BingCrosbyVEVO / YouTube
The Thin White Duke meets Mr. "White Christmas": David Bowie and Bing Crosby duet in 1977.
By Alex Smith, TODAY
In the basement of my apartment building here in New York City there is a laundry room. Presumably to brighten the atmosphere of this dank, gloomy space, the superintendent duct-taped an ancient boom box to the wall, tuned the radio to the local Lite FM station, and ripped the tuning knob off, making it the only station that will play while one is folding T-shirts or adding fabric softener.
Though I am a rabid music fan, this doesn't bother me that much. I’m not in there as often as I probably should be. But there is one time of year when my visits to the laundry room feel like endless rotations on Hell's own night shift: Christmastime.
To clarify, Christmastime — by this radio station's calendar, anyway — starts in early November. Thus, by the middle of the month prior to December, we're treated to every shrill permutation of cloying holiday tune known to exist, be it a ridiculously melismatic R&B makeover of "Silver Bells," an overwrought reading of "O Holy Night" or a torturous stomp through "Sleigh Ride."
You may think I hate Christmas, but that's not the case at all. And it's not even so much that the holiday is no longer allowed to simply arrive so much as be force-fed down our collective throats (whether we're ready for it or not). I can tune all that out. I think my biggest issue is: Why does so much Christmas music have to be so, well, lame?
It's not all insipid, of course. In my home, when we're ready for the holiday to start on our terms, we invariably reach for our trusty copy of A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. But even Guarladi's jazzy piano stylings (conjuring up images of the "Peanuts" gang getting down at their Christmas play rehearsal) can only be played so many times before the ear thirsts for fresh yuletide material.
With this dilemma in mind, I recently started polling my friends and associates to come up with the ultimate playlist of some lesser-celebrated Christmas tunes that don't make you want to set fire to the mistletoe and spike the eggnog with arsenic.
Here's my list. What's on yours?
10. "Christmas Griping" by R.E.M. (1991) - Borrowing a page from the Beatles by releasing a fan club-only Christmas single, R.E.M. give us a hilarious litany of familiar yuletide complaints ("Wouldn't you just love to throttle the person who invented fruitcake?") recited over what sounds like the signature rhythm of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk."
9. "Frosty the Snowman" by Cocteau Twins (1993) - Known for garnering rapturous adjectives for their inimitable brand of dreamy, ethereal pop, the Scottish post-punk trio apply their inimitable sound to a well-worn Christmas favorite, re-casting the Frosty fable with Robin Guthrie's chiming guitars and Liz Fraser's spiraling yelps and coos.
8. "It's A Wonderful Life (Gonna Have a Good Time)" by Fishbone (1987) - Los Angeleno ska-funk-punk collective Fishbone encapsulates Frank Capra's timeless holiday classic from 1946, "It's a Wonderful Life" into 3 minutes and 5 seconds of infectious, hiccupy, horn-honking ska.
7. "Christmas with the Devil" by Spinal Tap (1984) – The mock heavy metal band who starred in their own classic mockumentary also delivered a classic mock holiday tune, intoning “the sugarplums are rancid and the stockings are in flames” with appropriately sludgy solemnity. Even as parody extraordinaire, Tap filled the much-needed void between the holidays and hard rock a good two decades before bona fide metal bands like Twisted Sister started adopting the shtick.
6. "2000 Miles" by The Pretenders (1983) - From the band's third album, Learning to Crawl, "2000 Miles" seems to tell the bittersweet tale of sweethearts separated by dark nights, snowy weather and great distances during a holiday normally associated with warmth and togetherness. In actuality, the song is an elegy from bandleader Chrissie Hynde to former Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who tragically died from a cocaine overdose the year before at age 25.
5. "Christmas in Hollis" by Run-DMC (1987) – A choice piece of old-school hip hop, yuletide content completely aside, Run-DMC’s contribution to the Christmas canon celebrates the delights of the holiday in the African-American community of Hollis, Queens, in New York City. Its homage to chicken, collard greens, rice, stuffing, and macaroni and cheese is now nearly as familiar and evocative as “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”
4. "Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)" by the Ramones (1989) – The Ramones’ faux fraternity (they all shared the stage surname "Ramone") was pure facade; in reality, the band was renowned for icy infighting between its notoriously volatile members. But even da brudders could agree that Christmas is no time for discord. Though delivered with their signature brand of leather-clad, fist-flailing punk wallop, “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” still comes across as genuinely heartfelt as anything crooned by Johnny Mathis, Burl Ives or Nat King Cole.
3. "Il Est Ne, Le Divin Enfant" by Siouxsie & the Banshees (1982) – Largely credited for spawning the perpetually gloomy Goth subgenre, British punk veterans Siouxsie & the Banshees probably aren't the first name to spring to mind when you think of seasonal cheer, but you’d be surprised. Initially released as the b-side to their 1982 single “Melt,” “Il Est Ne, Le Divin Enfant” is a reworking of a French carol that finds Siouxsie and her high-haired cohorts (then including guitarist Robert Smith, on loan from The Cure) eschewing their normal fare for a soaring, celebratory ode to reason for the season.
2. "White Christmas" by Iggy Pop (2009) – Though the Irving Berlin standard is usually more associated with seasoned vocalists like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, that didn’t stop the godfather of punk from trying his hand at it. Sidestepping his reputation for high-octane hell-raising in favor of a relatively straightforward (if slightly campy) rendition, Ig does the Christmas classic justice in his deep, resonant voice.
1. "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" by David Bowie and Bing Crosby (1977) - Recorded and filmed for a television special called “Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas,” the strenuously unlikely pairing of Bing Crosby with David Bowie — then still in the heady throes of his innovative Berlin period with envelope-pushing albums like Low and Heroes — has gone down in history as an inspired and surreal bit of TV programming. After a de rigueur exchange of yuletide pleasantries, Bowie and Crosby launch into the stirring and slightly schmaltzy duet, with Bing providing sonorous “rum-ba-bum-bums” beneath Bowie’s mannered crooning. Three and a half decades later, the odd duo’s harmonies maintain the power to both raise eyebrows and warm cockles.
What are we missing? What are your favorite Christmas songs?
Alex Smith is editor/producer for TODAY who still has a soft spot for "Do They Know It's Christmas?" by Band Aid.
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