Christmas pop music can be an iffy, disingenuous genre—it’s not always motivated purely by the love of Christmas—yet sometimes we want to listen to it. For Christmas enthusiasts, X-pop can be a reminder of previous happy holidays or illuminate possibilities of future ones, making listeners take stock of winter wonderlands, things that are holly-jolly, good will toward men, and the like. For those who don’t celebrate Christmas, or just happen not to enjoy its crushing dominance at year’s end, jingle-bell pop can be merely oppressive. As a lifelong music obsessive and secular Congregationalist, I have ferocious holiday-music opinions—if it’s too craven, cloying, or pious, it can go jump in a lake. I’ve made many mixes and playlists over the years, so that I can enjoy my “Fairytale of New York”s without encountering any “Little Drummer Boy”s. But recently, listening to Stevie Wonder sing “Someday at Christmas, men won’t be boys / Playing with bombs like kids play with toys,” I had a realization: many great Christmas songs are wistful, and in 2018 wistful stresses me out. Here’s a list of wintery pop that encourages feeling good, here and now, in the snow or by the fire, with or without fa-la-las.
1. “A Marshmallow World,” Darlene Love (Carl Sigman and Peter DeRose)
When the Wall of Sound meets the birth of Jesus, you’re in for a clamorous blast—and, if you can set aside what a terrifying creep Phil Spector is, the 1963 album “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector” is a towering delight. Its hits, like the Ronettes’ fabulous “Sleigh Ride” (Ring-a-ling-a-ling ding-dong-ding!) and Love’s “Winter Wonderland,” are justifiably enduring, but for reasons I will never comprehend, “Marshmallow World,” about the glories of snow, has not become a full-on standard. Its comparative obscurity makes it refreshing, as does its secularism. “It’s a marshmallow world in the winter / When the snow comes to cover the ground,” Love sings, accompanied by a riot of Wall. Spector was a genius at producing powerful odes to joy, and there’s nothing better than singing this at the top of your lungs when you’re home for the holidays, gleefully speeding along in somebody’s borrowed car.
2. “Santa Claus Is Back in Town,” Elvis Presley (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller)
This rollicking piece of work kicks off “Elvis’ Christmas Album” with hilarious lustiness while establishing a strangely convincing bond between Elvis and Santa that plays out across the rest of the album. (In “Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me,” his “Oh Santa”s are casual and confiding; the usually insufferable “Here Comes Santa Claus” becomes swingily appealing, and his jaunty “Santa knows that we’re God’s children” is comforting even if you believe in neither.) “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” begins with background singers cooing “Christmas!,” teases us with plinking piano, then barrels forth with walloping drums, at the height of which Elvis delivers himself unto us and puts the X in Xmas. “Well, it’s Christmastime, pretty baby, / And the snow is fallin’ on the ground,” he sings with a growl, as if we all know what that means. Later, he bellows, “Santa Claus is comin’ / Down your chimney tonight!” My mother and I spent many a Christmas Eve giggling at Elvis’s yuletide audacity.
3. “What Christmas Means to Me,” Stevie Wonder (Anna Gaye, Allen Story, George Gordy)
I first encountered this boppy number on the 1997 Hanson album “Snowed In,” which my roommate had bought semi-ironically and semi extremely enthusiastically. Man, I thought: Hanson writes some fantastic songs! It is, of course, Motown, performed definitively by Stevie Wonder on the 1973 classic “A Motown Christmas,” an album I discovered soon after. Wonder sings ecstatically of the bounties of winter—“Candles burning low / Lots of mistletoe / Lots of snow and ice! / Everywhere we go”—and of the bounties of love. He’s happy, you’re happy, everybody’s happy, and the other musicians are knockouts, enhanced by jubilant swirls of Wonderian harmonica.
4. “White Winter Hymnal,” Fleet Foxes (Robin Noel Pecknold)
The hypnotic “White Winter Hymnal” consists of a single wintery verse, sung in harmony and repeated over and over, invoking coats, scarves, and white snow turning “red as strawberries in summertime.” (Try to focus on the strawberries.) Listening to it makes me imagine white powdery snow on rolling hills, a bright cold day, light snow blustering up into the air after a snowstorm. It’s a perfect song to enjoy in a blissful, spacy daze, and it contains not an ounce of Christmas.
5. “Ríu Ríu Chíu,” performed by the Taverner Choir, Consort, and Players, or, if you prefer, the Monkees
Another irresistible repeating song is “Ríu Ríu Chíu,” the rousing, a-cappella, and incomprehensible-to-me Spanish-language Renaissance-era villancico. It consists of a soloist singing a plucky, feisty tune, joined periodically by a chorus that strenuously agrees with him. In my favorite version, by the British early-music group the Taverner Choir, Consort, and Players, the soloist is wonderfully incisive and riled up, and the choir is thunderous. The lyrics, perhaps not surprisingly, turn out to invoke the depressing sexual insanity of the Christmas story: “Ríu Ríu Chíu” is the caw made by a God-directed kingfisher who keeps the wolf from biting the Virgin Mary, preventing sin and allowing for the Immaculate Conception. (Cripes, Christianity.) If you don’t understand Spanish, it’s easy enough to just enjoy the tune and the fervor with which it’s sung. The Monkees do a lush and delicate version, with beautiful harmonies.
6. “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” George Harrison
This lovely non-seasonal song, from Harrison’s 1973 album “Living in the Material World,” has long been a part of my holiday mixes, where it fits in with other songs of philosophizing and good vibes. “Give me life, give me love, give me peace on earth,” he sings, with his wonderful George Harrison gentleness, accompanied by slide guitar and a little piano. This time of year lends itself to big thoughts, and this song, though a touch wistful, cuddles us up in a feeling of love and warmth. Like many George Harrison songs, listening to it enhances both my love of life and my love of George Harrison.
