Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Psychobabble’s 50 Favorite Holiday Season Songs


Oh, I’m quite sure you’ve been bombarded with various versions of “Jingle Bells”, “Jingle Bell Rock”, and “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” since well before Halloween. Don’t let that put you off holiday season songs, though. The ones you probably haven’t been hearing a dozen times a day will turn around the “Bah Humbug” attitude that fucking “Christmas Shoes” song induces. Clean that sleet out of your stocking to make room for these 50 festive and freaky holiday season favorites delivered down your chimney with Psychobabble’s Christmas seal of approval!

50. “Merry Xmas Everybody” by Slade

With its glitzy lights, gaudy decorations, and multi-layered garb, Christmas is the glammest holiday. Wolverhampton glammers Slade recognized this and cut one of the all-time seasonal classics with an anthem made for stomping through slush in platform boots.

49. “Christmas Everyday” by The Miracles

If you’re more inclined to go for a slow, romantic stroll in fresh, clean snow, “Christmas Everyday” will be more your speed. Smokey’s love is such a perennial gift that she could turn any day into December 25. That would be a welcome prospect if every holiday song sounded like this one.

48. “Christmas Is My Time of Year” by The Christmas Spirit (AKA: The Turtles)

Nice try, Flo and Eddie, but there’s no way to disguise your insane humor and banshee harmonies. The Turtles tried to pull one over on us by calling themselves The Christmas Spirit when they released the whacky, sleigh-bell bashing “Christmas Is My Time of Year” in 1968, but it is as recognizable a product of the great L.A. quintet as “Happy Together” or “Elenore”.

47. “Run, Rudolph, Run” by Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry strips off Johnny B. Goode’s gunny sack and wraps him up in a red suit. There’s nothing especially novel about “Run, Rudolph, Run” aside from its holiday theme and the fact that it wasn’t actually written by Rock & Roll’s papa (it was actually co-written by Christmas song merchant Johnny Marks, who also counts “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, and “Holly Jolly Christmas” among his accomplishments), but even the most generic Berry-Rock rocks.

46. “All Our Christmases” by The Majority

Like a few other songs on this list, the only Christmassy thing about The Majority’s bubblegummy “All Our Christmases” is the word “Christmas” in its title. No matter. The kiddie giddiness of this gumdrop of British pop will still put you in the holiday spirit.

45. “Thanks for Christmas” by The Three Wise Men (AKA: XTC)

Some cheesy synth settings and corny lyrics cannot conquer Andy Partridge’s enchanting way with a melody and wandering chord sequence. When Partridge failed to convince some women on the Virgin Records staff to sing his confection under the “sacrilegious” moniker The Virgin Marys, he cut it with XTC as The Three Wise Men. Oh, Andy. You didn’t fool anyone with the Dukes of Stratosphear either.

44. “Merry Christmas, Baby” by Otis Redding

You know it could have gone either way with Otis Redding. He could have easily spent Christmas morning in a state of “Mr. Pitiful”-style mourning. Fortunately, he spends it in “Happy Song”-style merriment, serenading that baby who always treats him nice. He even breaks out into laughter in the middle of it. So will you.

43. “Christmas in Hollis” by Run DMC

Run DMC are having an even luckier holiday. They just found a wallet with a million dollars in it, which turns out to be a genuine gift from Santa! Thanks, Santa, but you are going to go broke handing out gifts like that. And you, dear listener, are going to go breakin’ when you hear “Christmas in Hollis”.

42. “Santa’s Beard” by The Beach Boys

Going to department stores to crawl onto the lap of some drunk in a dirty white beard is a holiday tradition as common as guzzling egg nog or snogging under the mistletoe. The Beach Boys commemorate it with “Santa’s Beard”, a chugging chunk of Californian doo-wop in which Mike Love gives his little bro the usual story about how that funky cat in the mall is just one of the real Santa’s helpers.

41. “Wintertime” by The Steve Miller Band

Steve Miller crafts a piece of seasonal mood music with the windy, icy “Wintertime”. It wouldn’t be a Steve Miller Band song if it didn’t rip off some other song (The Mamas and the Papas already used that melody in their own icy weather lament, “California Dreamin’”, Steve!), and it wouldn’t be a Steve Miller Band song if we worried about that.

