Frank Sinatra – “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”
Remember the Joe Piscopo parody of Sinatra on “Saturday Night Live”? The exaggeration of his “I don’t give a shit about you” persona? Hating Bono and rock and roll in general? One of the enduring moments of the show and undoubtedly the cultural highpoint for Mr. Piscopo.
But I don’t think of Sinatra as the anti-rock and roll. He seems more like the embodiment of the way you are supposed to bull straight ahead, do what you want, take no prisoners (unless they are female groupies) and stay up all night in Vegas, drinking whiskey and smoking cigs. And his best work was taking a piece of music, and raising it to a higher musically emotional place. We don’t necessarily needs guitars and drums to do that (though it’s what I prefer), we just need a singer, the song and the music to create goosebumps down your back . Frank does it with this one, (taken from his 1957 “A Jolly Christmas with Frank Sinatra” album), a tune that sounds best played between 10pm Christmas Eve and 5am Christmas Day. After dark and before sunrise. Beautiful.
Elvis Presley – Blue Christmas”
Is this too high of a ranking? Too low? King fans will want to dismiss me completely because this song isn’t closer to the top of the countdown. And I have friends who are into music that think Elvis is waaaaay overrated, and will call this pandering. Me? It’s right where it should be; one of the best xmas tunes done by a singular voice in rock and roll history.
Too judge Elvis on anything is to forsake the mythology we have heard about him over the past 30+ years, and instead just listen to him sing. His Sun recording sessions built rock music’s road to becoming a cultural mainstream artform. He went on to record a lot of crap as well as a lot of underappreciated music that was skewed unfavorably by his earlier, groundbreaking output. One of the things I love about this entry is the video is from the ’68 Comeback Special, and we hear the King playing guitar and taking the song pretty seriously. When he was serious, there were few better. Iconic song, and should be on any playlist at Christmas. Plus, one more reason to prove Adam Lambert is a pretender: he looks like a mutated Elvis from 1963. Now that’s pandering.
“Father Christmas” – The Kinks
You know, we had Springsteen a few spots back, and the beginning of “Father Christmas” sounds like it could be another Bruce production. Then it breaks into the classic Kinks sound. Here’s a band that never quite could keep up with the Stones or the Who. In many ways, they were way more presonal in their writing and built a sound that was unmistakable when it came on the radio. “Father Christmas” is a song that I almost never hear unless I’m the one playing it, but have found it on a number of CD compilations. Intelligently crunching rock, with Ray Davies hitting it out of the rock park during his heydey.
Buck Owens – “Santa Looked a Lot like Daddy”
That’s right people: Buck Freakin’ Owens. The dude was more than just Hee Haw. Ever hear of the Bakersfield sound? Country rock before there was country rock. You gotta love this song. Really. There are hundreds of covers of the tune, but the good ones rarely stray from the signature sound Buck laid down back in 1965. And here is the song at #10. Maybe the surprise of the countdown? Think again. Respect the Buck.
Wikipedia: “The Bakersfield Sound was a genre of country music developed in the mid- to late 1950s in and around Bakersfield, California. Bakersfield country was a reaction against the slickly-produced, string orchestra-laden Nashville Sound of the late 1950s. Buck Owens and the Buckaroos and Merle Haggard and the Strangers are the most successful artists of the original Bakersfield sound era”.
“Merry Christmas Baby” – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Overshadowed during the holiday season by his cover of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”, Bruce and the E Street Band grab a hold of the song by supplying a nod to their Jersey shore R&B roots. What makes this work is Bruce infusing the song with some of the same stop and starts, and musical breakdowns that work so well in songs like “Spirit in the Night” and “Out in the Street”. It’s really a snapshot of how they would sound in the early 80’s – though a little less gloss than the “Born in the USA” album had – that’s because it was recorded in late 1980 during “The River” tour. Great Roy Bittan piano. I love this version of the song. Not the greatest Christmas song ever. But if you want one of the most inspired live pieces of Santa Rock, turn this one up.
The song has been covered by Otis Redding, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Bonnie Riatt, Charles Brown and Hanson. The recorded version performed by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band was recorded live at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York on December 28, 1980, and included on the Christmas album A Very Special Christmas, released in 1987.
Video from Late Night with Conan O’Brien from December , 2002.