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7. “Holiday on Skis,” Al Caiola, Riz Ortolani
In the nineties, when young people were crazy for lounge music, I discovered this on the leopard-accented compilation “Ultra Lounge: Christmas Cocktails,” whose contents range from hilarious to more hilarious. “Holiday on Skis” is a giddy, filigreed instrumental that sounds like something the Jetsons might listen to, or what ski jumping might feel like—zipping down a powdery mountain, flying through the air, landing confidently, swooshing through a grove of pine trees. (I do not know how to ski.) In its synthy zip and zap, it conjures a mood of leisure and decadence affordable to the wealthy and feverishly imagined by the rest of us—but in a good way. Throw it on a mix!
8. “Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You,” Billy Squier
The eighties rocker Billy Squier is best known for “The Big Beat,” one of the most sampled tracks in hip-hop; his outrageously phallic screamer “The Stroke”; his much mocked, flouncing-around-a-bed video for “Rock Me Tonight”; his oligarch-ish fireplace dispute with Bono; and this warm and wonderful Christmas song, which I earnestly love. It conveys genuine affection and sounds like a party he’s having us come to, and he makes the song’s simple idea feel not soft-headed but wise. His bonhomie makes lyrics like “From rooftop to chimney / From Harlem to Bimini” feel fun, and when he gets to the crux of it all—“And it stands to reason / That good friends in season / Make you feel that life has just begun”—joy has been known to overtake me.
9. “Christmas in Hollis,” Run-D.M.C.
The seminal “Christmas in Hollis,” from the 1988 charity compilation “A Very Special Christmas,” does so many things right that it’s a Christmas miracle in itself. One of the first popular Christmas rap songs, it makes its mark definitively: it tells an amusing story about Santa losing his wallet (“But I’d never steal from Santa / ’Cause that ain’t right”); gloriously samples Clarence Carter’s horn-driven, up-to-no-good “Back Door Santa”; righteously praises home and hearth (“It’s Christmastime in Hollis, Queens, / Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens”); and makes timeworn details feel new again (“In the fireplace is the yule log / Beneath the mistletoe as we drink eggnog”). By the time they get to “Run so loud and proud you hear it / It’s Christmastime and we got the spirit,” you are happily soaring through Heaven on a cloud. Like all of Run-D.M.C. songs, it’s terrific to holler along with.
10. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” Vaughn Monroe (Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne)
“Let It Snow” can be flimsy and anodyne in the wrong hands, but done right, as in the original Big Band version, from 1945, it’s catchy, lovely, even moving—in the dreamy harmonies at “the fire is slowly dying,” for example. Monroe’s arrangement combines appealing stodginess with appealing grandiosity, playing in the realm where propriety meets mischief, and his rich baritone gives lines like “It doesn’t show signs of stopping / And I’ve brought some corn for popping” charm that’s hygge and loaded with possibility. Like most of the non-Christmas songs on my list, its main focus is the joys of snow—it’s a cornerstone of the small but essential Let’s Snuggle While It Snows genre. (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is another—I endorse this feminist interpretation—and if you want a let’s-linger-while-we-can song for all seasons, Sam Cooke’s “That’s Where It’s At” is absolutely where it’s at.)
11. “The Chanukah Song,” Adam Sandler
Even if I’m not in the mood to hear Adam Sandler sing, I always enjoy this sweetly affecting 1994 holiday single, co-written with then “S.N.L.” writers Ian Maxtone-Graham and Lewis Morton. “I wrote a song for all those nice little Jewish kids who don’t get to hear any Chanukah songs,” he says at the beginning, and it’s still wonderful to hear, all these years later, a mainstream hit whose first line is “Put on your yarmulke.” It’s amazing how much Sandler can do with an affectionate recitation of Jewish pop heroes—“Guess who eats together at the Carnegie Deli? / Bowser from Sha Na Na and Arthur Fonzarelli”—and the rhymes occasionally rival those of the Beastie Boys, who are name-checked in a sequel.
12. “Step Into Christmas,” Elton John (Elton John and Bernie Taupin)
I happen to despise Bernie Taupin’s habit of lyrically referencing the song you’re listening to—it feels like a lack of effort, frankly—but this catchy and haimish number, from 1973, which begins “Welcome to my Christmas song,” moves beyond that somewhat mercenary greeting into a realm of communal pleasures. “Step into Christmas, let’s join together / We can watch the snow fall forever and ever,” John sings. “Eat, drink, and be merry, come along with me.” This I can support. The song’s mood of joyful gratitude is reinforced by its triumphant, Wall of Sound-inspired production, which has such powerful bells, guitars, piano, and harmonies that we can’t help but step into Christmas, whatever that means, because the admission is free, whatever that means.
In closing, when I think of Christmas pop, I think of one thing: the immortal Sweeney Sisters’ Bells Medley, from “Saturday Night Live,” in 1986. The recurring Jan Hooks and Nora Dunn sketch about a big-haired medley-singing sister act reached its apotheosis with its delirious bells mashup, which slings together everything from “Silver Bells” to “The Trolley Song,” plus impassioned stage banter and scat singing. (Marc Shaiman, who arranged, doggedly accompanies.) In maximizing the ridiculousness of Christmas pop, they brilliantly transcend it. For some reason, those bastards at NBC never include the Bells Medley in the “S.N.L.” Christmas specials—and always include the tedious Schweddy Balls sketch, which isn’t even a good NPR parody—but the pure of heart will not forget its brilliance. Justice for the Sweeney Sisters!