40. “Winterlude” by Bob Dylan

This frosty treat from New Morning will make you picture Bob Dylan hand-in-hand with his lady friend skating figure eights on an iced-over pond. Hilarious! “Winterlude” is also a genuinely lovely little waltz.

39. “The Fox in the Show” by Belle and Sebastian

Belle and Sebastian’s seasonal picture piece would be lovely if it wasn’t also so emotionally anguished in that understated B&S way. Stuart Murdoch paints a trio of portraits of desolation, but it’s the opening image of that hungry little fox wandering through the snow that is the most indelible… and the most seasonal.

38. “Rain, Sleet, Snow” by Paul Revere and the Raiders

Here’s where things get real weird. Mark Lindsay chastises the mailman for failing to deliver his Christmas cards over what may be his and the Raiders’ heaviest riff ever. Plus there’s a Salvation Army band and a string section.

37. “My Favorite Things” by The Supremes

Its smattering of Christmassy images (mittens, wrapped packages, sleigh bells, snowflakes, “silver white winters”) have made this number from The Sound of Music an honorary holiday song. The Supremes did supreme work with it on their 1965 LP Merry Christmas, which is otherwise fairly dire.

36. “Step Into Christmas” by Elton John

Slade started this list with the grungier side of glam. On the genre’s flip side, Elton John was more like a human Christmas tree: bright, and blindingly colorful. “Step Into Christmas” reflects all of those lights and colors with an infectious chorus, and for some reason, laser-beam sounds.

35. “Winter Wonderland” by Johnny Mathis

Johnny Mathis is not glammy. He is not punk. He is not even a smidgeon Rock & Roll. But let’s broaden our horizons a little here, kiddies. Because nothing instantly sparks that Christmassy feeling like Mathis’s 1958 Merry Christmas album, and Al Ham and “Sing Along with” Mitch Miller’s arrangements are undeniably magical. There is even a touch of eeriness to that interlude that briefly skis away from Richard Smith and Felix Bernard’s composition. If a Currier and Ives print made sounds, those sounds would sound like this. 

34. “Snow Surfin’” by Zeke Sheppard

OK, that’s enough squareness for now. Zeke Sheppard will shave the corners off that ice cube with a smashing snowball of soul called “Snow Surfin’”. It’s a tribute to the wintery sport of skiing, but I do not recommend listening to it while wearing your skis, because it will get you shimmying so hard you’re likely to go off course into a tree.

33. “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” by Wizzard

Rock & Roll wizard Roy Wood honors Phil Spector and mocks the commerciality of Christmas with one wild wall of sound. The dinging cash register that begins this mad track is the only thing with any breathing room. The rest is a massive mound of sound with saxes, a children’s choir, sleigh bells, and the kitchen sink. “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everday” is stuffed like the stocking of a very, very, very good boy on Christmas morning.

32. “Freeze Tag” by Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega’s ode to wintertime games, however, is as airy and delicate as a snowflake. It is the sound of frosted breath and boots lightly crunching snow on a gloomy December afternoon.

31. “Wintertime Love” by The Doors

Like Dylan’s “Winterlude”, The Doors’ “Wintertime Love” feels made for a couples skate. But this is a much more robust waltz than Dylan’s. The lyrics of cold blowing winter winds “blue and freezing’” set the seasonal scene masterfully. 

30. “Israel” by Siouxsie and the Banshees

Despite its “orphans in the snow” and reference to “red and green,” it’s hard to really get a handle on how Siouxsie Sioux saw “Israel” as a Christmas song. But she did, and it’s an effectively moody and catchy record in the Banshee’s best pop-goth tradition. There’s a bit of sleigh-bell type percussion and a choir, though it sounds more like vampires chanting at a black mass than Christmas carolers.

29. “Log Cabin in the Sky” by The Incredible String Band

This will help you shake that uncomfortable feeling Siouxsie and the Banshees shrouded you in. It is a gloriously old timey sing-along perfect for roasting chestnuts over an open fire with your fellow cabin-dwelling settlers. Winter is only “nigh” in “Log Cabin in the Sky”, but The Incredible String Band already sound like they’re huddling together to shield each other from its winds and snows.

