The Ten Best Christmas Songs of All Time

The Ten Best  Christmas Songs of All Time
 
                Despite what retailers have been telling you since before Halloween, the Christmas season begins the day after Thanksgiving.
                Now that has passed and the Christmas season is in full swing.  Some radio stations are playing holiday tunes 24/7. As is usual with radio broadcasting in its current state (see my prior blog titled “I Finally Bury a Long-Dead Friend”), you will likely hear the same ten songs over and over instead of a wide variety of cuts.
                Some songs you will undoubted be sick of by December 25th; some songs you are still sick of from all the airplay last year. Some songs will make you smile. And there are some songs you’d wish they play even just once.
                I used to say the holiday season doesn’t really commence until I hear two specific songs: “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon and “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen.  The latter was hard to catch on the radio, if it was played at all; but now thanks to Youtube I can listen to the tune even on a hot August day.  Those two are on the list, by the way.
                I’m listing individual tracks. I could do another list just on general songs that I enjoy (although some versions are grating): “Holly & Ivy”, “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabelle” and “I Saw Three Ships” would make that list.
                These are the songs that transcend the genre: the “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or “Layla” of holiday music. And these are in no particular order.
                I’d love to know YOUR list of favorites:

1.       Joy to the World by Percy Faith. The opening fanfare of this song makes you rise from your seat. It makes you want to march out in the snow with arms stretched outward and shout “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Listening to this makes you picture a bustling city street seen through swirling snow. This should be played when the Ghost of Christmas Present is showing Scrooge Christmas morning in Old London. It’s as majestic as it is iconic. It is the opening song of “A Christmas Story”.  It should be the first song played at the start of the season.
2.       Ring Those Christmas Bells by Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians. I’ll bet you’ve not heard this one. If you have, you know how strange this song is – especially since it was produced in the 1950s. It has an early 1970s post-psychedelic feel to it. It starts off with the singers talking merrily and then break into a chorus of Jingle Bells. Someone chants “Merry Merry Christmas” and it is repeated by the singers as a mantra. That segues into “Ring Those Christmas Bells”; a song whose tune sounds vaguely like the theme to “Green Acres”. At the end the “Merry Merry Christmas” mantra returns. It’s a bizarre tune. I love it! It is on Youtube.
3.       Silent Night by Mannheim Steamroller. The first two tunes on the list are upbeat songs of celebration. This is a very quiet song, appropriately. You listen to this song sitting on the couch in the evening drinking hot cocoa and watching the snow fall. Being Mannheim Steamroller, this version of the song is filled with electronics tweets and whistles and notes that don’t quite sound like they fit, but eventually do. And the end is beautiful; a swelling crescendo followed by a wisp of the first four notes played as if by a child on a toy piano. Absolutely beautiful.
4.       All I Want for Christmas is You by Mariah Carey. A fun romping song that sounds like it came off of a Phil Spector Christmas album. Mariah has the chops to pull off the vocal acrobatics of the song and the sex-kittenish sensuality of the lyrics and her delivery (especially the introduction) makes the song a favorite. Ignore the remakes and stick to the original. You’ll thank me. The song is alluring, and not in the creepy sexiness of a “Santa Baby”. Whereas the latter requires a shot of penicillin after every listen, “All I Want …” is a wonderful upbeat happy song for the holidays. This song sometimes makes lists of worst Christmas songs, and there are some remakes that are pretty bad, but I like the original.
5.       Happy Christmas (War is Over) by John Lennon. I used to joke, “You know it is Christmastime when you hear Bing Crosby and Yoko Ono on the radio”.  Yoko sings the middle eight of this sweet song. Like “Imagine”, this is likened unto a children’s song. However, I always found it a sad song. Not only because Lennon was murdered in the month of December and this song was on the playlists at the time; but also because I hear the lyrics as an accusation or condemnation. A man looking at himself in the mirror – “so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun…” Another year passed with unfulfilled expectations.
