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  1. Santa's Rap, Treacherous Three (Atlantic, 1984)
    This storied trio of hip hop pioneers is best remembered for two things - spawning rap star Kool Moe Dee and performing this song in Beat Street, one of several hip hop flicks from the early 80's. Like many great rap records, "Santa's Rap" (which also features Doug E. Fresh - not a regular member of the crew) is both scabrous and side-splitting, a bleak tale of ghetto holidays leavened by ribald jokes and well-played dozens. Interestingly, "Santa's Rap" (a.k.a. "Xmas Rap") was bleeped and truncated on both the original 45 and soundtrack LP; a full-length, unexpurgated version was finally released in 2000 by Sequel (an English label) on their Turn It Up compilation. It was worth the wait, and it's worth hunting down. [back to list]

  2. Feliz Navi-Nada, El Vez (Sympathy For The Record Industry, 1994)
    Hard to say if there is some sort of cultural subtext here, but the joke works either way. El Vez (nee Robert Lopez, whose early career in punk bands the Zeros and Catholic Discipline has long been overshadowed by his flamboyant, Mexi-centric alter ego) takes two wholly unrelated songs - Public Image Limited's "Public Image" and Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad" - and merges them in cacophonous splendor. Available on Punk Rock Christmas, Happy Birthday Baby Jesus, and El Vez's own Merry Mex-Mas. [back to list]

  3. Someday At Christmas, Stevie Wonder (Motown, 1967)
    One of the finest, most magnanimous protest songs ever incorporated into the Christmas tradition, Stevie Wonder's "Someday At Christmas" calls the bluff of all that "peace on earth" crap. This song (written by Motown staffers Ron Miller and Bryan Wells) was a brave step for Berry Gordy's company. This was 1967, a turbulent time in an America deeply divided over the Vietnam War, and "Someday At Christmas" clearly states that violence against our fellow man is folly. Not yet known for such bold statements, Motown risked alienating the mainstream audience they'd worked so hard to win. Happily, they didn't, and "Someday at Christmas" was modest success. First released as the title song to Wonder's otherwise middlin' LP (read more), the better choice is A Motown Christmas. [back to list]

  4. Merry Christmas Baby, Otis Redding (Atco, 1968)
    A number of songs from Atco's landmark Soul Christmas made my Top 100, and Otis Redding's rendition of Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby" is one of that album's most radical reinterpretations. If you don't listen to the lyrics carefully, you won't even recognize the song. Recorded in Memphis in 1967 (but unreleased till after Redding's death), Otis' "Merry Christmas Baby" is built around Booker T. Jones' buoyant organ, Steve Cropper's insistent guitar riffing, and merrily trilling horns. It contrasts strongly with Brown's easygoing original as well as Redding's other Soul Christmas contribution - a bleak "White Christmas." Altogether, a remarkable performance. [back to list]

  5. Nothing For Christmas, The Reducers (Rave On, 1988)
    A great slab of loud pop, "Nothing For Christmas" updates the old novelty "Nuttin' For Christmas" for the post-modern age. Our hapless hero boasts he's "pissed off every one I know" and will spend the holidays contemplating his sins - "they didn't even invite me!" (No wonder, since "Mom and Dad think I'm a creep.") Similarly honored by DISCoveries magazine, "Nothing For Christmas" is a rare treat, but well worth the effort of tracking down. Originally released on a vinyl 45, later compiled by the band on their 1991 CD Redux; both are available through the Reducer's website. Also featured on the benefit CD, Ho Ho Ho Spice. [back to list]

  6. That Punchbowl Full Of Joy, Sonny Columbus & His Del Fuegos (Boston Rock, 1983)
    This twisted gem is the only original song on the rare, wonderful Boston Rock Christmas EP. I know little about Mr. Columbus other than that he fronted a novelty act called the Swinging Erudites in 1985 and was characterized at the time as a "deranged and highly active alcoholic." That's not hard to believe given the horny inebriation that gleefully fills this "Punch Bowl." Though Columbus insists, "Little Jesus, he's my man," the song is peppered with blasphemous Christmas puns (logs, balls, stockings) that jive perfectly with the Del Fuegos' noisy bump-and-grind. "I'll bring you back down to my manger," Sonny promises, "'Cause at Christmas time no one's a stranger." Wow! (Boston Rock Christmas has never been reissued on CD, but "That Punchbowl Full Of Joy" was included on Ho Ho Ho Spice.) [back to list]

