Every year, it seems that holiday music creeps into the shops earlier and earlier, and this time around was no different. Here in Chicago, especially as everyone waits with baited breath for the first snow of the season — I think we’re at 282 days without snow as of Tuesday, Dec. 11 — we’re relying heavily on the near-mythical consumerism of the modern era to get ourselves in the mood, and that, my friends, can get very sad. (As someone who spent their childhood in Los Angeles, you can take my word for it.)
So for once, I’m advocating for holiday music, not just as a necessary evil for promoting holiday cheer or even as a guilty pleasure, but as a part of the season that’s both enjoyable and (gasp!) substantive. Here are a couple of my old standbys:
“Merry Xmas Everybody” by Slade
Slade isn’t as big of a deal here in the U.S., and all accounts tend to point towards their being “too British” for the American market. One look at the tracklist on a Slade album and you might think of them not only as too British, but also borderline illiterate, with titles like “Look Wot You Dun” or “Take Me Back ‘Ome”. Their Christmas song, though, is among the best and one of the most criminally overlooked now that the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s Charlie Brown Christmas is getting regular airplay once again.
“Last Christmas” by Wham!
A strong candidate for the best-worst Christmas song ever written — other nominees are Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” and anything written by Mannheim Steamroller — Wham!’s strong suite is now-classic 1980s glamour and they don’t disappoint with “Last Christmas”. This track is mind-numbingly repetitive, and yet, too catchy for anyone to care. Watching the video is a must, since no 80s Christmas is complete without beautiful and well-groomed people who all seem to have the same haircut.
“Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley
Of all the classic Elvis tunes out there, the one that seems to showcase the crooner’s most unabashedly dramatic vibrato is his Christmas hit, “Blue Christmas”. I included the original 1957 studio recording because the backing arrangements are excellent, but if you have time you can check out the version from the King’s 1968 comeback special for a wealth of squinty closeups that might remind you of Mitt Romney with a Tiny Face.
“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” by Tom Waits
Maybe it was that Neil Gaiman phase I went through in high school, but I’ve always thought of the holiday season as a great time to let your manic-depressive tendencies run free and wallow around in some good old-fashioned black comedy. If you tend to agree, then Tom Waits is your man, and your song is his early-period highlight “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”, which is not so much a Christmas song as it is a great way to laugh at the sadness in the world. This performance of the track is also one of my favorite videos out there in Internetland, because of how well it seems to capture the strange presence of a Tom Waits live show.
“Sleigh Ride” by the Ventures
The Ventures’ Christmas album is among the best holiday-themed records out there because of how well they integrate their own sound into a collection of holiday standards (sorry *NSYNC, maybe next year). Their version of “Sleigh Ride” is a great mix of Christmas music and twangy 1960s surf rock, as evidenced with the “Walk, Don’t Run” fakeout that happens right at the beginning.
“I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges
Every year I make a case for The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” being the perfect holiday song for our times. It’s not just the jingle-jangle of bells in the background — it’s also the acid-fried guitars, three-chord snarl and cutthroat sadomasochistic themes. Let’s face it: this song sets a perfect backdrop that turns your local Macy’s into the Thunderdome, and the prize is the last Furby or Tickle-Me Elmo or whatever else manages to trigger parental bloodlust. In the post-Mayan apocalypse era, every Christmas will be punk Christmas.