Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Best Christmas Songs

I am having an absolutely awesome Christmas season this year. We’ve got the lights on the house, the nutcrackers on the mantel and I’ve been drinking egg nog and devouring gingerbread men like a fool thanks to my “No Diets During the Holidays” rule. A little Atkins in January will clear all this extra fat right up.
Despite all this Christmas joy, I haven’t felt compelled to write about the Holidays at all. I feel like there really isn’t anything new to cover and I am still on a kick where I don’t want to produce any more “Top Ten” lists than are absolutely necessary.

So here’s a “Top Seventeen” list! This one took some work, though, so I feel like I earned it. I wanted to do an article about what I feel are the definitive versions of classic Christmas songs. You should immediately realize this means my favorite versions since objectivity has no place here on Needless Things. This ended up being a bigger task than I initially planned because clearly I am not going to cover every Christmas song ever to have multiple versions recorded. Do you realize even that fucking terrible John Lennon song has over fourteen recorded versions? All of which suck just as bad as the original. Leave it to that worthless hippie to use the happiest time of the year to cash in on the guilt of the people. I wonder if this is the song that paid for that hypocrite’s New York loft?
Sorry. I got decidedly un-merry there. But that’s what that song does to me, which is why I hate it - for pissing on my Holidays. If you don’t know which song I’m referring to, it’s Happy X-Mas (War is Over); which is offensive from the get-go for utilizing the secularizing “X-Mas” right there in the title. You can’t get away from it, and most people don’t even realize what a depressing dirge it really is. Totally inappropriate for play alongside the classics, yet you hear it everywhere you go. The only good this song does is making McCartney’s annoying Christmas offering seem less awful. Did George and Ringo record horrible Christmas songs, too?
Anyway, I didn’t come here today to bitch. I came here today to foist my opinions about Christmas songs off on you. First I had to narrow it down to a manageable number of songs to cover, then figure out which versions I liked the best. Which also involved listening to a ton of Christmas music. That’s okay, because I was doing that already. I got a separate MP3 player this year just for Christmas music because my Zune is full of regular music - a problem that is going to have to be addressed soon. I also had to compile how many versions of what songs there were. I’ve avoided versions that are parodies or are crass or disrespectful. This isn’t the time or place for that (but we will get to those later!).
Enough explaining; let’s arbitrarily proclaim things! Also, I’m linking each song title to Wikipedia because a lot of them have very interesting histories. Did you know that “Frosty the Snow Man” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” were written by the same people and both originally performed by Gene Autry? I didn’t.
O, Holy Night” – Martina McBride
I’m not any kind of fan of modern country music, and am not really familiar with Martina McBride at all, but I got this song on a compilation and it blows my mind. It’s an absolutely beautiful rendition of the song. This lady has a truly amazing voice. There have been a lot of versions of this song, but most of the modern takes are ruined by unnecessary vocal gimmickry. This one is simple and pure and wonderful.
Pretty Paper” – Willie Nelson
To be fair, the album this song comes from is probably one of the best Christmas albums ever. Something about Willie’s voice is just made for Christmas. A case could be made that any track on Pretty Paper is the best version of that song, but the title track is my favorite.
 
White Christmas” – Bing Crosby
I think this might almost be considered the signature song of Christmas. While Nat King Cole’s version has a little more personality, Crosby’s is just so sincere. You really believe this guy is dreaming of a White Christmas. That man wants some snow, and having spent my whole life in the South, that’s a yearning I can identify with.
Winter Wonderland” – Stryper
Yeah, that’s right. I said Stryper. This song is rad. And it helps that the version I have (though not the one in the above video) was recorded right down the road in Hotlanta, Georgia, baby! ‘Cuz that’s how we do things! Oooh, yeah!
The Twelve Days of Christmas” – John Denver and the Muppets
If you’re my age, the Muppets Christmas Special is one of the greatest things ever made. You watched it every year, you had the record, and John Denver was the man because he was hanging out with Kermit the Frog years before he ended up defending free speech to our oppressive government. To anybody between thirty and forty, this is the only version of “Twelve Days”.
 
