This week we’re bringing you a selection of holiday favorites from classic country to funk to pop to verifiable Christmas classics. Meet us under the mistletoe for this and more, ‘cuz this list a real treat!
BUCK OWENS, “SANTA LOOKED A LOT LIKE DADDY” & TEDDY VANN, “SANTA CLAUS IS A BLACK MAN”
Every Christmas, I’m drawn to the songs I’m not usually inclined to hear playing on those stations which do holiday music 24-7. While I still love getting to hear the likes of Bing Crosby and Jose Feliciano, there are just so many cuts which manage to get the spirit of the season which haven’t seemed to find their way into the canon.
My two favorite cuts are both takes on the perennial song, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” While Jimmy Boyd’s original version and the Ronettes’ 1963 cover version are superb, the various reinterpretations always end up being far more interesting than the Tommie Connor-penned original.
First up is Buck Owens’ 1965 hit, “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy.” Despite coming in as the number two holiday single the year it was released, the top song — Burl Ives’ “A Holly Jolly Christmas” — has all but eclipsed Owens’ track. That’s a shame, because it fits perfectly into the Bakersfield musician’s string of hits in the mid-’60s. “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” is an almost-rockabilly boogie tune, and it’s no surprise that it’s been covered by a string of country music superstars from Garth Brooks to Travis Tritt to Brad Paisley. Sadly, anything outside of straight pop gets shoved to the side at the holiday season, unless we’re talking an occasional slip-in of Gayla Peevey’s “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” or Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song.”
Up second is the 1973 single from Teddy Vann, “Santa Claus Is a Black Man.” Recorded by Vann with vocals by his then five year-old daughter, Akim, the song almost falls into the novelty category. It’s not due to the subject matter, which is empowering and strong, and seems to take not a little bit of inspiration from James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud, Pts. 1 & 2,” which was itself released on a holiday recording, Brown’s 1968 A Soulful Christmas. It’s just that pretty much any song with little kid vocals gets relegated to the novelty category, which is a shame, because Vann’s song not only nods to the usual Christian holiday tradition of Santa Claus but also makes reference to Kwanzaa. It’s also funkily soulful. — Nick Spacek
FRANK SINATRA, “MISTLETOE AND HOLLY”
Frank Sinatra’s “Mistletoe and Holly”
In a smoky, dimly-lit spacious basement rec room, a group of men, select members of the “Rat Pack,” headed by FRANK SINATRA, are playing cards, the oversized Formica table filled with overflowing ashtrays, half-eaten sandwiches, and empty cocktail glasses. A bespectacled middle-aged man walks into the room, Sinatra’s agent, IRVING “SWIFTY” LAZAR. He glides gracefully across the room to just behind Sinatra in respectful deference, whispering in his ear.
SINATRA: You want me to record another Christmas song? Are you outta your [expletive deleted] mind? I just recorded an entire [expletive deleted] Christmas album! A Jolly Christmas from Yours Truly!
LAZAR: Frank baby, it’s all cool. The recording label just wants another track to stretch it out to LP length. You know how crazy the retailers get if it ain’t an LP—nobody buys EPs anymore!
SINATRA: Stop buttering me up, Swifty! I’m down five G’s and I don’t need the kid-glove treatment.
LAZAR: You got it, Frank! But Capitol needs another song.
SINATRA: For crissakes, I gave them “Jingle Bells” and that’s been covered more times than broads I’ve banged! (Sighing, SINATRA puts down his cards, drains his glass, and stands up wearily, walking over to a nearby fully-stocked bar. He pours another drink while peeling apart a roast beef sandwich quizzically.)
LAZAR: Surely you got an extra Christmas song in you? A couple of hours in the studio, that’s all.
SINATRA (sighing): Just one song?
LAZAR: Just one little song, nothing more than a couple of minutes. It’s like recording in your sleep!
SINATRA: It ain’t that easy, Swifty. The creative process isn’t something I can just pull out of my ass—I’m a [expletive deleted] artist! (He grabs a nearby paper napkin.) Gimme a pen. (LAZAR pulls out a pen from his interior suit pocket and hands it to him. SINATRA scribbles on the napkin.) I did have an idea for a song—it came to me a couple of nights ago, when I wore a mistletoe crown when I met up with Angie. (Angie Dickinson?) Man, that broad can suck face!
LAZAR: So I’ve heard, Frank, so I’ve heard.
SINATRA (looks up and scowls at Lazar before shaking his head and returning his attention to the napkin): “Oh by gosh, by golly…it’s time…for mistletoe…and holly”? (he smiles lasciviously) Holly…now that broad could really swing… (He chuckles and continues scribbling on another napkin.) Whaddya think, Swifty?
LAZAR: Looks like another winner, Frank, a winner! Catchy lyrics! I like the part about the “tasty pheasants”! You ever eat pheasant?
SINATRA: They got a fancy pheasant dish in Paris, but I ordered a steak. (waves dismissively) People eat up that phony, old-fashioned Christmas imagery. It’s a bunch of crap, but it should keep Capitol happy. Christmas is gonna be the death of me.
