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  1. You're A Mean One Mr. Grinch (from “How The Grinch Stole Christmas”), Thurl Ravenscroft (Mercury, 1965)
    Like many of you reading my Top 100, my fondest Christmas memories are inextricably tied to a series of now-classic TV specials that featured some particularly strong music. These include Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964, score by Johnny Marks, vocals by turncoat folkie Burl Ives); A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965, featuring the jazz stylings of Vince Guaraldi); Frosty The Snowman (1969, in which Jimmy Durante reprises his charming 1950 version of the title tune); Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (1970, with Fred Astaire serving as storyteller and emcee); and Year Without A Santa Claus (1974, best remembered for the gleefully malevolent "Heat Miser"). When it came to selecting songs for this list, however, nothing topped this unforgettable tribute to one of Dr. Seuss' most memorable creations. For me, the rosy spectacles of memory had softened the truth, and when I first listened to the song in the cold light of adulthood, I was shocked: the Grinch was one bad dude! Ominously voiced by one Thurl Ravencroft (not narrator Boris Karloff as I had always supposed), we learn that Mr. Grinch's "brain is full of spiders," he has "termites in his smile," and his "soul is an appalling dump heap, overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable" - certainly not the plush toy presented in recent years! Though the complete soundtrack was reissued a few years ago, I recommend Nickelodeon's Classic Cartoon Christmas series, containing highlights from all the TV shows listed above. [back to list]

  2. Christmas Wrapping, Waitresses (Ze, 1981)
    By the early 80's, it was OK to be a nerd (thank you, David Byrne). The Waitresses made something of a career out of exploring the lives of nerds, first with the theme to Square Pegs, a short lived sitcom, then with "I Know What Boys Like," a sneering portrayal of the ultimate nerd (a horny male) as told by a woman (or prick tease, depending on one's perspective). "Christmas Wrapping" fits this theory as well, only this time the insecure party is female and the story turns out well. Employing a charming pseudo-rap style (think Blondie-meets-Tom Tom Club), singer Patty Donahue begins with a resounding "Bah humbug!" After a year of missed romantic opportunities, though, she runs into "that guy I've been chasing all year" while doing some last minute shopping. "That Christmas magic's brought this tale to a very happy ending," she effuses, not unlike those Revenge Of The Nerds movies two decades ago. "Christmas Wrapping" was the most popular song from Ze Record's A Christmas Record, a neat LP that's only been reissued on CD overseas. However, the song often shows up on compilations (Edge Of Christmas) and is included on Best Of The Waitresses. [read more] [back to list]

  3. Gee Whiz It's Christmas, Carla Thomas (Atlantic, 1963)
    Carla Thomas didn't have many Top 40 pop hits in her long tenure with Stax and Atlantic Records, but "Gee Whiz Look At His Eyes" reached a solid #10 at the very start of her career. Not surprisingly, she revisited the theme for her Christmas single a few years later, and it made the charts as well. A charming slice of fluffy soul, "Gee Whiz It's Christmas" mixes coy, girl-group innocence with Thomas' distinctly mature sexual yearning. It should be pointed out, as well, that this "Gee Whiz" was an entirely original composition (cowritten by Thomas with Steve Cropper), not a retread of her earlier hit. "Gee Whiz It's Christmas" was collected on Atco's Soul Christmas in 1968, and its b-side, "All I Want For Christmas Is You" was added as a bonus track on the 1994 CD edition. [back to list]

  4. I'll Be Your Santa Baby, Rufus Thomas (Stax, 1973)
    Whereas his daughter, Carla, usually worked a smooth, sultry groove, wild man Rufus Thomas was always loud, proud, and funky (and frequently comical). All four characteristics are evident in this bawdy exercise taken from Stax's It's Christmas Time Again. As the horns mockingly toot Christmas carols and the band lays down a dirty backbeat, Rufus hollers "Here comes Santa Claus," giving the distinct impression he ain't talking 'bout no sleigh ride. Sexual innuendo abounds throughout ("I'll slide down your chimney and bring you lots of joy," "What I got for you, mama, it ain't just a toy," "When the New Year rolls around, you'll still be askin' for more"), and Rufus won't quit till the job is done - "till 1984," actually. Now that's staying power! [back to list]

  5. Christmas In Jail, Youngsters (Empire, 1956)
    Second only to Ron Holden's "Who Say There Ain't No Santa Claus" (wherein Holden gets sent to the electric chair), the Youngsters nearly take the prize for worst Christmas ever. Guilty of overindulging at the office party ("I was in the wrong lane feeling no pain"), our hero gets locked in the hoosegow for the holidays. He'll be staying there through New Year's with only bread and water to drink - indeed a bummer, which makes "Christmas In Jail" a highlight of Rhino's Bummed Out Christmas. By modern standards, this doo wop ditty could be considered horribly incorrect politically; on the other hand, the hapless adventurer gets his due and swears, "Ain't gonna drink and drive no more." If anything, "Christmas In Jail" is a morality play set to a rockin' beat - sounds correct to me! [back to list]

