Reconnecting with family amid a tense political climate.
Scrounging up gift money when you might be out of work.
And then, of course, there’s still that pesky COVID-19 pandemic.
We don’t really need reminders as to why we’re under stress. And while minutiae of the holiday season is traditionally taxing given all we feel we need to squeeze in, 2020 has proven to be particularly challenging.
Fortunately there is music. Though it might not be a cure-all to solve all woes, the uplifting tunes and the comforting tones that help define the holidays provide at least a temporary respite from the troubles of the day.
In the spirit of the season, I’m offering this list of personal holiday favorites. This is not intended as a definitive “best of” list, the songs are not listed in any particular order of importance and the overwhelming majority are tied to Christmas (it’s hard to fight the onslaught from radio and the recording industry). It’s just a list of songs I like, and I hope you do, as well.
So whether you celebrated Diwali last month, Hanukkah last week, Christmas and Kwanzaa now or any of the many other holidays being recognized at this time of year, I wish you an endless supply of continued happiness and hopes for greater prosperity as we move toward 2021.
Without further ado, here’s that list:
“White Christmas”: Written by Irving Berlin and released in 1942, this song became a holiday standard on a voice of Bing Crosby. Not only did the song inspire the 1954 film of the same name (starring Bing Crosby), it has sold more than 50 million copies worldwide to be recognized as the best-selling single of all time. While The Drifters’ version of this song is my personal favorite, it’s hard not to recognize Crosby’s as the most popular.
Trivia: The song also was featured in the 1942 film “Holiday Inn,” starring Crosby and Fred Astaire.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: Despite being recorded by countless musicians (including Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Mel Torme and ... umm ... Twisted Sister), the most recognized version is likely the one performed by Judy Garland. Songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine created the classic tune for the 1944 film “Meet Me in St. Louis,” but they had to rework their first draft because it was so sad Garland refused to sing it.
Trivia: Martin loved the song’s melody but didn’t think it worked for the film. After playing with it for a few days, he threw it in the trash. Blaine recovered it. The rest is history.
“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”: This song was written by Johnny Marks, who also penned such holiday classics as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Brenda Lee was just 13 years old when she first sang it, and despite being released in both 1958 and 1959, the song didn’t take off until Lee became a bona-fide star in 1960.
Trivia: In a 2014 interview, National Public Radio asked Lee what the correct direction was to rock around the Christmas tree. Her response: South.
“Silver Bells”: I love the Jim Reeves version of this song because it was my dad’s favorite, and I can still see my childhood home and the small-town street decorations back home when I hear it. Released in 1950, “Silver Bells” was composed by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who also wrote the theme songs for such television shows as “Mister Ed” and “Bonanza.”
Trivia: Evans initially planned on calling the song “Tinkle Bells,” but he rethought that decision after Livingston’s wife pointed out the word “tinkle” also was slang for urination.
“Blue Christmas”: Before Elvis teamed up with The Jordanaires to claim this holiday standard as his own, country music legend Ernest Tubb had already taken this ditty penned by songwriters Bill Hayes and Jay Johnson to No. 1 on Billboard’s Most-Played Jukebox (Country & Western) Records chart in 1950.
Trivia: Elvis performed “Blue Christmas” for the first time on his 1968 TV special, and the performance is the only footage that exists of him singing a Christmas song.
“The Christmas Song”: Robert Wells and Mel Torme teamed up to write this classic, which Nat King Cole and his trio recorded four different times, starting in 1946. The song is often mistakenly referred to by its opening phrase, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” because the actual title doesn’t appear anywhere in the lyrics. Cole’s voice is simply magic.
Trivia: Torme said Wells wrote the song in July during a hot summer and that the song was Wells’ apparent attempt at staying cool by immersing himself in thoughts of winter.
“Jingle Bell Rock”: Similar to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” this tune by Bobby Helms is just too upbeat and fun not to enjoy listening to. It’s obviously dated, but most classics are.
Trivia: The B-side of the “Jingle Bell Rock” single is “Captain Santa Claus And His Reindeer Space Patrol.”
“Mele Kalikimaka”: Living in Wisconsin, it’s hard to imagine what Christmas must be like in Hawaii. Bing Crosby’s smooth delivery of this Polynesian treat adds swing to the season. The result is a unique holiday song that sticks in your head and gets your toes tapping. Yet another hit from Mr. Christmas.
Trivia: The song became a big hit for Hawaiian songwriter R. Alex Anderson when his golfing partner, Crosby, teamed up with the Andrews Sisters to record it.
“Christmas Time”: Over the years, I have found many people have hatred for Bryan Adams’ music. Most often, it’s because of sappy love songs such as “Everything I Do (I Do It For You).” Regardless, I really enjoy this song. It’s happy, hopeful, and if you’ve never seen the video Adams shot to go with it, you’re missing out.
Trivia: In 2000, Adams performed “Christmas Time” live for the Pope at the Vatican.
“Father Christmas”: I couldn’t imagine not including a Christmas song about a group of street kids who threaten a volunteer Santa if he doesn’t hand over his cash, ask for machine guns for Christmas and for jobs for their dads. The song’s punky British tempo is definitively Kinks, and the lyrics are comedic and clever. “Give all the toys to the little rich boys.”
Trivia: After the song was released in 1977, Kinks lead singer Ray Davies would often perform the number on tour while dressed as Santa Claus.
“Christmas Wrapping”: I dig ’80s music, and this piece from The Waitresses is the perfect blend of new wave and holiday cheer. Sung in spoken word, the song tells the story of a woman at Christmas who meets a man, gets his number but doesn’t take the time to call him. When she goes out later to pick up some cranberries, she runs into him again. This is less about Christmas and more about happenstance.
Trivia: The Waitresses founder Chris Butler wrote this song on a cab ride from his apartment in New York City to Electric Ladyland Studios, where it was recorded.
“Christmas in Killarney”: I admit it: I’m a mark for Bing Crosby. The man could sing just about anything and I’d love it. This particular piece might not be among the more popular holiday pieces he has recorded, but the Irish tint makes it unique and bouncy. I’m usually singing along from the start.
Trivia: Aside from Bing Crosby, this song has been covered by 21 other singers or groups including Anne Murray, Bobby Vinton, The Irish Rovers and Dennis Day.
“Merry Christmas From the Family”: This one resonates with me. As a kid, I remember many Christmases at my aunt and uncle’s trailer home. There was plenty of fighting, some drinking and quite a few kids screaming. It might seem strange, but I find the familiarity of the lyrics oddly comforting. Written by Robert Earl Keen, perhaps the most popular version of this modern-era song is done by Montgomery Gentry.
Trivia: The song became such a big hit for Keen that he developed the “linen rule”—meaning his band won’t play it as long as fans can wear linen (warmer weather). Keen’s band starts playing the song around Labor Day and then through the holidays, keeping it fresh.
“Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”: This power-packed instrumental from Trans-Siberian Orchestra melds “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” with “Shchedryk” to form an original composition recognizable to all. No words are spoken; the instruments set the stage and tell the tale.
Trivia: When Savatage first released the song, radio stations wouldn’t play it because of the band’s heavy metal reputation. The next year, the band morphed into “Trans-Siberian Orchestra,” and near-constant airplay boosted the song to No. 49 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“That Spirit of Christmas”: Ray Charles is one of my favorite performers. While I admit these lyrics are pretty saccharine, it’s his delivery that makes this such a heartwarming piece.
Trivia: This single from the only Christmas album Charles ever recorded is featured in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” in the scene where Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) watches old reel-to-reel films while stranded in his attic.