The last couple of years my wife has taken to calling me the Grinch during the “holiday” season. My wife loves all holidays. She loves to decorate the house, the yard and in fact anything that will stand still long enough to have some sort of holiday decoration placed on it (this often includes the dog). I too like holidays but, over the years, I have found the tendency of everyone starting the celebration way too early a bit tiresome. I don’t like the fact that I start seeing Christmas stuff right after Halloween. I don’t like the fact that radio stations start playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving. My wife and I have several agreements in place to help ensure our domestic tranquility. No Christmas decoration until the day after Thanksgiving is one of them.
But I really do love Christmas. It was my favorite holiday as a kid and it still is today. One of my favorite memories of Christmas is my family gathering around the piano and singing Christmas carols together. Music has always been a big part of my life and the music of Christmas is some of the best. Now, I like all Christmas music; traditional carols like “Away in a Manger”, “O Holy Night” and “Joy to the World”, pop standards like “White Christmas”, “The Christmas Song” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, and even the classical stuff like Handel’s Messiah and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. But today I thought I would give you my top 10 list of non-traditional Christmas songs. Most of these have come out in the last 20 years and are usually performed by rock or pop singers. Anyway, enjoy…
10. “All I want for Christmas is You”, Mariah Carey – The New Yorker said that this song is “one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday canon”. I originally thought it was a cover of an old Motown but it turns out that Carey wrote it. It’s really upbeat (even though the lyrics are of the “please come back” theme) with one of those melodies that you can’t get out of your head. Mariah really shows she can belt one out.
9. “The Last Christmas”, Sixpence None the Richer – This song is sung from the perspective of an expectant mother. As a parent, I think this song perfectly expresses the joyful anticipation of a new member of the family. The song uses sparse instrumentation (with a really cool, ethereal slide guitar line) through most of the verses and choruses and then swells at the bridge. The tag line of the chorus is “it’s the last Christmas without you”. It’s really quite a beautiful song.
8. “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, Band Aid – I remember when this song came out. It really blew me away. The sound of this song was so different than any other Christmas song, really any other song period. It has both a muddy and atmospheric feel to it at the same time. Of course this song was the precurser to the whole Live Aid/Farm Aid/All-the-Other Aids. I still love this tune and still get chills when Bono belts out “Well tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you.”
7. “Last Christmas”, Wham – OK, go ahead and get the gay jokes over with. Now that you’re done, I’ll tell you that this song has a really catchy melody and perfectly captures the feeling of unrequited love during the holiday season. The dorky synth keyboard parts, the digital drums combine to make this the ultimate 80’s Christmas song. Jimmy Eat World did a good cover of this but I still like the Wham version better. And I guess, now that I think about it, that probably makes me gay.
6. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), U2 – This song lets you know that it’s cool right from the beginning. From the opening ringing chord while Bono does his best Elvis impersonation and speaks “It’s Christmas. Baby, please come home.” Then the rest of the band comes in for this rollicking cover of the original Darlene Love version. This is another really upbeat song despite the sad lyrics. The backing vocals are great. Classic U2 and classic Christmas.
5. “Santa Claus”, Harry Connick Jr. – I love the Harry Connick Jr. Christmas album, When My Heart Finds Christmas, but this is my favorite song off of it. It’s a great Dixie-style song (with a little Gospel thrown in for good measure) about a kid who thinks he’s too old to believe in Santa. That is until Santa shows up and lets him ride in his sleigh. This is a very joyful, swinging song that makes you feel like a kid again.
4. “Mary Did You Know?”, Michael English – The Kenny Rogers version is probably more popular today, but I prefer this one. This song wonders if Mary fully understood the full portent of what she was a part of. I doubt she or anyone fully understood until Easter morning.
3. “Gabriel’s Message”, Sting – The melody and harmony parts of this song have the feel of a classical piece but are set to a ghostly electronic instrumentation. The lyrics recall how Gabriel appeared to Mary to let her know that she had been chosen to carry God’s son.
2. “Wonderful Christmastime”, Paul McCartney – McCartney is probably my favorite singer of all time, so I probably overrate this one. The cheesy and sometimes off-beat synths are nicely offset by the jingle bells in the background. This song has a real joyous feel to it. It makes you feel like you’re at a Christmas party with all your friends and family.
1. “Breath of Heaven”, Amy Grant – I remember the first time I ever heard this song. I was a young adult and was helping teach the youth choir at our church. Our music minister had decided to do this and had given the solo part (the verses) to a 13 year-old girl named Rebecca. She had one of the sweetest voices (angelic really) I have ever heard and one of the sweetest dispositions of any teenager I have met. I remember watching her sing and thinking “Mary was probably no older than this girl when all of this happened to her. What an awesome burden for such a young, innocent girl.” The lyrics of this song follow Mary’s thoughts during the journey to Bethlehem. We hear her beseech God for the strength to follow through with her part of God’s miracle. The Amy Grant version of this song is the version that comes closest to projecting the emotion that I heard that first time. This is one of my favorite Christmas songs ever.