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  1. Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You, Billy Squier (Capitol, 1981)
    One of my favorite things about Christmas rock 'n' roll is the tendency of otherwise unexceptional artists to record exceptional Christmas songs. Folks tend to loosen up and let their hair down when recording holiday music, and the effect can be liberating for artists whose pretensions or lack of talent usually get in the way. Bryan Adams, for instance, has recorded two fine (if simpleminded) Christmas songs, and Blink 182, Foghat, and Emerson Lake & Palmer are among those whose Christmas records are far superior to their usual drivel. Billy Squier's "Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You" is the single best example of this phenomena, a contagiously exuberant sing-a-long that makes "The Stroke" sound like a bad imitation of Queen (which, well, it is). (Included on Billboard Rock ‘N' Roll Christmas.) [back to list]

  2. Christmas in Hollis, Run-D.M.C. (A&M, 1987)
    More than most Christmas rap records (or at least with more dignity), Run-D.M.C.'s "Christmas In Hollis" places the traditions of the season comfortably within the Black experience. Rather than seeing the holiday in terms of what they don't have (or didn't have growing up in Queens, New York), Jam Master Jay and the boys celebrate Christmas from an Afrocentric perspective. For Christmas dinner, "Mom's cookin' chicken and collard greens," and later on they'll "bust Christmas carols." For Run-DMC, good things happen at Christmas time: when Run returns Santa's wallet after he drops it in the park (while walking his "illin' reindeer"), Old St. Nick lets him keep the cash as a reward! The rappers are "chillin' just like a snowman," succeeding at being bad (as in cool) without being bad (as in naughty). Good for them! ("Christmas In Hollis" was originally released on A Very Special Christmas, and Run-DMC recorded another yule tune, "Christmas Is," on A Very Special Christmas 2.) [back to list]

  3. Santa Claus Is Coming, Hank Ballard & The Midnighters (King, 1963)
    Despite having some wonderful records - several of them hits - Hank Ballard is best remembered for having been the man who fell off the "Twist" bandwagon. Ballard wrote and recorded "The Twist," releasing it as the b-side to his Top 10 "Finger Poppin' Time." His version made the Top 30 just weeks before Chubby Checker's more celebrated cover entered the charts in August, 1960, and zoomed towards #1. Checker's record officially kicked off the dance craze that held sway in America for several years, and poor Hank Ballard was left (relatively speaking) in the dust. Chubby Checker's "Twist" actually reentered the charts in 1961 and made #1 again - the only record other than Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" ever to do so. So, when Ballard released "Santa Claus Is Coming" (which has no sexual overtones, despite what some wags insinuate) in 1963, he was all but past his prime, and the record made little splash. It's a peach of a platter, though, all blaring sax and driving beat, focusing nevertheless on Ballard's exuberant vocal and lyrics, which anticipate the arrival of St. Nick with child-like innocence. Backed with the powerful, James Brown-styled ballad, "Christmas Time For Everybody But Me," it stands as one of the greatest lost 45s in the history of Christmas rock. (Both sides of the single were included on Hollywood's hard-to-find Rhythm & Blues Christmas.) [back to list]

