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  1. Darlene LoveChristmas (Baby Please Come Home), Darlene Love (Philles, 1963)
    The only original song on A Christmas Gift For You, producer Phil Spector's magnum opus, Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is an amazing performance that actually outstrips Spector's amazing studio craft. "They're singing 'Deck The Halls', but it's not like Christmas at all," Love laments during the bridge, saving herself for the searing, explosive crescendo that never fails to raise goose bumps. Very nearly hollering Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich's hormonally-charged lyrics, she pleads, "Please, please, please! Baby, please come home!" We feel every single ounce of her desire, and it's a riveting, indelible experience. [back to list] [read more]

  2. Doo Wop ChristmasWhite Christmas, The Drifters (Atlantic, 1954)
    Like many songs on my Top 100 list - but more so - the Drifters' interpretation of Bing Crosby's 1942 Christmas classic (written by Irving Berlin) transcends the genre. This record (available on Rhino's Doo Wop Christmas) is timeless, serving as shining example of doo wop singing regardless of the season; further, a case can be made that "White Christmas" is the first rock 'n' roll record ever. The Drifters' amicable, ambling arrangement mimics an earlier recording by the Ravens, and bassist Bill Pinckney begins the song with his best imitation of Der Bingle. But, when tenor Clyde McPhatter makes his entrance (singing essentially the same notes as Pinckney), we are treated to a mesmerizing moment of utter originality. It's a legendary, unmatched performance; Elvis Presley's 1957 attempt to duplicate McPhatter's lines sounds positively emasculated in comparison - and that's saying something! [back to list] [read more]

  3. Soul ChristmasBack Door Santa, Clarence Carter (Atlantic, 1968)
    Mixing the sacred and profane has long been a tradition in Black music, and salacious Christmas records extend as far back as the late 1930s, when Ben Light & His Surf Club Boys thrust their "Christmas Balls" into public view. The double entendre reached its pinnacle, though, when Clarence Carter committed "Back Door Santa" to vinyl, first as a 45, then on the superb Atco LP, Soul Christmas. Dirty jokes and leering asides are scattered throughout, but the lyrical ringer (notwithstanding the anally-fixated title) has to be Carter's assertion that, "I ain't like old St. Nick, he don't come but once a year." Not incidentally, the record is a sizzling slab of southern soul. Unforgettable! [back to list] [read more]

  4. Rockin' Litttle ChristmasRun Rudolph Run, Chuck Berry (Chess, 1958)
    I can think of nothing to say about this record that could be more complimentary than that it sounds like Chuck Berry's other records - driving guitar rock accompanying droll, clever lyrics. Nearly middle-aged at the time, Berry spoke intelligently to teenagers in their own language, and he transformed the quaint story of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer into a thrilling, space-age tale. "Run Rudolph Run" has been covered numerous times (including by Berry acolytes Keith Richards and Dave Edmunds), and it can be found along with its b-side (a version of Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby") on Rockin' Little Christmas. [back to list]

  5. Elvis PresleySanta Claus Is Back In Town, Elvis Presley (RCA, 1957)
    The controversy that swirled around Elvis during his halcyon "Pelvis" days was largely trumped up, racist crap. Elvis (and rock 'n' roll in general) mixed black and white together in heretofore forbidden ways, and the sexual frenzy he stirred in young girls was a threat to the segregationist status quo more than to the morality of teenaged America. "Santa Claus Is Back In Town," however, was one instance where all the King's critics were dead right. Elvis's performance is pure sex - bumping, grinding, sweaty, sinful sex. Written expressly for Elvis by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, "Santa Claus Is Back In Town" comes across as an inside joke, a virtual burlesque of the blues they - and Elvis - loved. That doesn't mean the record doesn't smoke; it is, in fact, one of Elvis' most fiery blues, and it reveals his ability to take silly or mundane material and turn it into solid gold (a talent that would serve him well throughout the sixties). Most of the sexual energy is in Elvis' growling, libidinous vocals and the striptease frenzy of his band (especially drummer D.J. Fontana). The ringer, however, arrives near the song's conclusion with this unabashed couplet: "Hang up your pretty stockings and put out the light, Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight!" (Originally released on the wonderful 1957 LP, Elvis Christmas Album, that also includes "Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me" and the popular "Blue Christmas.") [back to list]

