Who hasn’t sat through those holiday parties with the cozy but yawn inducing classics of Burl Ives playing ad nauseam? I can help with that.
As they say, it’s that time again. Struggling over what to give that someone special? Wallet a little empty? Holiday parties to go to? Give the gift that says you really put some time and thought into it.
Time to channel your inner Nick Hornby. Go all High Fidelity. Yes, it’s the great holiday mix tape. Myself? I’ve been making mix tapes all my life and continue to this day, but maybe it’s been a while for you. Or, maybe you’ve been relying on that genius (sic) shuffle on your ipod. Well, if so, read on. Got your back.
Now for me, the nutty and wacky holiday cover doesn’t cut it. I really don’t need some snot nosed EMO band like Nerf Herder singing “I’ve Got a Boner for Christmas” or Pansy Division’s “Homo Christmas” piping through the speakers. So, while the overly reverential standards pretty much bore me too, I’ll admit, I’m kind of the sap of the century and gravitate toward the stuff that yanks on the heart strings.
Everyone does these holiday covers now. It’s part and parcel of the promotional juggernaut these days, but what’s particularly galling is lack of quality of late. If it isn’t flaccid and banal, it’s cornball schlock. Is there one holiday cover done the past ten years that will be a staple in 100 years?
So here I am, scouring the archives, and I’m looking for the same thing I look for in any cover. Reinvention. Something the artist seizes as their own. Something moving. Something that emits a glorious joy or rakes at the depths of sorrow. Because let’s face it. When you make a mix tape, your ego is involved. Not going for wallpaper music, here. You want it to nose its way into conversation. Insinuate itself into the proceedings. So here we go:
Chuck Berry's “Run Rudolph Run”
Kick off your mix tape with the true king of rock 'n' roll. This song has been covered by everyone from Brian Setzer to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Lemmy Kilmister to Billy Ray Cyrus, but it started with the great enigma himself. The guy who taught everyone from Keith Richards to Marty McFly how to “play a guitar just like a ringin’ a bell.”
The Ronettes' “Frosty the Snowman”
Frankly, if there’s one holiday record that can be played as an endless loop, it’s A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector . This 1963 Christmas album is still the standard bearer for all rock 'n' roll Christmas albums. But if we have to choose one, let's go with The Ronettes’ “Frosty the Snowman”. There’s something so urgent and yearning underpinning all the joy and exuberance in Ronnie Spector’s voice. Phil Spector turned into the whack job of all whack jobs, but he raised the bar to an insurmountable level with this record. Not a dud in the lot.
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band's “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”
This one is especially poignant this year with the passing of the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, who stars as none other than the captain of the sleigh himself. If you’re not moved by this extraordinary live version, well, I guess you don’t like to smile. Talk about Joyful and Triumphant.
U2's “Baby Please Come Home”
Recorded live during a soundcheck on the Joshua Tree Tour, this is a great example of U2 in a playful and joyful mood. For those that label U2 as unable to get out of their own ego’s way, this is a great example to the contrary. At least for one song.
The Who's “Christmas”
Woven into the fabric of the storyline of The Who’s rock opera Tommy, this track gets a little lost and little mention in rock’s holiday classics. But taken on its own, the urgency and bliss of the music is a fascinating contrast to the lyrics depicting the deaf, dumb and blind Tommy sitting amidst the exciting rush of Christmas morning: “And Tommy doesn't know what day it is / Doesn’t know who Jesus was or what praying is / How can he be saved? / From the eternal grave.”
Crash Test Dummies' “The First Noel”
Full disclosure: I found this gem on a holiday compilation my band Divine Weeks appeared on called A Lump of Coal that has all sorts of cool folks like Young Fresh Fellows, the Wedding Present and Henry Rollins. But the highlight of the set is this remarkable track from the one hit wonders from north of the border. The juxtaposition of the deep baritone lead vocals of Brad Roberts and the glorious harmonies are sublime.
John Fahey's “Joy to the World”
The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album is brimming with mesmerizing tracks, and other than Phil Spector’s Christmas record, this is the one that I’d play in its entirety at any holiday affair. However, if I had to choose one song, I’d go with “Joy to the World” with Fahey’s trademark open tuned guitar elevating this paean to the heavens even higher. The remarkably inventive Fahey was always too eccentric and experimental for mainstream audiences on his regular recordings, but his Christmas offerings, and there are many, were his biggest sellers. No wonder. These recordings are absorbing, entrancing and enthralling. Shall I go on? Make sure some Fahey gets on your holiday mix tape.
Simon and Garfunkel's “Silent Night/7 O’Clock News”
Time to inject a little social consciousness into the proceedings. Here we have a little performance art piece. The gorgeous and haunting harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel overlaid on a reading of the nightly news: a litany of murder, war, racism and drug overdoses.
