Well here we are once again near the end of a year getting ready to make what for many is that annual pilgrimage to church. We will once again all be harkening to some angels named Harold plus musing on what heavenly peas are and why we need to sleep in them. Those tunes remind us of childhood or other hopefully fond memories (though we can usually only remember the first verse). Perhaps for that reason it seems like every rock and roller be they Christian, agnostic or even Jewish (Bob Dylan!?) have attempted at least one Christmas song. The more adventuresome will sled through a whole album (usually recorded in the heat of summer). Christmas records may not sell a lot of copies in any given year, but often have long lives as they get trotted out every December. 2018 sees another fruitcake load of long players in the stores including new ones from Eric Clapton and Captain Kirk himself – William Shatner!? Some artists stay with mostly the classics on their Christmas albums while others get crazy and try to write their own. The fact that pretty much none of the newly written songs ever are catchy enough to remember beyond the first year gives credence to how difficult it is to write a classic such as “Jingle Bells” – let alone a neo classic like John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”. You are encouraged to click on the November 2016 link of my site to check out my 20 fave rockin’ Christmas songs thus gaining some understanding of the mind of a pasty white aging rock and roller. I freely admit that while I love the classics by folks like Andy Williams, I do enjoy amped up rockers even more or at least non-traditional releases so that is the conceit behind this new list (the order is fluid). I talked to my friend DC in D.C. and he chimed in that he is still a traditionalist: Nat King Cole – The Christmas Song, Perry Como – I Wish it Could Be Christmas Forever, Christmas with Bing, Johnny Mathis – Merry Christmas and A Charlie Brown Christmas. No doubt all good choices, but we are gonna switch things up a bit on my list (anybody wishing to chime in with their vote, I encourage feedback). I encourage you to visit your local CD shop and purchase a few of these goodies.
Let us start out by saying that my fave Christmas album of all-time isn’t rock and roll at all so didn’t make the list but needs to be acknowledged. This album involves an elf that wants to be a Dentist (natch), a Bumble, Yukon Cornelius, a lovable snowman and of course a reindeer with a red nose. The album is the soundtrack to the 1964 TV classic hosted by Burl Ives – Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. “Silver & Gold”, “Holly Jolly Christmas”, “We’re A Couple Of Misfits” – every (Medicare) card carrying boomer can sing them all.
1.The Ventures – Christmas Album
The Ventures have been hands down the greatest and most prolific instrumental combo of the rock era (over 60 studio albums) so it was natural that they would tackle a Christmas LP. Back in 1965 they issued this 12 track goodie on the Dolton label. Somewhere along the way they got the bright idea to interpolate a rock and roll classic riff with a Christmas song so for instance we get the Beatles’ “I Feel Feel” intro grafted onto “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”. The Searchers’ “When You Walk In The Room” starts “Blue Christmas” while “Wooly Bully” begins “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town”. Bob Bogle, Nokie Edwards, Mel Taylor and Don Wilson finally made it in to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2008. Don’t confuse this with their decent 2002 album Christmas Joy.
2.Ringo Starr – I Wanna Be Santa Claus
The ex-Beatle drummer has been a prolific solo artist with this 1999 Christmas album being his 12th of 19 studio releases (as of 2018). Since his early hits when he collaborated with his former fab mates, by far his best albums were the ones he did with Mark Hudson who brought a bright Beatles feel to the sound. My biggest gripe with many of the other solo Fabs releases is they seem to want to ignore the Mersey style sound that made them successful. Ringo’s drumming is particularly prominent on this album coming to the fore on a fun version of “Little Drummer Boy” and a stompin’ glitter-beat track – “Come On Christmas, Christmas Come On”. Ringo owes a great debt to Hudson for putting the fun back into his music.