  6. Motown ChristmasRudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, Temptations (Motown, 1968)
    Gene Autry introduced Johnny Marks' timeless tale nearly twenty years before the Temptations transformed it into a lush soul ballad. For me, though, this masterful arrangement has become the definitive version. The Temptation's voices (led by tenor Dennis Edwards) swirl and blend in sensuous ways that have little to do with the shiny proboscis of a flying rangifer tarandus. Improbably, this a romantic record, a seductive slow-dance that lends itself to reindeer games of an entirely different sort. Released first as a single then included on the Temptations' 1970 LP, Christmas Card, "Rudolph" is also compiled on A Motown Christmas. [back to list]

  7. Happy Xmas (War Is Over), John Lennon & Yoko Ono (Apple, 1971)
    John & YokoUber-producer Phil Spector (read more) developed a cozy relationship with the Beatles, and, after salvaging the band's final work as Let It Be, he worked with both George Harrison and John Lennon on their initial solo records. Spector was subsequently at the helm when rock's most controversial couple (Lennon and his wife, avant garde artist Yoko Ono) waxed their resplendent "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." Given the volatile political environment and the couple's controversial recent work (such as Lennon's scathing Imagine LP), "Happy Xmas" (note the missing "Christ") was a salve for both the record buying public and a war-weary world. Released only as a single (backed with Yoko's "Listen The Snow Is Falling"), "Happy Xmas" is rarely included on Christmas collections; it is, however, available on most Lennon greatest hits packages, including Lennon Legend (1998). It is also captured on Vigotone's fab Beatles boot, Ultimate Christmas Collection (1998). [back to list] [read more]

  8. Blue YuleMerry Christmas Baby, Charles Brown (Aladdin, 1956)
    One of just a few artists earning more than one slot on my Top 100 (see below), Charles Brown is one of the greatest figures in the history of modern Christmas music. He first recorded "Merry Christmas Baby" with Johnny Moore's Three Blazers for Swing Time Records in 1947, and he returned to the well about a dozen times over the years. He waxed the definitive version in New Orleans for West Coast label Aladdin in 1956 (collected on Rhino's Blue Yule), and the song became an instant standard. "Merry Christmas Baby" (credited to Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore despite Brown's claims of authorship) set the prototype for rhythm 'n' blues yule tunes - where romance and seduction all but obliterate the birth of Christ as the reason for the season. ("Merry Christmas Baby" has been covered innumerable times, including memorable versions by Elvis Presley, Ike & Tina Turner, and Otis Redding.) [back to list]

  9. Jackson 5Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, Jackson 5 (Motown, 1970)
    Haven Gillespie and Fred Coot's holiday standard has been recorded countless times since George Hall & His Orchestra first recorded it for Bluebird Records in 1934. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons' screechy but spirited version - with its syncopated hesitation before the chorus - set the template in 1962 for the Crystals' rousing 1963 rendition, and "The Corporation" (a team of elite Motown producers) used that version as a model for the Jackson 5 when arranging the group's marvelous Christmas Album. Five years later, Bruce Springsteen copped the Jackson 5 arrangement (sort of) for his famous rendition; head to head, the J5 blow the Boss away. [back to list]

  10. Brenda LeeRockin' Around The Christmas Tree, Brenda Lee (Decca, 1958)
    While there are few honest-to-goodness rockabilly Christmas records, several top rockin' Christmas platters use rockabilly as a base. Brenda Lee's greatest hit is one of them, and her sprightly vocal - combined with chiming bursts of guitar - made "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" (written by Johnny Marks, who also penned "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer") an instant classic - at least in my mind. To the contrary, it took the public two years to accept Lee's arboreal ode, but when "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" hit, it hit big. First released on 45 in 1858, the song didn't chart till 1960 when it made #14 on the Billboard singles chart, and it charted again each of the next two years. In 1964, Decca built an album, Merry Christmas From Brenda Lee around it, which reached #7 on Billboard's Christmas chart. Today, the song is spotlighted MCA's superb Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree: The Decca Christmas Recordings, which also includes another of my Top 100 Christmas Songs (see below). [back to list]

