By now, you have heard “Santa Baby” (either Eartha Kitt or Kylie Minogue, or heaven forbid, that version by Madonna) for the 300th time. You may be one of those unfortunate souls who have holiday songs piped in from speakers at the office or during your late-night shift at a chain store. These five songs are a break from listening to another lesser version of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” that’s playing on the all-holiday station right now. No one is ever going to come close to Brenda Lee in that department, and I wish artists would stop trying.
Special thanks to fellow CHIRP volunteers Craig Reptile, Bradley, and Jenna for your recommendations.
August Darnell, "Christmas On Riverside Drive" from A Christmas Record (EZ Records, 1981)
This energetic fusion of late-era disco, calypso, and early electronica was originally featured in a compilation titled A Christmas Record, released by New York-based EZ Records in 1981 that featured their most popular acts. (The album’s most famous track is “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses.) The story behind the artist here is another gift in itself, for Darnell’s life could be another blog or a dozen. A native of the Bronx, Darnell paved the way for club culture and its music to reach the mainstream in the US before moving to the UK, fronting numerous bands and having many identities before giving up the lifestyle and settling down.
The Vandals, "Nothing’s Going to Ruin My Holiday" from Oi To The World (Kung Fu Records, 2000)
From the East Coast to the West Coast, here is another influential act that should have more plays during the holiday season. From their 2000 holiday album Oi To The World, any of the 13 songs could be on this list. The one that stands out is “Nothing’s Going to Ruin My Holiday”, a statement that has been uttered by many people who will read this. The holidays are a tough time to be with family with general, and this year is incredibly difficult for many who have to endure relatives with different political ideologies. “I'm going to stand my happy ground/I refuse to let my family make me crazy/I’ll smile at their insults and their frowns”
Bob Dylan, "Must Be Santa" from Christmas in the Heart (Columbia, 2009)
According to Billboard, “Must Be Santa” is a English-language update to a German drinking song. Recorded by numerous acts for over 50 years, this Polka version by the newly minted Nobel laureate Bob Dylan is the closest to that tune that many cheerful and intoxicated holiday revelers must have sang and danced around with their boots full of lager in the beer halls of Bavaria and Bohemia. It’s easy enough to sing along when you’re a few rounds in and can still remember to repeat back a couple of lines at a time. “Who wants another round of beer/Santa wants another round of beer!”*
*That’s not an actual line from the song.
Greg Lake, "I Believe in Father Christmas" from Works Volume 2 (Atlantic, 1977)
It’s not every day that a musician begins his solo musical career with an accidental Yuletide tune. Greg Lake, who passed away on December 7 (R.I.P.), achieved a hit single in his native UK with “I Believe in Father Christmas” in 1975, after spending a decade with influential prog-rock bands King Crimson and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (ELP). “Father Christmas” is an accidental holiday song. “It was really about objecting to the commercializing of Christmas,” Lake said in response to its success and subsequent criticism, which some misinterpreted the song as being anti-religious and anti-Christmas. Because no one would ever accuse anyone of declaring war on a holiday. Right?
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, "Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects" from It’s A Holiday Soul Party (Daptone, 2015)
Nearly every traditional or classic Christmas song sound like it’s supposed to reach as many people as possible. In “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects”, the late, great Sharon Jones (also R.I.P.) sings for those little brown and black kids who aren’t able to go for a sleigh ride or roast chestnuts on an open fire in their fireplace. As a kid, she questioned the possibility of old St. Nick leaving presents when their home lacked the proper entrance for the jolly old man. The true hero in this story is her mother—and every mother, no matter what she looks like—providing for her children so they can wake up with gifts under the tree from someone who truly loves them.