Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Twelve Tracks of Christmas

In the past 24 hours, in response to my mini-rant aimed at my unadulterated loathing for the pecuniary-commercial complex into which this this festive time has seemingly morphed, I have had an unprecedented number of people tell me how much they hate Christmas. Clearly, this was not my intent, because like the song by the same title suggests, "it's the most wonderful time of the year"... or at least it's supposed to be.

So to put a little Christmas cheer back into the season, here is my list of the top 12 holiday inspired tunes you may or may not come across this Yuletide season.

Honourable Mention:

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" - Doug and Bob McKenzie
- An absolute classic

"What Christmas Means to Me" - Stevie Wonder
- A groovin' Christmas classic

"Back Door Santa" - Clarence Carter
- The first sexually suggestive Christmas track

"Jingle Bells" - Rasheed Wallace and Company
- Needs to be seen to be believed

"Christmas Time is Here" - Alvin and The Chipmunks
- I still want a hula-hoop

"Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" - Vaughn Monroe
- Played a prominent role in the most influential action film of the last half-century

12 - "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" - John Lennon and Yoko Ono

My dad will probably disown me for putting this song at #12, and I won't argue that this is one of the all-time great songs. But the fact is, it gets so overplayed this time of year that it's almost too much for me to handle. And although I'm not at the point where I would ever change the station when it comes on, I'm thinking about it. This song is also tainted for me because we used to half-heartedly sing it after the annual Christmas assembly back in highschool; you know, a bunch of affluent and upwardly mobile kids from the suburbs pretending to sympathize with those who have nothing, most of whom are immediately thereafter jumping into their parents' S.U.V.s and driving home to dig through the attic in order to see whether or not they're getting that new discman they asked for... it always seemed a touch contrived for my liking.

This track might have been a couple of places higher were it not for the fact that Yoko Ono was prominently involved.

11 - "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" - U2

This is a great rockin' version of a great, rockin' song. I can remember air-guitaring to this bad-boy in my parents' living room back in the day, and as far as I know, the world is still waiting for indie rock sensations Los Locos to cover this track at the Christmas/New Year's party that never quite happened.

10 - "Christmas in Hollis" - Run DMC

The first time I heard this song was in the 10th grade when my mom came home with a copy of "A Very Special Christmas". I honestly couldn't believe that Run DMC was on a Christmas album, and to this day, I think this remains one of the most original Christmas songs on the books. Nothing says Christmas like chicken and collard greens. Bonus points for sampling Clarence Carter's "Back Door Santa". Click HERE to see the totally rad 80's video that accompanies the song.

9 - "Little Saint Nick" - The Beach Boys

A Beach Boys original that for all intents and purposes could have appeared on the "Little Deuce Coupe" album. All of the signature falsetto melodies are there (Brian Wilson showing his genius yet again, even in the realm of cheezy novelty songs), and I oftentimes find myself walking down the snow-blanketed city streets singing that "run, run, Reindeeeeer" refrain that just sounds so damn good, no matter what the time of year.

8 - "Do They Know It's Christmas?" - Band Aid

The original charity super-group song, this classic has managed to endure the test of time. The intent was to raise money and awareness for the starving children in Ethiopia, and I think it's safe to say that the mission was accomplished. I still love this song, and I think the message is as poignant as ever: we really should be trying to feed the world, you know, instead of trying to race your neighbour for the last Guitar Hero at the local WalMart.

"Do They Know It's Christmas" seems to bring it back to what it's all about. It's kind of like the anti-pecuniary-commercial-complex anthem.

Click HERE to see what George Michael looked like before anyone ever suspected he was anything beyond a vigourously heterosexual heartthrob.

7 - "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" - Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band

Despite the fact that this isn't the version you'll be hearing on the radio this year, you have to admit that it's pretty killer. And I won't lie to you: every time Clarence does his "HO-HO-HO-HO...", I get all warm and giggly inside. I really feel like a kid whenever I hear this song, and you can tell that the guys in the band are like little kids up there too.

My favourite part of the radio version is in the introduction when The Boss gives the imagery of Asbury Park in the winter ("It's all cold down on the boardwalk") and then asks the band whether or not they've been good ("you guys been practicin' real hard?"). An essential track around the McCallum household come December.

6 - "Jingle Bell Rock" - Bobby Helms

When we were driving to Boston last weekend, I was sitting in the back of the Sully bus with a cooler full of beer. There was an inch of snow on the inside of the windows, which meant that Christmas couldn't be far off, but truth be told, I hadn't even given it a thought. We obviously had the tunes blasting, digging every track coming across the dial, when all of a sudden this Bobby Helms classic came across the airwaves. We were 5 dudes careening down the highway at one o'clock in the morning, and not a one of us would have ever dreamed of changing the channel. It was unanimous. We were digging "Jingle Bell Rock". To me, that's a great song.

It was at about that time, singing drukenly along to that rockabilly classic, that I thought to myself, "You know what? I need to do a top-12 Christmas song piece." So you could say that "Jingle Bell Rock" was the inspiration for this column.

Bonus points for appearing in "Lethal Weapon".

5 - "Fairytale of New York" - The Pogues

Forget Christmas tunes. The magnum opus of Shane MacGowan should appear on any sensible human being's top-50 list of all-time tracks. The hope and optimism amidst the despondent misery in this song is so quintessentially Irish that it might as well be the Island's lonesome lullaby. To me, there might not be any better opening line than: "It was Christmas eve babe / In the drunk tank..."