3.Billboard Rock ‘N’ Roll Christmas
This is a 1994 Rhino records ten track compilation that includes three of my top ten fave rockin’ Christmas songs by Foghat, The Kinks and Dave Edmunds. As of this writing, I note that a national online sales site has a copy for 1.79 plus shipping which has to be a great deal – or find it locally at some CD emporium. Canned Heat, Cheech & Chong, Queen – you can’t go wrong.
4.The Mavericks – Hey! Merry Christmas!
So I picked up two new Christmas CDs in the past week and both are already in my top holiday music list including this fine groover from one of my fave bands – The Mavericks. I love a band that really doesn’t fit into a neat category and that describes these brujos. Are they country, tex-mex, rock – who knows? They are simply good which unfortunately usually means struggling now-a-days – so buy their music, folks! Most of the songs are originals and go from rock (“Christmas Time Is [Coming ‘Round Again]”) to ballads (“I Have Wanted You For Christmas”). They do a great version of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” which was sung by Darlene Love on the Phil Spector Christmas album (and no that one didn’t make my list).
5.Davie Allan & The Arrows – Fuzz For The Holidays
Fuzz-tone guitar, cheesy organ, “Wipeout” drums – what’s not to like?! Back in the ’60s Mr. Allan used his fuzz-box for evil making nasty instros with his band The Arrows to accompany biker movies from American International Pictures – “Blue’s Theme”, “Devil’s Angels”, “Theme From The Wild Angels” – all great. When music got all soft and singer/songwriter then disco flash, nobody wanted trashy guitars. Thankfully America came to its senses and Allan found a new cult following ultimately leading to his turning his fuzz-box back on and using it for good to cut this excellent album of Christmas chestnuts (he didn’t just roast them – he incinerated them). Check out “Winter Wonderland” and the grafting of the James Bond theme to “Hark” The Herald Angels Sing”. After this 2004 original he recorded volume 2 a few years later which is also good.
6.The Smithereens – Christmas With…
Back in 2007, the brand of hard-edged guitar rock taken into the charts by these guys in the late ’80s/early ’90s wasn’t selling well. The Smithereens turned to the holiday album solution and came up with a 12 track winner that included some nice left-field covers like “Merry Christmas, Baby” (the Beach Boys) and “Christmas” (the Who). Their version of the old Brenda Lee classic “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” made my top songs list back in 2016. Their usual lead singer Pat DiNizio passed away in mid-December 2017, but the rest of the band has been soldiering on with Marshall Crenshaw singing.
7.J.D. McPherson – Socks-A Christmas Album By…
This is the other new CD of Christmas tunes to hit my collection and after a few more spins could end up moving up on my top list. McPherson and his band are the real deal if you like authentic R&B/Rockabilly in the vein of Chuck Berry/Bill Haley. His band is amazing and put on a great show so be sure to see them in some sweaty club when they hit your town. The album doesn’t feel like a Christmas record so much as a rock and roll record that happens to have a holiday theme. “Hey Skinny Santa”, “Holly, Carol, Candy & Joy”, “Santa’s Got A Mean Machine” – all rock like you would hope, but the slow ones like “Socks” are great too.
Being a U.K. import on the EMI label, this 1989 compilation is skewed heavily towards the kind of songs I love that inexplicably never made it here in the U.S. I’m talking about classics like Roy Wood’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” and Shakin’ Stevens’ “Merry Christmas Everyone”. Five of these songs made my 2016 list including Greg Lake (“I Believe In Father Christmas”), Elton John (“Step Into Christmas”) and John & Yoko (“Happy Xmas [War Is Over]”). Once again, I note that the major online sale site has copies for sale starting at 1.71 plus shipping.
9.Shakin’ Stevens – Merry Christmas Everyone
Oh man, talk about a crime against rock and roll – Shakin’ Stevens has charted over 30 classic ’50s style rockers in the U.K. yet is totally unknown in the U.S. Sometimes I think I should have been born a Brit – Slade, Dave Edmunds and of course Shakey. Back in 1991 He released this 12 song holiday album with his take on mostly originals such as the Elvis-like “Sure Won’t Seem Like Christmas” and rockers like “The Best Christmas Of Them All”. Production on the title track was by Dave Edmunds while the rest were helmed by John David and included the late great Micky Gee on guitar (both from Edmunds’ band).
