In this threatened Yuletide of 2001, it's comfort items that are shaping up to be the season's big sellers. Fluffy slippers. Bubble bath lotion. Comforters. Cozy sweaters. The same goes for music.
The charts have gone soft in the head with good ol' fluff country, airheaded new age, soft-core dirty pop, and comfortable and reliable old Christmas music. Regardless of what you think about the prospects of owning any record by Michael Bolton, Now That's What I Call Christmas is an amazing, nay, historic holiday package.
Not since recorded sound began has there ever been a collection that features Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Lennon and McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Band Aid, Britney Spears, 'N SYNC and Elmo & Patsy all in one neat jewel case. If Edison had a Christmas cylinder, it too would be front and center on Now That's What I Call Christmas. Years ago, such cooperation among the warring major labels would've been unthinkable. Are these industry giants now waiving all licensing snafus in the true spirit of peace and giving? Is the money all going to charity? Yes, sirree! Looks like it's all going to EMI, Sony, BMG and Virgin.
What would the holidays be without some major labels crying that their Christmas bonuses are looking as sorry as Bob Cratchit's retirement account? Napster may be sipping eggnog with these big kahunas, but the damage is done. It's like asking relatives to pay for mistletoe kisses. Chances are you've already found more than a dozen new sites to download all the free Christmas music you can stand. And good thing, too, because maybe that means you might find it in your heart to make a difference for some Christmas songs that haven't been so fortunate.
Even with 24-hour Christmas-music stations, all we seem to hear is the entire contents of Now That's What I Call Christmas in CD scrambler mode. Yet there are hundreds of other misfit Christmas records, some joyous, some odious, that have been waiting a long time to become standards -- they deserve some kind of home for the holidays. Four of the candidates below appear on a new VH1/Rhino collection called Christmas: The Big 80's. Another one is on Martha Stewart's Home for the Holidays album. But if you buy both, you'll have multiple copies of that damned Bing and Bowie duet. Those two sound like they weren't even recorded in the same lifetime!
"Little Sandie Sleighfoot" -- Jimmy Dean (43 years and holding):
So many a Christmas carol has been scribed in envy of lucrative Rudolph's red nose. But in trying to match ol' Rudy's affliction, the future pork-sausage king Jimmy Dean may have overstepped the line. While minor chart action was made with this deformed character study in 1958, today there'd be a Bigfoot Defamation League on Dean's ass quicker than you can say "act your age, not your shoe size!"
"Holiday Hootenanny" -- Paul and Paula (38 years):
The reason given for the initial lack of success that greeted Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift to You in 1963 was that after President Kennedy's assassination, no one much felt like hearing Christmas music. From that group, subtract the people who didn't feel like hearing either a surf hootenanny version of "Jingle Bells" or Paul and Paula, then factor in Paul and Paula's parents, and you've got some idea of how many people scooped this one up.
"Dearest Santa" b/w "The Bell That Couldn't Jingle" -- Bobby Vinton (37 years):
If any singer could ferret out some underlying sadness to these deceptively cheerful holiday offerings, it's Vinton, who hit No. 1 two weeks before Christmas 1964 with "Mr. Lonely." Even the holidays didn't stop the Polish Prince from his monopolizing every song with the word "lonely" in it. Here he turns the self-pity spotlight over to an orphanage of begging kids who promise Santa they'll be good -- just give me a mommy and a daddy!
Turn this single over and it's yet another failed Christmas character, a little sleigh bell that is crying because it's too hollow and empty inside to give the customary jingle. Aware that a crying Christmas bell is bad for his image, Santa brings this matter to the attention of Jack Frost, who fixes the problem by freezing a teardrop and sticking it in the belly of said sad bell. Now it can jingle again and everyone is supposed to be jolly. Message? If you're blue on Christmas, never let 'em see ya sob.
"There Won't Be Any Snow (Christmas in the Jungle)" -- Derrick Roberts (36 years):
Just so no one forgot that we had boys fighting in 'Nam, someone released a sanctimonious spoken-word record to remind us. And in case someone missed the point of why we were over there, there was the B-side propaganda "A World Without Sunshine."
"To Heck With Old Santa Claus" -- Loretta Lynn (35 years):
Few women have had to endure as much as Lynn, what with cheatin' spouses, and men who come home from drinkin' with lovin' on their minds. Although I haven't actually found this record yet, I got an unshakable hunch it's got something to do with too much holiday punch and someone who got a little too jolly sitting other women in his lap.
"Wear a Smile at Christmas" -- Paul Revere and the Raiders (35 years):
None of the nine original songs on A Christmas Present and Past album had a future unless you count it being reissued on Sundazed. The Raiders, seen weekly on Dick Clark-sponsored shows, had a squeaky clean image which lead singer Mark Lindsay and producer Terry Melcher sought to undermine. Using the safe Christmas album format, the Raiders set out to make political statements about the escalating Vietnam War, racial prejudice and crass commercialism. Columbia Records angrily canceled plans for this holiday single, complete with an LBJ impersonator telling us to count our blessings, and pretty much buried the album.
"Back Door Santa" -- Clarence Carter (34 years):
You would expect no less from a cheating-song specialist like CC than to have Mr. Claus sneaking some milk and cookies on the side.
"Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" -- James Brown (34 years)
"Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year (Parts 1 & 2)" -- James Brown (33 years)
"Santa Is Definitely Here to Stay" -- James Brown (31 years):
Anyone who would let a man come in and do the popcorn, no questions asked, is already predisposed to digging the man in red. But how strange is it that Brown, who once sang, "I don't want no one to give me nothing," now wants door-to-door delivery? As for making Christmas mean something, it hardly helps matters when you spend all of Part One asking your sidemen -- who you pay to yell "yeah" at everything you say -- "Can I tell them how to make Christmas mean something?" And you keep ignoring them no matter how many times they yell back "yeah." You can find this failed funky Christmas fare on the Santa's Got a Brand New Bag collection.
"Christmas Blues" -- Canned Heat (34 years):
According to Goldmine, this is the most valuable Christmas 45, with a mint copy fetching up to $75. Probably not for the A-side, but for the illustrious company the guys keep on the B-side. Both acts recorded for Liberty, but surely no one suspected the Chipmunks to ditch Dave Seville to rerecord "The Christmas Song" with . . . Canned Heat?!! Sure, Alvin, Simon and Theodore released an album of rock favorites in 1965, but the music had changed drastically since Chipmunks A-Go-Go. Just how far out could they a-go-go now? To hear the Kermit-voiced Al Wilson demanding a Hula-Hoop, hell, even to imagine him squeezing into one, well, you don't get much more sublime than that.
By the time the Chipmunks jumped the punk wagon, most of this band would be deader than the long version of "On the Road Again." Capitol rereleased "Christmas Blues" on a single in 1992, but sadly it omitted the B-side in favor of the even more freakish Billy Squier!
"Step Into Christmas" b/w "Ho Ho Ho (Who'd Be a Turkey at Christmas?)" -- Elton John (28 years):
The undisputed king of disposable pop in 1973, Elton allegedly wrote all the songs for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in a week of half-hour spurts. There must've been a baby grand in the loo that week when he penned both sides of a holiday single remarkable only for its ability to escape memory banks faster than steam off a hot cup of cocoa.
"Daddy's Drinking Up Our Christmas" -- Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen (28 years):
Tit for tat, since daddy's rotten kid drove that "Hot Rod Lincoln" into road rubble.
"Merry Xmas Everybody" -- Slade (28 years):
Britpop enthusiasts marvel at America's resistance to the Wolverton wonders, who notched six number ones in the U.K., including this happy holiday platter, but didn't trouble the U.S. Top 40 until Quiet Riot had ruined most of their songs. Was it Noddy Holder's hooligan shriek that upset Yanks? Dave Hill's bangless pageboy haircut? Their inability to spell? I'm inclined to assign blame to their little drummer boy Don Powell, whose pa-rum-pa-pa-pum is identical on every goddamned record. Made Dave Clark look like Tito Puente.
"I Believe in Father Christmas" -- Greg Lake (26 years):
I'm inclined not to put any stock in Father C if he brought Carl Palmer so much as one new gong!
"Funky New Year" -- The Eagles (23 years):
The group's cover of Charles Brown's "Please Come Home for Christmas" gets plenty of Yuletide play, but has anyone ever inspected its B-side? Just a reminder, "funky" is also defined in Webster's as "with a strong odor" and "causing discomfort or unease."
"Christmas Day" -- Squeeze (21 years):
This irritatingly quirky synth romp shows Squeeze at its worst, with dreary Chris Difford cramming in as many inappropriate words as he and Glenn Tilbrook can mumble. Who else would rhyme in "messiah" with "the treads around a tire" or group Mary and Joseph with other great comedy teams like Laurel & Hardy and Morecambe & Wise?
"Thank God It's Christmas" -- Queen (18 years):
Sparks had a song called "Thank God It's Not Christmas," which was pretty funny. This isn't funny at all, with the usually frivolous Queen getting all Band Aid serious on us. It's like your drunken Aunt Celeste showing up for the holidays in a sensible dress instead of her usual antlers and holiday chatzchi ensemble.
"Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You" -- Billy Squier (20 years):
Another holiday hopeful stowed away on the backside of Billy's single "My Kind of Lover." It's ironic that a guy whose career was single-handedly destroyed by an embarrassing video (the douche chilling "Rock Me Tonight") should attempt to get a holiday hit by cramming the video with MTV jocks.
"Another Lonely Christmas" -- Prince (18 years):
In the '80s, few would stick their necks out with a holiday single. Instead, they would place it on a B-side so that it could stay on record retail shelves all year round. Thanks to Prince's B-sides CD, you probably own this literal flip side to "I Would Die 4 U." Here he berates his Apollonia six foot under for dying on Christmas and forever ruining the holidays. If this song ever caught on, think of how many people with their heads in the oven this holiday season would turn off the gas, just so as not to make the Purple One a bluer shade of violet!
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"December Will Be Magic Again" -- Kate Bush (21 years):
Plain and simple why this one never caught on -- imagine carolers trying to sing it. Now imagine the paramedics trying to pump the helium out of their silly stomachs.
"Christmas Crush" -- Homegrown (5 years):
Although the cycle of nerd punk seems to have exhausted itself, I don't think we can ever hear someone whining "Santa get off my girlfriend" too many times.