Recorded music in public places is a leading cause of holiday-related madness, right up there with lack of sunlight. To venture into a mall means exposure to the soaring assault of Handel’s Messiah,or at least the “Hallelujah Chorus.” But it’s the mall. We accept that we take life and sanity into our hands the second we turn into the parking lot.
Like any genre, holiday songs run the gamut from the classic to the unbearable. Only one thing is certain: the song you hate most will be the absolute favorite of your grandma, among your co-workers, or in the heart of your significant other. We present an unofficial music guide to distract, to comfort, and to let you know you are not alone.
“Wonderful Christmastime,” by Paul McCartney
Often topping lists of Worst Holiday Songs, McCartney’s 1979 release nonetheless gifts Macca with about $400,000 in royalty payments each year. McCartney plays all the instruments, including the cloying synth line, and shows that his tremendous gift for melody can even sell this kind of product. Paul’s well-documented battles with sentimentality could work here. After all, if you can’t get sappy on a Christmas song, when can you get sappy? Predictably, he takes that freedom too far. But who’s going to say no to Paul McCartney?
James Brown’s Funky Christmas
A disc that keeps the promise of its title, James Brown’s Funky Christmas features the Godfather and his peerless band throwing down, well, a lot of great James Brown jams that just happen to include lyrics about the season. On one song James breaks the Fourth Wall and offers his gratitude for you, meaning us, for attending his shows. Songs include his then-usual combination of grooves, uplift, and social commentary, with titles like “Go Power at Christmas Time,” “Santa Clause Go Straight to the Ghetto,” and “Soulful Christmas.”
“Space Christmas,” by Shonen Knife
It’s the same superlative punk-pop you get with a hundred other Shonen Knife songs, and that is a gift indeed. The highlights are many: Santa’s sleigh pulled by bison, soaring Shonen harmonies, three women who could not look happier playing music, and a fade as giant as that Christmas tree that came to life and fought Godzilla. As with the James Brown music above, “Space Christmas” plays as perfection that is only incidentally related to the holidays.
“Last Christmas,” by Wham!
Epic Records released “Last Christmas” in 1984, the year Wham! ruled the British charts and hearts. The song unsurprisingly conquered the U.K. in instant fashion, before crossing the Atlantic to play in holiday mixes and grocery aisles coast to coast. In the years since, many artists have covered “Last Christmas.” The People must like it, because a lot of those versions get airplay, too, as do versions in Russian, Korean, Japanese, Polish, French, German, and Croatian, among other tongues. If you got sick of Wham! in the Eighties, or just want something a little more contemporary, Florence and the Machine present the song, too.
“Linus and Lucy,” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio
This forty-megaton nostalgia delivery system, once a slightly transgressive choice for the in-store soundtrack, is now a part of Our Lives, with the related diminishing of joy that accompanies saturation airplay. Want to reclaim it? Watch the video and concentrate on the dancing. Whether it’s that unnamed kid doing the Zombie, Pigpen pounding the upright bass, or Linus grooving in the white-person way you’d expect of Linus, this jazzy number gets the people out on the floor.
“Little Drummer Boy,” by Bing Crosby and David Bowie
Long a document for hipster postmodernists, this duet plays it straight, confident that the mere sharing of space between these very different icons provides enough irony for fifty holiday seasons. Bing makes it look easy, as he had been doing since the Coolidge Administration. Bowie, already able to pull off just about anything, fits right in, though you wish he’d eat something.
“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” by Brenda Lee
One of those songs that really doesn’t grow on you. Not that it stopped Little Miss Dynamite. A child prodigy—she’s only thirteen on this record, and already a seasoned pro—Lee escaped poverty to become one of the top hitmakers of the 1960s. Here she teamed with Boots “Yakety Sax” Randolph to record one of the most-played holiday hits, a dubious distinction no doubt attributable to the song’s aggressive non-offensiveness.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” by Band Aid
You can’t expect a song recorded for famine relief to be a pick-me-up, and true enough, the cream of early Eighties talent from the British Isles put together a patronizing bummer of a tune redeemed by only two things. First, it raised a lot of money for starving people. Second, all the artists involved either became obscure (Paul Young, Bananarama) or subjects of derision (Sting, U2, Phil Collins), and it’s fun for the rest of us to revisit the vagaries of fame once per year.
“Jingle Bells,” by the Singing Dogs
The most literally-named showbiz act since the Five Lads, the Singing Dogs were a Danish (!) supergroup consisting of Pearl, Pussy, Dolly, King, and Caesar. With nominal human help, the canines put together the original “Jingle Bells” recording in 1955. Eighteen years later, it reentered the charts and now rises again every holiday season to amuse that year’s three year-olds.