In the spirit of the season, I present my countdown of my top ten Christmas songs. Argue if you like, but these are what I wait with baited breath to hear on the radio each year.
These are all great songs, but I just don’t have the space to discuss them all. So a shout out to “So This Is Christmas,” “Please Come Home for Christmas” (Jon Bon Jovi), “Wassail,” and “Silver Bells.”
“I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”
This silly little number is a staple in our household in part for the fun refrain and for Gayla Peevey’s peppy delivery. Looking for something quirky to break the tedium of yet another round of “Sleigh Ride”? Look into this little ditty. The original version is difficult to come by, but the Three Stooges also do a descent cover.
“Holly Jolly Christmas”
Burl Ives has the perfect voice for the holidays: rich and booming yet still cheery. He also does a great “Frosty the Snowman” (you might remember his voice as the narrator snowman from classic claymation). This song with its bright refrain is the perfect fit for his voice and when he sings it I really do believe it.
Like most singers (especially modern ones) Elvis has a Christmas album. Of all his songs, this one stands up the best as it caters to his bluesy voice and Southern rock delivery. It’s a great song for people who don’t like Christmas songs.
I think everyone and their monkey has done a cover of this song–Madonna, Cindy Lauper, Heidi Klum…pretty much any woman who considers herself a sex symbol. But my pick for the definitive version is presented by none other than the lovely Eartha Kitt. Whereas other singers put on baby voices to sing the song, delving into the naughty little girl fantasy, Kitt relies on her natural purr to sell the song. Her version is also just a bit naughty but a very grown up naughty.
“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”
The quintessential novelty song, it’s always a fun one for it’s catchy tune and unforgettable lyrics combined with the less than stellar vocals. It is the perfect song to sing along to.
“Carol of the Bells”
Sung by choirs or just instrumental this song has such beautiful interweaving pieces that it presents a complexity often missing in Christmas songs. Really listen to the song sometime–the competing melodic tones battle, alluding to both the dark and light sides of Christmas.
“O Come All Ye Faithful”
When one thinks of Nat King Cole for Christmas, most people tend to lean toward The Christmas Song. And I do not argue that it is a classic. However, I prefer Nat’s clear voice on this church favorite if only for his gorgeous refrains of “O Come Let Us Adore Him” at the song’s climax.
“Christmas is All Around” & “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” (tie)
I just can’t pick a favorite between these two, so I will call it even. “Christmas is All Around” is the tent pole of “Love Actually,” opening the movie and providing comic relief throughout. Bill Nighy is brilliant as a washed up rock star stretching for his own Christmas miracle. His performance of the song is hilarious whether it be a profanity strewn recording session or a Christmas Eve striptease. His storyline is one of the things that keeps the film from being just a schlocky romance. And it still makes me smile just listening to the CD.
The first time I heard “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” was when I spent a Christmas working at the now defunct Warner Brothers Studio Store on Fifth Avenue. Every thirty minutes the music video featuring a toned down David Bowie and a polyester turtleneck sporting Bing Crosby would hit rotation on the store’s jumbo-tron. The first time I saw it I did the Scooby Doo double take. Then I laughed out loud at the sheer ridiculousness of it. Over the next two weeks I came to look forward to its circulation (plus it saved me from the wretched Space Ghost spot). Now I see it as a melding of classic and modern Christmas music and hearing it on the radio is always a special treat.
Many would argue this song should be number one. And it should be, on another list. On my list it will have to settle for number two. This is one of the those songs that never fails to give me chills, but it should only be sung by Bing Crosby. While most people associate with the movie it shares a title with, a much better film to enjoy the Irving Berlin classic is Holiday Inn, where it was first used. A quieter film with a simpler performance, it is the perfect showcase for a song that doesn’t need all the bells and whistles.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
This song has been recorded by a bushel of folks including some of the greats like Nat and Frank. However, my only version is the heart wrenching version from “Meet Me in St. Louis,” sung by the incomparable Judy Garland. Before time and addiction had a chance to eat away at her, Garland uses her voice to deliver an emotional performance, one that draws the point that while Christmas is a happy time, it is also a time of sadness and loneliness, but most of all hope.