Ten Best: Tolerable Christmas songs

by Dave Roberts

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen-We Three Kings” – the Barenaked Ladies w/ Sarah McLachlan

Ask anyone working retail: Christmas music gets real old real fast. Hearing the same songs all day for a month in every single store you go no matter how tangentially related to the holiday (I’m looking at you, GNC. Nobody wants a canister of Super Ultra Weight Gain powder in their stockings; let it go) is enough to kill anyone’s holiday spirit. So here’s a selection of tunes that go relatively unheard. For starters, the Barenaked Ladies’ upbeat medley of two old standards, with its minimalist instrumental background contrasted with McLachlan’s beautifully mournful wail, puts a spring back in the step of any sales associate.

“Christmas Song” – Dave Matthews

Though it really should be called “Easter Song” since only the first verse deals with the nativity, the emphasis on Christ’s message of love in this Gospel according to Matthews is, well, emphatic. Aching and tragic, its depiction of Jesus as a “healthy little giggling, dribbling baby boy” is humanizing without being profane. Appropriate, then, that the song is more spiritual than religious. As Matthews put it, “This is a nondenominational tune… about an amazing man who got screwed.”

“Linus and Lucy” – Vince Guaraldi

It’s remarkable that Guaraldi was able to get so much out of just a piano and a pair of maracas. Some extended versions of the song incorporate a bit more drum work, but it’s largely extraneous. With the rebellious undertones its jazzy beat carried in 1965, the song captures the freewheeling spirit of the Peanuts gang before Charlie “Captain Bringdown” Brown attempts to corral them into the stodgy confines of a traditional Christmas pageant.

“Snoopy’s Christmas” – the Royal Guardsmen

The story goes that the Guardsmen were recruited by a producer seeking to capitalize on the Peanuts’ popularity in the late ’60s and subsequently recorded “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” which managed to climb to No. 2 in January 1967. Follow-up songs with a Snoopy theme fared poorly, but “Snoopy’s Christmas,” in which the Red Baron has Snoopy dead to rights but spares him, offering him a toast and a chance to fight another day, is touching, partly because it’s based on the actual World War I Christmas truce in 1914, when British and German troops, spontaneously and against orders, ceased fire and crossed lines to exchange gifts and play soccer.

“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” – Thurl Ravenscroft

Ravenscroft’s deep, oily baritone (which also gave life to Tony the Tiger) resonated in our childhood psyches, solidifying just how rotten the Grinch was and making his final redemption that much more significant. This one has declined in tolerability somewhat as it found its way into mainstream rotation in recent years. Given the option, however, I’d still rather listen to this 100 times in a row than just one of NewSong’s “Christmas Shoes,” a song so perversely cruel in its attempt to mine pathos from manufactured childhood tragedy that it would make Charles Dickens call social services.

“Santa Baby” – Eartha Kitt

Kitt’s sultry voice and depiction of Santa as a high-priced sugar daddy infuses Christmas with a sexy gloss. The fact that Christmas is easily the most chaste of holidays, celebrating a virgin birth, just makes the song that much hotter. Sometimes it’s nice to be naughty.

“Baby It’s Cold Outside” – Frank Loesser

Speaking of naughty, Loesser’s standard, while not actually about Christmas, gets folded into the stable of holiday songs by virtue of having to do with cold weather, much like “Let it Snow” – an ironic pairing, as the two songs’ sentiments are exactly opposite: Whereas the suitor in “Snow” assures us he’ll be going home alone at the end of the evening (however reluctantly), in “Baby” the “Wolf,” as Loesser originally referred to the male part, attempts to cajole the ostensibly protesting “Mouse” to stay the night. There’s been dozens of versions of “Baby” over the years, but the best is easily Zooey Deschanel and Leon Redbone’s on the Elf soundtrack. Of course, my slight, almost non-existent, crush on the former (Smoky blue eyes and named after a Salinger character! Oh, why won’t she return my calls?!) has absolutely nothing to do with that assessment.

“Jingle Bells” (Dog Version) – Carl Weismann

“Bark, bark, arf /Bark, bark, arf/Bark, bark, woof, woof, arf.” Need I say more?

“Little Drummer Boy” – Bing Crosby and David Bowie

While clearly an attempt by Christmas-special producing suits to bring in the kids (no, no, the boy who wears eyeshadow and the guy who made Frank Sinatra look edgy hang out all the time! Perfectly natural…) bizarrely this ended up working. It made sense that Crosby would intone that steady, onomatopoeic lyrical backbeat while Bowie trilled up and down the higher registers in a stream-of-consciousness-style variation, each one’s voice a musical reflection of their public image. It’s enough to make you forget the child abuse and the making out with Mick Jagger.

“Christmas in Hollis” – Run DMC

Memorably employed in the opening credits of the original Die Hard, Run DMC’s ballad in which Run recovers Santa’s wallet begs a series of questions. For one, why does Santa even have a wallet? He’s the unquestioned ruler of his North Pole kingdom which, as far as we can tell, has no concept of individual property, much less currency. As in other communist regimes, such as North Korea or the Smurfs’ village, the workers of the North Pole are provided with their daily needs by the state. Also, why doesn’t his license say Kris Kringle instead of Santa Claus? It’s not like it’s a hard word to rhyme: single, mingle, Pringle, jingle…