Right into Part III: The Christmas pop songs:
Blue Christmas, Elvis:
Elvis. The word "blue." Sixteen syllables. This song is classic King, right down to the "ahuh" lead-ins, twelve-bar blues progression, and the "wooo" background vocals. If you don't like "Blue Christmas," I will actually fight you. Because that's what Christmas is all about.
Mele Kalikimaka, Jimmy Buffett:
Let's just go ahead and say what everyone is thinking: MelekalikiNO. I know Jimmy Buffett is really "cool" to geriatric WASPs who want a background for getting drunk and an excuse to wear flip-flops, but, all that aside, I can't shake the feeling that he's a complete, unashamed hack. Take this festering lump to your office's "Hawaiian Thursdays" party and get it out of my life.
Grade: N- (it's lower than F, and it's a stupid letter)
Christmas Is All Around, That Guy from Love Actually:
I actually saw this movie for the first time last night and, while I won't say that it "warmed my heart," I will say that it "completely defrosted it." I will say that. And this song is part of the reason. It is unique to this list: the rare parody that works in jest and in earnest.
Christmas in Hollis, Run DMC:
This song features a horn line straight from Stax and Run DMC at their cheesy best. Points for the "Christmas song medley" in the middle, points deducted for "ill reindeer."
Christmas, Blues Traveler:
This song's schtick is that John Popper is tired of Christmas and all the cheer. The bad news is that the song is unoriginal, contrived, uninspired, and, in typical Blues Traveler fashion, thirty minutes long. The good news is that it makes everything else look great.
Do They Know It's Christmastime, Various Artists:
My review of this song is complicated by the fact that they've released a new version every ten years since 1984, so there are three competing renditions. All three versions have a few things in common: a good intro, a strong chorus, a decent build, and Bono trying his best to ruin everything. The song is, in the fashion of mid-80's benefit singles, markedly goofy, but its heart is in the right place, and it occasionally puts me in the spirit.
All I Want for Christmas Is You, Mariah Carey:
Ask any girl on the planet what her favorite Christmas song is and you're going to get this squealed back at you. Because nothing says romance like desperation and dependency.
Rocking Around the Christmas Tree, Beatles:
What many people forget is how unbelievably cheesy Paul is, especially in the early years. This can get annoying when he's shrieking in the background of a blues song, but it's welcome in the context of a rollicking Christmas tune. Well done here.
Santa's Beard, Beach Boys:
Classic Beach Boys in all their soprano-harmonizing glory. This song, lyrically, goes next to nowhere, but let's give it up for the background vocals.
Santa Baby, Madonna:
Here's the thing: you know some songs aren't necessarily bad. You even, in theory, kind of like the idea of them. But, once they start playing, you just couldn't care less. That's "Santa, Baby," sung adequately by Madonna, back when she was marginally hot. Next.
Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto, James Brown:
James Brown: Complete lunatic? Sure. Chauvanist? Allegedly. Soul demigod? Absolutely. James Brown, simply, is a madman with a method, and this is some unadulterated radness from the Godfather himself. Look at the title, for the love of Pete. High points vocally: the inexplicable intensity on "hitch up your reindeer," the trademark "hit it" during the solo, and the nonsensical improv near the end. And don't forget about Gary.
Let Me Sleep (It's Christmastime), Pearl Jam:
Consummate weirdness from one of the best bands of their generation. What's even weirder is how little this resembles a Pearl Jam song, even the weird Pearl Jam songs. And, in classic Vedder fashion, the verse's lyrics have nothing, ostensibly, to do with the title of the song. This is gonna hurt me more than it hurts them:
Co-Favorite...So This Is Christmas, John Lennon:
Is this what John Popper had in mind? Probably not. Because what Lennon had in mind was a song about all the tradition, confusion, joy, and mystery of the season, complete with sincere optimism and genuine disappointment. No matter what you're feeling during Christmas, this song can match it, and the background choir never feels contrived. Simply, as good as any out there.
Co-Favorite...Merry Christmas Baby, Otis Redding:
If, for you, Christmas is just a generally good time, I can't think of a more fitting tune. The composition is pitch-perfect and the performance is in the pocket. Of course, the Memphis Horns can come up with as many countermelodies as you want, and, as if you didn't already know, Otis Redding is a God.
Joyful and triumphant,