  6. Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy, Buck Owens (Capitol, 1965)
    In short order, Buck Owens recorded two Christmas albums, Christmas With Buck Owens & The Buckaroos (1965) and Christmas Shopping (1968), including several original songs. "Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy" (collected on Rhino's Hillbilly Holiday) is the best of the bunch, and it's prime Bakersfield country - twangy, energetic, and brimming with attitude. In this case, that attitude services a wry joke - a twist on "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" - but it's a hoot all the same. Young Buck witnesses some hanky panky between his mama and a suspiciously thin Santa; "If Santa Claus ain't Daddy," he resolves, "Then I'm a-gonna tell on them!" [back to list]

  7. If I Get Home On Christmas Day, Elvis Presley (RCA, 1971)
    In 1971, Elvis was still riding high on the wave of success that followed his storied '68 Comeback' NBC-TV special and From Elvis In Memphis LP. Ironically, the TV show was supposed to have been a Christmas special, envisioned by Col. Tom Parker as a traditional holiday offering to placate the fans. For once, Elvis rebeled against to Colonel's unimaginative leadership, and the result was an electrifying return-to-form for the King Of Rock 'n' Roll. When Presley recorded Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas (which includes "If I Get Home On Christmas Day"), the malaise that eventually led to his death was beginning to take it's toll, but he was still selling millions of albums and concert tickets and, more importantly, was still capable of uncorking amazing performances when the muse inspired him. This record is just such a moment, centered around what critic David McGee claimed "may well be the King's best recorded vocal." Written by British producer/songwriter Tony Macaulay, "If I Get Home On Christmas Day" is pristine 1970's studiocraft, understated in a way that Elvis' best work rarely was. For instance, the incendiary "Merry Christmas Baby" on the same album was wonderful, but it's drawn in bold, almost caricatured strokes. On "If I Get Home On Christmas Day," Elvis is, for once, an adult, with all the passion and ambiguity that condition portends. [back to list]

  8. Marshmallow World, Los Straitjackets (Spinout, 1996)
    Until recently, the world of instrumental Christmas rock was dominated by The Ventures' Christmas Album, an 1965 LP that gained such status for a variety of reasons, some valid (it rocks!) and some coincidental (how many instrumental Christmas rock records can you name?). The 2002 release of 'Tis The Season For Los Straitjackets (Yep Roc Records) helped change that situation, giving the Ventures' classic a run for its money and providing reverb junkies with a high-powered fix. The best song on the album, "Marshmallow World," was actually recorded six years earlier for a red vinyl single (backed with "Sleigh Ride") and was also released by Upstart Records on a promotional CD single. With it's pounding drums, incessant sleigh bells, and chiming melody, "Marshmallow World" announces a Christmas celebration without the band uttering a syllable. [back to list]

  9. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire), King Curtis (Atco, 1968)
    As a solo artist ("Soul Twist," "Memphis Soul Stew") and session man (Coasters, Aretha Franklin), Curtis Ousley earned the title of "King" by popular acclaim. His take on one of the most popular modern Christmas ballads (cowritten by Mel Torme and popularized by Nat King Cole) is a monumental act of seduction, extending the romantic subtext of the lyrics to highly erotic levels. No words are spoken here, but Curtis' smooth tenor saxophone speaks volumes, beckoning lovers the world over to new heights of passion. It was recorded for Soul Christmas (Atco, 1968) along with a version of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" that nearly equals "The Christmas Song" in sensual firepower. (That's Duane Allman, by the way, strumming in the background.) [back to list]

  10. I'll Make Everyday Christmas (For My Woman), Joe Tex (Dial, 1967)
    Kindly Joe Tex swung wildly throughout his career between reverent romantic sermons ("Hold On To What You've Got," "Sweet Woman Like You") and boisterous comic goofs ("Skinny Legs And All," "I Gotcha"). This song was squarely in the former camp as Joe takes the men folk to church, preaching that they should make everyday as special as a holiday for the women they love. The solemn organ, Joe's slowly building fervor, and his homespun homilies conspire to shame all but the most devoted husband. The song contrasts sharply on Soul Christmas with songs like Clarence Carter's "Back Door Santa" (see above), but that dichotomy of sin and salvation has long been the essence of gospel music - which Joe Tex's song is in all but name. [back to list]

