Cool Christmas Music That Doesn’t Suck
Our top 10 picks for sincere holiday cheer, including David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, and Johnny Cash
Let’s face it: the vast majority of Christmas music is supremely irritating and overplayed. Few things are less cheer-inducing than having “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” bellowed in your ear in every public space from November 1 to New Year’s Day. By the time the holiday arrives, Christmas tunes feel like little more than the sonic cattle prod our corporate overlords use to goad us into consumption.
Serious music fans suffer more during the holidays, though. Not only do we have to endure carols ad nauseum, we must watch musicians we idolize cash in by covering them. Of course Bieber is going to put out a Christmas record, but Weezer? Why, Rivers, why? And Bruce Springsteen? Why would the Boss debase himself by recording arguably the creepiest and most annoying carol ever? Well, for millions of dollars, but still, it’s disappointing.
You expect Faith Hill and Mariah Carey to have Christmas albums, not Snoop Dogg. (“Christmas In Tha Dogg House.” It exists. I’m sorry.) Every single time I hear Paul McCartney’s simpering “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime,” I’m reminded of the George Carlin axiom “The wrong two Beatles are dead” (I’m not saying I agree! I’m just reminded, that’s all.)
But here’s the thing: there are some great moments in the flood of Yuletide dross. Some musicians bring sincere efforts to the songs, and some songs don’t make you feel like Christmas is just a shallow retail bonanza. You may have to give in to some corniness to enjoy these tracks (indeed, my recent embrace of cheesy lite rock has definitely made the holiday catalog more palatable). Christmas is corny kid stuff, there’s no way around it. But if you can handle a bit of cheese, along with some talk of peace and good will, gather ‘round the Yule log (whatever the hell that is) and check out some albums and singles that may actually induce cheer.
1. David Bowie and Bing Crosby • Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy
Recorded in 1977 for Crosby’s “Merrie Olde Christmas” TV special, this amazingly bizarro duet almost didn’t happen. Just before filming was about to start, Bowie informed the show’s producers that he hated “The Little Drummer Boy” and asked if he could sing something else. They scrambled to write a counterpoint melody for him, and produced this charmer in under two hours. From Bing’s awesome old-guy cardigan to the duo’s cornily fantastic dialogue, this whole video is gold.
2. Johnny Cash • The Christmas Spirit
I’m usually averse to overtly Jesus-y holiday music, but Johnny Cash’s devotion and humility has the power to move even a cranky secularist like myself. Cash aficionados insist that The Christmas Spirit album is vastly superior to his later holiday recordings, but his oft-derided 1980 record The Classic Christmas does include “Merry Christmas Mary,” one of my all-time faves. Every time I listen to “Christmas As I Knew It,” Cash’s spoken-word childhood tale of sharing coal with his impoverished neighbors on Christmas Day, my Grinch heart grows three sizes.
3. Vince Guaraldi • A Charlie Brown Christmas
When I am queen, one of my first edicts will be to ban the playing of this sacred, sacred album in any multinational corporate outlet. Its soothing innocence is only matched by its superlative excellence, and even constant rotation at Starbucks can’t subtract from the enormity of what Guaraldi accomplished here. If you find this record cheesy, check your pulse because you’re probably dead inside. The brushes alone on “Christmas Time Is Here” will melt the iciest heart. (For the fascinating backstory of how this masterpiece was created, check out Derrick Bang’s piece “How Vince Guaraldi Made Charlie Brown Cool.”)
4. Lou Rawls • Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho!
Leave it to Lou Rawls to nail Christmas. Of his many excellent holiday albums, this 1963 David Axelrod-produced recording is my favorite. Memphis soul arrangements, plus Rawls’s genuinely joyful delivery, revive even tired numbers like “The Christmas Song,” and his “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is one of the few versions that can rival Judy Garland’s famous rendition for sheer feeling and authenticity.
5. Elvis • Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas
This lesser-known 1971 record has historically been eclipsed by the juggernaut of 1957’s Elvis’s Christmas Album (which sold 20 million copies, and still holds the record for the best-selling Christmas album in history). But Presley’s later effort really deserves more airtime than it gets. The cornball brilliance of his “Silver Bells” is unmatched, and the slouchy, burning blues of “Merry Christmas Baby” with Chet Atkins on guitar, Floyd Cramer on keys, and Charlie McCoy’s harmonica is pure genius.
6. Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles • Merry Christmas From Patti LaBelle And The Bluebelles
I honestly can’t believe this record isn’t better known, and predict some of these songs will receive the fame they deserve when some brilliant music supervisor somewhere places them in an Aveda ad or the finale of an HBO series. It has a Phil Spector-feel, minus the bombast; there are no originals and just a few secular songs, but LaBelle and her sisters comprise a sweet and soulful choir. Jesus-y, but still awesome.
7. Various Artists • Gospel At Christmas
This album kills me. And unless you grew up singing or listening to gospel, a lot of the songs will sound fresh (the Swan Silvertones’s “Where Was The Baby Born,” is a fantastic take on “Away In A Manger,” and the audience joining Solomon Burke on “Silent Night” could make the staunchest atheist a momentary believer).
8. Stevie Wonder • Someday at Christmas
When treacly holiday platitudes have worn you down, this is the album to reach for. Recorded when Wonder was still a teenager, the wistful civil rights-era title track is arguably one of the best original Christmas songs ever: “When we have found what life’s really worth/There’ll be peace on earth.” The rest of the record is a mix of traditional carols and charming originals, but Wonder’s rendition of “Ave Maria” is the standout that warrants every accolade it gets.
9. Tchaikovsky • The Nutcracker.
A literal and figurative classic. Traditional but not overtly religious, upbeat but not annoying. Fun fact: Tchaikovsky wrote “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to showcase what he called “the heavenly sweet sound” of the celesta, an instrument he’d newly discovered and become entranced with.
10. Queen • Thank God It’s Christmas
Thank God, gods, and goddesses alike for Queen, Freddie Mercury, and this single from 1984, which Rolling Stone called “a beautiful song that stands up to anything in their catalog.”
Jennifer Boeder is Writer-At-Large for Cuepoint, as well as an editor, yoga teacher, and musician. She lives in Chicago.
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