  7. Please Come Home For Christmas, Charles Brown (King, 1960)
    After writing (probably) and recording (definitely - many times) "Merry Christmas Baby," a song that defines rhythm 'n' blues Christmas music (see above), Charles Brown struck gold again with this similarly timeless blues. As Dave Marsh & Steve Propes point out, "Please Come Home For Christmas" was like a reverse angle "I'll Be Home For Christmas" - same sentimental story, different perspective - and people responded strongly to it. Originally issued on 45 backed with Amos Milburn's fine "Christmas (Comes But Once A Year)," the record merely brushed the R'n'B Top 20. Then, in 1961, it cracked the Pop charts - something "Merry Christmas Baby" never did - and recharted in one form or another for the rest of the decade. Thanks to the Eagles' popular 1978 cover, "Please Come Home For Christmas" is now better known than its earlier, groundbreaking cousin. (Best purchased on Charles Brown Sings Christmas Songs or Rhino's Christmas Classics.) [back to list]

  8. Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday, William Bell (Stax, 1967)
    A lot of great Christmas songs aren't really about Christmas. Generally, we're talking about songs like "Let It Snow" or "Baby It's Cold Outside" that seem appropriate to the season but never actually mention the holiday. In modern times, the holidays have often been used as a metaphor to serve some other purpose, but never has this technique been employed more spectacularly than on this romantic paean by southern soul man William Bell. The song, cowritten by Bell and Booker T. Jones, expresses a lonely man's devout faith that his baby is on her way home (hence, the title), but there's a dark subtext between Bell's plaintive harmonies - methinks he testifies too much. The record itself (produced by Jones) probably features the rest of the MG's (exact personnel are not known), and it clicks like the very best Stax soul. Featured on Atco's Soul Christmas. [back to list]

  9. Don't Believe In Christmas, The Sonics (Etiquette, 1965)
    Almost since the dawn of recorded Christmas music, a favorite topic of songwriters has been how much Christmas sucks for them. Never mind that it's the "most wonderful time of the year" - dude, I am bummed! Here, the Sonics' ferocious lead singer, Gerry Roslie, expresses his disbelief in the "Happy Holiday" and his displeasure with Santa Claus, declaiming "I didn't get nothin' last year!" Not only did the "fat boy" not show, but Roslie got shot down at the dance - "you jerk," sneers his date, "mistletoe doesn't work!" "Don't Believe In Christmas" was featured on Merry Christmas From The Sonics, Wailers, Galaxies, a compilation of garage bands from the Pacific northwest; the LP also includes another of my Top 100 picks, the Wailer's "Christmas Spirit??" Both songs are also on Rhino's Bummed Out Christmas. [back to list] [read more]

  10. Who Say There Ain't No Santa Claus?, Ron Holden (Donna, 1960)
    Arguably the strangest record in my Top 100. Without a doubt, the only one that ends with an execution. Ron Holden's bizarre R'n'B stomper (musically, a Coasters cop) begins with our optimistic hero receiving a cash windfall from an insurance settlement ("I had a wife who gave me trouble, and when she died, they paid me double!"). A subsequent series of mishaps land him deeper and deeper in trouble, and we begin to suspect that, maybe, his wife didn't pass from natural causes. At each juncture, though, Holden sees the glass as half full ("doing time" is just free room and board!) and reaffirms his belief in Old Saint Nick. Ultimately, though, after committing robbery, extortion, and murder, he gets "the chair" and must face reality - no, Ron, there ain't no Santa Claus. Included, appropriately enough, on Rhino's Bummed Out Christmas. [back to list]