  11. Jingle Bell Rock, Bobby Helms (Decca, 1957)
    Jingle Bell RockThough he remained active through the 1980's, Bobby Helms never had a lot to show for his career besides "Jingle Bell Rock," his rockabilly-flavored smash from 1957. A few months earlier he had launched his career, promisingly enough, with "Fraulein" and "My Special Angel," both of which made the Top 10. Then, "Jingle Bell Rock" zoomed to #6 and charted again four of the next five years. Oddly, Helms never graced the pop charts again, though he remained a fixture on the country circuit. "Jingle Bell Rock," however, became a musical archetype, one which shows up frequently on Christmas albums (such as Rockin' Little Christmas), either with Helms' snappy Decca original, his remakes for Kapp (1965) or Little Darlin' (1967), or in one of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of cover versions. (The original Decca 45-rpm record, by the way, featured Helm's wonderfully goofy "Captain Santa Claus And His Reindeer Space Patrol" on the flipside. Both songs are included on Bear Family's Fraulein: The Classic Years 2-CD set.)[back to list]

  12. VenturesRudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Ventures (Dolton, 1965)
    The charm of this energetic instrumental lies not in the multi-guitar attack the Ventures bring to Johnny Marks' most famous composition but in the gimmick they use to sell it. On this and other tracks from their classic LP, The Ventures' Christmas Album, the band grafts popular hits of the day onto Christmas classics. In the present case, they employ the Beatles' "I Feel Fine" (played at warp speed) as an introduction, and the resulting alchemy has always been my favorite song from a consistently great album. [back to list]

  13. Christmas Past(It's Gonna Be A) Lonely Christmas, The Orioles (Jubilee, 1948)
    Hailing from Baltimore (where else?), the Orioles were one of the leading "bird groups" (such as the Ravens, Penguins, and Crows) who midwifed the birth of doo wop. After early hits like "Too Soon To Know" (1948), their greatest claim to fame came in 1953 with the immortal "Crying In The Chapel." Those of us in the know, however, cherish this song above all others. "Lonely Christmas" is a picture-perfect expression of desolation (scratchy master and all), as lead singer Sonny Til solemnly intones, "This year I'll be blue and lonely listening to the music from the party across the hall." When reissued a year later with a new b-side, "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" (see below), history was written; both songs are included on ...Christmas Past. [back to list]

  14. Hipster's HolidaySanta Baby, Eartha Kitt (RCA Victor, 1953)
    When Madonna revived "Santa Baby" on the first Very Special Christmas CD back in 1987, I hadn't yet heard Eartha Kitt's high octane original (available on Hipsters' Holiday). The song is ostensibly just pillow talk between a promiscuous gold digger and her sugar daddy; if he comes through with the goods (furs, cars, jewelry), she'll let him "hurry down the chimney." But, my goodness - where Madonna merely teases (in fact, teeters on the edge of parody), the sultry Ms. Kitt positively smolders with honest sexual promise. "Santa Baby" succeeds not just because it imbues Christmas with an all-but-explicit sexuality, but because it unflinchingly ties sex to money. The listener is offered alternate perceptions - hear the song as naughty trifle or as profound commentary on the corrupted nature of the the holiday. Either way, it works. [back to list]

  15. Christmas JamboreeChristmas Time's A-Coming, Mac Wiseman (Gusto, circa 1979)
    Mac Wiseman isn't well-known outside bluegrass circles, but within that community he is a hero of great stature - just short of men like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, both of whom he worked with. It was Monroe who first recorded "Christmas Time's A-Coming," a timeless number written by Tex Logan, but Wiseman puts it across with such panache that I believe it to be just about the greatest country Christmas record ever waxed. Unfortunately, it's also a very obscure record, and I can't even be sure of the date. I own a vinyl 45 copy released in 1979 by Nashville budget label Gusto Records, but it's backed with Joe Ward's 1955 King Records hit, "Nuttin' For Christmas" (Ward was a child of eight when he waxed the novelty, so it's obvious that the flipside is the original recording). Now, it makes sense that Wiseman would have recorded the song for an independent label during the 70's, after his long tenures at Dot, Capitol, and RCA had come to a close. Plus, the recording certainly sounds contemporary with that era. But, while Gusto controlled vintage masters from King, as well as Starday, Hollywood, and other labels prolific in country music, Wiseman never (to my knowledge) released any albums for any of those companies, and the 45 itself bears no other recording dates or information. Regardless, Wiseman's definition rendition of "Christmas Time's A-Coming" has been released on several budget albums - most bearing the Hollywood imprint - including Christmas Jamboree (1988), a now out-of-print compact disc. To confuse matters even further, Wiseman's Gusto album #1 Christmas showed up around 1994 (but did not contain "Christmas Time's A-Coming") and Wiseman recorded a new version of the song in 2002 with Doc Watson and Del McCoury for the album Christmas on the Mountain: A Bluegrass Christmas. [back to list]

