If I were an old Yiddish man from Brooklyn, I’d be saying, “Oy, I know from Christmas songs.” (Or, then again, maybe I wouldn’t.) But in any case, I do know my Christmas songs. I have amassed what I believe to be one of the world’s greatest Christmas song collections. I’m calling my collection great not only in its size, but in its diversity. My point is, I’m qualified to make this list: The Greatest Christmas Songs You May Never Have Heard. In fact, I could make several lists and sublists just of Christmas songs, but this list focusses specifically on undiscovered gems. No tired retreads of “Frosty the Snowman” or that most obnoxious tune of all “Winter Wonderland”. With a few rare exceptions, these ten songs are Christmas songs you may never have heard. Or you’ve never heard them quite this way. But they’re songs you must get in your holiday collection if you are going to counteract yet another screeching Celine Dion rendition of “Oh, Holy Night.”
Note these undiscovered and underplayed gems are listed in no particular order:
1. “Silver Bells”, Elvis Presley
I know I promised no retreads, but this song is more than just a cover of a fairly familiar holiday song. With appologies to Johnny Mathis, who made it a hit, I think Elvis has the definitive version. If you listen to the lyrics, this song always sounds as if it’s sung from the point of view of a wide-eyed rube. An unsophisticated country boy who is experiencing a city Christmas for the first time. Well, no one is more the epitome of the white trash country boy making the big time than Elvis. I imagine him singing this on his first day up from Tupelo. He sees the bright lights of Memphis. And the rest is history.
2. “What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’)”, Louis Prima
Staying in the South, how about a great swingin’ holiday song from that New Orleans bandmaster Louis Prima? Can’t have enough of Louis Prima and the background chorus of Sam Butera and the Witnesses adds that extra dash of peppermint.
3. “Christmas Time in Harlem”, Louis Armstrong
Everything you would expect from a Louis Armstrong song including great lines like, “Cats are sleepin’ warm as toast” and “We’ll be all lit up like a Christmas tree” and “Hydee, Hydee, Hydee Ho. It’s Christmas time in Harlem.” Plus some great Satchmo trumpet solos.
4. “We Are the Shepherds”, Johnny Cash
Here’s a real change of pace and not an upbeat one. Because, well. . .it’s Johnny Cash, so you’re just relieved that no one’s shooting anyone in Reno. Actually this is noteworthy because Johnny pens a Christmas carol to the old cowboy tune, “The Streets of Laredo”, that gentle ditty about a cowboy lying in the streets ’cause “he’s shot in the breast and [he’s] dyin’ today.” Only Johnny could see the Christmas spirit in that.
5. “Welcome Christmas”, The Whos
Yes, those Whos. The ones whose Christmas the Grinch couldn’t steal. If you are like me and get choked up annually when the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes in one day you’ll love a song that includes lyrics like “Fa-whoo For-ay, Da-whoo Dor-ay. Welcome Christmas, bring your cheer. Welcome Whos from far and near.” Even though the cartoon airs every year, this song never gets enough airplay.
6. “A Party for Santa Claus”, Lord Nelson
As long as we’re trying to bring things upbeat, I love this Carribean novelty song that calls for us to turn the tables and buy Santa Claus presents. Things like a “big car with a chauffeur”, “a new continental suit” and even “take him out to a night club with some fine chicks.”
7. “Mary’s Boy Child”, Harry Belafonte
This song is about the closest thing on this list to a real Christmas carol. But who can resist Harry Belafonte, especially singing in a gentle Island patois with lines such as “They find no place to born she child” and “Them see a bright new shining star.” Enough to make you reimagine the Nativity Scene on a Bahamian beach.
8. “The Christmas Blues”, Dean Martin
Call me a heretic, but, out of the Rat Pack, I’ve always preferred Dean to Frank. Here he does Frank’s schtick one better — I’m talking the sad guy at the end of the bar at 2AM closing with nowhere to go. This is definitely a Christmas song to sing after not getting the presents you wanted and a few too many lonely Martinis.
9. “Mele Kalikimaka”, Bette Midler
Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters did an insufferable version of this that is played to death. Check out Bette’s hipper version complete with slack key guitar. Bette really did grow up in Hawaii. And what could be more fun to contemplate than Christmas on Oahu with the Divine Miss M?
10. “Christmas Times a-Comin'” Emmylou Harris
With very few exceptions, country artists put out the absolute worst Christmas recordings — and I’m someone who likes country music. But this upbeat number with dulcimer, guitar, banjo and Emmylou’s beautiful soprano is a wonderful exception.
There you have it. A list guaranteed to put you in the mood — or counteract the 500th version of “Frosty the Snowman” you just heard at the mall.
Merry Christmas and remember, Christmas music doesn’t have to be something you bear with gritted teeth. Just ask me for a playlist. I can put together anything: European Christmas, Punk Christmas, Country Christmas, Novelty Christmas, Spiritual Christmas, Jazz Christmas. . .
Now you have no excuse to be Grinch-like.