28. “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses

There’s no way The Waitresses’ scroogey attitude isn’t going to turn around with a funk as exuberant as “Christmas Wrapping”. Patty Donahue laments a Christmas on which everything that could go wrong goes wrong, but it all works out in the end. David Hofstra’s popping bass tips you off that it will long before the final verse.

27. “What Christmas Means to Me” by Stevie Wonder

You know how excited you’d get as the calendar got closer and closer to December 25 when you were a kid? Stevie Wonder must have since he recaptures that feeling so completely with his busting-at-the-seams vocal on “What Christmas Means to Me”. It’s a slight song, but Stevie gives it all the weight of a present-packed sleigh.

26. “A Christmas Song” by Jethro Tull

Jethro Tull are even heavier. “A Christmas Song” is actually a delicate piece of music with Tull brandishing mandolins in front of whirling strings in full Maypole mode. However, Ian Anderson’s lyric is as harsh as the morning news. He calls out the season’s frivolous merrymaking, unable to process how anyone can celebrate when so many others are homeless and hungry. Christmas songs do not get any angrier.

Click for wallpaper size.
25. “The Elf” by Al Stewart

If you prefer the more traditional happy holiday song, you can bury your head back in the sand with Al Stewart’s effervescently cheery “The Elf”. The creature about whom the future “Time Passages” hitmaker sings probably isn’t one of Santa’s helpers, but those guys deserve some representation here. It can’t be easy toiling in Santa’s sweatshop all year while that fat cat gets all the credit.

24. “Sugar Rum Cherry (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy)” by Duke Ellington

In 1960, jazz royalty put his stamp on the centerpiece suite of Tchaikovsky’s beloved holiday ballet. “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” is actually part of the ballet’s Pas de Deux, not its suite of world dances, but it is such an evocative and famous piece of music that the Duke would have had to renounce his title if he hadn’t included it in his Three Suites. While “Sugar Rum Cherry” does not have the eeriness of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies”, it still has a real late-night vibe. In fact, the sugar plum fairies sound like they’ve just rolled in after a boozy all-nighter… which is exactly what they did if they made the most of their holiday.

23.  Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” by The Crystals

Come now. You didn’t think I’d neglect the greatest Christmas album ever recorded. It’s just that Phil Spector’s productions are so great that this list is front-loaded with them. Our first representative is The Crystals’ stately yet euphoric interpretation of Leon Jessel’s toyful march. It must fade out mid-verse because there is no way to get those marching soldiers to come to a proper stop.

22. “The Man with All the Toys” by The Beach Boys

Toys are front-and-center again, but this time they are confined to Santa’s bag. The best track from The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album has a slinky groove, elegantly bleating backups, and extreme brevity. But even “The Man with All the Toys” isn’t as short as…

21. “Christmastime (Is Here Again)” by The Beatles

…“Christmastime (Is Here Again)”, which barely makes it past one minute. The only proper song The Beatles recorded for their kooky fan-club-only Christmas record series is nonsensical (what does Ringo’s bark of “o. u. t. spells ‘out’” have to do with anything?) but catchy as “Hello, Goodbye”. Ringo’s drumming is as mighty as the Abominable Snow Man.

20. “Skating” by Vince Guaraldi Trio

Perhaps the coolest thing about CBS’s beloved A Charlie Brown Christmas special is the employment of legit jazzmen to compose and cut its soundtrack. Although it is pure jazz, the music is still fit for kids and perfectly in tune with the season it supports. No other track captures the quietly giddy feel that follows first snow falls and ice-rink outings than the tinkling “Skating”. Visions of Peanuts on ice will dance in your head. 

19. “2000 Miles” by The Pretenders

Tucked at the end of The Pretenders’ elegiac third album, “2000 Miles” is just as picturesque as Guaraldi’s “Skating”, but instead of seasonal joy, it draws up feelings of nostalgia and loss. Composed in the wake of the deaths of James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon, “2000 Miles” finds Chrissie Hynde experiencing the very bitter sweetness of experiencing her first Christmas after losing her bandmates. Gut-wrenching.

