Spotify Playlist: Christmas Songs You Want to Hear
If you’re signed up for Spotify, you can access most of these and more on my Spotify Christmas playlist. Or click through for the YouTube version below.
Tom Waits: Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis
“Charlie, I’m pregnant and living on Ninth Street / Above a dirty bookstore off Euclid Avenue.” These are not the sort of lines you would ordinarily expect to hear in a Christmas song, but this is Tom Waits. And it is not far more depressing than the real version of of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” anyway. Waits here offers us basically what the title promises. It’s sort of a prostitute’s tragicomic version of those annoying family newsletters you get around the holidays, where the mother-author spins some resent-tense nostalgia and idealized spin on the accomplishments of her beloved family. But don’t get me wrong; it is one of those beautiful Waits melodies and will serve as a dry tonic for all the saccharine stuff that’s been playing on oldies stations and in stores since Halloween.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: Christmas Everyday
I don’t know how I lived until 2009 without hearing this should-be Christmas classic. This baby swings.
David Bowie and Bing Crosby: The Little Drummer Boy
This is a cherished favorite. Talk about nostalgia for a past that never existed! This exists: Ziggy and Bing, a generation gap bridged in one fell swoop. And once the novelty wears off from hearing it the first time, you realize how well the two voices fit together. Well, yeah, Bing was one of the very first crooners to work an electronic microphone, to get up close and personal, a huge influence on Frank Sinatra and all who followed, including Bowie.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono: Happy Xmas (War is Over)
This is one of the first holiday numbers that was contemporary for me, released in my time, and not some old wooly and tipsy-grandpa memory. Lennon gets the message right: ending war, which is particularly profane during a time when people are wishing peace, love, and goodwill toward humankind. And of course, Lennon gets the music right, a singalong with a holiday lilt. It was an instant classic.
Charles Brown: Please Come Home for Christmas
I’m not ashamed to admit that I was turned on to this song as a kid by the Eagles. I’m not going to waste space defending them to the hipperati. But they did have taste enough to cover this old R&B chestnut from Charles Brown, one of the key influences on Ray Charles. This is my favorite Christmas song.
Ray Charles with Betty Carter: Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Speaking of Ray, here he is with Betty Carter on this seasonal classic by Franke Loesser, a composer whose songs always radiated warmth and humanity. But as always, when Ray decides to interpret a song, it’s his forever. This coy duet with Betty Carter just makes you feel like, man, that was the time to live! I picture Loesser and his wife sitting at a piano in a Park Avenue apartment entertaining guests with martinis as the snow piles up outside.
Elvis Presley: Blue Christmas
Again, a definitive version of this country number, from a master singer. Written by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson, this was a No. 1 for the King in 1964. All these recordings sounded so warm back then (recorded in 1957). As Elvis is pining away for his unrequited love, his Jordanaires multi-part harmonies behind him.
Darlene Love: Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)
From the must-have Phil Spector Christmas record, A Christmas Gift for You, Darlene Love has made it an annual tradition to belt this exuberant song out on The Late Show with David Letterman. This song, one of the most ubiquitous around the holidays, can never be overplayed as far as I am concerned.
The Ravonettes: The Christmas Song
Not to be confused with the Mel Torme song that we all associate with Nat King Cole, this Danish noise-pop duo brings us a lovely wintry song about lights, wishing it would snow, and all those classic holiday wishes. I first heard legendary Boston radio host Oedipus play this on his annual holiday show while sitting in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve, and found it stunning. I would not leave the car even as the lo mein got cold waiting for me inside. Just goes to show that you can trot out most of the same chords and lyrical subject matter and still pull together an original holiday classic.
Chuck Berry: Run Rudolph Run
Yeah, my hero Keith Richards ripped out a great version of this in the 1970s, but Chuck is the true source.