Some people hate Christmas music. I don’t understand them. The only thing I “hate” about songs of the season is when the stores start playing them in October.
As a kid, I prided myself on knowing the words to just about all of the traditional Christmas carols you could name. I can probably still sing you all the tunes we sang at our fourth and fifth grade chorus performances at East Quogue Elementary School. During my many years working at an oldies station, I became familiar with popular holiday “classics” from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Traditional, twisted, serious, funny, religious or secular, I love ‘most all of them.
Somewhere, I have a box full of dozens of Christmas CDs, chock full of seasonal songs by artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Trisha Yearwood, Gloria Estefan, Kenny G, Gene Autry, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Bing Crosby, Elton John, Ella Fitzgerald… Oh my Goodness, just about everybody! Unfortunately, I think that box is buried in a snowed-in storage unit somewhere on the outskirts of the city. Thank God for YouTube and the radio.
It’s hard for me to narrow it down to just a few favorites, but I’ll try. These are in no particular order, until we get to the Top 2.
Holly Jolly Christmas- Burl Ives (1964). First of all, it’s from the “Rudolph” special. Secondly, it has my name in it! Burl sounds so jocular and jolly singing this song, no other recordings or remakes of this tune come close. I often wonder if Burl recorded it in one take. What a perfect match between song and artist!
Sleigh Ride– The Ronettes (1963). From the album “A Christmas Gift For You.” Bit of water cooler trivia for ya: this now extremely collectable LP came out on 11/22/63, the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Needless to say, it wasn’t a hit that year. Now, before Phil Spector was a crazy-haired murderer, he was a brilliant producer, famous for his “Wall of Sound” style. This album contained tracks from acts he produced, such as Darlene Love, the Crystals and the Ronettes. Headed up by Phil’s future wife, Ronnie, this is the best version of “Sleigh Ride.” What makes it so special? Can I get a “Ring a Ling a Ling a Ding Dong Ding”????
Do You Hear What I Hear?– Whitney Houston (1987). From the album “A Very Special Christmas,” a various artist collection whose profits benefited the Special Olympics. While other tracks on this record, like Bruce Springsteen’s “Merry Christmas Baby” and U2’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” have continually gotten more airplay throughout the years, I have always felt that this song got lost in the shuffle. While Bing Crosby’s version may be the best known, I think that Whitney drove it out of the park. Of course, her tragic passing makes it all the more poignant.
These next two are sentimental favorites… they will forever be tied to memories of my Mom.
Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day– Brenda Lee (1964) This is by far the most obscure song on this list. Brenda was my mom’s all-time favorite singer. She told me that when she was young, she could sing “just like Brenda.” I wish I could have witnessed that. I grew up listening to stacks of my mother’s Brenda Lee albums. “Merry Christmas! Brenda Lee” was one of them. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” was her blockbuster, runaway, everlasting smash, and Mom’s favorite. But being the weird little kid I was, I was entranced by this catchy album cut. I just always loved sad songs with cheerful melodies, I guess. I can’t find out any info on this hidden gem of a song, but I still love, love, love it! “I had a lonely September, October, November too. But December is twice as lonely without you.”
Jingle Bell Rock– Bobby Helms (1958) Another of Mom’s faves. The last song she heard before she passed away, very suddenly, in 2006. This song should make me sad, and sometimes it does. But how can you be sad when Bobby is singing about “dancin’ and prancin’ in Jingle Bell Square, in the frosty air!” (BTW, Brenda Lee recorded this one too, adding more sentimental value to the ditty for me.)
Grown Up Christmas List– Amy Grant (1992) This is the most “modern” song on my list. Penned by the renowned composer/ musician/ producer David Foster, along with Linda Thompson-Jenner. Originally recorded in 1990 by Natalie Cole, the song’s true spirit and its innocence was perfectly captured two years later on Amy’s second Christmas CD. The items on the singers Want List encapsulate the true spirit of the season: “No more lives torn apart, and wars would never start, and time would heal all hearts. Everyone would have a friend, and right would always win, and love would never end. This is my Grown Up Christmas List.”
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas– The Pretenders (1987) Once again, we revisit the “A Very Special Christmas” album for a beautiful version of a sad/ happy/ hopeful/ sentimental song that has been recorded by everyone from Judy Garland (in the 1944 musical “Meet Me in St. Louis”) to Frank Sinatra (who, in 1957 demanded lyrical changes to “jolly it up” for his own Christmas album). The Pretenders turned it into a modern day waltz. I love Chrissie Hynde’s unique voice. Her vocals caressed every syllable and evoked every drop of emotion from this ballad, transforming it from a wistful song of hope into a sultry love song. Damn YouTube for pulling the “official” video for the last couple years!
Merry Christmas Darling– The Carpenters (1970) It is not easy to write a “new” Christmas song, with the intentions of it become an instant classic. If that is your sole intention when sitting down at the piano, or with your guitar, with visions of fame and fortune dancing in your head, you have already squelched the true Christmas spirit, the oft-quoted “Reason For the Season.” The song has got to come from a pure place in your heart, if you expect it to touch other hearts. Such is the case with my final- and my favorite- Christmas song. “Merry Christmas Darling” was written by Richard Carpenter and Frank Pooler, and originally recorded and released in 1970, by The Carpenters, a duo comprised of Richard and his tremendously talented singing sister, Karen. The Carpenters were a brand new act at the time. The song was a holiday hit that year, and was later remixed for the Carpenters’ masterpiece “A Christmas Portrait” in 1978. That album has gone on to sell millions of copies around the world, and returns to the Billboard Albums Chart almost every December. Even thirty years after Karen’s death, her plaintive alto resonates, echoes and haunts those who hear it. Whether we have a loved one deployed, fighting in a foreign country, or if we’ve never gotten over a certain someone, or if we have family members scattered far apart, unable to be together during the holidays, almost everyone can relate to the sentiment expressed in this sweet, sad song: “Merry Christmas Darling, We’re apart, that’s true. But I can dream, and in my dreams, I’m Christmasing with you.” Bonus for turning “Christmas” into a verb.
I hope you enjoy these songs as much as I do. Merry Christmas!