  11. Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas, Staple Singers (Stax, 1970)
    Like many of the Staples' best songs, "Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas?" is thinly disguised gospel that trades in down-home wisdom for the masses. So thinly disguised, in fact, that mere spelling ("Merry" versus "Mary") makes the song's intention less than explicit. Once a listener gets past the label and down in the grooves, though, all such artifice disappears, and the Mavis and family commence to preachin'. Folks are so "busy having fun, drinking with everyone" that they've begun to treat Jesus like he's "just another baby boy." A little to sanctimonious for my taste, but the steamin' Stax stew and the Staples' spirited harmonies more than redeem the record (if not my soul). (Collected on Stax's It's Christmas Time Again.) [back to list]

  12. Lonesome Christmas, Lowell Fulson (Swing Time, 1951)
    The pop music industry - including its rhythm & blues sector - has always eaten itself, recycling records, songs, and riffs for quick commercial gain. Lowell Fulson's "Lonesome Christmas (Parts 1 & 2)" is a case study in this practice. Originally recorded for Swing Time Records in 1951, it was reissued every Christmas for several years until the label was sold to Hollywood Records. Hollywood reissued the song as "Original Lonesome Christmas" in 1955, and Fulson subsequently rerecorded the song numerous times, including a funky version for Jewel in 1970 (which I actually prefer to the original). Another of his songs, "I Wanna Spend Christmas With You" (Kent, 1967) is virtually indistinguishable from (and nearly as great as) "Lonesome Christmas." None of this detracts from Fulson's good humored blue yule, which find him hoping to spend Christmas "drinking egg nog with fruitcake" with his lovely intended. ("Lonesome Christmas" has been reissued many times. The original version is available on Hollywood's Rhythm And Blues Christmas; the Kent rewrite is collected on Virgin's Best Christmas Ever; and the Jewel rerecording was compiled by Varese on Merry Christmas Baby.) [back to list]

  13. All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth), Spike Jones & His City Slickers (RCA VIctor, 1948)
    Spike Jones' usual method of operation was to satirize existing songs. Particularly during the 40s, the story wasn't really finished for a big hit record till Jones and his City Slickers destroyed it. Bells, whistles, and other clattering sound effects combined with the Slickers' truly twisted musical vision to create records that transcended novelty, reaching dizzying heights of inspired lunacy. Their single biggest hit, though, was an original tune, "All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)," and Jones quickly found himself the target of cover versions by Nat King Cole, the Andrew Sisters, Danny Kaye, and others. None, however, could match Spike's gleefully mocking treatment of the whistling, gap-toothed youngster who gets nothing for Christmas because Santa can't understand him. Available on Dr. Demento Presents The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD Of All Time as well as on Jones' own Let's Sing A Song Of Christmas. [back to list]

  14. Nuttin' For Christmas, Joe Ward (King, 1955)
    Many artists have related this yarn of juvenile comeuppance (including Stan Freberg in an hilarious variation), but none have bested originator Joe Ward for sheer sass. Ward was the eight-year-old star of NBC's Juvenile Jury (discovered by Steve Allen), and he barely scraped the Top 20 with "Nuttin' For Christmas"; a year later, Barry Gordon took a cuter, less insolent rendition all the way to #6. It was Ward, though, who sold the song's central premise more convincingly: the singer isn't upset so much that there would be no bounty under the tree; rather, he's pissed that somebody "snitched" on him and he got caught! You can almost see young Ward's tongue poking out in snotty defiance as he brags, "I ain't been nuttin' but bad!" It matters little that his transgressions are slight by modern standards ("I filled the sugar bowl with ants"). This brat is rotten to the core, and we're thrilled to see his Christmas wishes thwarted. (Joe Ward's original recording has never been issued on CD. Freberg's version is available on Dr. Demento Presents The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD Of All Time, and Gordon's is compiled on Collectable's Ultimate Christmas Vol. 2.) [back to list]

  15. It's Christmas, Marvin & Johnny (Aladdin, 1958)
    The first ever Christmas reissue (in the modern sense of the word) came in 1976 when United artists issued Rhythm & Blues Christmas, an 10-song LP containing seven songs on my Top 100 plus three that barely missed the cut. "It's Christmas" by Marvin & Johnny (known for songs like "Tick Tock," 1954) was literally rescued from obscurity by that album, and the song's confident tempo and easy harmonies made it a welcome discovery. Setting the stage for later duos like Sam & Dave and James & Bobby Purify, Marvin & Johnny sang as one voice, professing their devotion with gospel-like feeling. "It's Christmas" was later included on Rhino's Rockin' Christmas: The 50's LP and Liberty's Legends Of Christmas Past CD. [back to list]

