What seems like a lifetime ago, I was a radio announcer, and I used to play all the Christmas songs over and over again each December. I thought most of them were awful, but there were a few gems. As I now hear these songs for the umpteen-thousandth time, I wondered why no one has ever ranked the top Christmas recordings of all time. As you might expect, I’ve decided to take on that challenge myself. So I now proudly present Andy’s 10 Best Pop Music Christmas Songs.
Now before we begin, let me draw your attention to the word, “pop.” I love the Temptations sweet soulful rendition of “Silent Night” featuring Eddie Kendricks’ soaring falsetto. And I think Mariah Carey sings the best gospel version of “O Holy Night” that I’ve ever heard. But these are traditional Christmas songs. These songs are found in the United Methodist Hymnal. If I opened up my list to traditional Christmas carols, I’d have to include all such recordings. And let’s face it, Leontyne Price singing “Ave Maria” is going to rank higher than the Chipmunks every time.
So if we limit our list to only those songs written during the 20th or 21st centuries, I believe I can accurately compile my list. Now I know you’re thinking, “But Andy, are there really ten good pop Christmas songs?” And I emphatically answer, “Yes!” Once I began giving this list some thought, I realized all the songs I’d have to leave off. Those not making my list include the following:
All the Christmas novelty songs. While “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” is funny, it’s only funny about twice a season, and then it becomes annoying. The Chipmunks really aren’t even funny at all anymore. I’m partial to “Santa Claus And His Old Lady,” by Cheech& Chong, but that’s not a song. It’s a recording, yes. But not a song. I’m also partial to the Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy’s Christmas,” but I just couldn’t squeeze it into my Top Ten List. So, no novelty songs. Sorry, Dr. Demento fans.
Anything by the Beach Boys. Much as I love the harmony in “Little St. Nick” and “The Man With All The Toys,” I must remind myself that this is a Christmas list. If I were to compile a list of the “Top Ten Summer Songs,” (and there’s an idea for next July!), the Beach Boys would certainly make multiple appearances. But the Beach Boys never could put me in the Christmas spirit. I suppose it’s because their Christmas music always makes me picture Santa Claus in a bathing suit, and that’s just not right – on several levels.
Anything by Barbra Streisand or Neil Diamond. They are Jewish, yet they’ve both capitalized from the popularity of a Christian holiday. I’ve never liked that.
All the great Vince Guaraldi music from “Charlie Brown’s Christmas.” It’s fabulous music, but it’s not necessarily Christmas music. In other words, I could listen to it poolside in the middle of summer, and it wouldn’t seem out of place. We associate it with Christmas, but it’s not really Christmas music, per se.
Any depressing Christmas songs. Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” puts me in the Christmas spirit about as much as a hernia, and “Father Christmas” by the Kinks is (as you might expect) just too dang loud! I must admit I do love “I Believe In Father Christmas,” by Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake, & Palmer. It’s a “downer” of a song protesting the commercialization of Christmas. That’s obviously a good message, and Lake brilliantly incorporates Sergei Prokofiev’s “Troika” into his own melody. But it’s still a “downer.” No Christmas spirit generated whatsoever.
And finally, my list does not include Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” I apologize in advance to anyone over the age of sixty, but I never liked that recording. Really. I think Bing’s scooping technique works great with jazz, but it’s annoying here. And that trilly whistling in the middle verse hits my ear about like fingernails on a chalkboard. So, no Bing either. Again, I’m very sorry, but this is my list. Not yours.
So, let’s begin, shall we? I think I’ll count them down backwards, a la David Letterman (or Casey Kasem, for you boomers):
10. “Holly Jolly Christmas,” by Burl Ives. It’s the best song in the Rankin/Bass television special, “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” (even better than the title song). It’s instantly singable, and always seems to put people in a good mood. And furthermore, who doesn’t like Burl Ives?
9. “The Little Drummer Boy,” by the Harry Simeone Chorale. This is a simple and repetitive song, but it has a haunting melody, and it touches on the real meaning of Christmas, which is rare in popular Christmas music. To me, that helps.