Band Aid's “Do they Know it’s Christmas?”
If you grew up in the '80s, Live Aid was such a seminal global moment, but it all began with this song cobbled together by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure of Ultravox in response to a BBC report on famine in Ethiopia. Geldof then proceeded to harangue every major superstar around like Bono, Sting, Simon LeBon, Boy George and David Bowie and lasso them into the studio. It’s important to put in context the era in which this song was released. Reaganomics, yuppies, “Greed is Good.” No one was doing charity singles and benefit concerts. This song reignited that whole spirit and spawned Farm Aid and the Amnesty International alliance with rock 'n' roll, Rock the Vote, and so many others.
John Lennon's “Happy Christmas (War is Over)”
This is a pretty obvious choice, but there’s just something about how the Beatle with the most acidic tongue became such a heart on the sleeve romantic and believer with Yoko. This one tugs pretty hard on the heart strings.
The Pretenders' “2000 Miles”
Big props for holiday themed originals that fit nicely into a band’s own records. This lovely Pretenders tune made for a perfect closing song to their Learning to Crawl record instead of just another Christmas throwaway b-side.
Eels' “I’m Going to Stop Pretending That I Didn’t Break Your Heart”
This is not so much a directly related Christmas song, but a sad address to a long lost lover left behind years before. It’s Christmas Eve, and he wants to make amends to her, even though he doesn’t know where she lives and hasn’t spoken to her for years. It’s a glimpse into what a lot of us feel on a lonely holiday night and the regret and recriminations that have festered come to the surface and the urge to reconnect is overwhelming.
Big Star's “Jesus Christ”
This song appears on Big Star’s very dark Third album sandwiched by such songs as “Big Black Car” and “Holocaust”, so most hipsters refuse to believe it’s the un-ironic paean the lyrics suggest. “Jesus Christ was born today / Jesus Christ was born / Lo, they did rejoice / Fine and pure of voice / And the wrong shall fail / And the right prevail.” We’ll never know. Alex Chilton took the answer with him. Doesn’t really matter. It’s such a great song.
The Dandy Warhols' “Little Drummer Boy”
This swirling groovy stomp is typical of a lot of the Dandy’s work, but it’s a helluva lot better than that turgid version from Bob Seger.
The Raveonettes' “Come On Santa”
Opening with an over-modulated classic Phil Spector beat and vintage tremelo guitars, you are then broadsided by the beautiful harmonies of Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo that carry you along the river and all the way to the sea. Mesmerizing. Definitely include this one.
The Waitresses' “Christmas Wrapping”
This is a pretty inventive narrative about an English girl hustling and bustling about and fighting the holiday doldrums when she meets the fella she’s been smitten with all year at a grocery store on Christmas eve: “You mean you forgot cranberries, too?” Charming and intoxicating.
Frank Sinatra's “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”
As much as Sinatra derided rock 'n' roll, the feeling was never mutual. The chairman of the board has and always will be seen by the rock crowd as the penultimate coolest late night soul-survivor. This is a great example of how Sinatra routinely emotionally elevated a song that lesser mortals couldn’t.
The Kinks' “Father Christmas”
Gotta love a song about mugging Santa Claus. A brilliant, bratty and timely class-conscious take on the inequity between the haves and have-nots at the onset of Christmas: “Father Christmas, give us some money / We got no time for your silly toys / We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over / We want your bread so don’t make us annoyed / Give all the toys to the little rich boys.” And oh yeah, this song just flat out rocks. Regularly called the best of all rock 'n' roll Christmas related songs, and for good reason.
The Pogues' “A Fairytale of New York”
This most atypical Christmas song, may be the best rock 'n' roll has ever served up of the genre. I’m remembering those inane Mariah Carey and Hall and Oates Christmas songs MTV used to show ad nauseum, and then this song would come on and you’d feel in touch with humanity again. Two old broken down lovers reminisce on Christmas Eve. They’ve constructed their dreams around each other, but it was doomed from the start. It’s all gone now to drink and drugs -- all those pipe dreams down the bog with it, too. He’s watching her die in a hospital and he offers up this last wrenching verse: “I could have been someone / Well so could anyone / You took my dreams from me / When I first found you / I kept them with me babe / I put them with my own / Can’t make it all alone / I’ve built my dreams around you. The boys of the NYPD choir / Still singing “Galway Bay” / And the bells are ringing out / For Christmas Day.”
The story behind “A Fairytale of New York” is a great watch, by the way:
Hugo Largo's “Angels We Have Heard On High / Gloria”
Finally, something for when it’s getting late and the hot buttered rums have finally slowed the room down, people are talking in whispers. This brilliant reinvention of the old standard is a jaw dropping transportational device. Probably my favorite of the bunch. Thoroughly sublime.