  11. Boogie Woogie Santa Claus, Mabel Scott (Exclusive, 1948)
    The irrepressible Ms. Scott was briefly married to Christmas innovator Charles Brown, and shortly after he waxed his "Merry Christmas Baby," she recorded this equally groundbreaking piece of jive. The randy saint of "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" (on Hipsters' Holiday) sparked a long string of Christmas boogie records from artists both black (Sugar Chile Robinson, Big Joe Turner) and white (Hank Snow, Davis Sisters). Further, ol' Kris Kringle would never be the same; Santa had already been caught smoking reefer ("Santa's Secret," 1944), but subsequently he would be-bop, mambo, rock, roll, twist, and more. In the immortal words of the Marquees, "Santa Done Got Hip." To all a good night, indeed! [back to list]

  12. Here Comes Santa Claus, Gene Autry (Columbia, 1947)
    Because I tried to pick the coolest, most swinging Christmas records for my Top 100, I skipped over such holiday icons as Bing Crosby and Nat "King" Cole. But, to omit Gene Autry - a square, and proud of it - would be a travesty. The legendary singing cowboy waxed the debut recordings of "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" (1948) and "Frosty The Snowman" (1950), and he scored numerous other holiday hits. In the end, though, I choose, "Here Comes Santa Claus," the song he cowrote and recorded in 1947 that launched his second career as Mr. Christmas. "Here Comes Santa Claus" also helped establish the explicit connection between the more commercial, secular aspects of Christmas and the sacred tradition of the Christian holiday. Autry's bouncy, disingenuous rendition is a model of economy, and it's one of many highlights on A Gene Autry Christmas. [back to list]

  13. How I Hate To See Christmas Come Around, Jimmy Witherspoon (Supreme, 1947)
    Great blues shouter Jimmy Witherspoon cut one of the most abject of all the "Christmas Blues" songs (which "How I Hate To See Christmas Come Around" is sometimes called). The holidays treat him so roughly, he dreads them on an annual basis. "It's really a beautiful sight," he admits, "but it always bring me down." Mainly, he's just poor, and instead of shopping, Jimmy spends the season visiting the loan company and the pawn shop. For Witherspoon, there's "No chicken, no turkey, no cranberries," not to mention "no stocking, no Christmas tree," all the while wailing horns seeming to mock his hunger. Get it on Swing Time Christmas, a fairly hard-to-find disc of great old yule blues. [back to list]

  14. (Everybody's Waitin' For) The Man With The Bag Starr, Kay (Capitol, 1950)
    This song swings like crazy, completely blurring the lines between jazz, rhythm & blues, and easy listening. Between the blaring horns, Starr's wide-eyed delivery, and the exceedingly clever, morally ambivilant wordplay ("Old Mr. Kringle is soon gonna jingle the bells that'll tingle all your troubles away!"), you'll soon find yourself looking skyward, anticipating bounty from the North Pole. For awhile, "The Man With The Bag" was nearly forgotten. The 90's lounge revival, however, prompted its appearance on several collections, including Let It Snow! Cuddly Christmas Classics from Capitol, Ultra-Lounge Christmas Cocktails, and Swinging Christmas (one of my Top 20 Albums), while Brian Setzer wisely covered the tune on his excellent Boogie Woogie Christmas CD. [read more] [back to list]

  15. 'Zat You Santa Claus? Louis Armstrong & The Commanders (Decca, 1953)
    Satchmo cut six Christmas sides for Decca Records in the 1950's as his career as a jazz innovator came to a close and his new status as American icon came into focus. All the Decca sides are enjoyable (and all are included on What A Wonderful Christmas), but "'Zat You Santa Claus" is the one that best captures Armstrong's affable but mischievous persona while preserving his musical integrity. Recasting Santa as night prowler, Satch and his band created the first (only?) Christmas-Halloween hybrid.[read more] [back to list]

