By Emma Furrier
The holidays are a time of year classified by gift giving, food prepping, worshipping whatever religion you are devout (or agnostic towards) and, of course, the blaring reprise of holiday music, carols, and jingles alike. The season is commercialized with that familiar sound of jingling bells and festive chimes, and even the frequent accompaniment of a hymnal choir. No matter your religious background or musical preferences, the holidays are a time filled with joy and togetherness… and what brings us together more than the power of music? As 2020 comes to a close (thank God) and the new year rears its head, let’s take a look back at the decades of holiday music that have captivated us, soundtracked our festive memories, or comforted us when the darkness of winter may have brought us more sadness than joy. Here are 10 songs from the past 50+ years that have us rocking around the Christmas tree. A combination of covers and holiday originals, let the music spark a joy within you, and hold no room for Scrooges during this magical time of year.
(1958) Chuck Berry - ‘Run Rudolph Run’
Perhaps one of the most energetic and notorious Christmas songs there is, this popular holiday track was recorded at the peak of Chuck Berry’s career and takes inspiration from his hit, ‘Little Queenie’ combined with the traditional ‘Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer’. Berry’s vivacious rockabilly guitar licks combined with bright piano keys create a classic tune full of swing and lively energy that is impossible to dislike. It has since been covered by many other greats, including Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hanson, Billy Idol, The Grateful Dead, and the Foo Fighters.
(1964) The Beach Boys - ‘Little Saint Nick’
The Beach Boys capitalized on their immense success at the time by releasing a Christmas album, which consisted of original Christmas songs written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love on the first side, and traditional favorites like ‘Frosty The Snowman’ and ‘White Christmas’ on the other side of the record. With unfortunate timing, it hit the shelves right after JFK was assassinated, but this song in particular still managed to become an instant hit. Some credit this towards its resemblance of their hit ‘Little Deuce Coupe’. This holiday record relishes in the breezy, West Coast ambiance that the early Beach Boys records were known for, and luscious harmonies that make you feel as warm and cozy as relaxing by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa.
(1971) John Lennon & Yoko Ono - ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’
Produced by Phil Spector in 1971, this classic holiday tune is equally an anti-Vietnam war song, as it is a Christmas one. John and Yoko were known for their political stance, and did not shy away from using their platforms to spread the message of peace and love, especially when the world needed to hear it most. The call to end the war was as urgent as ever, so why not amplify that message of peace with the true spirit of Christmas? The duo even took out billboards across America declaring “WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It).” What a clever marketing campaign, both for the country and for their record sales.
(1975) Bruce Springsteen - ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’
Nobody does it better than The Boss, and this rocking holiday tune is a prime example of that. While it was originally written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie in the early 1930s, many have gone on to cover this song, but little have done it in the way that Springsteen has here, full of lively guitar and feel good rock and roll. Accompanied by his full E Street Band, there is a sense of togetherness embodied in this song, along with the emblematic jingling of bells, clapping of hands and a foot stomping percussion to boot. Bruce first recorded the track live at a show in Long Island in December 1975, and then released the song as the B-Side to ‘My Hometown’ in 1985. It has since become a fan favourite that he occasionally will perform as a part of his shows no matter the season. It is a necessity to kick off the holiday season.
(1979) Paul McCartney - ‘Wonderful Christmastime’
This is McCartney’s first Christmas song, and his first solo song since Wings formed (and went on hiatus). It was recorded during the sessions for his solo album 'McCartney II' and was released in November 1979 following Wings' final album, which came out earlier that year. The popularity of this song was instant, and it launched the former Beatle’s new-wave approach to rock and roll with a synth-driven punch and an ear-warm of a chorus. While he was on a holly jolly high from the excitement of releasing a bold new track all on his own, McCartney was also high off of something else and spent ten days in a Japanese prison the week leading up to the track’s release. Hey, he was simply having a wonderful Christmas time!