  4. Christmas Day, Detroit Junior (Foxy, 1960)
    This record shows up on a lot of Christmas lists (such as my Top 100) thanks to its inclusion on a couple of high-profile compilations (Rhino's Blue Yule and Columbia's Christmas Party With Eddie G). The list makers act too-cool-for-school, failing to mention that they (and most everyone else) were clueless about Detroit Junior and his festive stomper prior to these reissues. "Christmas Day" was one damn obscure record, known only to hardcore collectors (like Eddie Gorodetsky, who compiled the Christmas Party CD) before the age of the compact disc, and little is known about the man (neither Christmas Party or Blue Yule even mention Junior or his song in their liner notes). My research revealed that Detroit Junior was born Emery Williams Jr. on October 26, 1931 in Haynes, Arkansas. Later he migrated to Detroit (hence, the name), but by 1956 he moved to Chicago at the behest of Chess Records bluesman Eddie Boyd. Detroit Junior recorded one single in 1960 for Chess ("Too Poor," 1960) before jumping to little Bea & Baby Records ("Money Tree," his best known record) and Foxy, where he waxed "Christmas Day" before year's end. Later, he recorded more singles for Chess, and he cut "Call My Job" (later a hit for Albert King) on U.S.A. Records in 1965. Ultimately, Junior settled in Chicago and continued to work steadily (including sessions for Alligator and Delmark) until shortly before his death in 2005. Over the years, Emery Williams also backed a number of notable blues artists including Eddie Taylor and Howlin' Wolf, earning a reputation for exuberant, hard-driving barrelhouse piano. Problematically, though, no sources confirm that Williams actually is the same person who recorded "Christmas Day" - though it seems highly likely. The record is certainly hard-driving and exuberant, but, musically speaking, it's closer in feel to Gary U.S. Bonds than Howlin' Wolf (and features very little piano). "You know, I feel so good!" Junior exclaims at the outset. If you follow his lead ("I got a pocketful of money and my baby by my side") and his instructions ("I want you to turn up your hi-fi... turn it up loud!"), I'll bet you'll feel pretty good, too. [back to list]

  5. Santa Claus Is Coming To My House, Karla DeVito, (Epic, 1982)
    Karla DeVito was cute as a bug and possessed of a voice the size of a house when she emerged fully formed on an unsuspecting pop scene in the early 80's. Sadly, the world proved unready for the brash, quirky, diminutive howler from New York City. That would all change when Cyndi Lauper broke large just a few years later (doing largely the same shtick), but Karla DeVito's recording career would end after a brief period of notoriety, including a stint in Broadway's Pirates Of Penzance and as a stand-in for Ellen Foley on tour with Meatloaf (and in his video for "Paradise By The Dashboard Light"). Regardless, Devito's debut LP, Is This A Cool World Or What? (1981), was a brilliant pastiche of new wave rockers, big-hair ballads, and theatrical melodramas. "Santa Claus Is Coming To My House" (written and produced by DeVito and her husband, actor Robbie Benson) followed the next year, and it threw yet another style into the blender - jump blues. An irresistible flute of bubbly camp, the song tells a sexually-charged tale with a surprise ending worthy of O. Henry. The sassy Ms. DeVito tries to seduce ol' Santa ("Put down your bags and kiss me!"), only to have him counter propose, "Karla, let's trade gigs for a day!" Santa Claus wants Karla to deliver toys so he can jam with her band - which he proceeds to do with much abandon. So, while Santa toots his own horn at Karla's house, she grabs "the keys to his sleigh," and now Karla's coming to your house - lucky you! It's an unforgettable performance, but it's lost to the ages - never issued on CD and long out-of-print. [back to list]

  6. Dear Santa (Bring Me A Man This Christmas), Weather Girls (Columbia, 1983)
    Known as Two Tons O' Fun when they served as backup singers for gay icon Sylvester, the rotund Weather Girls (Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes) played a prominent role in the outing of Queer music - both with this horny holiday hit and with "It's Raining Men" (1982), an anthem of the final few, giddy moments before AIDS hysteria put a damper on no-holds-barred gay sex. The brief success of the Weather Girls also coincided with the sudden transformation of disco music from mainstream obsession to cult phenomenon (it went back in the closet, you might say). Regardless, disco is undeniably what "Dear Santa" is - after a minute or so of rhapsodic introduction, the beat kicks in and the man-chasing commences. Like the best gay anthems, though, "Dear Santa" swings both ways, so when the Girls "go down on [their] knees" before "Mr. C," it could be to beg - or perhaps not. Written by Paul Shaffer (soon to be David Letterman's bandleader) and producer Paul Jabara, "Dear Santa (Bring Me A Man This Christmas)" has never been included on a Christmas compilation, but it's shown up on a couple of Weather Girls' CDs: Super Hits (2000) and a reissue of their Success LP (1983). [back to list]

