Most rock fans assume that all Christmas music is terrible. They’re mostly right, but every once in a while a Christmas miracle happens — and a great holiday song gets produced. Some of the best examples come from 1963’s Phil Spector’s Christmas Album. It had the horrible fate of coming out the exact day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, so very few people were looking to sing along to “Frosty the Snowman” — but they missed out on a Wall of Sound masterpiece that’s one of Spector’s most satisfying LP’s. Here’s a look and listen at some of the best and most memorable Christmas songs of all time.
As Darlene Love told Rolling Stone, it took three Jews (Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich) to write the greatest Christmas song of all time. It’s been covered by everybody from U2 to Leighton Meester, but nobody can match Love’s emotion and sheer vocal power. As seen here, tune in to The Late Show With David Letterman next week to watch her belt it out, which she’s done nearly every year since 1986.
Also produced by Phil Spector, this 1971 tune is as much an anti-Vietnam War song than a Christmas song. John Lennon and Yoko Ono took out billboards across America declaring “WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It).” In the past 40 years it’s become a holiday classic, even if the original message sometimes gets lost.
Recorded at a Long Island gig in December 1975, Bruce Springsteen released the song as the B-Side to “My Hometown” in 1985 and it quickly became a holiday staple. Springsteen will usually break out the song if he’s doing a show around Christmas, though occasionally he’ll do it other times of the year — most famously at Bonnaroo in June of 2009.
Before the release of Mariah Carey‘s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” in 1994, there hadn’t been a new holiday standard in quite a long time. Written by Carey near the peak of her career, the Motown-inspired track has become one of her signature numbers. She re-recorded it in 2010 for her second Christmas album Merry Christmas II You.
Although it suffered the same fate as the Phil Spector album (hitting shelves right after JFK was assassinated), The Beach Boys‘ original holiday song “Little Saint Nick” still managed to be a hit. The track is basically “Little Deuce Coupe” with different lyrics, but “Little Saint Nick” has actually managed to have a longer life span than the original.
Cut at the peak of Chuck Berry‘s popularity in 1958, this virtual rewrite of “Little Queene” stands on its own as a Berry classic. It’s been covered by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hanson, Billy Idol and The Grateful Dead.
“I wrote this song for all the nice little Jewish kids that don’t get to hear Chanukah songs,” Sandler said of this seasonal classic. Obviously not a Christmas song, it deserves mention on this list for becoming the first Chanukah song since “I Have A Little Dreidel” to reach the public consciousness. Sandler has recorded three versions of the song — but the best is the original from 1994, which contains the immortal line, “Bruce Springsteen’s not Jewish, but my mother thinks he is.”
Every child knows this one, and it’s been recorded by a huge array of performers over the past 60 years — but it works best by The Ronettes, who just three months earlier had recorded “Be My Baby.” To this day it’s a key part of Ronnie Spector’s annual Christmas concert.
In 1984 Bob Geldof and Midge Ure had much of British rock elite come together to record a Christmas song to aid famine relief in Ethiopia. The one-time-only supergroup was comprised of Bono, Phil Collins, Boy George, Sting, George Michael and many others. The song was a massive hit and gave birth to Live Aid the next year, though 20 years later people are still puzzling over Bono’s line, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”
Wings were on their last legs in 1979 when Paul McCartney released the synth-driven “Wonderful Christmastime.” He may have had a wonderful Christmas that year, but his new year got off a rocky start in mid-January 1980 when he got busted with 7.7 ounces of marijuana at a Japanese airport. He spent ten days in prison before he was released.
The best rockabilly Christmas song was recorded by Nashville’s Bobby Helms, but actually written by an advertising executive and a publicist. In 1983 Hall and Oates scored a big hit with their cover of the song.
Weird Al is usually G-rated, but this hysterical song from 1996 is quite gory. “He picked up a flamethrower and he barbecued Blitzen,” Yankovic sings to the tune of “Black Gold” by Soul Asylum. “And he took a big bite and said ‘It tastes just like chicken.'”
Photo: Weird Al presides as grand marshal of the Lynwood Christmas parade in Lynwood, California, December 15, 2006.
In 2005 Saturday Night Live had Love record the first Christmas song exclusively for Jews. In a hysterical animated short about Jews having free reign over the country on Christmas, Love sang about the many benefits of not celebrating the holiday. “They can finally see King Kong without a line,” she sings. “They can eat a Chinese restaurant and drink their sweet wine.”
One of rap’s first Christmas songs, Run-D.M.C.‘s “Christmas In Hollis” was a tribute to the group’s hometown in Queens. It originally appeared alongside Christmas songs by U2, Bon Jovi and Sting on a 1987 charity disc that benefited The Special Olympics.
It’s only been out for a year, but Kanye West‘s follow-up to Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas In Hollis” is already a classic. With help from Teyana Taylor, Cam’Ron, Jim Jones and Pusha T, West paints a vivid and cheerful portrait of the season. “Now we all livin’ the good life,” he raps. “Though it’s 40 below the wind chill and we wipin’ snow off the windshield. It’s still wonderful night to be alive, baby. And I’m so happy I’m with my baby.”
Christmas always has a twee, cutesy element to it, but She and Him’s Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward took that to the extreme on their 2011 Christmas album, A Very She and Him Christmas. (The deluxe version of the disc actually includes a knit hat and mittens!) In this clip, the adorable duo perform “The Christmas Waltz,” an obscure, jazzy holiday gem penned by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.