10.Jethro Tull – Christmas Album
Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull had over the years performed songs with a holiday theme (“A Christmas Song”, “Ring Out Solstice Bells”) so it wasn’t totally unexpected when this album came out in 2003. Tull remakes those two songs here (plus “Jack Frost & The Hooded Crow” and “Bouree”) while tackling a few new songs. For me, it is the flute-led instrumentals of classics like “Greensleeves” and the mix of two songs in “Holly Herald” that are the stand-outs. With Anderson’s falling out with guitarist Martin Barre this may be the last time they put out new music.
11.The Rubber Band – Xmas! The Beatmas
There is a whole world-wide cottage industry that exists of Beatle cover bands. The Rubber Band is a Danish Fab Four cover act that released this beat themed Christmas record in 1996. Each classic old Christmas song is given an arrangement that mimics a Beatles song such as “I Saw Her Standing There” wrapping around “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree”. “Love Me Do” mixes with “Jingle Bells” while “Ticket To Ride” meshes with “White Christmas” also.
12.Blackmore’s Night – Winter Carols
While I am a sucker for this kind of music (Celtic instruments in a bit of a rock context), I am not a fan of the female singer’s overly earnest vocal style. Guitarist Richie Blackmore late of Deep Purple and Rainbow came up with a winning concept with this band, however I wish he would record an album of just instrumentals. The other song I like a lot on this 2006 album is “Lord Of The Dance/Simple Gifts”.
13.Trans-Siberian Orchestra – The Christmas Trilogy
I was struggling with how to place each of the three Trans-Siberian Orchestra albums in this list and then I discovered that they have all been released in one three CD/one DVD set so problem solved. Back in 1996 three members of hard rock band Savatage Jon Oliva, Robert Kinkel and Al Pitrelli along with their producer the late Paul O’Neill founded T.S.O. which has been a holiday juggernaut over the years. Their first album Christmas Eve And Other Stories (1996) built off of the Savatage instrumental “Christmas/Sarajevo 12/24” pointing the way to heavy guitar based classical sounding instrumental songs and bombastic rock opera vocal tracks (they remind me of Meatloaf). Their next two holiday records The Christmas Attic (1998) and The Lost Christmas Eve (2004) have continued in the rock opera tradition (though I admit I don’t understand the stories – I just listen to the music).
14.The Brian Setzer Orchestra – Dig That Crazy Christmas
When Setzer’s band The Stray Cats was winding down, he managed to recharge his career with a horn driven swing band. The Brian Setzer Orchestra released two studio albums of Christmas music mixing jivin’ swing and classics. I far prefer his second holiday album that was released originally in 2005. You can buy a best-of collection but then you would miss out on one of my fave tracks by Setzer, the original rockabilly with horns workout on “Hey Santa!” My other fave track here is his great instro version of “Angels We Have Heard On High”.
15.Christmas With The Kranks music from the motion picture
Little Steven from the E Street Band has some great taste when it comes to alternative type music that is in my wheelhouse (’60s garage rock, Merseybeat). It is no surprise that the soundtrack to this 2004 movie is loaded with cool songs since Mr. Van Zant produced it. There are nifty Beatlish takes on “White Christmas” by Tina Sugandh and “Joy To The World” by the Butties. You can also rock to The Chesterfield Kings (“Hey Santa Claus”) and the Ramones (“Merry Christmas [I Don’t Wanna Fight Tonight]”). I have to admit, however, that I have never seen the movie and likely never will unless someone can tell me why I should.
