The holiday season is in full swing and everywhere you go you’re admonished to roast chestnuts on an open fire, rock some jingle bells, admire the winter wonderland, and have yourself a merry little Christmas. As soon as Black Friday came around (and we’re being generous since the economic downturn dictated that this year the Christmas season needed to start immediately after Halloween) every store, public space, and street-corner Santa started blaring holiday music. What’s annoying about Christmas music is that playlists, from radio to retail, tend to be so tightly controlled that you only hear the same handful of classics over and over. As an alternative, we at Flavorpill would like to offer up some of the best overlooked Christmas songs.
Amos Milburn — “Let’s Make Christmas Merry, Baby”
You’ll hear a lot of classic Christmas tunes around the mall, but this blues jam is too chock full of double entendres to be safe for fun family holiday times. And that might be the problem with Christmas: too much of it is about families and not enough is about drinking and other adult situations. Houston bluesman Milburn puts some badly needed PG-13 into the holidays with this 1949 composition and offers a nice break from other Christmas titans of the era, like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
The Go-Gos — “I’m Gonna Spend My Christmas with a Dalek”
Here’s the thing, this is not a novelty hit by the ’80s girl group. It’s a ’60s novelty hit by an 83.3 percent male British group who were trying to turn the Daleks of the original Dr. Who into Chipmunks-like figures (the 16.6 percent female part of the group, singer Sue Smith, voices the Dalek you hear). The resurgence in Dr. Who fandom since the series reboot in 2000, which has really hit a frenzy in the past few years, should make this track a shoo-in for temporary classic due to cultural relevance slot.
Basement Five — “The Last White Christmas”
“Alternative” Christmas tends to consist of No Doubt’s “Oi! To The World” and whatever terrible song The Killers released this year. So isn’t it time you add a real rock song, by a British reggae band who were produced by Martin Hannett, to your perennial holiday song list?
Mavis Staples — “Christmas Vacation”
This is the theme song to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and it’s sung by Mavis Staples. Somehow it’s still completely underappreciated. There’s no reason this shouldn’t be on every AC radio station that flips to a Christmas format, right between Wham!’s “Last Christmas” and Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Because A Christmas Story became the official ’80s movie we all watch on TBS at Christmas, this great has become so seldom heard that it’s practically scandalous.
Morphine — “Sexy Baby Christmas Mine”
Nineties blues/rock/jazz/alt/college band Morphine had to compose a holiday original because misery loves company, especially at Christmas, and there are too many jingle bells and not enough saxophones in our collective fa la la la la’s. Some of you will be scouring this list for “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” — but both the Tom Waits and Neko Case versions of that song are widely appreciated by the audience they were meant to reach. That is the dirty-motel-and-cheap-whiskey-alone-on-Christmas contingent. The song they’re not appreciating enough is “Sexy Baby Christmas Mine.”
Willie Nelson — “Pretty Paper”
A classic penned by Willie, but not quite a Christmas classic, although it was a hit for Roy Orbison. “Pretty Paper” is an incredibly sad song written about a real disabled street vendor selling pencils and ribbons at Christmastime in Fort Worth, Texas. It was composed before Willie became a star, during the same time period when he wrote a little song called “Crazy” that you may have heard Patsy Cline doing. It’s from his prime songwriting years, by all measures. The subject’s identity as one Frankie Brierton was discovered only a few years ago, and his daughter resides in this writer’s hometown of Conroe, Texas — reason enough for it to go on a personal holiday list. The redheaded stranger would go on to write loads of classic American standards, but this one is his big, deeply underappreciated Christmas track.
Centro-matic — “Fuselage (It’s Starting to Look Like Christmas Once Again)”
And speaking of underappreciated songs from Texans, ladies and gentlemen, we bring you Centro-matic. All of Will Johnson’s projects are criminally under-acknowledged by the music press and buying public, but this original holiday composition created for a Dallas- and Denton-area compilation, which kicks off with the lyric, “You say what you gotta say to me/ But try to say it nicefully,” is nothing short of a forgotten Christmas classic. Chalk it up to the sleigh bells or the talk of strange family traditions — something about this song just feels like a Gen-X Christmas come a-calling.
Sally Shapiro — “Anorak Christmas”
Italian disco done by a Swedish duo and released on a Canadian indie label for Christmas? Why not. Even if Sally Shapiro isn’t a real person, this is one of those hopeful holiday love songs in the tradition of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” and “A Marshmallow World” that brings to mind that Christmas-card moment in Love Actually, when Natalie sends Hugh “Prime Minister/Disco Dancer” Grant a card admitting her love to him because, “If you can’t say it at Christmas, when can you eh?” It’s incredibly sappy, more than a little wistful, and encouraging of the kind of happy endings the magic of Christmas promises to bring: in short, the perfect and promising lead up to an imperfect holiday season.
The Orioles — “(It’s Gonna Be A) Lonely Christmas”
Back in 1948, and again in 1949, this was a big Christmas hit on the Jukebox charts (that is a real thing). In fact, this was only the Baltimore R&B group’s second hit. And in spite of their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you just never hear this song around the holidays. It’s every bit as moving as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and just as depressing as “Blue Christmas” — and probably prettier than both combined. If a few dozen canon artists of the era had covered it, who knows what could have been?
The Magnetic Fields — “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree”
It is Stephin Merritt’s modus operandi to write short, clever pop songs that are either more joyful or more depressing than they appear on the surface. Sounds like the description of an awful lot of holiday songs, doesn’t it? It’s destined to not be popular because no one likes irony at Christmastime, but this lyric alone should bump up to hall of fame status: “If they don’t like you, screw them/ Don’t leave your fortune to them.”
XTC — “Thanks For Christmas”
This song is so underappreciated that the British, who will accept Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” and Cliff Richard’s “Mistletoe and Wine” as standards, won’t even mention it when you bring up the best modern Christmas compositions. Everyone agrees that XTC are one of the great underrated pop groups, but the travesty of this song not being played every bit as often as the far inferior “Wonderful Christmas Time” is inexplicable…except for the part where the latter was written by a Beatle. Whatever.