Can we put together a santacular set of rock and roll/Americana/roots-rock/whatever Christmas songs? Hell, yeah we can. I’m your guy.
We’re gonna take a look and a listen to the best, oddest, dustiest, loudest, semi-legendary holiday rock music. Stuff you can sing along to everytime you hear the damn thing, and stuff that should have been more than a just a holiday lost classics.
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15. Cheech and Chong - "Santa Claus and his Old Lady": The classic story of how Santa lived up north and ate brownies in the commune. Classic stoner riffs about the jolly guy, filtered through the bonged-out minds of Tommy and Cheech. God bless any radio station that still plays it during the holidays. Favorite part: Tommy thinks he used to play in a band with Santa, on the Buddha Records label. Take a listen to the background music and layered and panned effects behind Cheech and Chong as they do their business. As a comedy duo and recording artists, Cheech and Chong are woefully underappreciated by many. And I'm cool with that, because I know the truth.
14. The Tractors — “The Santa Claus Boogie”: Oklahoma rock and roll boogie from the Tractors, a bunch of guys whose stew of New Orleans piano and Tulsa shuffle created a unique sound in the 1990′s. I love the way the vocals of leader Steve Ripley sound (miked close and in your ear), paired with the group’s rough harmonies. Too unique for country radio today, they didn’t even really fit in anywhere in their brief run.
13. Chuck Berry/Brian Setzer: "Run Rudolph Run": We’re going with two versions of “Run Rudolph Run” at the #13 spot. Brian Setzer’s take on the tune (a song that has been covered by many others, notably Dave Edmunds and a bit more sloppily by Keith Richards) is pretty true to the orginal, adding Setzer's growl — both with guitar and vocals — to modernize the classic. Chuck Berry is the father of the sound. So we have both here. Just a freakin’ great blast of rock and roll everytime I hear it, from either artist. Ain’t nothing polished about it — or at least there needn’t be. Just turn it up.
12. Beach Boys - “Little Saint Nick”: An early hyper-produced-yet-simple rock tune — almost 40 years old — and still great today because of the uniqueness of the Beach Boy vocals, unmatched and never duplicated all these years later. Ripped the melody from “Little Duece Coupe” but added the great repeated harmony refrain “…Run Run Reindeer” to the tune. It's a nugget of 60′s pre-Beatles rock preserved forever. The Beach Boys were huge in America, and splintered because of death, family fights and Mike Love’s cheesiness.
11. John Mellencamp - “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”: In 1987, Mellencamp was at the height of his musical trajectory. His Lonesome Jubilee album synthesized rock, country, folk and old-timey instruments into a peculiar (though wildly accessible) piece of art. The shows that supported the record display one of the best bands I have ever seen live, and I’ve seen hundreds, both great and crappy. I saw John first in ’85 at Detroit’s Cobo Hall during the Scarecrow tour and it was a taste of the power his band had - a combination of 60′s Mitch Ryder rock and roll, Kinks-via-America blue collar lyrical poetry and really loud guitars and drums. Two years later, in ’87, that same band was even more nuanced without losing its power or its garage rock backbone, while adding a fiddle and accordian to the mix with the Lonesome Jubilee album. When I found myself deep in the lawn outdoors at Pine Knob Music Theater (again, Detroit) for the second leg of that '87 tour, the intensity, James Brown-like polish and the momentum of a bunch of radio singles made it one of the best five shows I have seen in my life. The “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” video was recorded during that tour, before one of the shows. An Indiana punk grown up just enough to build himself one of the great, underrated holiday classics.
10. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - “Merry Christmas Baby”: Overshadowed by his cover of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”, Bruce and the E Street Band grab a hold of this song with a nod to their Jersey shore R&B roots. Bruce infuses the song with some of the same stop, starts and musical breakdowns that work so well in songs like “Spirit in the Night” and “Out in the Street”. Great Roy Bittan piano. This version performed by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band was recorded live at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York on December, 1980.
9. Buck Owens — “Santa Looked a Lot like Daddy”: That’s right people: Buck freakin’ Owens. The dude was more than just Hee Haw. Ever hear of the Bakersfield sound? Country rock before there was country rock. There are hundreds of covers of the tune, but the good ones rarely stray from the signature sound Buck laid down back in 1965. Respect the Buck.
