hmv.com presents... The 100 Greatest Christmas Songs: #90 - #81
Over the next 10 days, hmv.com is going to counting down the 100 greatest Christmas songs ever released. Today, we move on to numbers #90 all the way through to #81.
Burl Ives is perhaps better known for his career as an actor than as a singer, having enjoyed a film career that included appearances in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof alongside Paul Newman and East of Eden with James Dean, but we was also a member of The Almanac Singers, a folk group which included the likes of Pete Seeger and which took an anti-war stance on America's involvement in WWII, releasing songs like 'Get Out and Stay Out of War'. Eventually this landed Ives and the others in hot water when he was labelled a communist and 'blacklisted' in the entertainment industry by a government body called the House Committee on Un-American Activities, spearheaded by the infamous senator Joe McCarthy.
Not that you'd guess any of that listening to 'Holly Jolly Christmas'. Making its first appearance in the 1964 stop-motion animation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the song jaunts and bounces its way through two minutes and fifteen seconds of sugary festive vibes before fading inoffensively into the distance. The ghost of Joe McCarthy was unavailable for comment at the time of writing.
There's nothing holly or, indeed, jolly about this cut from Christmas on Death Row, a compilation released in 2007 on Death Row Records, the imprint owned by Suge Knight. (Knight, for those who don't know, is the man who allegedly dangled Vanilla Ice by his ankles from the window of his office in a high-rise building until he agreed to sign a recording contract). Also featuring the late Nate Dogg, who adds his unique voice to proceedings, it includes some typically hilarious Snoop lyrics: “On the first day of Christmas, my homeboy gave to me / A sack of the krazy glue and told me to smoke it up slowly”. We can only imagine what the House of Un-American Activities would have made of this...
Elton's 1974 album, Caribou, was recorded while he was at the peak of his powers, but it's an odd beast: it opens with 'The Bitch is Back' and closes with this jaunty festive number, which is one hell of a contrast. (It also features a song called 'Grimsby', which is nothing like the mental image it conjures up, but that's another story...)
'Step Into Christmas' is actually a pretty decent song and there's a bit of a Motown vibe about the whole thing. It's not quite Phil Spector good, but it's not far off.
Bob Dylan and Christmas. Christmas and Bob Dylan. No matter how we arrange those words in the same sentence, it never quite looks right to us. If you'd have been asked in 2008 to name the artist least likely to release a Christmas album, he'd probably be right up near the top of your list with Morrissey and that guy from Cannibal Corpse. But then, in 2009, he released Christmas in the Heart, which included this little number. And do you know what? It's actually really good.
Originally written and recorded by American blues artist Charles Brown, several artists have had a bash at this Christmas classic, including Harry Connick Jr., Bon Jovi and Luther Vandross among many others, but the best of the bunch is The Eagles version, released in 1978. It also features some of the least festive cover artwork we've ever seen on a Christmas single, but then we've never spent Christmas in California...
Just for the drum break at the beginning alone, we've included this number from the Jacksons, who are no strangers to festive songs. Taken from The Jackson 5 Christmas Album, released in 1970. We're not going to lie; when you stack this up against something like 'I Want You Back' or 'ABC' it's pretty obvious this isn't their finest moment, but as festive numbers go it's quite sweet. About that drum break though...
84. Shonen Knife – 'Space Christmas'
We love Shonen Knife, so it was inevitable we would include this somewhere on our list. It is, put simply, two minutes and eight seconds of pure, unadulterated punk rock, and it's glorious. They are just about the only band that could do this without seeming contrived or cheesy. If The Ramones tried the same thing, it just wouldn't work, but in the hands of Shonen Knife it's just delightful.
Recorded by Springsteen and the E Street Band at a December concert in New York's Long Island, the song was originally a hit in 1934 and has been covered by too many artists to list, but this version by The Boss is hard to beat. Adding his trademark, gravelly voice to this live rendition, what's really nice about it is the sense of fun that comes across. There's actually a moment in the last chorus where Springsteen starts cracking up at his band's enthusiastic backing vocals and it's loads of fun.
Art Garfunkel's interpretation of this old hymn is a stripped-back, tender affair featuring not much more than an acoustic guitar, an accordion and Garfunkel's shimmering, golden vocals. It's a much more serious affair than Springsteen or Shonen Knife would have ever turned out, but it's short, sweet and actually rather lovely.
One of the oldest recordings on our list, Bing Crosby's version of this song still has the power to conjure up a sort of nostalgic magic. It's the stuff of black and white Saturday matinees and sure, it sounds pretty scratchy and dated, but it really does give you the sense of Christmas without piling on the sleigh bells and every other cliché in the Christmas songbook. It's all in the baritone delivery really, but the older generations will appreciate it.
Check back tomorrow for Numbers #80 - #71 and revisit #100 - #91 here.