8. “Home For The Holidays,” by Perry Como. Released in 1954, this pop ditty celebrates the post-war economic boom – Christmas travel on actual interstate highways, and people warmly greeting one another at the highway rest stops. Besides having catchy lyrics, and an even catchier melody, “Home For The Holidays” harkens back to a happier time – before the military/industrial complex. The top marginal tax rate was 90%, and nobody complained about it! Okay, off my soapbox now, and back to the list.
7. “Merry Christmas Darling,” by the Carpenters. This was always a great song, but it’s made even more touching because Karen Carpenter died so young and so tragically. Their Christmas album is one of the greats of the holiday season, and this song is the highlight. It also gets points from me because Karen sings, “I wish I were with you,” rather than the more common yet horrendously incorrect, “I wish I was with you.” Remember the fingernails on the chalkboard…..?
6. “The Christmas Song,” by Nat King Cole.” He was a lot like Frank Sinatra. His voice was always great – even on a bad song. “The Christmas Song,” however, is a great song. Written by Mel Torme, Nat gives this one the perfect vocal touch. Christmas wouldn’t be complete without this gem.
5. “The Happiest Time Of The Year,” by Andy Williams. Perhaps I’ve ranked this one too high, but to me, the name Andy Williams was synonymous with Christmas. His Christmas shows and Christmas music was like drinking a cup of hot chocolate by the fireplace on a cold winter evening. Due to his recent passing, I have a soft spot in my heart for Andy now, so this one ranks #5.
4. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” by the Carpenters. Yes, I do enjoy hearing the Bruce Springsteen version, but in my mind, the Carpenters recorded the best version of this song ever. I love the slow tempo, and the recurring brass interlude is to die for. Warning: This song does not appear on the Carpenter’s popular 1984 Christmas album, released after Karen’s death. You have to go back to their original (and less well-known) 1978 Christmas album for this one. Or just download it as a single.
3. “Step Into Christmas,” by Elton John. Elton John was on top of the world during the mid-1970’s. He regularly released two albums per year, he had a starring role in the 1975 motion picture, “Tommy,” and he released the first two albums ever to debut at #1 on the Billboard album chart. In and amongst this incredible flurry of activity and musical output, he found the time to record a jewel of a Christmas song – featuring a background choir, chimes, and a clever recurring guitar line – as well as some outstanding synthesizer work from Elton. And unlike Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” it isn’t so repetitive as to be annoying.
2. A tie: “Sleigh Ride,” and “Frosty The Snowman,” both by the Ronettes, and both produced by Phil Spector. I realize this makes a total of eleven songs, but I can’t pick between these two classics. In fact, everything on Phil Spector’s Christmas album belongs on this list. It features the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love, and Bob B. Soxx&The Blue Jeans, backed by Spector’s famous “wall of sound.” The girl-group treatment works perfectly with Christmas pop songs, and I’ve always liked the Ronette’s version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” better than that of the Jackson Five. Up until 18 years ago, these were my favorite Christmas songs ever. I still crank the radio when I hear any of this stuff.
1. With sincerest apologies to all the Bing Crosby fans, #1 on my list: “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” by Mariah Carey. This song has been a Christmas classic almost since the day it was released. It’s bouncy, catchy, has a great melody, and practically asks to be turned up every time it comes on the radio. And that little tight-fitting Santa outfit thingy she’s wearing on the cover of her first Christmas album certainly doesn’t hurt. I can remember one year my daughter exclaimed, “Dad, we can’t decorate the tree without the Mariah Carey album!” And so it has been every year at our house. The rap against Mariah Carey has always been, “How can someone with such a great voice record so much crappy music?” I’ll have to agree. But not when it comes to her Christmas albums. In fact, there’s a gem on her 2010 Christmas album called “One Child,” which explains the true meaning of Christmas. It’s grown on me enough lately to certainly earn a spot on this list if I ever decide to update it.
So there you have it. Feel free to complain or compliment accordingly. Again, this is my list. Yours may be very different. I understand. My only fear is that the minute this list shows up on-line, I’ll think of one I’ve left off. Oh well, there’s always next year.