Or, FS for CS (if ya know ya know)
It’s that time of year when the world outside of my bloodline suddenly cares about Bing Crosby again. Christmas music has a special power; there’s a reason some people don’t reserve it solely for the season (definitely not me though haha). Here are just a few of my faves to put you in the spirit—we’ll call this the pop edition, and I’ll dedicate another post to more traditional carols.
“Jingle Bells?”, Barbra Streisand
A Christmas Album (1967) is unquestionably one of the great Christmas albums—further proof that no one does Christmas better than the Jews. Babs makes the most that I think could possibly be made of a relatively simple song. When she’s on, she’s really on, like the light at the top of the tree. Or whatever you use to top your tree.
“The Christmas Waltz,” Frank Sinatra
Famously written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn to fill the waltz-shaped hole in the Christmas songbook. I’m thinking of the version on A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra (1957), featuring a choir bookending the song with “Merry Christmas, merry Christmas / may your every New Year dream come true.” The musical effect that those practically whispered a cappella chords create is something I have yet to describe adequately. The emotional effect is just that I cry really hard, particularly in the third holiday season I’ve spent apart from my family.
“The Christmas Waltz,” Jane Krakowski & Cheyenne Jackson
As performed on 30 Rock. Danny (Cheyenne) is the newest cast member on TGS, and he’s paired up with the always-performance-ready Jenna (Jane) to do the song. Jenna is used to being the star, and Danny’s got a gorgeous voice—so she makes him sing off-key to accentuate her talent. Great stuff.
“Little Saint Nick,” The Beach Boys
My BFF Brian based this one on a piano part he’d originally written for Phil Spector’s compilation A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. We’re lucky it was left on the proverbial cutting-room floor. And it manages to sound so Christmassy without the use of sleigh bells.
“Talking Christmas Goodwill Blues,” John Wesley Harding/Wesley Stace
It makes total sense to have a Christmas-themed talking blues. It also makes sense, in retrospect, that we didn’t have one until Stace revived the tradition, because the last person to do talking blues on a regular basis was named Zimmerman, and he hadn’t found Jesus yet. You’ll be cleaning up pine needles in July!! (In the house I grew up in, we took that line literally.)
“Sleigh Ride,” The Boston Pops, conducted by John Williams
Yes, this version specifically. I always go for the orchestral composition, as Leroy Anderson and God intended, sans dumb lyrics, but the video of the performance says more than I ever could.
“Merry Christmas (I Don’t Wanna Fight Tonight),” Ramones
Joey sings a song it sounds like the ghost of Buddy Holly helped him write. And it’s actually longer than most Ramones songs. Didn’t see that coming, huh?
“Christmas,” Leslie Odom, Jr.
Notably okay tunesmith Pete Townshend wrote this one for Tommy, and you’ll recognize Leslie’s golden tones—he made his Christmas album in 2016, likely while recuperating from the back surgery he needed after carrying the Broadway production of Hamilton. The arrangement suits the understated, relaxed atmosphere of the album; but because it’s a musical number with dramatic tension, part of a larger plot, there’s more heft and urgency to it.
“Santa Baby,” Eartha Kitt
As I have said before, Eartha’s version is the only version allowed. I will not be taking questions at this time.
“Close Your Mouth (It’s Christmas),” The Free Design
This is one of those late-‘60s bands I know nothing about, except for their fine Christmas tune in an unusual time signature. “Get to know the people in your house / You might like them!”
“Feliz Navidad,” José Feliciano
And a prospero año! Obviously.
“What Christmas Means to Me,” Stevie Wonder
I’ve met people (in Europe) who don’t know this one, and I wonder what they even call Christmas. The spirit of the season is captured here more completely than in just about any other single song, right from that wonderfully layered intro.
“Christmas All Over Again,” Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
A pop contribution that’s come to be an adulthood favorite of mine. The chord structure is a little different from what you’re used to, and the melody is lots of fun.
“The Christmas Can-Can,” Straight No Chaser
Not even sorry. Offenbach is proud. I’m gonna go grab some Chinese food.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Judy Garland
I go for the Medium Sad one—that is, the first rewrite, which doesn’t make you want to die but also isn’t the farthest removed into everything’s-dandy-ville. Either way, I think it exists apart from the Christmas canon as one of the highlights of the Great American Songbook in general.
“Mele Kalikimaka,” Bing Crosby & the Andrews Sisters
An underrated classic.
+ everything the Vince Guaraldi Trio did (but you already heard that from me)
Image: one of the many storefront Tannenbäume on the main street adjacent to my neighborhood