(1984) Queen – ‘Thank God it's Christmas’
This holiday track was written by two of Queen’s founding members Brian May and Roger Taylor and while it was not originally released on any of the band’s studio albums, it appeared on Queen's ‘Greatest Hits III’, released in 1999, and as the B-side of the single ‘A Winter's Tale’ from the 1995 album ‘Made in Heaven’. The track is as captivating as any other Queen song, with the echo of Mercury’s stunning vocals coaxing the song into highs and lows of emotion, all backed with the archetypal chime of bells and orchestral accompaniment of a successful holiday hit. It holds a similarity to the beat of synths in McCartney’s Christmas track, while still holding its own in a way that was classically Mercury.
(1987) Ramones - ‘Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)’
All I want for Christmas is a good ol’ punk-rock head-banger complete with an opening riff that sounds reminiscent of the early British punk scene. While Joey Ramone may have been walking the (dirty) snowy streets of New York, his attempt at a holiday ditty did the Sex Pistols proud. This song was released later in the Ramones’ career, and was first released as a B-side to their single ‘I Wanna Live’. In true punk style, the song is a bit of a downer, but may reflect the harsh truth of what the holidays are for some. The first chorus on the song has Ramone looking for answers, nearly begging to feel the joyous spirit of the holiday season. “Where is Santa and his sleigh? Tell me why it is always this way? Where is Rudolph? Where is Blitzen baby?”. He can’t find holiday cheer and his partner can't find it in her heart stay by his side through the holiday season, despite his pleas of "Christmas ain't the time for breakin' each other's hearts”. Someone got coal in their stocking that year.
(1987) Pogues - ‘Fairytale of New York’
Pogues set the bar high with their release of this sarcastic, funny, in-your-face holiday hit. It topped the Irish charts and is regularly voted the greatest Christmas single ever in the U.K. It’s a throw ‘em back, loud and brash take on Christmas, in a very hasty, offensively Irish fashion. Shane McGowan eases listeners in with a slur of "It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank," dreaming of "a better time when all our dreams come true." Soon, himself and Kirsty MacColl begin flinging insults at each other, ending with MacColl's paramount line: "Happy Christmas your arse; I pray God it's our last." Not too far off from the lousy “cheer” exhibited in the Ramones track, 1987 sure did seem to be a year for tongue-in-cheek, woe-is-me holiday tunes, which are highly memorable and beloved all in their own right.
(1992) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - ‘Christmas All Over Again’
Featured on the charity compilation album ‘A Very Special Christmas 2’, this track was written and recorded by Tom Petty in ’92, and he donated all of its proceeds to the Special Olympics. Petty used this song to pay homage to the holiday season with a wistful, Phil Spector-influenced production. This song is completely endearing, full of Petty’s charm, church bells that practically sing, and rapid percussion that speeds up in a blissful momentum. He coolly sings his way through the line “Long distance relatives/ haven’t seen them in a long, long time/ Yeah, I kind of missed them” before adding with wit, "Yeah, I kinda missed 'em. I just don't want to kiss them." This holiday track is the epitome of a fun, cheerful Christmas tune that serves as an audial mood lifter.
(2007) The Killers - ‘Don’t Shoot Me Santa’
The Killers are known for frequently releasing yearly holiday tunes. Each and every song they have put out during the holiday season earns a spot on holiday party playlists far and wide, but this track in particular has certified itself as a fan favorite. In homage to their moniker, Flowers sings. “Oh Santa I've been killing just for fun/ Well the party's over kid/ because I got a bullet in my gun”. The song plays around with the character of Santa as a Jolly Saint Nick loaded with more than a sack of presents in tow. The chorus, “Don't Shoot me Santa Claus/ Well no one else around believes me” has the band erupting into an increasingly steady beat, in a fashion similar to a lot of their biggest hits, while Flower’s vocals entice the listener in an eager, emotional vibrato. If ‘This River is Wild’ was a darker, holiday hit, this would be it. In reality, there really isn’t anything Christmas sounding in this track, but that’s part of its charm and something that The Killers annually do best. Sometimes, it is nice to take a little break for the manufactured, jingle bell rocks that may quickly grow too sickeningly sweet. If gushy holiday carols are not your thing, look no further than The Killers' holiday discography.