  16. Jingle BluesChristmas Celebration, B. B. King (Kent, 1962)
    B.B. King is, by now, the most famous blues musician in history, dwarfing Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf in all but the eyes of academicians. Until quite recently, King had recorded but one Christmas record, this strident, brassy rendition of a song written and recorded in 1951 by Jesse Thomas (with help from Lloyd Glenn, best known for "Christmas Sleigh Ride"). Where Thomas' original is quaint, King's cover is an uptown juggernaut, full of the kind of manly bravado and stinging, single-string guitar leads that have earned him such respect. There is, by the way, much disagreement about when King recorded this classic. The consensus seems to be that he recorded it in 1960, but it was not released until 1962 (Kent 387) and then reissued in 1964 (Kent 417). Furthermore, he cut a new version of the song for his 2001 album A Christmas Celebration of Hope, and the original version can be tricky to locate. Search for Point Blank's Best Christmas Ever, House Of Blues' Jingle Blues, or Ace's Rhythm & Blues Christmas. [back to list]

  17. Billboard Rock 'n' Roll Christmas Father Christmas, The Kinks (Arista, 1977)
    After several dissolute years, the Kinks emerged revitalized on a new label (Arista) in the mid-70's. "Father Christmas" was released as a non-LP single between their first (Sleepwalker) and second (Misfits) records for the label. It embodies everything I love about rock 'n' roll Christmas music - it defies expectations while embracing the artist's best qualities. In this case, "Father Christmas" is louder and angrier than what we had come to expect from the Kinks. But, it also relates an engrossing tale of class struggle that makes it entirely of a piece with the rest of the Kinks' katalogue. Included on Billboard Rock 'N' Roll Christmas as well a 1999 Misfits reissue. [back to list]

  18. Merle HaggardIf We Make It Through December, Merle Haggard (Capitol, 1973)
    The dust bowl imagery Haggard inherited from his Okie forbears was easily supplanted in the early 70's by modern images of economic recession. Here, Merle's been "laid off down at the factory," and he's facing with grim resignation the inevitable disappointment in his daughter's eyes when no presents are found under the tree. Like all working class heroes, though, he tenaciously clings to hope. "If we make it through December, we'll be fine," he insists. I'm not so sure, but the song is an unforgettably harrowing tale, all the more effective for its understated backing track. Originally released on Merle Haggard's Christmas Present (Something Old, Something New) which has been reissued on CD as A Christmas Present (1990), Country Christmas With Merle Haggard (1995), and Hag's Christmas (2007). The song is also frequently collected, including on Capitol's 20 Greatest Hits, Razor & Tie's Lonesome Fugitive, and Haggard's boxed set, Down Every Road - all recommended. [back to list]

  19. WeezerChristmas Celebration, Weezer (Geffen, 2000)
    The story is Weezer is a story of pop redemption - a story I hope to tell more completely at a later date. "Christmas Celebration" is extracted from a two-song promotional disc Weezer issued as they prepared to cap their unlikely comeback with 2001's amazing Weezer (the green album). The song is exactly what we've come to expect from Rivers Cuomo and company - the loudest, best pop since Cheap Trick, plus ennui out the ass. "The pageantry is such a bore," Cuomo whines, but he turns up the volume and cranks out the riffs - a sure way to cure those holiday blues. (Issued only as the b-side of the Japanese CD single of "Photograph" and as part of a promotional CD single paired with "Christmas Song," which later showed up on MTV TRL Christmas. "Christmas Celebration," by the way, is a Weezer original, not the B.B. King song listed above.) [back to list]

  20. Elton John's Christmas PartyStep Into Christmas, Elton John (MCA, 1973)
    Any number of songs on this list or throughout Hip Christmas can claim Phil Spector's Wall Of Sound as a direct influence. Elton John's irresistible holiday invitation (released on a 45 backed with the wacky "Ho Ho Ho Who'd Be A Turkey At Christmas") has as good stake as any to such an ambitious declaration. Instruments are piled on excessively, the reverb grows deeper and deeper, and the tempo seems to accelerate until, at last, the song seems about to fly apart. It doesn't (just barely), and we are left with a record equal to anything the bespectacled Mr. Dwight released during his prodigious first decade. "Step Into Christmas" is now included as a bonus track on Elton's 1974 album, Caribou, while both sides of the single were issued on Rare Masters (1992). Elton later featured it on his own Christmas Party compilation (2005). [back to list]

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