LAZAR: Christmas albums aren’t so bad—people play them every year! Anyway, I like the rhyming scheme.
SINATRA: You gotta have a simple rhyming scheme, otherwise people don’t connect to the song and yours truly doesn’t get the nice fat residual checks! (tapping his temple)
LAZAR: That’s why you’re the Chairman, Frank baby.
SINATRA: We’ve been playing cards all night, but I just need a quick shave and shower. And a couple more drinks and then I’ll be good to record.
LAZAR: Glad to hear it! The Capitol bigwigs will be grateful.
SINATRA: You think this song will get a lot of play?
LAZAR: We can make it a single! It’ll be a Yuletide sensation!
SINATRA: Sure, baby. (drains his drink) Frankie needs another G and T.
LAZAR: People will be playing this record for decades!
SINATRA: Swell, as long as my kids are taken care of properly. Someday maybe I’ll record a Christmas album with them—lil’ Nancy is clamoring to record with me.
LAZAR (smiling): She’s not so little anymore.
SINATRA: Don’t be a creep, Swifty. That’s my daughter you’re talking about!
LAZAR: No offense meant, Frank. You could always record something classic, like “The 12 Days of Christmas,” maybe even include Junior?
SINATRA: Yeah, maybe. It could be fun. Let’s getting going. (turns to the table of players) Sorry fellas, I gotta go record a Christmas carol!
CARD PLAYER: Don’t you need some sleep, Frank? You’ve been up 36 hours!
SINATRA: I’ll sleep when I’m dead, pal, I’ll sleep when I’m dead. (pats LAZAR on the back) Give me a ride home? I banged up the Cadillac the last time I drove after a game—luckily, I got away before any cops showed up.
LAZAR: Sure thing, Frank. Anything for an artist of your caliber! “Mistletoe and Holly” here we come!
SINATRA (slipping on his wrinkled jacket): It’s gonna be a classic!
— Jay Alary
FRANKIE AVALON AND ANNETTE FUNICELLO, “MAKE A MERRY CHRISTMAS” & “THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS”
Okay, I’ll keep this short and hopefully sweet. At first, I had it in mind to go really dark for this recommendation and present to you a terrifying Wall of Voodoo song about someone’s father having a nervous fit during the holidays and embarking upon a heinous murdering spree (check the “O Tannenbaum” breakdown), but even I, the Queen of Cynics, couldn’t muster the smirk for that kind of thing this year.
You see, my mother passed away in November. Logically one would think that’d make for an especially sad holiday season, but surprisingly it’s been quite the opposite so far. My mom loved Christmastime more than anything, and instead of moping around the house (I hadn’t even planned on getting the decorations out of the closet), I’ve felt her positive yuletide energy decking my halls and trimming my tree. And so I have abandoned my usual holiday sarcasm and completely embraced the hokiest of hokey Christmas spirit.
My pick is also in honor of my mom, who loved those silly old beach party movies so much. It’s a 1981 release of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello singing a corny tune about Christmas togetherness, and then for the B-side, performing a cute version of “The Night Before Christmas.” I admittedly don’t know much about this 45, and there’s not a lot to go on online, but I do enjoy the liner notes that say “Our thanks to the Carol Lombard Childrens Choir & Rodney Bingenheimer.”
So if you’re looking for some special cheese for your Christmas charcuterie, here’s a big ol’ chunk of sonic Bonne Bouche. It’s almost as sweet as Frankie and Annette’s appearance on the Pee Wee Christmas Special. — elbee
BRITNEY SPEARS, “MY ONLY WISH (THIS YEAR)”
This is my second favorite Britney Spears song. My #1 is “Lucky.” There was a recent viral tweet that said “if your favorite Britney Spears song was ‘Lucky’, you’re depressed now.” More accurate than when we all looked at Amy Winehouse and thought “well that’s not gonna end well.”
If I had one wish this year, mine would be for people to stop saying things like “it’s been a tough year.” The insincerity is nauseating because rarely have these people experienced the dark void of 2020. They weren’t in an hours-long line at a food bank or waving goodbye to grandma as she started gasping for air like Lou Costello seeing Dracula. You can’t ramble about how tough 2020 has been unless you’re unsure what a loved one’s final words were because the Zoom call froze.
So this song is about Britney Spears asking Santa to be a pimp and find a hunk for her. Who do you think she wanted under her tree? I imagine Nick Lachey; unfortunately, Jessica Simpson called dibs. Good for her, I also love Jessica Simpson. She’s got some great tunes, Open Book was a great read, and best of all, she put Andy Dick in a music video. I wish the second coming of Paul Lynde wasn’t a drunk lunatic who made Bill Cosby look like a beacon of consent.
