Rock & Roll & Christmas music have always made for strange bedfellows.
Rock is the symbol of Dionysian excess while Christmas is the time of year for joy & peace. Throw in the fact that Christmas music is generally bright, chipper, & cheery—3 words that don't describe any of the greatest rock songs. Thus, most of the first generation of rock Christmas music ("Jingle Bell Rock," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," etc.) sucks.
However, ever since the Big Bang of Rock & Roll Christmas music—1957's Elvis's Christmas Album—there has been a surprising number of decent rock tunes to come out of the season, whether jingled or not.
This isn't a list of Christmas carols—no Elvis singing "Silent Night" or Springsteen singing "Santa Claus Is Back in Town"—these are songs from the rock era that were new at the time of recording. Hence, even Elvis's masterful "Blue Christmas" is omitted because it was a cover of a relatively-unknown country song before Elvis put it over the top.
These 5 songs stand the test of time & prove that good Christmas things can come wrapped in rock packages.
5. "Little Saint Nick" By The Beach Boys (Christmas 1963)
More than anyone else before The Beatles, The Beach Boys had an instantly-recognizable sound to their hits, a polished & professional vibe that instantly evoked surfer days & summer nights. What's so great about their first Christmas single, "Little Saint Nick," is that it doesn't sound like it's gonna be a Christmas song—those first few seconds always trick me into being just "another" classic Beach Boys production. In this way, the song reminds me of Chuck Berry's "Run, Run Rudolph" in terms of pioneering the concept that a rock Christmas song could sound more like rock than Christmas—& indeed, Berry's tune nearly made the list in this one's place. But in the end, I went for The Beach Boys because it hints at the lush, professional productions that were only enhanced by studio technology & psychedelic drugs. As such, it is a small indicator of where they were going to go. On a high-speed sled.
4. "All I Want for Christmas Is You" By Mariah Carey (Christmas 1994)
I can't stand Mariah Carey. In my mind, there are three things that redeem her: She seems to have a refreshingly healthy Hollywood marriage & family, she did a great job in the film Precious, & this song. What makes it all the more remarkable is what a recent song this is—so far, there are few songs from the '90s that could be described as "timeless." This is one. Part of what makes it hang together so well is how much it is rooted in the '50s—not in a cheap cash-in Happy Days kinda way, but in a thorough, evocative way capturing the spirit of the decade, not all that unlike from the vibe Bruce Springsteen hit when he first came out & was proclaimed "Rock & Roll Future." Like the best rock & pop music, the song feels eternally youthful, while seemingly feeling like it has been around forever. It is also, for my money, the best thing to come out of Mariah Carey's 27-octive voice.
3. "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" By Elvis Presley (Christmas 1957)
It used to be that rock was rock & Christmas was Christmas. That all changed in 1957, when Elvis's Christmas Album hit the shelves. With it, Elvis brought rock & roll—real rock, none of that Connie Francis junk—to Christmas, as well as just enough schmaltz to keep grandma happy too. For, even though there were scrubbed-up readings of "Little Town of Bethlehem" & "I'll Be Home for Christmas," it was the bold opener, a new song called "Santa Claus Is Back in Town," that set things straight. With its talk of a big black Cadillac & a pretty baby, it lingers on the edge of self-parody but is saved by the band's rousing performance & Elvis's perfect conviction (not that the two can really be separated—just listen to Elvis growl over the beginning of the killer piano solo). Everything peaks at one line, perhaps the filthiest to ever appear on a best-selling Christmas album: "Hang up your pretty stockings/turn out the light/Santa Claus is coming [cumming?] down your chimney tonight!" Not sure how that one got past the censors, but so glad that it did—"Santa Claus Is Back in Town" isn't just one of Elvis's finest Christmas songs, it's one of his most exciting & exhilarating performances, period.
2. "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)" By John Lennon (Christmas 1971)*
*NOTE: The sound quality in this video SUCKS, but the only original version that hadn't been taken down had pictures of children during war. I decided that crummy audio quality was better than kids during wartime.
"So this is Christmas." With those four words, begins rock & roll's first great existential Christmas song. It's become so overplayed & over-covered & over analyzed (of which I too am guilty, as in my article positing it being a subconscious plagiarism of Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love" here), that it's easy to forget just how much it pulls off in a few minutes of running time: It manages to be both personal (the whispered "Happy Christmas" greetings to John & Yoko at the beginning) & universal ("for black & for white", "the old & the young," etc.), optimistic ("A very Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year!") & cynical ("So, Happy Christmas."), sometimes all at once—the famous "War is over—If you want it!" refrain, sung amongst the ringing Christmas choruses, by school children who sound so earnest that it takes a listen or two to even figure out what they're saying. It's little wonder that the song ends with a happy burst of applause—if this was a show, it was a successful one, & all the reviews have been raves.
1. "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" By Darlene Love (Christmas 1963)
After spending years perfecting the rock single in 3-minute epics like the Crystals' "He's a Rebel" & The Ronettes' "Be My Baby," Phil Spector turned his attention to a rare album project. Born the day after Christmas, Spector was always very into the holiday & its music—& indeed, the tidal wave of drums, strings, horns, vocals, & bells gives his signature "Wall of Sound" an ideal canvas. So after spending months laboring over & perfecting it, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector was released: On November 22, 1963. The assassination of John F. Kennedy on the exact same day took this album as a casualty as well. As a result, the album was buried before it was even born, along with this track, its crown jewel. It would take over 25 years for it to become the hit standard that it has rightfully become when it was featured prominently in 1990's Home Alone. Luckily, the age didn't show one bit. Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" proves itself to be as timeless as any other of Spector's signature hits.