The fashionable thing is to hate Christmas music, or at least disdain it, or at best be a serious hipster-irono-snob about it (“You mean you haven’t heard Spoon’s version of Yo La Tengo’s take on Dean Martin’s ‘Winter Wonderland’?!?”). Me, I like Christmas music. I mean, as with anything in this life, some of it sucks and some of it’s OK, but some of the songs are just absolutely great songs that hit the old emotional bulls-eye just right.
So here, for your Christmas Eve pleasure, are 20 of my favorites, 10 from the ecclesiastical division and 10 secular. See what you think and tell me I’m out of my mind, as you often do, and then weigh in with your favorites on the comment thread. You’ll notice “Christmas in Dixie” didn’t make the cut this year. (Just look at the opening image of this video. Good God.)
THE RELIGIOUS LIST
1. “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Obvious, sure, but there’s a reason every Christmas Eve church service in America and probably England too uses it for the processional. Some songs just kind of open up your chest, generate a happy and even ennobling involuntary physical response, and this is one of them. It feels good to sing, even if you’re a Jew or Muslim or Sikh or nonbeliever.
It dates to 1740s Britain and of course was written originally in Latin (“Adeste Fideles”). Wikipedia says there’s a school of thought suggesting that the whole song was written in a kind of secret political code to galvanize the followers of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellion, but that’s a little above my pay grade. (Maybe some of you Brits who followed me over from the dear old Graun could enlighten.) Anyway, it’s top of the pops and probably always will be.
2. “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” In this world of ours, some melodies are just more beautiful than others. “In My Life,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Ode to Joy,” “Over the Rainbow,” “Stormy Weather,” and the most beautiful melody ever written by humankind, “O Mio Babino Caro,” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, which I can’t hear without starting to cry.
“Lo How a Rose” is up there. Or maybe it’s not melody per se but the harmonies, the way the parts mix together, and the interesting way they’re timed to sort of trip over each other in the third line of each verse, and then the lovely way it resolves in the fourth line. It’s a German song from the late 1500s, and there were several English translations, all quite different from each other. The one we use was by a chappie called Theodore Baker, 1894.
3. “The Holly and the Ivy.” Some songs get you right from the start. “Wow, what was that?” This song has always done that to me. I think it’s the staccato hitting of the same note several times. It’s pretty but it’s enigmatic. I also like the way the song doesn’t even bother to rhyme most of the time. From England, this one, and very old indeed.
4. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” Any guitar player such as I is a permanent sucker for a good Eminor song. The guitar is tuned to E, and an Eminor chord on a guitar just rings and rings forever. Now of course this song can be performed in any key, but it sounds best in Eminor and in my experience is often sung there.
You gotta love that comma. Because we all grew up initially thinking it was “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” But no, it’s not the gentlemen who are merry, but the rest that God wishes them! That’s much more interesting. British, 1830s.
5. “The Coventry Carol.” This one, also British (I guess I like British carols) and dating way back to the 1500s, you might know by the oft-repeated lyric “bye bye, loo-lee loo-lay.” Again, it’s just lovely. The bye bye is being sung, incidentally, by mothers to their babies condemned to death by King Herod. Didn’t know that, did you?
One marvelous little thing about this song is the way the alternate lines of lyric land first on minor harmonies and then major ones. Who thought of that in 15-whatever? Here it is being performed by the Westminster Cathedral Choir.
6. “Good King Wenceslas.” Yes, another British one, from the 1850s. Like “Faithful,” this is one that just makes you feel good to sing, although in a different way; it’s a little bit ribald, as if it should be sung in a tavern with everyone hoisting yards of ale and pounding the table.
Fun fact: There really was a King Wenceslas, who lived in Bohemia in the sixth century or something, and he apparently did leave his castle every year “on the feast of Stephen” (St. Stephen’s Day, December 26) and give alms to the poor. F---ing bleeding heart.
7. “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” Finally, an American one, from the 1850s. Another beautiful Eminor number, with a nice shift up to the major for the chorus.
8. “Angels We Have Heard on High.” This one is of French origin. The extending out of one syllable is a great songwriting device. Think of all the fantastic rock ’n’ roll songs, for example, in which the word “I” is held out over several measures, either on one continuous note or bouncing around a range of notes. It gets the attention. And so the “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ria” in this number earns it a spot on my list. Everyone loves to sing that. It stands out. The descant in the last verse (that’s where some of the sopranos go off scatting about) is also quite lovely.
9. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Now I’m going to get controversial on you, but I don’t care, and I’ll defend it. This one was written by two Americans during the Cuban Missile Crisis and was intended as a general plea for peace and not as a Christmas carol at all. That alone is kinda cool. But there’s more. It’s got a great lyric structure, the way each verse advances the story along, from night wind to little lamb to shepherd boy, and so on. That’s from folk music—not an accident, probably, that it’s a peacenik song. Think, for example, of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” how each of the successive verses opens with “What did you hear,” “What did you see,” “Who did you meet,” etc., “my blue-eyed son.” This is like that, really. It’s great, in fact. And the chord structure, for those of you who play an instrument, is unexpected and worth checking out.
