The Christmas radio station for the bay area, like all Christmas radio stations, is tolerable about 30% of the time. For every Nat King Cole or Johnny Mathis singing ye olde Christmas classics, you have Celine Dion doing her best to belt out “Feliz Navidad”. Even I have a breaking point, which usually arrives after hearing Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” for the tenth time. Amazing Christmas music does exist, but the sad, cold reality is that your local radio station will never be the one to bring it to you. Composing a good holiday soundtrack takes some effort, which is perhaps why so few actually take the time to do it, since Christmas is often just one long To Do list already.
At the risk of degenerating into a clichéd list of “seldom heard but awesome” Christmas songs, I do feel compelled to defend the genre when confronted by naysayers. Here are some tracks that I hope will convince even the grinchiest grinch to give a second chance to Christmas Jamz.
The Beach Boys – “We Three Kings“
Regardless of what any hardcore Beach Boys fan might claim (I’m talking to you, John Stamos), The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album does not really “hold up”, as one might say. “Little Saint Nick” is clearly the timeless standout, but most of the other tracks fall much, much lower, basically serving as filler. Despite the lackluster covers of holiday standards, “We Three Kings” – a song easily dismissible for its senectitude – is incredibly well-executed. Whatever your feelings towards John Henry Hopkins Jr. tunes (HELLO, “Come With Us, O Blessed Jesus”!), you have to hand it to the Beach Boys for attempting a song that topped the hymnal charts in the 1860s.
Sufjan Stevens – “Oh Holy Night“
The Soof’s massive Christmas album (42 songs!) is not as well-known as it deserves to be. “Oh Holy Night”, specifically, should be a staple on every holiday station from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, but unfortunately only those familiar with a more “alternative” music scene (WINK) will likely be playing it around the holidays. Religious Christmas songs tend to come from one of two camps: ancient, dry hymns from the 1800s, and the effusive, cloying, über-sentimental baby Jesus jams of the late 20th century. “Oh Holy Night” falls into the former category, but you wouldn’t know it listening to this joyful, folksy version. I felt my heart grow two sizes during the swelling peak reached at the 2:45 mark.
Otis Redding – “White Christmas“
“White Christmas” is an Irving Berlin song that has basically dominated the Christmas music scene since Bing Crosby’s version was released in 1941*. The song itself is kind of perfect in its simplicity, but most of the various “shopping mall” versions that have floated around veer into a very schmaltzy, saccharine interpretation, as Christmas songs are wont to do. Undoubtedly, one of reasons Christmas music is often so loathed is that it is so unabashedly cheerful. Although the lyrics and imagery of “White Christmas” are joyful, they take on a very morose, aching quality when filtered through Otis Redding’s quavering, emotional delivery. This version of “White Christmas” actually brought a tear to my eye! A glistening, shining tear. A certain friend of mine might cry blasphemy if I stated this song was BETTER than “Merry Christmas Baby”, but it is.
*Apparently this is the biggest-selling single of all time. Really.
Melissa Etheridge – “Blue Christmas“
There are a lot of things in life that I never thought I would do, recommending a Melissa Etheridge song certainly being one of them. That being said, this version of “Blue Christmas” is the BEST version I have ever heard, completely encapsulating the true spirit of the song, and making the King’s version seem downright chipper. This is not the contemporary rock-producing, David Crosby sperm-raiding Melissa Etheridge of the 1990s that I thought I knew – this is the electric, soulful, Joplin-channeling rock powerhouse that all music snobs (including myself) should have recognized long ago. “Blue Christmas” is one of the rare country holiday songs that has stood the test of time due to its malleability within different genres, but it’s hard to compare a cover by, say, Billy Idol, to one as powerful as this.
Carla Thomas – “Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas“
Christmas Soul can be very hit and miss, sometimes reinvigorating holiday standards but often deteriorating into sappy, emotional ballads. “Gee Whiz It’s Christmas” is a followup to Carla Thomas’ other hit “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)” – apparently playfully exasperated song titles were popular in the sixties – though the former has had a longer shelf-life, likely due to the aforementioned unpredictability of great, original holiday Soul. The song is a fun and light-hearted shout-out to a previously forgotten friend or lover, suddenly remembered thanks to the nostalgic spirit of the holidays. Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?