  16. Merry Christmas Baby, Beach Boys (Capitol, 1964)
    It was like pulling teeth choosing just one Beach Boy's track for my Top 100 list. "Little Saint Nick" is, of course, the obvious choice; it was their big 1963 hit wherein the car song collided tunefully with the Christmas carol. Ultimately, though, I went with a song that was not only more original but also pointed the way more clearly towards "Pet Sounds" and beyond. "Merry Christmas Baby" portrays a romantic scenario bordering on adult, and the group's performance is beautiful and understated - even Mike Love acquits himself with one of his most sensitive vocals. Songs like "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "God Only Knows" were just around the corner. (This is a Brian Wilson composition, by the way, not the famous Charles Brown song. All the Beach Boys' holiday music is collected on their Ultimate Christmas.) [back to list]

  17. Christmas Boogie, Davis Sisters (RCA Victor, 1953)
    Before "The End Of The World," "I Can't stay Mad At You," and her long career as a country star, Skeeter Davis performed with friend Betty Jack Davis as the Davis Sisters (though the two were not related). Their closely harmonized sound was more archly country than Skeeter's later style, but "Christmas Boogie," a clever rewrite of "'Twas The Night Before Christmas," is an exercise in big-city hip - cornpone accents notwithstanding. This wasn't "hillbilly music" (despite its inclusion of Rhino's lamentably deleted Hillbilly Holiday), but it's an excellent example of the volatile boundry between country and blues. [back to list]

  18. This Christmas, Donny Hathaway (Atco, 1970)
    Most music historians concur that the "golden age" of Christmas music ran from 1942 (Bing Crosby's "White Christmas") to 1963 (Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift For You). I'd extend that period through the sixties on the strength of (the original) Soul Christmas alone, then I'd draw the line right here. Hathaway was a multi-talented musician who worked with many soul giants (most famously with Roberta Flack), and he cowrote what I consider to be the last Christmas standard - an exceptional song of universal appeal. Further, his tasteful, thrilling performance on his own song (recorded two years before it charted) has never been bested despite many attempts - by Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, and Patti LaBelle, among others. "This Christmas " was collected on the 1991 compilation Soul Christmas. [back to list]

  19. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, The Crystals (Philles, 1963)
    This song is one of the most charming moments on producer Phil Spector's landmark A Christmas Gift For You. Beginning with an old-fashioned recitation, the Crystals' leader LaLa Brooks lulls us into a Christmas reverie. Unexpectedly, Spector and his "Wrecking Crew" launch a sneak attack, barreling full force into this old lullaby, very nearly blasting through our besieged speakers while Brooks and company spit out the lyrics with bestial passion. The drums alone (probably Hal Blaine) are astounding, pounding away furiously, intent on disrupting every child's visions of sugar plums with balls-to-the-wall rock 'n' roll. Then, the stuttering saxophone solo in the bridge only serves to intensify our discombobulation before the whole bombastic exercise crashes to a halt. Man, they don't make 'em like this anymore! [back to list]

  20. Christmas Here (Could Never Be Like That), Wednesday Week (Midnight, 1984)
    Though still active, Wednesday Week has largely been lost to the ages. Consisting of the comely Callan sisters, Kristi and Kelly, plus an ever-evolving supporting crew, the band has orbited around the L.A. indie rock scene for over 20 years, recording a few EP's and a couple of LP's, most notably What We Had for Enigma in 1987. A pithy admixture of REM-derived jangle, girl group-inspired sass, and noisy, new wave urgency made "Christmas Here" just about the best thing Wednesday ever did, and it was the best song on the Midnight Christmas Mess series released by New York indie label-cum-record store Midnight Records. A poignant west coast ode to holidays in the Big Apple, "Christmas Here" repeats a theme heard in songs stretching back as least as far as "White Christmas" - this time, though, with a post-modern twist. Bums warming themselves around trash barrel fires are as evocative of the Christmas spirit as snowfall in Central Park or ice skating in Rockefeller Center. ("Christmas Here" has shown up on two CD compilations, Santa's Got a GTO and Ho Ho Ho Spice; in both cases, it was mastered from a vinyl copy - not the master tapes.) (Pointless footnote: the Callan sisters - in the guise of Lucky - made an appearance at my old Austin, Texas record store, ABCD's, in the mid-90's. Later, former Wednesday Week bass player Dave Provost briefly worked at the shop.) [back to list]

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