If you made it this far, maybe you’re wondering who I’d want under my tree. Similar to “Lucky” being my favorite Britney track for 20 years, I’ve also spent this century crushing hard on Elizabeth Hurley. She was a bombshell in Austin Powers, she made me wanna sell my soul to Satan in Bedazzled, and now she’s on Instagram in her 50s looking hotter than ever. Belle Dephine wishes she had simps as loyal as I am towards Elizabeth Hurley.
So anywho, check out this seasonal Britney Spears track. I dedicate this one to her loyal fans currently poking a voodoo doll that resembles her father. Free Britney! — Emilio Amaro
MERRY AXEMAS, COMPILATION
My father loves Christmas music. It’s the only kind of music I’ve ever seen him express any real interest in, and he has an entire iPod devoted to it. Somewhere on it, nestled somewhere between the obligatory Pentatonix, Mannheim Steamroller, and Bob Rivers’ Twisted Christmas, is a compilation album called Merry Axemas, which is quite possibly the only shared musical experience the two of us have ever bonded over. First released in 1997 and produced by shredmaster Steve Vai, it’s full of famous guitarists, most of them from the 1970s and ‘80s rock milieu, who all lent their talents to create this collection of Christmas favorites that swap reverent voices for wailing axes. For a lot of these songs, the primary enticement is novelty: Kenny Wayne Shepherd does a Southern-fried “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Jeff Beck plays slide guitar to “Amazing Grace,” Brian Setzer gets his Orchestra out to play a very rockabilly version of “Jingle Bells” with a backbeat and lots of tremolo arm dives. But a lot of these artists use the Christmas theme as an excuse to amuse themselves in styles not normally associated with them. Aerosmith’s Joe Perry flexes his bar-blues muscles on a grungy and melancholy version of “Blue Christmas.” Alex Lifeson of Rush mostly plays top-string flourishes while a bass plays the melody of “Little Drummer Boy.” As you might expect, there’s quite a lot of jamming and meandering, riffing on the melodies of these Christmas classics – Steve Vai does some jazz-inspired noodling on “Christmas Time Is Here,” Joe Satriani does a solo of heroic length to “Silent Night / Holy Night.” The best jamming is on Steve Morse’s “Joy To The World,” in which he breaks out the Echoplex and does some Brian May-inspired cascading layered harmonies. It’s definitely geared to people who listen to radio stations that play “Everything That Rocks!” – if you’re into that, give it a spin and be amazed at how hard the guy from Mr. Big can shred. — Tyler Peterson
WESLEY WILLIS “MERRY CHRISTMAS” & THE HIVES AND CYNDI LAUPER “A CHRISTMAS DUEL”
My recommendations are two far different, but equally enjoyable holiday tunes from a tragic underground music hero and a pair of great alternative icons. We begin with the tragic hero:
Wesley Willis was an outsider artist who came from the punk rock scene, battling inner demons that routinely tried to derail his “joyrides.” While his music really “whips the llama’s ass,” there are so many in this world who have no idea who Wesley was. At only 40, the schizophrenic musical genius passed away from complications from leukemia. While I’ll never forget hearing of his death shortly after his passing in 2003, the man left the world with a discography of wonderfully weird tunes about everything from Alanis Morissette to Batman to McDonald’s.
Beginning his musical career as the frontman of a punk rock band called Wesley Willis Fiasco, he toured with some popular acts in the scene, including Rocket from the Crypt, Sublime, and Lordz of Brooklyn. As Wesley began doing more shows as a solo act with his Casio keyboard, the band was unable to stay together, sadly. However, Willis’s solo work is the stuff of legends and it is with that we were given my absolute favorite Christmas song of all time.
In the standard Wesley Willis style, “Merry Christmas” is a simple, straightforward, heartfelt tune about Wesley’s favorite holiday. Like most of his tunes, the instrumental bridge is far too long for anyone’s comfort, but the spoken word/singing combo over the Casio-generated backbeat is the staple Welsey sound. It’s not fancy, but it really hits the spot with his sincerity and honesty. “Allstate, you’re in good hands!”
But wait, there’s more, this one tonally and aesthetically far different, but a truly entertaining time, as well.
1980s bad girl Cyndi Lauper teams with neo-garage rockers The Hives in a hell of a tune about celebrating Christmas during a difficult year. Of course, we all know what that’s like, but this type of difficult year is a bit different than the type of difficult year most of us have faced in this ugly pandemic…at least, I hope it is.
In “A Christmas Duel,” Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist (the lead singer of The Hives) and Cyndi Lauper each share exactly what wrongs they’ve committed against the other, ranging from sleeping with any and every family member, setting record collections on fire, hiring a hitman, changing wills, and much more. There’s a weird love to it all, though.
As they sing about not needing a Christmas tree and letting the snow wash them of their sins against each other, they seem to both take some solace in the idea of spending the holiday together. While it’s surely not family-friendly and it’s a bit dark, this song is both oddly comforting and extremely entertaining.
So in the darkness and stench of this shitsoaked 2020, let’s take a tip from Cyndi and Pelle and just enjoy ourselves while we “spend-spend-spend this Chris-Christmas together.” — Justin Harlan