  7. Light of the Stable, Emmylou Harris (Reprise, 1975)
    A number of excellent Christmas albums (those by Vince Guaraldi, John Fahey, and Ray Charles spring to mind) are not represented on my Top 100 Christmas songs list. In part because no single song leaps to the fore, these albums are meant to be heard as a whole. Moreover, they just aren't pop records, and it's the pop records that yield the great singles. Emmylou Harris' Light Of The Stable (1979) very nearly falls into this category. Taken in its entirety, it's overwhelmingly great; parsed out one song at a time, it loses some of its power. The title song (released as a single four years prior), though, stands perfectly well all by its lonesome. An original song (written by Steven & Elizabeth Rhymer), it instantly acquired the timeless quality of a classic carol, sounding as old as the hills and as new as freshly fallen snow. Supported by a who's who of progressive pickers (including James Burton, Glen Hardin, Hank DeVito, and Emory Gordy, Jr.), Harris' performance is wonder of restrained emotion (almost always a hallmark of great country music). Together, Emmylou, Neil Young, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt harmonize like a band of herald angels, announcing the coming of the savior with an innocence and hope that is truly evangelical. [back to list]

  8. Rock And Roll Christmas, George Thorogood & The Destroyers (EMI America, 1983)
    One can almost imagine George Thorogood sitting around, counting those royalty checks from "Bad To The Bone," thinking to himself, y'know, George (being a big rock star now, he could address himself in the third person), no one's ever done a song called "Rock And Roll Christmas." And he was right - amazingly, no one ever had. So, when the executives at EMI wanted a little something extra in their stockings, history - and this song - was written. Despite the calculated nature of the exercise , Thorogood's little year-end dividend works darn well. Setting rock lyric clichés ("I want a Chuck Berry record and picture of Elvis") to rock music clichés (a churning, bar-band beat not unlike, well, Chuck Berry or Elvis), Thorogood somehow makes it all sound quaint, charming and a whole lot of fun. Which, I should add, is not unlike his other records, and it's a strategy that made the Delaware native millions. Eventually, someone had to do it, and George Thorogood - seen at the time as a hero by working class rock fans - was the right man for the job. [back to list]

  9. Christmas Time, Chris Stamey & The Db's (Coyote, 1985)
    Comparing "Christmas Time" to the dB's "Holiday Spirit" - a song much higher on my Top 100 - the former is in many ways a better song. It is certainly a more sophisticated composition and expertly played record. But while the manic performance and cynical perspective of the latter won me over, Stamey's earlier record (a virtual paean to Big Star) is a classic in its own right. From the letter-perfect power pop arrangement (chiming guitars, soaring harmonies, thundering drums) to the inventive way Stamey rewrites holiday homilies in his lyrics, "Christmas Time" bores its way into the subconscious and will not let go. (Both songs are included on the CD editions of Christmas Time, a collection of tunes by Chris Stamey and friends.) [also see dB's] [read more] [back to list]

  10. Christmas In The Congo, Marquees (Warner Brothers, 1959)
    All my research uncovered nothing about the sessions where the Marquees recorded two marvelously twisted Christmas records, "Santa Done Got Hip" and "Christmas In The Congo," for Warner Brothers in 1959. Suffice to say, they did, and that - to all appearances - this is not the same group that became the "New Moonglows" in 1957, nor is it any one of several other groups recording under the same name around the same time. Anyway, "Christmas In The Congo," gleefully plagiarized from the Cadets' "Stranded In The Jungle," is my favorite of the two. Though it's the sort of record that might make contemporary Black listeners squirm uncomfortably, to me (one of the whitest guys in America) it sounds like innocent fun. "Merry Christmas, B'wana!" the record begins as the Marquees launch into the rhythmic rites of "the Pygmy tribe" - and it just gets less dignified from there. Santa Claus is coming to the jungle, so "that must be why the natives are restless tonight." In addition to blow guns and canoes, however, the Pygmies have requested "four picture tubes, three golf carts, two Cadillacs, and a TV dinner for two." Those Pygmies sho' nuff know how to party! So, "beat on your bongo, tell Santa what to bring," and let Scrooge worry about what's politically correct. ("Christmas In The Congo" is tough to locate, but it was issued on CD in 1988 on Rhino's Best Of Cool Yule.) [back to list]

