Music News & Reviews

Do you hear what I hear? 25 songs for holiday cheer

So you chug-a-lugged some spiked egg nog, passed out and had nightmares of hearing Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer for the gajillionth time. Then ... you got lost in a megamall, only to be mauled by a gaudy Mannheim Steamroller.

Afraid this could happen to you? Well, take heart — and don't leave your holiday music in the hands of deejays, in-laws and other evil elves who serve you the sonic equivalent of brick-hard fruitcake.

Here are 25 songs for a holiday playlist. Burn a mix of these tunes and consider wrapping up the CD as a thoughtful hostess gift or stocking stuffer.

1. Monsters' Holiday, Bobby “Boris” Pickett.

This 1962 sequel to Monster Mash is a bit more sublime but even more fun. Song ends with Igor going ape over St. Nick: “Ooooooh, Santa goooooodd!” Scary Christmas!

2. Do You Hear What I Hear?, Keola Beamer.

Simply a gorgeous, gorgeous rendering of the Christmas carol by a Hawaiian slack key guitar master, from the highly recommended 1996 album Ki Ho'alu Christmas (Dancing Cat). Will calm your shopping angst quicker than a hot toddy.

3. Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto , James Brown.

Says more than 1,000 holiday charity appeals combined, and with a much funkier backbeat.

4. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) , John Lennon.

True, this song nearly got ruined when the “Make It Jamaica” ad campaign blatantly stole Lennon's melody. Still, Happy Xmas endures by fusing Beatlesque appeal with beautiful Christmas spirit. Even Yoko Ono's caterwauling, ever off-key, sounds charming.

5. Father Christmas , The Kinks

No Christmas ditty (save Run Rudolph Run) rocks as hard. Plus Ray Davies' rapier wit yields a lyric pairing holiday need and rotten-kid greed.

6. Run Rudolph Run , Chuck Berry.

Listen to that guitar and Berry's semi-yodeled vocal. Can't you just see Rudolph and Santa doing the duckwalk with a chorus line of elves raising their teeny little fists in the air?

7. Holly Jolly Christmas , Burl Ives.

Scripted by Johnny Marks (who wrote Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer), Holly Jolly suggests roly-poly images of Ives as the avuncular snowman on those Rankin-Bass Christmas specials.

8. You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch , Thurl Ravenscroft.

With a basso profundo to inspire Yuletide fright, Ravenscroft (the voice of Tony the Tiger) sings of a vomit-green beast with garlic in his soul. Come on: Garlic and arsenic sauce ... in a Christmas song? What's not to love?

9. Baby, It's Cold Outside , Dean Martin.

You can see lounge lizard Deano puttin' the moves on the female vocalist who's just trying to get home before she's snowed in: either by the weather or by Martin's ridiculous, delicious flattery.

10. Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy , Bing Crosby and David Bowie.

In the most surreal pairing since pickles and ice cream, show-biz stalwart Crosby teamed with glitter god Ziggy Stardust to conjure a little Christmas magic. In a sad postscript, Crosby died in October 1977, a month after recording the duet.

11. Christmas Wrapping , The Waitresses.

This tale of a lonely Christmas meal redeemed by convenience store romance sounds as cute as that other Waitresses hit, I Know What Boys Like, does annoying.

12. You Gotta Get Up (Christmas Song) , Rich Mullins.

A Christian singer-songwriter compared to Paul Simon and Don Henley, Mullins sings from the perspective of a little boy waiting to open his holiday gifts. No sticky-sweet sentiment or cutesy artifice here: It's heartfelt.

13. Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight) , The Ramones.

Punk godfather Joey Ramone's appeal for a little break from the family dysfunction gives a whole new spin to the phrase “peace on Earth.”

14. The 12 Days of Christmas , Bob and Doug McKenzie.

SCTV stars Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas improvised this holiday spoof, complete with beer, toques and back bacon, and a drum machine that must've been salvaged from a disco fire sale.

15. Christmastime Is Here Again , The Beatles.

Heard in bits over the years, this psychedelic ‘67 song (part of a Beatles Fan Club Christmas message) finally came out three decades later as a B-side to Free as a Bird. A sly rewrite of the Sgt. Pepper's cut Lovely Rita.

16. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town , Bruce Springsteen.

The punchy mix of sleigh bells, Clarence Clemons' upbeat sax and Springsteen's gruff baritone will make you think Santa — clad in black leather, of course — landed his sleigh on a wind-whipped Jersey Shore boardwalk.

17. The Man With All the Toys , Beach Boys.

This 1964 Beach Boys cut boils it down to surfer-dude essentials: Santa's cool, you see, ‘cause he's the man with all the toys! Who cares if he cruises in a big ol' sleigh instead of a little deuce coupe?

18. Christmastime Is Her e, Vince Guaraldi.

Lee Mendelson, producer of A Charlie Brown Christmas, wrote the lyrics in 10 minutes on an envelope, because he couldn't find a lyricist for hire. Four decades later it remains a holiday staple.

19. The Christmas Song , Nat King Cole.

Cole's got a voice warmer than a mug of mulled cider in a sub-zero snowstorm — and more comfy than your favorite Christmas slippers.

20. My Favorite Things , Tony Bennett.

Not originally a holiday song, but in the hands of Bennett (who recorded it in 1968 for his classic album Snowfall) it somehow gives you the shivers and makes you feel warm inside.

21. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day , Frank Sinatra.

This 1964 Sinatra track dishes a cornucopia of delights: tubular bells, timpani rolls, a loft full of choir singers, and a stirring lead vocal sealed with the kiss of a harp. Schmaltzy? You bet. But in the best possible sense.

22. Boas Festas , Two for Brazil.

Chicago's Paulinho Garcia ranks as the best Brazilian guitarist in the Midwest. One listen to this song (from his Two for Noel disc) and you're spending Christmas on the beach in Rio. Ahhh.

23. Sleigh Ride , Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

A minute-long, somber vocal prelude melts into hip, horn-driven instrumental pop that'll throw you back to the Swingin' ‘60s. Think of it as The Dating Game theme with tinsel draped all over it.

24. Riu Riu Chiu , Sixpence None the Richer.

Leigh Nash established her appeal with the irresistible hit Kiss Me. Here, she sings in Spanish and you'd swear she's spent every Christmas of her life in a sandstone Mexican cathedral.

25. Do They Know It's Christmas? , Band Aid.

The cause behind this 1984 song, Ethiopian famine relief, might be reason enough. But its caroling-bell melody in the key of C carries a shining message of hope amid midwinter darkness. A quarter-century later, African famine has not vanished. Then again, neither has the hope.

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