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Christmas playlist: Yes, Virginia, there are rockin' holiday tunes

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By Erik V. Huey
Friday, December 10, 2010; 11:47 AM

It's that magical time of the year, when we collectively head outside to brave not only the elements and the holiday crowds but also the nonstop barrage of schmaltzy Christmas songs.

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No trip to the mall, ride in a taxi or latte in Starbucks is spared from the onslaught - Christmas songs are everywhere, and most of them are utterly horrendous. We expect ice-pick-in-the-eardrum-inducing drivel from the likes of Alvin and the Chipmunks or fogies such as Burl Ives. But when we're assaulted with pablum by the rock-and-roll establishment - a genre that staked its musical claim as a rebellion against all things staid and corny - it's particularly offensive.

Bobby Helms should have been prosecuted for infecting the world with "Jingle Bell Rock." Death Cab for Cutie's passionless version of Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is indie rock at its ironically detached, hipster worst. Paul McCartney's "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time" makes you question his status as a Beatle. And don't get me started on the Beach Boys' Christmas "canon."

These musical atrocities notwithstanding, the airwaves occasionally sparkle with a soul-affirming gem still capable of inducing a holiday head-bob or a Christmas crank of the volume knob. Below is a list of songs that prove that "Christmas rock" need not be a cacophonous contradiction in terms.

10. "Blue Christmas," Elvis Presley. The fact that it has been played to death doesn't dim the fact that it spawned the entire rockin' Christmas genre.

9. "A Change at Christmas," the Flaming Lips. Simply beautiful, lyrically, musically and metaphysically.

8. "Sound the Trumpet," Bob Marley. '60s dance hall/ska at its finest, this is Christmas, Kingston-style.

7. "2000 Miles," the Pretenders/"Danny Says," the Ramones. These soft-punk torch songs, seemingly sung by respective lovers in a long-distance romance, embody the melancholic longing of being apart for the holidays. Both have a timeless feel, aided by plaintive, aching vocal performances from Chrissie Hynde and Joey Ramone, not to mention (in the Ramones' case) Phil Spector's Wall of Sound girl-group production.

6. "Frosty the Snowman"/"Sleigh Ride," the Ronettes. Speaking of Phil Spector girl-group production, Ronnie Spector's voice is an American treasure, with all its N.Y.C. teenage girl-group tonality on full display on these two gems. Ronnie Spector should be on Mount Rushmore.

5. "Father Christmas," the Kinks/"Christmas in Hollis," Run-DMC/"Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto," James Brown. Three modern-day Dickensian takes on what it's like to be poor at Christmas. From London to Queens to Augusta, Ga., the story's the same: "Father Christmas, give us some money."

4. "I Believe in Father Christmas," Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Soaring and angelic, this FM AOR classic captures the childlike wonder and adult ennui that the holiday invariably evokes.

3. "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)," John Lennon. For those of us alive when the world was robbed of John Lennon right before Christmas, this beautiful psalm still casts a haunting spell.

2. "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," Darlene Love. If you're a sucker for '60s girl-group bubble-gum pop, this song is its apotheosis. It is the platonic ideal for Christmas songs; nothing comes close. Next to the Sistine Chapel, Western civilization's highest artistic achievement might be when Darlene Love belts out "If there were a way, to hold back these tears, babe, it's Christmas day."

1. "Fairytale of New York," the Pogues. Not only the greatest Christmas song, but also perhaps one of the 10 greatest songs ever written. How can you not love a song that begins: "It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank"?

"Fairytale" encapsulates the entire American Immigrant epic (hope, heartbreak, the quest for assimilation and/or redemption) in a single five-minute song. The jubilant-turned-hateful interplay of the late Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan is like holiday honey poured into a broken whiskey glass.

"And the boys in the NYPD Choir were singing 'Galway Bay,' and the bells were ringing out for Christmas day." Indeed they are . . . and we're all the better for it.

Huey is a freelance writer.


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