  11. Twistin' Bells, Santo & Johnny (Canadian American, 1960)
    The Brooklyn-born Farina brothers stumbled upon immortality in 1959 with "Sleep Walk," indisputably one of the greatest rock instrumentals ever. Santo's soaring steel guitar captured a sort of Duane-Eddy-goes-Hawaiian vibe that will forever be linked to soulful walks on the beach and steamy backseat make-out sessions. With "Twistin' Bells" (see Rhino's Christmas Classics), however, Santo & Johnny went an entirely different direction. Capitalizing on 1960's 'Twist' craze, the brothers' set "Jingle Bells" to a hip-shaking dance beat, this time emphasizing Johnny's insistent rhythm guitar almost as much as Santo's slide work. It's an irresistible little record memorable for its boundless energy more than its musical innovation. [back to list]

  12. Christmas Spirit?? Wailers (Etiquette, 1965)
    There's never been a more sour Christmas single than the Sonics/Wailers split 45, "Don't Believe In Christmas" b/w "Christmas Spirit??" The a-side featured the Sonics railing against the entire institution of Christmas, largely for personal reasons. The Wailers' flip side attacks the holiday for what it reveals about America - our commercialism, our shallowness, our lack of self-awareness. Told in a droll, Dylanesque twang, "Christmas Spirit??" is so broad, so bitter, so altogether over-the-top that it just may have been intended as parody. Or, it may have been an earnest attempt at relevance by an aging party band ("Tall Cool One," 1959). Either way, it works for me - bah humbug, babe. (Both sides of this infamous single are included on Etiquette's Merry Christmas From The Sonics, Wailers, Galaxies, a compilation of garage bands from the Pacific northwest, as well as Rhino's Bummed Out Christmas.) [back to list] [read more]

  13. Christmas Tears, Freddy King (Federal, 1961)
    Here's a song whose relative obscurity is a mystery. Freddy King's a popular guy - one of the most respected modern blues guitarists - and he released "Christmas Tears" (backed with "I Hear Jingle Bells," an up tempo number arguably as good as the slow blues on the front) through Federal Records, a label of some renown. Yet, the few reissues of this nugget have all been crappy CDs on ultra-budget imprint Hollywood Records (click here to read more), all mastered from scratchy vinyl - not from the original master tapes. That said, "Christmas Tears" is a show-stopper of a song, a classic twelve-bar blues of loss and longing that just happens to be set during the holiday season. "I hear sleigh bells ringing," King mourns, "But I haven't heard a word from you in years." Punctuating his lament with stinging, single-string leads, Freddy admits, "I'm just sittin' here cryin' Christmas tears." Eric Clapton's version of "Christmas Tears" was the highlight of Very Special Christmas 4 (1999), but one hopes that someone will step into the breach and reissue Freddy King's original Christmas sides with the respect they deserve. [back to list]

  14. Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin', Albert King (Stax, 1974)
    Many Christmas songs have blended together the sacred and profane, creating a sexual feast where once was just turkey and cranberry sauce. None, however, have been quite as blunt as "Santa Claus Wants some Lovin'." Bluesman Albert King all but demands satisfaction. The sensuous guitar lines in the introduction are but a harbinger of the hardcore jollies King hopes to unleash. With his woman preoccupied with holiday preparations, Albert's a bit frustrated; "I ain't had no lovin' and it's worrying me!" he commiserates. "Mama's in the kitchen cooking," while Albert himself is "trying to fix this ol' bicycle," so he plans to make his move before "Mama...gets that sleep in her eyes." True, "Christmas is for children," but King wants his woman to "make her Pappy happy ...before the children wake." Sounds reasonable enough, but a good guitar solo is all the pleasure Albert receives before the record fades. Sadly, Santa Claus won't be coming tonight.... (Featured on Stax's It's Christmas Time Again along with Rufus Thomas' randy "I'll Be Your Santa Baby.") [back to list]