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – The Temptations
This is one of the few Christmas songs that can be legitimately declared “cool”. Never has a song about luminous quadrupeds sounded so much like sexy time.
Jingle Bells” – Reverend Horton Heat
Reverend Horton Heat’s Christmas album actually isn’t as good as you might think. Some of the song versions just don’t quite work in that psychobilly style. It’s still a fun listen and if you’re a fan you should own it. This version of “Jingle Bells” is my favorite, though. Despite being an instrumental I think it is the most fun interpretation of the song I’ve heard. Most versions of the song usually mess with the lyrics anyway, and it rarely improves anything. If you really need them, sing along! This is a great way to start a Christmas playlist. (I don't know who the guy in the video is. It's the only one I could find for the song.)
Here Comes Santa Claus” – Gene Autry
Autry wrote an awful lot of Christmas classics, but this is his best. It's fun and matches his style perfectly. Nobody has done it better.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – Zooey Deschanel/ Leon Redbone
No videos of this can be embedded, so I recommend you just go watch Elf - it's great. Granted, this isn’t strictly a Christmas song, but you are unlikely to hear it outside of the holidays. I absolutely love this song and get all warm and fuzzy every time I hear it. If Mrs. Troublemaker and I have a Christmas song, this is it. This song has the complete opposite effect Ms. Deschanel’s other musical endeavors have on me. The lady is cute and has a beautiful voice but makes some of the lousiest music I’ve ever heard. That cover of “I Put A Spell On You” on Conan was the first I had heard and I thought it was a joke. I kept waiting for her to laugh and go, “Ha! Just kidding! Here’s the real song” and apparently all of their music is like that. Ghastly. I can hardly wait for the comments from dudes (and chicks) who are in love with her claiming this song is AWESOME!
 
Frosty the Snowman” – Jimmy Durante
This is a case of one version being so definitive that no others – regardless of how good they may be – can live up to it. I love Willie’s, I love Burle Ives’ and obviously Gene Autry’s original version is great. But this is the one from the cartoon. 
 
Holly Jolly Christmas” – Burle Ives
Is there a more uplifting Christmas song? This is the best version. Ives is another that produced what could arguably be the definitive versions of many Christmas songs, but this is my favorite of his.
Let It Snow” – Andy Williams
This is another one that never actually mentions Christmas, but has been inextricably linked to the holidays over the years. Andy Williams – another Christmas maestro – just owns this one.
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” – Dolly Parton
Despite the Fred Astaire version being featured in the Rankin-Bass special (the best Christmas special ever, by the way), I love Ms. Parton’s version. There’s just something awesome about the sweetest lady on the planet telling you about Santa Claus. If you haven’t heard this one, track it down. I love it.
The Nutcracker Suite” – Brian Setzer Orchestra
Brian Setzer’s Christmas albums are such classics at this point that even my mom has them. They’re both very good and fun to listen to, and if you can catch the live concert that ends up getting broadcast every year (I think on PBS, but I could be wrong) you should. It’s awesome. This particular song is notable because it is so complex and fun at the same time. And because it was used in Jon Favreau’s Elf, which may be the most perfect Christmas movie ever.
All I Want For Christmas Is You” – Mariah Carey
I wasn’t even sure who did this version of the song. Imagine my shock when I looked it up and discovered that not only is this song not a “classic” - in the sense that it was written decades ago and has been performed by many different artisits – but that Mariah Carey is the one that wrote it. This discovery has sent shockwaves through the universe. Kind of. I just know that everybody I have shared this information with has been surprised, to the extent that one co-worker said “Bull-fucking-shit”. It’s true, which just reinforces how amazing this song is. I feel like I’ve been hearing it all of my life and it is certainly an essential part of Christmas. Good work, lady.
Joy to the World” – Neil Diamond
It’s a wonderful anachronism that the Jewish Elvis chose to record a Christmas album (multiple Christmas albums, I just found out!). It’s even more wonderful that’s it’s a really good one. I think there are few vocalists as capable of imparting and representing pure, unbridled joy as Neil; so it is only appropriate that this version of “Joy to the World” is my favorite. As somebody once pointed out to me, you can’t help but be happy when you hear Neil Diamond. That person was crazy as a bedbug, but the words are still true.
It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – Andy Williams
A lot of artists on this list have very good versions of multiple songs – Mr. Williams is the only one that I feel defines more than one. His kind, happy voice makes the title of the song just seem like fact.

Until next time, stay jolly
-Phantom

2 comments:

  1. Sadly, too many years working at Toys R Us and Old Time Pottery have completely ruined 95% of Christmas songs for me. The only ones I still like are the ones that don't get played much at stores, a few of which are in your above list (like the Nutcracker suite).

    One that's not on your list that I also like is Last Christmas. It was originally recorded by Wham!, and sounds way too 80's and cheesy to take seriously as a "timeless" Christmas tune to hear each year. However, Butch Walker did a cover of it a few years ago that removes all the 80's sound from it, and makes for a pretty good cover (certainly better than the original by miles, IMO).

    I'm not gonna say it's the most amazing thing ever or any such nonsense, but it's good, and nobody ever plays it in stores, so I don't get sick of it. If you care to give it a listen, here's a youtube link:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAMflAvaxas

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nothing wrong with Last Christmas. I think I threw things off by including that Mariah Carey song, but I was positive it was older than that. The point here was to pick the best versions of classics.

    ReplyDelete