'Tis the season for the radio to be filled with all sorts of holiday hits: traditional classics, modern renditions of old standards, and new originals fighting for their place in the Christmas song canon. To help you put together the perfect holiday party setlist, we asked Jacqueline Warwick, Dal musicologist and author of Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s, to share some of her favourite Christmas songs from the rock ’n’ roll era.
Like most people, I suspect, I find the Christmas songs I cherish most are those that stir up memories of past Christmases, since this holiday more than any other centres around nostalgia. The best songs, though, are the ones that capture that sentiment while also sounding vibrant and hopeful!
1. The Crystals – “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”: Naturally my list begins (and ends, actually) with Phil Spector’s 1963 Christmas album, which manages to produce new listening pleasures for me every year. The Crystals’ take on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is a near-perfect evocation of childlike excitement about Christmas, and is definitely my favourite version of the song. It’s a thrilling example of Spector’s famous “wall of sound” production values, and the harmonies and changes to the melody introduced here have become standard in many other versions, the Jackson 5 (1970) and Bruce Springsteen (1975) among them.
2. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – “The Little Drummer Boy”: Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ 1981 treatment of “The Little Drummer Boy” is another brilliant youthful performance: Jett is probably the only singer I know who manages to sneer sweetly! I love the brash edginess, and the way Jett rolls her “Rs”. This is also, oddly, one of the few versions of this song to include a drum solo.
3. The Pretenders – “2000 Miles”: The Pretenders “2000 Miles” (1983) is bittersweet, the perfect soundtrack for reflecting on those we miss at Christmastime. The twinkling guitar tone and shimmering production suggest the sparkle of snowflakes in the air, and Chrissie Hynde’s aching voice is enjoyably melancholy, equal parts wistful and joyful.
4. Feist – “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming”: The 16th century hymn “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” might be my favourite traditional Christmas carol, but its shifting metre and odd phrase lengths make it difficult to fit with a rock’n’roll groove. In my opinion, Feist’s 2005 treatment does the best job at retaining the song’s mood of quiet wonder in a contemporary — but not cynical — setting.
5. Darlene Love – “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”: And of course I conclude with Darlene Love’s magnificent “Baby Please Come Home,” introduced on Spector’s 1963 A Christmas Gift to You album. Love’s triumphant career, from exploited session singer to rock 'n' roll star, is one we can celebrate, and her masterful vocal performance, together with the grand orchestration, makes the song irresistible. It’s no wonder that she has been asked to perform it on David Letterman’s Christmas show every year since 1986! Last year’s 25th anniversary performance is glorious.
What’s your favourite holiday hit? Share in the comments.
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