  15. Christmas (Comes But Once A Year), Amos Milburn (King, 1960)
    While his blues brothers usually spent their Christmas season were bemoaning their lack of love or sustenance, jovial Amos Milburn always had the best of times. Speaking to his lover on his 1949 single "Let's Make Christmas Merry Baby," he'd volunteered to "slide down your chimney and fill your stocking full of toys" (sounds innocent enough), then he offered a "ride on my reindeer" (just good clean fun, right?). On "Christmas (Comes But Once A Year)" a decade hence, Milburn's got a house full of children (small wonder), but his mood remains almost as generous. "It'll take the next six months to pay these bills," he frets, "but I don't care - Christmas comes but once a year!" With such a healthy attitude to go with his healthy libido (he still wants "to have myself a ball"), Milburn's record runneth over with love. (Originally released on the flipside of Charles Brown's 1960 hit "Please Come Home For Christmas," this song was more recently issued on Hollywood's Rhythm And Blues Christmas CD.) [back to list]

  16. Santa & The Sidewalk Surfer, Crossfires (unknown, 1963)
    The Crossfires featured Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman who later formed the Turtles ("Happy Together") and went on to perform with Frank Zappa as the Phlorescent Leech & Eddie (aka Flo & Eddie). While the Crossfires themselves are best remembered for tough surf instrumentals like "Fiberglass Jungle" and "Out Of Control," Kaylan & Volman's twisted humor came to the fore for "Santa & The Sidewalk Surfer." The scene: a department store Santa Claus is efficiently dispatching greedy tots until confronted with an avaricious, amateur skateboarder. The would-be sidewalk surfer unfurls a seemingly endless list of requirements for his new hobby, entreating Santa for everything from a "genuine Waimea Bun Buster Skateboard" to a "Fender electric twangy surf guitar" to peroxide, cut-off blue jeans, huarache sandals, and a subscription to Surfer magazine. On and on he goes till Santa finally breaks down in a paroxysm of ho ho ho's, amused by the surfer's last request - a box of band aids for when he "busts his buns." (Originally reissued on Rhino's Rockin' Christmas: The 60's LP, "Santa & The Sidewalk Surfer" is tough to find. Sundazed Records, however, included it on Out Of Control, a 1995 Crossfires collection.) [back to list]

  17. Reindeer Boogie, Hank Snow, (RCA Victor, 1953)
    Way before anyone had the bright idea to water down country music, someone decided to soup it up. Boogie woogie hoedowns like Hank Snow's supercharged Christmas single, "Reindeer Boogie," were briefly the rage in Nashville; these songs took the boundless energy of jump blues and married it to the timeless traditions of hillbilly music. Needless to say, some folks frowned on that sort of integration and cooler heads soon prevailed (in Nashville at least - Elvis Presley and the rest of the country went another direction). "Reindeer Boogie" remains, though - all frantic fiddles and hot guitars while Santa commands his team to "limber your legs and sharpen your hooves" and "get hepped up for that midnight race." Hot damn, I'll follow that lead! (Included on Rhino's now out-of-print Hillbilly Holiday. Currently available only on Bear Family's expensive boxed set, The Singing Ranger.) [back to list]

  18. Away In A Manger, Plankeye (BEC, 1998)
    Recently, tiny Christian label BEC Recordings released a series of albums entitled Happy Christmas that embodied many of the best qualities of two worlds - Christmas music and Christian rock. I appreciated the songs on the Happy Christmas series more for the music as the message (a rare treat given the bathetic standard set by most religious music), and, as songs of the season, they held their own. True, the ska-pop-punk slant appealed to my bias, but this was genuinely good stuff. On the first volume, Plankeye, a now-defunct rock band, unleashed marvelous reinvention of "Away In A Manger." Loud, tuneful, and full of spirit, the band waxed an anthem of universal appeal. To quote Sonny Columbus, "I'm not a big religion fan," but Plankeye helped me understand the importance of their faith (the ultimate goal of all evangelical music) and rocked like crazy while they did it. I'll say "amen" to that any day. (Also available on Sleighed: The Other Side Of Christmas.) [back to list]