18. “Sleigh Ride” by The Ronettes

OK. Let’s stop wallowing in death. This is Christmastime, and what we really want to do is recapture the innocent feelings of wonder that we always felt at this time in days past. Nothing will make you feel like a kid again like The Ronettes’ woozy take on “Sleigh Ride”. Ding-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding.

17. “Merry Christmas, Baby (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” by The Ramones

Of course, not everyone gets to snuggle up together like two birds of a feather at Christmastime. Less harmonious couples are more likely to spend December 25th rattling the decorations with screams and insults. Joey Ramone knows that this is in the cards for he and his girlfriend, but that really isn’t how he wants to spend the most festive of holidays—even though fighting is a lot punker than going for sleigh rides in a wonderland of snow.

16. “Winter” by Family

Oof… Family have it even worse. They hate the whole winter season! These Grinches of British psychedelia complain about how the season’s ice-cold winds and snowy ground bring them down and make them want to hibernate. The grouchy lyric is matched with a majestically barren soundscape of endless ice and snow.

15. “Child’s Christmas in Wales” by John Cale

If you’re brought down by Family’s anti-winterism but dig their majesty, I can refer you to John Cale’s “Child’s Christmas in Wales”. It is similarly majestic, but the lyric is so abstract that it’s hard to suss what Cale’s on about at all. Yes, there are slivers of Dylan Thomas references, and even Christmas ones (“With mistletoe and candle green”), but this “Child’s Christmas in Wales” more explicitly name checks Halloween and citrus murders. It’s beautiful though.

14. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” by The Crystals

So is the preamble of The Crystals’ version of every kids’ favorite holiday threat. All of the magic of sneaking downstairs to peak through a frosty windowpane to spy Santa and his eight tiny reindeer is present in that 35-second intro. Then the fat man busts through the wall like the Kool-Aid Guy as the Wrecking Crew bashes away beneath La La Brooks’s hearty vocal. Holiday heavy metal.

13. “Snowman” by XTC

Like The Ramones, XTC is having romantic troubles, and like Family, aversions to chilliness. Andy Partridge is getting the cold shoulder from the woman of his desire, and it leaves him feeling like a snowman and shivering as if it’s winter already. You’d think it was winter with those gusts of echoing wind and methodically shaking sleigh bells.

12. “Santa Claus” by Throwing Muses

Another great college rock band of the eighties is also making some seasonal correlations, though Throwing Muses’ are a lot more positive than XTC’s. When Kristin Hersh sees her man, he makes her light up so much that she mistakes him for that dude who makes every kid light up on December 25th. She’s so giddy with love that she starts ho-ho-ing. You may find yourself doing the same.

11. “Winter” by The Rolling Stones

Oh, these songs called “Winter.” Whine, whine, whine! Poor British rock stars like Family and The Rolling Stones can’t deal with low temperatures and a bit of snow. Yet, like Family’s “Winter”, the Stones’ is a marvelous piece of mood music, and Mick Jagger’s references to Christmas tree lights may put you in the seasonal mood even if that is quite the opposite of his intentions. Paul Buckmaster’s sheets-of-ice string arrangements deserve a lot of the credit too.

10. “Riu Chiu” by The Monkees

More reverent to the season is The Monkees’ enchanting a capella version of a medieval Spanish Christmas carol called “Riu Chiu”. A prayer for the nativity, it is one of the few explicitly religious songs on this list, and you may feel like you’re sitting in a cathedral while listening to the incredible four-part chorale of Micky, Mike, Peter and Davy (or Chip Douglas, if you’re listening to the studio version) as they perform “Riu Chiu” live for NBC’s camera. Peter recently named this as his favorite Monkees song.

9. “A Christmas Camel” by Procol Harum

There sure isn’t anything religious about Procol Harum’s “A Christmas Camel”. Keith Reid’s lyric is an utterly baffling boggle of holiday, Arabic, and straight-up “huh?” images. “Some Arabian sheik most grand impersonates a hot dog stand”? Whatever you say, Keith. “A Christmas Camel” is also one of Procol’s most sweeping and seductive creations, and the great Gary Brooker croons it as if it isn’t total nonsense.

