‘Tis the season, and there’s no escaping the wintry standards blaring from every radio, television set and department store. Love ’em or hate ’em, you’re bound to hear “Jingle Bells” one too many times before December is out.
But holiday songs come in all shapes and sizes, and no matter what holiday you celebrate, there’s probably one sleigh-belled serenade — or several — you kinda dig. So gather ’round the hearth as our curators celebrate the best of the music you only hear once a year.
The best holiday songs work any time of year. Exhibit A: this rocker by the Kinks.
Greg Lake shuffled off this mortal coil one year ago, but this beautifully proggy protest of the commercialization of Christmas will live forever.
“El Año Viejo” (“The Past Year”) is one of the ultimate holiday jams — from Colombia to Mexico, this song is a staple of the season. Camargo, a Mexican singer with a passion for tropical rhythms, lists off all of the things the past year has provided (a goat, a black donkey, a white mare and a great-mother-in-law? Chalk it up to country living). His version of this standard has become the definitive rendition. An added plus: the incredible video he filmed to go along with it. Who else was doing that in the ’60s?
There is an uncommon joy from the start of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” something contagious and evergreen. Maybe it’s because the Temptations sound more like their earlier selves here, since every Temptation gets his moment. First, Paul Williams sings, “You know there’s Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen,” followed by Dennis Edwards, who adds, “Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen.” Eddie Kendricks then soars into falsetto: “Oh, but do you recall …” He’s answered by Otis Williams: “The most famous reindeer of all?” Next, Kendricks lets loose a “Whoa-o-o-o-o,” (and you’re right there with him) before Melvin Franklin finishes with, “His name is … Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!” The Temps yelp “Hey, Rudolph!” later in unison, before repeating the conventional chorus. Talk about shouting out with glee!
To me, this is a perfect Christmas song, and will forever transport me to memories of the holidays as a kid.
I usually can’t stand holiday music, but I’ve loved this song since I was a child. I remember initially being obsessed with the album cover, a super colorful painting of Frosty the Snowman. It might have even been named after Frosty, and it was one of the first records I inherited from my parents (along with other LPs by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Jim Croce, Kiss and Shaun Cassidy). Even though the album was chock-full of Christmas classics, this is the only song I became obsessed with: an old-timey, country jam that evokes hayrides and barn dances and snow covered fields. To this day, it fills me with the kind of holiday cheer that no other seasonal music can.
The only thing I don’t like about classic rock is those tacky terrestrial radio morning shows. But you’ll never hear anyone else sound more like the late, great Bon Scott from AC/DC than Bob Rivers. Plus, “Jingle Hells Bells” is funnier than Spinal Tap’s “Christmas With the Devil.” This one goes out to Malcolm Young (RIP).
Weird that a band so murderously named didn’t write a song about manslaughter until their second Christmas single, but, well, here we are. Halloween Town’s Ryan Pardey is perfect as a swaggerin’, hard-talkin’ Saint Nick who preys on the naughty. He’s making his list, and if your name doesn’t appear, run.
I like to think of an alternate universe where Phil Spector was a nice guy with zero symptoms of mental illness. In this universe, he would knock on the Raveonettes’ door and yell, “Hey you crazy kids! We need to record a new Christmas carol right now using my signature wall-of-sound production and your knack for timeless tunesmithery!” Then an alternate universe montage would ensue, and they’d all walk away from the mixing desk with a two-inch spool containing this yuletide gem.