16.Los Straitjackets – Complete Christmas Songbook
For the 2018 season, Yep Roc records combined all the Christmas music done over the years by my favorite modern instrumental rock band into one handy 27 track CD package. Their 2002 release ‘Tis The Season For…. had the lion’s share of the best tunes here, but the new package concludes with one of my faves they have done – a live version of “Linus And Lucy” from the Charlie Brown soundtrack so you do need the whole CD frankly. I am also fond of “Marshmellow World” and “Here Comes Santa Claus”. When you think of Christmas, you will forever associate it with Mexican wrestling masks after you buy this CD.
17.The Beach Boys – Ultimate Christmas
This 1998 CD expanded the original 1964 12 track LP The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album to 26 tracks (including messages and interviews). The five band originals on the old LP were pretty good (“Santa’s Beard”, “The Man With All The Toys”, etc.) but I never much liked their overly earnest takes on the old classics like “White Christmas”. Frankly without the bonus tracks this album wouldn’t have made the list, but I really like many of them including the single version of “Little Saint Nick” which has seasonal overdubs that improve on the album version. Many of the bonus tracks are from a 1977 proposed Christmas album that their label rejected though many of those tracks are pretty darn good including “Santa’s Got An Airplane” and “Winter Symphony”.
18.38 Special – A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night
38 Special were/are a hard rock band mostly successful in the ’80s. They were formed in Florida by Donnie Van Zant (younger brother of the late lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd Ronnie) and Don Barnes. This holiday CD was released in 2001 and was your usual mix of standards and new songs. They do a few too many ballads here for my taste as it is the rockers like “Jingle Bell Rock” and “A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night” that move me.
19.The Moody Blues – December
As it currently stands this 2003 album is the most recent studio release by one of my favorite progressive pop bands. At this time the band was Justin Hayward, John Lodge and Graeme Edge. There are some truly lovely orchestrations on songs like “A Winter’s Tale”. The originals are quite good here including the Hayward composition “Don’t Need A Reindeer” which is really catchy. They do a nice version of John & Yoko’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” though interestingly they chose to omit the “war is over” lyric. The album is mostly fairly sedate including a nice Bach rewrite “In The Quiet Of Christmas Morning (Bach 147)”. I could have done without the trite “White Christmas”, however.
20.The Albion Band – Live-Another Christmas Present From…
Ashley Hutchings has been involved with some of the best and most important British folk outfits – Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the Albion Band. The latter was his longest tenured outfit with a fluid membership. For many years they put on Christmas shows in the U.K. and this is a record of the 1986 tour which included Cathy Lesurf on vocals. They alternated fiddle driven music with spoken word pieces such as “The History Of Christmas”. My other faves here are “The Official Branle” and “Lumps Of Plum Pudding” – two instrumentals.
BEST PACKAGING AWARD:
Elvis Presley – Christmas Album (and) If Every Day Was Like Christmas
The original RCA Victor LP was his third overall and was released in 1957 as perhaps the first rock and roll holiday album. Listening today, it doesn’t really hold up for me with one side devoted entirely to religious themed music while the other side has only three great songs. It might have made a better EP with “Blue Christmas”, “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me”, “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” and I guess “Here Comes Santa Claus”. That hasn’t stopped it from selling over 20 million copies worldwide so I guess I am in the minority. The content didn’t make my list, but I would nominate the original with a booklet insert of great Elvis promo pictures from his Jailhouse Rock movie as my favorite packaging. I might also include the 1994 limited edition If Every Day Was Like Christmas that was expanded to 24 tracks and came with a pop-up Graceland (his home) in the middle – very cool packaging as well.
BONUS DOPEY CD YOU REALLY NEED TO OWN:
Jingle Cats – Meowy Christmas
The Singing Dogs’ “Jingle Bells” since 1955 owned eye-rolling Christmas silliness till 1993 when a feline 20 track CD hit the market. It is pretty difficult to listen to the entire album, but whenever you feel a need to annoy your kids or your dog (or perhaps clear out a late party crowd so you can go to bed) this really comes in handy.