  16. Another Lonely Christmas, Prince (Warner Brothers, 1984)
    Prince was one of the world's most celebrated artists when he released this song as the b-side of Purple Rain's "I Would Die 4 U." The pealing guitars and layered vocals are of a piece with other Purple Rain productions, and the indulgent lyrics teeter similarly on the precipice of self-parody. Prince sells the song, though, with his most redeeming trait - his unquestioning self-confidence - and it matters not that he tells a tale of silly melodrama (his girlfriend dies, then he drowns his sorrows in banana daiquiris). When he reaches his squalling crescendo of catharsis, we feel every bit of his pain, and that shared experience is what pop music is all about. (Later collected on Prince's The Hits/The B-Sides.). [back to list]

  17. Christmas Spirit (aka Christmas Blues), Julia Lee & Her Boyfriends (Capitol, 1947)
    Walking a fine line between jazz and blues, Julia Lee and Her Boyfriends recorded one of the finest of innumerable variations on the theme of "Christmas Blues" (see Rhino's Hipsters' Holiday). The band sets the stage with raucous party noises, then Lee enters with the most abject of lines. "Christmas spirit's all around me, but I just don't feel a thing," she insists, but the raw, unrequited sexual need (and bawdy humor) Lee injects into her understated performance is remarkable. Aware that Santa can't bring her what she needs most (wink, wink), she resorts to flirting with the Fat Man himself. "I could go for your long..." (pausing wickedly) "whiskers," she purrs, then invites Santa to drop by when his work is done. Christmas might not be so blue after all! (Lee was a pianist and vocalist who specialized in songs like this, and she was quite popular during her tenure for Capitol from 1944 to 1950. Her Boyfriends on this session included stellar saxman Benny Carter and trombonist Vic Dickenson, whose sultry solo is a sleazy highlight.) [back to list]

  18. What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? Orioles (Jubilee, 1949)
    Not many great pop songs have been written about New Year's, and this is undoubtedly one of the best. Paired with "(It's Gonna Be) A Lonely Christmas" (originally released in 1948, see above), Sonny Til & The Orioles' "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" is part of one of the greatest Christmas singles ever, one that tells a little story between the front and back sides. After spending Christmas in the throes of depression, our hero ventures out, seeking redemption at midnight, Dec. 31, on the lips of his lost love. "Maybe I'm crazy," he posits, "but just in case I stand a chance, here's that jackpot question in advance." We're rooting for you Sonny, but your track record ain't so hot.... (Both "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" and its flipside are on Doo Wop Christmas as well as Christmas Past.) [back to list]

  19. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, John Mellencamp (A&M, 1987)
    This cute-but-annoying little song dates back to 1952, when little Jimmy Boyd made it a pop sensation. It's been covered hundreds of times, including popular versions by Theresa Brewer, Perry Como, the Four Seasons, the Ronettes, and the Jackson 5. It's been parodied by Spike Jones and Homer & Jethro ("I Saw Mommy Smoochin' Santa Claus"), and Boyd himself recorded "I Saw Mommy Do The Mambo (With You Know Who)" two years later. I chose to spotlight John Mellencamp's version, however, because it steers clear of the novelty and delivers a rootsy performance as convincing as any the celebrated Hoosier ever waxed. One of Mellencamp's mentors, John Prine, had recorded the song to kick off his Oh Boy! label in 1984, and that version served as a blueprint for Mellencamp's own version. But, in 1987 the former Johnny Cougar was at the culmination his most fertile period (Lonesome Jubilee was released the same year), and the spirit with which he and his band reinvent Boyd's trifle is impressive. Infusing their arrangement with hints of cajun, bluegrass, and rockabilly, they achieve a sort of novelty nirvana that renders Santa's illicit lip-lock all but irrelevant. (Originally released on the overrated but widely-praised A Very Special Christmas.) [back to list]

  20. Jingle Jangle, Penguins (Mercury, 1955)
    On tiny, Los Angeles-based label Dootone, the Penguins achieved immortality with 1954's "Earth Angel," a sublime doo wop classic. That success led them to mammoth Mercury Records, where they promptly slid into obscurity. Before they did, they cut a ballad, "A Christmas Prayer," backed with the Latin-tinged, sax-driven rocker "Jingle Jangle." The b-side was the one that emerged as the classic, with its irresistible beat overwhelming the somewhat innocuous lyrics (every Christmas party needs some good dance music). "Jingle Jangle" is easily available on Rhino's Doo Wop Christmas, but you'll have to buy Best Of The Penguin: The Mercury Years if you want both sides of the single. [back to list]

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