In fact, the entire lyrics warrant printing. They're that good:

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won't see another one
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you
Got on a lucky one

Came in eighteen to one
I've got a feeling
This year's for me and you
So happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

They've got cars big as bars

They've got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It's no place for the old
When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me

You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night

The boys of the NYPD choir

Were singing "Galway Bay"
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day

You're a bum
You're a punk
You're an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it's our last

I could have been someone

Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you

- Shane MacGowan

To me, nothing depicts the Irish experience in North America quite like that song. Maybe I just come from a dysfunctional family, I don't know. But it's hard to believe that someone that looks like this could be "one of the best writers of the century", as Joe Strummer put it. All in all, a Christmas essential.

(As a side note, it is an absolute tragedy what happened to Kirsty MacColl. You can read about her mother's fight here.)

4 - "Christmas in Prison" - John Prine

This is a song that holds a special place in my heart. Not because I've ever had to spend a Christmas (or, much to my story-teller's chagrin, even a night) in prison. But because on Christmas, I always find myself thinking about all of the people who aren't as lucky as I am. All of the people who are away from their families, or worse yet, who don't have any family to spend the holidays with. The thought of it gets me every time.

But this song shows how you have to make the best of things, even when your heart is breaking from sadness and loneliness. "It's Christmas in Prison, there'll be music tonight / I'll probably get homesick, I love you, goodnight."

3 - "Blue Christmas" - Elvis Presley

This is essentially an album of polar opposites. On the one hand, you have Christmas classics like "Blue Christmas" (one of Elvis Presley's greatest achievements, as far as I'm concerned), "Santa Claus is Back in Town", and one of my personal favourites, "Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me" (done to the tune of "Teddy Bear"); and on the other, you have every other song on the album... And believe me when I say that each and every one of them is gawd awful. There is absolutely no middle ground. Completely mind boggling. It's like a riddle wrapped in an enigma.

But "Blue Christmas" is so good that it more than makes up for the rest of the album's deficiencies. I'm telling you, if I'm in a karaoke bar with a few rum and eggnogs in me in the month of December, there's little doubt that I'm bringing down the house with "Blue Christmas".

2 - "Mele Kalikimaka" - Bing Crosby

For it's role in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" alone, this Bing Crosby classic easily cracks the top-2. I can't hear this song without laughing aloud at all of the implications, not the least of which is cousin Eddie in his flippers, banana-hammock, and stained wife-beater.

And I know that there are numerous claims about what kind of a father and husband ol' Bing was, but you can't tell me that there is anything that sounds like Christmas more than that "White Christmas" album. We pretty well have it playing every Christmas morning as we sit around the tree. And plus, if it was good enough for Ralphie and his family, then chances are it's good enough for yours.

1 - "A Christmas Gift for You" - Phil Spector

This is the album by which all other Christmas albums are judged. Just look at the artists: Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Crystals, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans... It reads like a who's who of 60's girl groups and the wall of sound. And the track list is about as festive as it gets: Frosty, Rudolph, Santa... all of the key players are there. Darlene Love's version of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" blows U2s out of the water, and The Ronettes "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" is like nothing you've ever heard.

I can remember being a kid and begging my mom to put this record on for me... It was June. She had no idea why I wanted to listen to Christmas music in June, but it didn't matter to me. It wasn't even about Christmas. Even at such a young age, it was only about the music.

Here's hoping this Christmas is full of sweet sounds for everyone.


Anonymous said...

I'd have to say the pogues easily make the # 1 spot, but I guess if I want a say, I'll make my own blog and copy your content almost entirely, except for the top 10's, which I will re-order the way I see fit...

I think it's fair to say that hating the commercialization of christmas is far from being a scrooge and hating holiday cheer, holiday get togethers, carols et al...

I think if you polled (there's an idea, bring polls to the sean mccallum blog?) you'd find that people hated buying crap, getting crap, returning crap... cause most of the time, you could've bought that crap yourself.

Anonymous said...

I am so busy but I had to take time to read this. For sentimental reasons I love Bing. But realistically my favourite is the Pogues.

- Marlot

Anonymous said...

This was a great post. Can't help but feel a little inspiration on the top 10 list from our good friend Bill Simmons.

And for the record, I quite like Christmas. Christmas Eve has historically been my favourite day of the year. I loathe shopping malls, but that has more to do with the fact I generally hate people, so that holds true all year round.

I'll be the first to say that the "Keep the Christ in Christmas" sign on my Mom's lawn is a little over the top, but at least her heart is in the right place. And let's be honest, how the hell can anyone have bad memories of Christmas when all I can remember is the parade followed by a rousing game of street hockey. Simpler times perhaps, but good times nevertheless.

Merry f'ing Christmas to the three other loyal readers out there.


P.S. I'd love to comment on the musical choices and tastes referenced in the blog, but we don't listen to music in our family, so I'm lacking in material and opinion.

Anonymous said...

You forgot "Holly Jolly Christmas" by Burl Ives. Has to be considered a top-10 Christmas tune.

Anonymous said...

I also forgot "The Christmas Song" by Nat King Cole. An indefensible oversight on my part.


Anonymous said...

Anytime our good friend Skeeter sings Noel Noel it brings a tear to my eye.

M@ said...

OK, so I'm a bit late to the party. But I'd like to add The Band's Christmas Must Be Tonight to the list. And maybe Tom Petty's Christmas All Over Again.