7. Elvis Presley — "Blue Christmas”: Is this ranking too high? Too low? King fans will want to dismiss me completely because this song isn’t closer to the top of the countdown. And I have friends who think Elvis is waaaaay overrated, and will call this pandering. Me? It’s right where it should be; one of the best Xmas tunes done by a singular voice in rock and roll history. To judge Elvis on anything is to forsake the mythology of the past 30+ years, and instead just listen to him sing. His Sun Studio recording sessions built rock music’s road to becoming a cultural mainstream artform. He went on to record a lot of crap that has skewed unfavorably his earlier, groundbreaking output. One of the things I love about this entry is the video is from the ’68 Comeback Special, and we hear the King playing guitar and into the song. When he was serious, there were few better. Iconic song, and should be on any playlist at Christmas.
6. Frank Sinatra - “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”: I don’t think of Sinatra as the anti-rock and roll. He seems more like the embodiment of the way you are supposed to bull straight ahead, do what you want, take no prisoners and stay up all night in Vegas, drinking whiskey and smoking cigs. And his best work was taking a piece of music, and raising it to a higher musically emotional place. We don’t necessarily needs guitars and drums to do that (though it’s what I prefer). Frank does it right with this one, (taken from his 1957 A Jolly Christmas with Frank Sinatra album), a tune that sounds best played between 10pm Christmas Eve and 5am Christmas Day. After dark and before sunrise. Beautiful.
5. Robert Earl Keen - “Merry Christmas From the Family”: He’s worshiped in Texas, loved by fans of country rock throughout the world, and completely unknown to anyone else, though this song might the one exception. It is a brilliant four-minute piece of refreshingly politically-uncorrect truth; the story of a Christmas full of family, alcohol and multiple runs to the Quik Pak store.
4. John Lennon — “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)“: Of all of the songs in the big countdown, does this song polarize listeners more than any other? A bit political, though you could argue (successfully, I would add) that it's more humanistic than simply about politics. Or maybe the time has passed for Lennon to still have enemies, even in his music. The subversive Lennon does tweak with the use of “Xmas” in the title, but that’s pretty tame for today's standards now, right? The whole thing feels brilliant to me, and they used Phil Spector — the iconic Christmas record man himself — as producer. He partially atones for his “Let It Be” knob jerking with a great sound on this one. In this age of “brand awareness” and staying true to an idea and self, Lennon and Yoko Ono certainly nailed it here, in idea and execution.
3. Bobby Helms — “Jingle Bell Rock”: Here’s a song that's been heard by you and me so many times that we are numb to it. But when it does come on the radio or is part of a movie soundtrack, it elicits a magical Pavlov’s Dog response; the song means it’s Christmas in America. Helms was born in Bloomington, Indiana and lived in Martinsville until he died in 1997. A country singer who tasted a little success with one other top 10 hit, but had a bunch of songs that never quite cracked the Top 40 country charts. Yet this little ditty was a also a top 10 pop hit in 1957 and has been rereleased at least six times since then, charting all but once. Though a bit of musical cheese (so are a lot of holiday tunes — no deductions here), Filled with sleigh bells ringing, there’s an immediacy in the vocals, and it is an original tune written by a Hoosier. Next time you hear it, really listen: it’s a damn good pop song.
2. Phil Spector — A Christmas Gift For You album/”Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”:— Darlene Love: We put Spector and Love together here, because we can. The album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, released in 1963 (on November 22, the day Kennedy was shot) is echo-filled, kitchen sink-added, girl group-heavy music from Spector, and one of his genius moments. The Darlene Love-led “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” from that record earns its highlighted spot here in part through the inclusion by David Letterman on his Christmas show each year. She still can belt it out, The whole records is a thrilling homage to the greatness that was girl groups — filtered through Spector — in the 1960′s. A marvelous album.
1. Bruce Springsteen — “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”: Though the version of this song you hear each Christmas was recorded in 1975 (at C.W. Post College), Bruce and the E Street Band have not strayed from that arrangement in a live setting in nearly 35 years — and for good reason. To paraphrase David Allen Coe, it’s the perfect rock and roll Christmas song. From Roy Bittan’s opening piano notes to his closing "Jingle Bells” fade, the song is rockingly magical; Clarence as Santa with his “Ho ho ho’s” and his bellowed "You better be good for goodness sake” lines are fun; and it has one of the great breakdowns and build ups - a repeated “Santa Claus is comin’ to town” refrain morphing into a band explosion and the Boss’ “whoa-oh-oh” shouted over the music. As I write these words, it all sounds too clinical, as if a music critic needed to dissect the meaning and importance of the song, like a premature musical autopsy. It’s silly, really. This is a great version because the music and words and crowd make it that way. One of the few live tunes to be a Christmas classic and maybe that is part of the magic. Springsteen has no contender for his crown of greatest live performer, and what he did that night in 1975 at a small college on Long Island was alive, joyous and full of east coast energy. In 100 years, Santa Claus will still be around and this song will still be played. It is a great song, sits atop the list and makes me feel alive every time I hear it.