Okay… Christmas music. It has the simultaneous ability to both 1) make you feel all present and warm inside and 2) repel you as far away from any valuing of tradition and seasonal good will as possible. The good songs are good because they're classics, or because some clever band you'd already like in non-December contexts decided to take their turn at a holiday record.
But the bad songs are bad in so. many. ways. At one extreme, they're aggressive mall music that only ever appealed the most simplest of you-can-buy-happiness consumerists. At the other, they're treacly, brusk and brash melodies whose only chance of working at all is being sung by large groups of squirmy children, and you've contributed DNA to at least one of them.
But, just for the fun of it, let's see if we reclaim some of those unbearable, seasonal drudges. Are there tolerable, even enjoyable, recordings of even the most noxious of holiday tunes? Challenge accepted.
1. Lou Rawls – “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”
Sub the plodding cadence for a swung beat and a jazzier chord progression, and you actually realize that this melody ain't so bad.
2. The Jackson 5 – “Up on the Housetop”
Not only is the single best recording of this song, it might be the only one that's actually listenable. Make sure to keep at it through the breakdown at 2:15. It's an amazing reminder of what a truly gifted young man Michael really was. #loveandpeaceforeveryone
3. AgesandAges – “We Need a Little Christmas”
Composed for the musical “Mame,” this song is typically a blistering punch of groupsong that seeks to answer “how many notes can we get through in two minutes?” Slowed down, however, this Portland-based group captures the much more contemplative vibe of the lyrics.
For I've grown a little leaner, grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder, grown a little older
And I need a little angel, sitting on my shoulder
We need a little Christmas, now.
We don't want a little Christmas. We need it.
4. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – “Jingle Bells”
This is the U.S.'s most well-known and most maligned musical tradition. And it's basically only appropriate sung live in as large a group as possible. But Smokey somehow turns it into a satisfying groove, transforming it into the only enjoyable recording we know of.
5. The Ronettes – “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”
This is no doubt the smallest melody of the holiday season, and somehow, in the hands of Ronnie and (whether-we-like-it-or-not) Phil Spector, it becomes as huge as what it must have felt like to that kid to have seen her parent doing such a a thing.
6. The Shins – “Wonderful Christmastime”
Music critics have never been kind to this song. And for good reason. It's legitimately terrible, and, coming from the hands of one of pop music's greatest songwriters, it's a travesty.
And yet the Shins take a look at the melodic strengths, and transform them with a new chord progression and arrangement that will make you forget the synth-and-jingle bell soundtrack heard in every suburban big box stores five times each hour.
7. Big Dee Irwin & Little Eva – “I Wish You a Merry Christmas”
Whether or not this is the same song as that figgy pudding-hocking “We wish you…” is irrelevant. Because that song is terrible, and this one is f—ing fantastic.