitts), Donny Hathaway joined with Nadine McKinnor to create something special and long-lasting in the world of Christmas music for African Americans, according to session percussionist Ric Powell. Hathaway did just that with “This Christmas,” a song released during the early years of his solo career. It managed to chart, peaking at number 11 on the Christmas Singles chart in 1972, but has blossomed into the definite R&B holiday favorite. Some have covered it (Usher, Mary J. Blige, Patti LaBelle, Train), others have outrightly tortured it (Chris Brown), but none have come close to replacing the original. After hearing Hathaway belt “The fireside is blazing bright/We’re caroling through the night,” Christmas seems complete.


 

c-04“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”
(1958)
Writer: Johnny Marks
Producer: N/A
released as a non-album 7″ single

 

At the rise of rock ‘n roll and at the intersection of rockabilly music, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” finds a 13-year old Brenda Lee breathing eternal gold on one of the most enduring holiday songs of all time. Lee’s mature voice fits like a glove on Grady Martin’s twangy guitar and the jazzy sax solo provided by Boots Randolph. After a few couple of re-releases, the Decca cut eventually went gold and has since risen as a career best, soaring in sales beyond any single ever released by Lee.


 

c-03“Jingle Bell Rock”
(1957)
Writer: Jon Beal, Jim Boothe
Producer: N/A
released as a non-album 7″ single

 

Sorry Hall & Oates, but Bobby Helms has the most definitive version of this rock ‘n roll holiday staple. Although Helms was a diehard country singer, this rockabilly gem chronicling all the festive cheer at “the jingle hop” became a quintessential Christmas classic and was adorned by legions of teens on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. It’s also been heard in a number of blockbuster holiday films like Jingle All the Way and Home Alone 2, which has bolstered its popularity forty years after its original release. The song managed to chart to number 6 during the pre-Hot 100 era, but continues to trek into the Top 40. In 2016, it reached number 29 pop.

 


 

“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”
(1963)
Writer: Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Phil Spector
Producer: Phil Spector
from the album A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records

 

Inside Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, a cheery, soulful Darlene Love blasts through the speakers and a new type of holiday classic was born, one that embodies the spirit of rock ‘n roll and a glistening glow that perfectly sums up the magic of the holiday season. When originally released in 1963, some saw it as a curse since the Philles Records holiday compilation dropped on the same day as JFK’s assassination. But it’s an endearing anthem about the yearning for a lover trapped by long-distance (“They’re singing Deck the Halls/But it’s not like Christmas at all”) that’s only grown in popularity. In 1986, David Letterman booked Love to perform it on his late night show with Paul Shaffer and his band backing her up. It was a hit and became a yearly tradition, one that the ‘Late Show’ king continued after moving to CBS.  And for twenty-eight years, Love repeated the performance until Letterman’s retirement. Since then, Love has picked up the tradition on ABC’s The View. Although Mariah Carey has had bigger chart success with her 1994 cover and other artists like Michael Buble have rolled out their own takes, Love’s version, packaged with powerhouse belting, Spector’s seasoned orchestra and backing vocals that included Cher and the Blossoms, remains indestructible.


 

“The Christmas Song”
(1961)
Writer: Mel Torme, Robert Wells
Producer: N/A
released as B-sides to 78 RPM singles, later issued on The Nat King Cole Story (1961)

 

This cozy, sultry ballad about “chestnuts roasting over an open fire” must be in rotation for anybody’s holiday party. Nat “King” Cole recorded Mel Torme’s dreamy tune four times with Capitol – a label known for being the “house that Nat built.” The first, recorded in 1946, was more minimalist featuring only the King Cole Trio. Cole wanted a more polished, fuller version and demanded a string section for a second recording. Two months later, he got his Christmas wish and cut it with the same trio along with a four string assembly directed by Charles Grean. Due to the enormous success of Later versions contained fuller orchestras. To pinpoint the finest of Cole’s performance of one of the most enduring holiday staples ever Cole’s 1961 recording, containing Ralph Carmichael’s conducting of the strings, remains the most popular and sought-out edition for Cole’s heftier vocals and the stereo quality of the sound. In 2016, it managed to give Cole a posthumous surprise by rocketing into the Top 40, peaking at number 38.


HIFI PLAYLIST: 80 HOLIDAY SONGS YOU BETTER HAVE…OR ELSE on SPOTIFY


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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