About two weeks ago, I put together a list of Christmas Songs They Should Stop Playing, Like, Right Now. I’d hate if that made me come across as some kind of crank, like the sort who complains about how songs are being played to early and what not. So in the spirit of balance, here’s my Top 10 Best Christmas Songs. This song is by no means definitive, as I’m sure you have your own favorites, too. And I too struggled with this list. Some of my favorites barely missed the cut: “Silver Bells,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” and, surprisingly, “Run, Run Rudolph.” (Ooooh…. I’m definitely going to get an earful for that last one.)
So here’s my Top 10, both secular and religious. For the most part, it was the tunes themselves and not the messages that I enjoyed. This, by the way, is an underrated and very important qualifier, since you’re going to hear a song about 50 times each before December 25 is over.
10. Christmastime is Here — You’ll recognize this as the wordless intro song from the classic Charlie Brown Christmas Special, one of the greatest gifts Charles Shulz ever gave to the world. I didn’t even know there were words to the song … but Sixpence None the Richer did a somewhat haunting, somewhat sultry cover of the song once, and that version is in heavy rotation on my iPod this time of year. I guess I appreciate it most because it hasn’t been overplayed to death (or played at all) like other songs. And, unlike “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” the song can be enjoyed without ever having seen the original cartoon.
9. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) — the song was originally written by Bob Wells and singer Mel Torme, who says that the song was actually written on a hot summer day in order to “stay cool by thinking cool.” Ugh, the thought roasting chestnuts probably wouldn’t do much to help me beat the summer heat. It was first recorded by Nat King Cole, though the one I’m most familiar is the version sung by Mel Torme. The Rockapella version is fairly nice, too. The song’s been covered by quite a few artists from different genres, so there’s a good chance you’ll find a version you like.
8. Silent Night — This song was created in 1818 at the Church of St. Nicolas (how appropriate!) The popular story behind the song is that is was written due to a broken pipe organ, and the original version is meant to be sung without musical accompaniment. I don’t know if that story’s true, but it does underscore the undeniable truth that there is power in simplicity. Some modern attempts to dress up the song sound very wrong, as if the original spirit had been violated.
7. O Holy Night — Curse “South Park” for ruining this song. This carol, composed in 1847 by Adolphe Adam, is a fairly difficult piece and can easily be torturous is sung by someone who doesn’t know what he or she is doing. To me, it’s best sung in deep baritone. My favorite version would have to be the one sung by Jim Nabors. (Fun trivia: there’s also an anti-slavery message in the original third verse, a hold-over from the song’s abolitionist days.)
6. Happy Xmas (War is Over) — In my personal life, there’s no starker reminder of the Beatles break-up than the fates of the Christmas songs. Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” got a well-earned #1 spot on my Worst Christmas Songs list. His former bandmate, John Lennon, ends up on my best list, despite Yoko Ono’s weird warbling in the background. I guess I appreciate how Lennon could set a verse that goes “War is over/if you want it” into a christmas carol that’s both traditional and modern.
5. It Came Upon The Midnight Clear — This song was written in 1849 by Edmund Sears, a pastor in Weston, MA. Wikipedia doesn’t have much to say about this song, other than the composer of the tune, Richard Storrs Willis, trained under classic music superstar Felix Mendelssohn. I just appreciate the nice, soft tune that goes well with music boxes, fireplaces, or some hot cocoa while staring out at a snow-filled landscape. Yeah, I’m a hardcore softie like that.
4. Hallelujah Chorus — I’ve finally warmed to the gospel version that’s now in circulation, but nothing beats Handel’s original. It’s pretty much the epitomy of perfection for classical choral music. And we can thank King George II for one of the most enduring instruments in the song: the sound of the audience at the beginning, rising to the opening strains. There are many theories my he stood up, including gout and leg cramps, but the optimistic among us (who are fans of the entirety of Messiah and not just the famous chorus) like to believe he was moved by the music … so nuts to you doubters.
3. Baby, It’s Cold Outside — This is probably one of the sexiest Christmas songs around, though the holida itself isn’t mentioned in the song. It was written by Frank Loesser in 1944. Apparently, the role of the woman in labeled “The Mouse” and the role of the man is “The Wolf.” Wow, I can put together a lot of inappropriate connotations through those titles alone. The song was also seen as an example of Western corruption by influential Islamist Sayyid Qutb, what with the sexy mingling of men and women — in a CHURCH even! I don’t know what your stand on that view is, but it’s a prime example of moral subjectivity: one man’s blashpemy is another man’s swingin’ dance number. For my money, the best version is the 1999 duel between Cerys Matthews and Sir Tom Jones … because Tom Jones is the Man.
2. Nutcracker Suite — Now, if you’re like me, you don’t have any patience to sit through the entire Peter Tchaikovsky original. (To me, this isn’t even his best work. The “1812 Overture,” “Sleeping Beauty Suite,” and “Swan Lake,” and the “Slavonic March” are far superior.) Oh, sure, everything up to the Sugar Plum Fair is all nice and dandy … but what was up with the whole United Nations dance number? Didn’t it seem vaguely insulting? And why were they named “Chocolate,” “Coffee,” “Tea,” and “Trepak”? And what did it have to do with a living nutcracker doll and his immortal battle with a rat guy? Anyway, it’s a good thing the Brian Setzer Orchestra discovered a nifty jazz number from the 1950’s, because it’s peppy, true to the spirit of the original, and has become my personal soundtrack to a night out at the mall. There’s the version that was featured in the movie “Elf,” but I prefer the one on their “Wolfgang’s Big Night Out” album, where they interact with their audience.
1. Carol of the Bells — It’s a tribute to the song that I’ve hardly heard a bad version of it. OK, so the one I downloaded for free on iTunes by The Bird And The Bee was kinda weird, but it wasn’t terrible. Whether it’s purely instrumental or done with a choir, modern like Trans Siberian Orchestra or classical like it was done by the Boston Pops, the song imparts an air of mystery, motion, and frigid winter weather. A good song all around!