10. “The Little Drummer Boy.” Yes, goddammit, “The Little Drummer Boy.” It’s absolutely memorable. Phonetic, made-up lyrics are another venerable tradition of folk music, and “pa-rum-pa-pa-pum” is iconic of the genre. You can’t deny it. And of course it’s been made more prominent in the culture by the famous Bing Crosby-David Bowie version. American, 1940s.
Yes, I left off many classics. But don’t tell me about “O Holy Night,” please. Bathos. It’s like a Michael Bolton song or something. Has he covered it? Well, if so, now you know why.
THE SECULAR LIST
Let me admit up front here that I am a captive of my generation, so no Mariah Carey (which might not be a generational question, come to think of it) and basically nothing recorded since back when I had my own dreams of being a rocker.
1. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Talk about beautiful melodies. This is as good as a melody gets. It was introduced by Judy Garland in 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis, and in the cinematic context, it’s as sad as all get-out: Father was up and moving the family to New York, to be a big shot, and Judy, portraying daughter Esther, sings it to console her little sister, Tootie (Margaret O’Brien). Where we usually sing “hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” Judy in the film sings “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
2. “White Christmas.” This would be No. 1 on most conventional lists. I was going to drop it altogether because it’s too obvious, like “Stairway to Heaven,” but hey. The intro, or “verse,” as it’s properly called, is usually left out of most recordings but is interesting because it tells you that the singer is sitting out in Beverly Hills (“the orange and palm trees sway”) and pining for some snow and cold. I know the verse because Mrs. Bertalan used to have us do it in ninth-grade choir.
3. “Linus and Lucy.” That, of course, is the name of the great jazzy Vince Guaraldi number that the “Peanuts” kids are dancing to on that stage in the Christmas special, noses aloft, smiles beaming. The Guaraldi music is certainly at least 50 percent responsible for A Charlie Brown Christmas becoming as iconic as it has. And this song is just absolute genius and totally universal. I remember one Christmas I was at my sister’s. My niece was about 5 then, and she and two or three friends were playing in another room. I sat down at the living room piano and started playing this. They ran in and stared at me in wonder. Not because of me (I never could play it very well) but because of the song and everything it meant to them and has meant to so many millions like them, my humble self included. If you prefer “Christmastime Is Here,” that’s fine, too.
4. “Welcome Christmas.” Or as you might know it, “Fahoo Fores.” Yep, the song the Whos sing in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. What language is that? I thought when I was a kid: some kind of Latin? But no. It’s no language. It’s Who. Or maybe Seussian (he wrote the lyrics). So why does this song deserve to rank fourth? Because the Grinch book is one of the great Christmas stories, the TV show is one of the great television specials, and because it’s a sweet song with just the right spirit to it.
5. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” Meredith Willson wrote what’s probably my favorite musical of all time, The Music Man. That show’s “Ya Got Trouble” is a work of mad genius. And then there’s “Til There Was You,” which was good enough for the Beatles (by the way, did you buy my ebook?). So I give ol’ Meredith a long leash.
He wrote this one, and it’s very evocative of a certain mid-century optimism—the hopalong boots, the dolls that can walk, the tree in the grand hotel. A good commercial Christmas song must avoid being too sentimental or too cutesy. This one slides right in that slot for me.
6. “Run, Rudolph, Run.” Here’s what you don’t know about this song—indeed, what I didn’t know. Yes, it was popularized by Chuck Berry. I always thought he wrote it. But nooooo! It was written by...Johnny Marks! The very same cat who wrote the original “Rudolph.” The many great versions include Keith Richards and Dave Edmunds.
7. “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).” Say what you will, the Chipmunks have withstood time’s test: The 2007 movie grossed $217 million (and cost $60 million). And they’ve withstood it because they were a really funny idea—make three guys (or one guy, I guess) inhale helium and pretend to be little animals, but with cutting senses of humor that many stand-up comics of the day didn’t have. I hope Ross Bagdasarian died rich; he sure deserved to.
Some songs get wedged in our memories entirely because of one line. So it is here: “Me, I want a hula hoop.” When virtually everybody in a culture knows a line to a song, that song is by definition canonical, even if it sucks, which this one doesn’t.
8. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Here I mean only Springsteen’s version. Rarely has someone taken an OK-to-good song from a different era (1934 in this case) and turned it into a song that sounds like something he wrote and he and his band worked up with this degree of success and even perfection. The ending in particular is so E Street Band. It’s practically like “Backstreets.” Yes, I just said that.
Okay, the Jackson 5 version is fun, too.
9. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” You know Lennon seems to have stolen the melody, right, from an old folk song called “Stewball,” which Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded and which he surely would have heard in the early ’60s? But maybe he did it inadvertently. Whatever. It’s still a bluddy good choon, innit?
10. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” You’ve got to give it up for a Christmas song that’s actually about a guy trying to get a woman, both of whom have had too much to drink, in the sack. (Although there have been versions recorded where the roles are reversed.) It was written by Frank Loesser, who wrote Guys and Dolls. My favorite version I’ve ever heard features Tom Jones and Cerys Matthews. But I see on Wikipedia that Liz Phair and Wheat did one. I bet she was the aggressor on that one!
Well, that’s what I’ve got. Go check ’em out. Enjoy your holiday.