Twelve Songs of Christmas

I was asked to provide a sidebar for my Washington Post essay (in today’s Sunday Style insert, with Helen Mirren on the cover, which actually came out Friday) about making my annual yulemix. We didn’t have room for my brief rationales for choosing the Twelve Songs of Christmas that I did, so I’m posting it here. Bow your heads and tremble before Twelve Songs of Christmas!

(Not the twelve songs, as if there could be such a thing. Merely a dozen yule-sides that ring my Christmas bell, presented chronologically.)

“Little Saint Nick” — “Christmas comes this time each year,” observes this insightful Beach Boys classic from 1963. My favorite version is the mashup I made that cuts together the original with the 1979 cover by Muppets Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem and the even fuzzier 2011 version from She & Him.

“Marshmallow World” —  Every track on the on 1963’s mono masterpiece A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector is classic, but the ones sung by Darlene Love are the best.  I’d pick “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” if I didn’t prefer U2’s cover from a generation later.

“An Old-Fashioned Christmas” — This melancholy 1964 Sammy Cahn / Jimmy Van Heusen number has Frank Sinatra lamenting Christmas in Manhattan (!) by pining for “wide open spaces” and mom’s turkey: “You can’t find that at the Automat.”

“Christmas Love” — This 1968 gem from the brilliant but short-lived psychedelic soul band Rotary Connection goes down like a hot cup of cocoa after a snowball fight.

“Go Power at Christmastime” —  James Brown’s transformation from a ballad singer into a funk musician had long been complete by 1970, when he brought this joyful holiday groove.  When runs out of lyrics, he starts free associating reminiscences over the bridge, name-checking Ski Party, the Frankie Avalon sex comedy he appeared in five years earlier.  Then he announces he’s leaving the studio, and the song fades out.

“I’ll Be Your Santa” — There’re only about 400 Christmas Eve slow-jams that mine the phrase “slide down your chimney” for prurient interest.  But this funky, wah-pedaled 1973 come-on from Rufus Thomas is the one that sounds dirtiest.

“Grandma’s Christmas Card” — This 1973 holiday curio from Merle Haggard makes a really big deal of the fact that Grandma wrote legibly and signed her name. Had she recently suffered a stroke? There isn’t quite enough song here to sustain its one minute, 50-second length. But I like it.

“Christmas in Hollis” — Run DMC’s contribution to the 1987 “Very Special Christmas” benefit album is a classic from the era of MTV primacy.

“Fairytale of New York” — I was going to make a joke about how there’s no way you could hear this song and guess that Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan would outlive his duet partner, Kirsty MacColl. But I don’t want to disrespect the memory of a woman who died saving her son’s life. Which in any event has no bearing on the fact this is maybe the most gloriously unsentimental Christmas song ever written.

“That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” — Choosing a single favorite from the nearly 100 Christmas songs (original & trad) Sufjan Stevens has released since 2006 is hard. This banjo-powered ballad is a good example of how he turns the more somber, contemplative aspects of the season into unforgettable music.

“A Great Big Sled” — The Killers release an original Christmas charity single every year.  This first one, from 2006, would be my favorite even if not for the close-to-home line, “Little boys have action toys for brains.”

“Joseph, Who Understood” — This 2007 pop treasure from The New Pornographers considers the poor guy who got the short end of the stick in the Immaculate Conception, at least until the baby came.  “Rumors are flying all over Galilee these days,” it begins.  “Mary, I’m trying to be cool.”

“There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In” — Stephen Colbert’s 2008 Christmas special is full of hilarious songs, but this Broadway-style duet between Colbert and his hero Elvis Costello is actually moving in its attempt to make peace between secular and religious revelers. But still funny.

Actually, that’s 13 songs. What can I tell you? Christmas is about giving.

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