8. “There Ain’t No Sanity Claus” by The Damned

Now, you didn’t expect traditional holiday sentiments from The Damned, did you? That title is a typically daffy Chico Marx quote (Sayeth Groucho: “It’s all right, that’s in every contract. That’s what they call a sanity clause.” Sayeth Chico: “You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Claus.”). The rest of the lyrics imagine the band’s members going crazy in sundry ways, and the mania ends with some sleigh bell rattling and ominous ho-ho-ho-ing. Vicious as a rabid reindeer.

7. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by The Ronettes

Phil Spector pulls a similar trick with “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” that he did with “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, though he doesn’t even need dialogue this time. The twinkling music, sounds of footsteps, and big, wet, smacking kiss say everything necessary before the band breaks out and Ronnie breaks in. Percussion clatters, horns and Ronettes harmonize like devils and angels, strings soar like Santa in his sleigh, and Ronnie stands enraptured in the center of it all. Magic.

6. “A Hazy Shade of Winter” by Simon and Garfunkel

And now we’re back to the griping, but Paul Simon’s problems are a lot deeper than the snow that bugs Family and the Stones. Creative opportunities are long past. Hopes and plans fade away. Life fades away. A relentlessly pounding backing that clings to the nastiest acoustic guitar riff you’ll ever hear rocks harder than anything else Simon and Garfunkel ever created.

5. “My Favorite Things” by John Coltrane

I’m not sure if John Coltrane had the song’s holiday implications in mind when he recorded “My Favorite Things”, but it captures the lightness and happiness of first snowfalls as effectively as Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Skating”. It also does a lot that the Trio didn’t do as Trane blisses out in wintery revelry, spinning out strands of soprano sax like unspooling ribbon. Lose yourself in the seasonal spirit for fourteen transcendent minutes.

4. “Marshmallow World” by Darlene Love

Phil Spector gets cheeky with his too-elegant strings and pounds them to dust with a pouncing piano riff and the heaviest rhythm section this side of Zeppelin. Then everything swells and swoons, and Darlene Love does the thing that makes her the greatest seasonal soul singer of them all. “Marshmallow World” is as ecstatic as music gets.

3. “Christmas” by The Who

The Who’s “Christmas” exposes one of the major problems with religious dogma. If you have to pray and grovel and, well, know that the God concept exists to get into heaven, how can a boy who is deaf, dumb, and blind be saved? The two extremes of Tommy are well represented on one of its greatest tracks. The verses are jackhammer heavy. The “see me, feel me” refrain is angelically ethereal. All of The Who’s greatness wrapped up in one, shining Christmas package.

2. “Father Christmas” by The Kinks

The Kinks’ greatness shines out of their own holiday classic too. “Father Christmas” is a hilarious, pointed, and poignant reaction to punk and Britain’s late-seventies destitution. Kids don’t need fucking toys when they’re starving. But they will take a machine gun to scare all the other kids on the street. This is one of the very few Christmas songs you’d be happy to hear on any day of the year because it’s so catchy, so powerful, and so endlessly relevant.

1. “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” by Darlene Love

It takes a mighty talent to best The Kinks’ holiday onslaught. Darlene Love is that mighty talent, and she will destroy you completely with her plea for her love to return and rescue Christmas from a pit of loneliness and despair. Those choruses of “Deck the Halls”, those clanging church bells, those pretty Christmas tree lights have lost all their charm as Love pines for her lost love with astounding commitment. Her vocal fireworks ignite the sky as she reaches ever higher, shouting “Please! Please! Please!” The late Leon Russell responds in kind with his consoling, ascending piano lines. “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” is a magnificent piece of music, as emotionally devastating as most Christmas songs are frivolous and mindless. But we’ve got no room for frivolousness here on Psychobabble…just the very best seasonal songs rock, pop, soul, punk, and jazz have to offer. Make your season its best by spinning some of these. Have a fab one.
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