6.       Snoopy’s Christmas by the Royal Guardsmen. The band hit big in 1966 with “Snoopy vs The Red Baron” and this is a sequel from 1967. Our man Snoopy is once again called upon to fight his arch enemy.  Without giving away the ending, I wonder if the band knew this is similar to an actual event – the Christmas Truce.  In 1914 German and British soldiers exchanged greeting and songs across “no man’s land” – even exchanging gifts such as food and souvenirs. At the end the opposing troops sang carols together and played football (that’s soccer for you mouth-breathers…).  But soon the unofficial truce was over and such fraternization was banned by the so-called superior officers and both sides went back to slaughtering each other over the next four years.
7.       My Little Drum by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. It’s a shame that Vince Guaraldi will be known for only his work on the Charlie Brown cartoons, as he should be remembered for the piano-playing genius he was. We are lucky we have his soundtrack to “Charlie Brown Christmas” available on CD. Every song on the album could be included in a Top Ten, but “My Little Drum” is a unique take on the traditional song (that being “Little Drummer Boy”). Once you hear it, you’ll want to hit the back button and listen to it again. Minor and major notes are hit on the beat and off; and the children singing and humming and prrrrr-ump-ump-ing make a sweet counterpoint to the jazzy beatnik arrangement. It’s the cat’s meow, man. One of the best songs from one of the best holiday albums of all time.
8.       Must Be Santa by Bob Dylan. Even at his best Dylan’s vocal “style” is an acquired taste. Now that he is older and his voice is scorched from too many tours, he sounds the way an oak tree would sound it if could sing. “Someone is vivisecting a wildebeest!” “No, it’s Dylan’s latest album.”  BUT, his voice fits this genuinely great, great version of the Christmas song. It sounds like a rollicking good party was going on while recording it (and the video accompanying the song plays that out to great effect. Mordant bleu, Bob Dylan dances in the video – dances!!). The song is a chestnut of Mitch Miller’s Christmas song chest, but here Dylan made the song fun without quite pushing it into novelty territory.
9.       Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth by Bing Crosby and David Bowie. The 1977 Christmas special from which this song aired is available on DVD. It is strange watching Crosby introduce the video of Bowie’s “Heroes” standing behind a Christmas trees and twinkling lights. The legend says that Bowie hated “Drummer” and did not want to sing it as a duet with der Bingle. So the writers whipped up “Peace on Earth” to act as a descant to “Little Drummer Boy” and also a middle eight for Bing and Bowie to duet. It worked. Bowie’s high vocals paired beautifully with Crosby’s baritone. Crosby sang the main song quietly. This is important. “Little Drummer Boy” is usually performed as a big production filled with artificial melodrama in complete contrast to the ideals within the song. Here the song is quiet and respectful – a small child presenting the only gift he could give to the infant king. Plus I like Crosby’s vocals in his later years. His voice deepened and rumbled. Water glasses vibrated when he sang. It’s a lovely song. And it was Crosby’s last Christmas single. That lends a sadness to it that it otherwise might not have.
10.   Jingle Jingle Jingle by Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer soundtrack. I have not heard anyone remake this song, but it is one of my favorite Christmas songs, perhaps THE favorite. Clocking in at just over two minutes, it is sung by Santa in a deep baritone. A predictable song of ascending and descending notes with staccato trumpets and strings. A simple song for children that captures the season in their eyes. A sweet and lovable song.
11.   OK, one more, what the heck, it’s Christmas. Plus, this list is pretty bare as far as Bing Crosby – only one? You might think I’m building up to “White Christmas” – the song is so iconic and I think the past two generations have forgotten how tremendously HUGE that song was and is. But I want to go with another song by Bing that brings a holiday smile – Melaka Leke Maka. I love singing along and imitating Bing’s low rumble. He sounds like he’s having a fun time with it too. The song is so much fun the Andrews Sisters tolerated each other long enough to sing backing vocals.  And by the way, “Melaka Leke Maka” is NOT the Hawaiian term for “Merry Christmas” – it is the phonetic spelling of a Hawaiian native trying to SAY “Merry Christmas”.

                And there we have the ten best individual songs! Are any of these already stuck in your head? Lucky you…

Thanks for reminiscing with me!
Copyright 2013 Michael G Curry


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