Peg legs and chipmunks: the sounds of Christmas
Ten years ago this week, I wrote in this column a list of my Top 10 favorite Christmas songs, which may have been based on a previous version that was published about a decade before that.
Everyone’s tastes change a little through the years, but looking over that list, I’ll stand by those selections. I still play those songs at home and on my radio shows every year.
But there is lots of great Christmas music
out there. So here’s a new list of my favorite Christmas songs that I cherish almost as much as the ones on the old list.
1. “Santa Doesn’t Cop Out on Dope” by
Sonic Youth. The band made up of Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley has never been known for its humor. So it’s not going out on much of a limb to declare that this is hands down the funniest song they ever recorded. It’s a Martin Mull tune, originally recorded by the singer-comic in the mid-’70s as a parody of smug moralists trying to use “hep lingo” to rap to the youth about drugs and such. Sonic Youth adds a few layers of absurdism, not to mention crazy noise.
2. “All For Gloria” by Elastica. This is a rock ’n’ roll reimagining of “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” by a predominantly female band that burned out way too quickly in the ’90s. The recording is from a John Peel BBC Christmas show, which ended up on an album called Elastica: The Radio
One Sessions. But I bet most American fans first heard it on Just Say Noël (on which it was called “Gloria”) — the same 1996 Geffen Christmas collection that featured the Sonic Youth song mentioned above. On Radio One, Elastica also does a pretty cool version of “We Three Kings” called “I Wanna Be a King of Orient Aah.”
3. “Must Be Santa” by Brave Combo. Bob Dylan took Combo’s crazy pumped-up polka arrangement of this old kiddie song for his Christmas album last year (and made a hilarious video that was an internet sensation). I like the original better.
4. “White Christmas” by Otis Redding. Nobody should have even attempted to sing this Christmas chestnut after Redding worked it over. Like he did with practically everything he ever recorded, the man just sang his guts out.
5. “Eggnog” by The Rockin’ Guys. The Guys are a punk band from Conway, Arkansas, which I never would have discovered except for the goodwill of a former colleague who’s an Arkie expat. The song is a tender reminiscence of the singer’s “poor old peg-leg pappy” and how the family would get together at Christmas and “decorate his stump.”
6. “Blue Christmas Lights” by Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen. Buck Owens co-wrote and recorded this sad Yuletide honky-tonker. But Hillman & Pedersen, who covered it in the ’90s, make it haunting with their harmonies.
7. “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon. This is a touching ballad about the famous 1914 Christmas truce during World War I. British and German troops spontaneously laid down their arms to sings carols and celebrate the holiday before getting back to the serious work of killing one another the next day.
8. “Can Man Christmas” by Joe West with Mike “The Can Man” Burney. Burney — who collects aluminum cans around the Lone Butte area for recycling — narrates a couple of anecdotes involving his Santa Claus suit as West and his band play a slow, sad melody.
9. “Star of Wonder” by The Roches. Unaccompanied, sisters Maggie, Suzzy, and Terre sing otherwordly harmonies on this tune written by Terre.
10. “Christmas Boogie” by Canned Heat with Alvin & The Chipmunks. Yes, a melding of two great bands. Guitarist Henry “The Sunflower” Vestine is amazing, even in a weird novelty like this. And Bobby “The Bear” Hite learns not to call chipmunks “mice.”
In the spirit of Christmas recycling, here’s my December 2000 Christmas Top 10.
1. “Little Drummer Boy” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Jett wasn’t the first rocker to do this song. Remember David Bowie’s duet with
Bing Crosby? I don’t think Der Bingle would have attempted this version.
2. “Merry Christmas From the Family” by Robert Earl Keen. A lovable if somewhat dysfunctional family — with all its addictions, prejudices, and stepchildren — sits down for a hilarious Yuletide feast.
3. “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl. A saga of a love gone wrong: a boozy Irish immigrant lands in the drunk tank, haunted by the curses of his fed-up wife (“Merry Christmas, my ass. I pray God its our last!”) and the carols of a police choir.
4. “We Three Kings of Orient Are” by The Beach Boys. The Beach Boys’ Christmas
Album, recorded in the early 1960s, contains some raw dreck, but the boys’ trademark harmonies on this tune are near-mystical.
5. “Old Toy Trains” by Roger Miller. This song, written for his son Dean, who was a toddler at the time, is a rare public glimpse of Miller’s sweet side.
6. “2,000 Miles” by The Pretenders. The grand finale to Learning to Crawl, the group’s last great album, “2,000 Miles” is a sad but beautiful winter song.
7. “Father Christmas” by The Kinks. Santa, bring me some class warfare!
8. “Santa Can’t Stay” by Dwight Yoakam. On one level this tune is hilarious: a drunken father dons a Santa suit and barges in on Mama and her new beau as the mystified children look on. But any divorced guy who can remember his first Christmas after the split-up can’t help but feel pangs of horror listening to this.
9. “Merry Christmas Baby” by Elvis Presley. “Blue Christmas” is much better known, but this is Elvis at his bluesy best.
10. “The Chipmunk Song” by David Seville and The Chipmunks. Dang, I can actually remember when this first came out one Christmas season in the late 1950s. It was the very first single by Alvin and his brothers, and it has a certain youthful innocence lacking in the group’s later work. After all, this was when The Chipmunks were young and hungry — before they sold out.
▼ The Steve Terrell Christmas Special: Hear a bunch of these songs and so much more at 10 p.m. to midnight Sunday, Dec. 19, on KSFR-FM, 101.1 FM.
▼ Enchiladas roasting on an open fire: More music to ruin any Christmas party! Hear my podcast Christmas special at www.bigenchiladapodcast.com. ◀