  19. Silent Night, Dickies (A&M, 1978)
    The Dickies were (and still are) West Coast punk rock jokesters who - at least early in their career - were capable of backing up their sniggering musical wisecracks with blistering, buzzsaw riffs. They became renowned for destroying rock classics, among them Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" and the Moody Blues' "Nights In White Satin" (the latter being one of my favorite covers). When it came time to skewer the traditions of Christmas, they chose a simple carol, "Silent Night," backed with Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound Of Silence" (on a white vinyl 45!). They approached these songs in the manner to which they were accustomed; mixing unparalleled fury with a surprising, agreeable dearth of sarcasm, they rushed headlong through the arrangements like their lives depended on finishing in under two minutes. With "Silent Night," they fell short of the mark (2:20 to be exact) but their frenzied performance will leave you breathless all the same. (Anthologized by Rhino on Punk Rock Christmas; both sides of the single are included on the Dickies retrospective, Great Dictations.) [back to list]

  20. Christmas Ain't Christmas New Year's Ain't New Year's Without The One You Love, The O'Jays (Neptune, 1969)
    Recorded several years before Eddie Levert and the boys entered their halcyon days at Philadelphia International, this little record is quaint compared to their best work for that label ("Backstabbers," "Love Train"). Nevertheless, it's a charming and soulful exploration of the relationship between Christmas and romance, catchy in an almost giddy way given the morose sentiment of the lyrics. Though it went nowhere upon initial release, Philly International reissued it in 1973 following the group's huge success, and "Christmas Ain't Christmas" (included on Collectables' Ultimate Soulful Christmas Album) became a latter day Christmas soul classic surpassed only by Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" (see above). [back to list]

    Honorable Mention. These songs were, at one time, in my Top 100. They have been displaced by newer songs - or, more likely, older songs I've recently discovered.

  21. It's Christmas Time, Five Keys (Aladdin, 1951)
    Though it often sounded like it came from Mars, doo wop didn't develop in a vacuum. The youngsters who created this immortal vocal style modeled themselves after vocal groups like the Ravens, Orioles, and the Five Keys. The close harmonies, careful modulation, and melancholy vibe of these groups' records bridged the gap between sanctified gospel singing, the stately black pop typified by the Ink Spots, and the wild, raucous rhythm and blues that was bubbling up everywhere, stoked by post-war black ambition and dissatisfaction. In the process, a style was born. The Five Keys' "It's Christmas Time" (see Doo Wop Christmas)couldn't be a more perfect example, with a coronet-like lead voice floating effortlessly above suave harmonies, returning invariably to a careful refrain of "ding dong." Add a beat and an attitude, and you've got rock 'n' roll. The Five Keys did essentially that, scoring hits in the mid-50's with ravers like "Ling Ting Tong," but their early classics (including "Glory Of Love") possess a grace they never surpassed. [back to list]

  22. Mr. Santa Claus, Nathaniel Mayer (Fortune, 1962)
    A screaming chunk of proto-soul, "Mr. Santa Claus" is singular is its naked yearning. Recorded in Detroit in a studio that possessed, one wag suggested, "the acoustics of a vacant house," this noisy record showcases Mayer's willingness to utterly prostrate himself before Ol' St. Nick. "Mr. Santa Claus, I want my baby!" he hollers over and over, adding "I'll never ask for anymore." Mayer (best known for "Village Of Love") then ticks off everything he doesn't want if only Santa will grant his plea: "I don't want no fancy clothes to hang on my back, I don't want no speedboat or a Cadillac." He makes a compelling case, and as the record fades in a flurry of drum fills and supplications, Mayer frantically announces (via telephone) that his baby has indeed returned - a happy ending to a harrowing tale. ("Mr. Santa Claus" was collected on Rhino's Rockin' Christmas: The 60's LP but has never been reissued on CD.) [back to list]

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