Not only have we really hit the post-Thanksgiving boiling point for Christmas music ubiquity, we’ve also landed on the 40th anniversary of one of the strangest moments ever in television, Christmas, and/or rock ‘n’ roll history. On November 30, 1977 — exactly four decades ago today — the “Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas” special hit the airwaves and featured unlikely cohorts David Bowie (who’d released his album “Heroes” that October 14) and Bing Crosby (who’d died on… October 14) in an immortally baffling duet on “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy”. Among the dozens of weird details about the concoction of this TV moment is the fact that Bowie legit hated “Little Drummer Boy” (despite announcing it in his banter with Crosby as “my son’s favorite”), which led to the special’s producers and songwriters to spend an hour and change knocking out the “Peace On Earth” half, thereby adding an additional layer of half-formed rock-star mutation to the whole thing.
And that really gets to the long and bewildering history of pop music’s relationship to Christmas: Is it possible to be sentimental and subversive at the same time, to balance centuries-old tradition (or, at the very least, relatively recent general-audience holiday whimsy) and your own cutting-edge, rebellious, overall cool demeanor in the process of putting your own spin on an omnipresent holiday standard? Can Christmas be rock ‘n’ roll or funky or hip-hop without both sides of the equation melting into cornball froth? Usually the answer’s yes when an artist gets to come up with their own original take — sometimes, in the case of OutKast’s “Player’s Ball,” it winds up escaping the very orbit of Christmas itself to become its own thing — but covers are trickier. Here’s a solid eight of them that take a turn for the unlikely in their own unique ways, tweaking the old holiday traditions without overturning them entirely.
The Ronettes, “Frosty The Snowman” (1963)
And now, A Christmas Gift For You From Philles Records — later and better known as A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector — perfect for soundtracking a holiday party full of good cheer and/or chastising your guests for all the fancy shit they bought with their Lufthansa heist money. A flop at the time — it was infamously released on November 22, 1963 — it eventually benefited from a combination of nostalgic holiday vibes and the fact that everyone in the general (if massive) orbit of Spector was in peak form circa ’63. That makes it one of the greatest Christmas records — and label comps — of ’60s girl-group pop you could ask for. (And maybe ditch the “’60s” and “girl-group” qualifiers if you’re feeling bold; Brian Wilson put it at the top of his favorite albums list.) If you want a real dose of what the Wall Of Sound and the arrangement talents of Jack Nitzsche could do for a song, just listen to what the Ronettes do with “Frosty The Snowman,” a catchy but otherwise frivolous, strictly-for-kiddies entry in the Christmas-song canon. still riding the wave of Summer ’63 earthshaker “Be My Baby,” Ronnie Spector put that same level of youthful, wide-eyed joy into their performance here — as does Hal Blaine, who finds an opportunity to lay down some of the most knockout drumming ever to back up a set of sleigh bells.
Jimmy Smith, “Silent Night” (1964)
You’ve got to love the supreme fakeout here: For the first minute and change, this “Silent Night” is all sweeping strings and French horns and every other grand orchestral gesture one might expect from an old mid ’60s LP of Christmas standards. But this is Jimmy Smith’s Christmas album — Christmas ’64, reissued two years later as Christmas Cookin’ with Santa Jimmy bearing gifts in a sleek Alfa Romeo convertible — and you are hereby invited to get a load of what one of the greatest jazz players to ever sit at the Hammond B3 can do. Jostled comfortably into a swinging waltz-time groove, it doesn’t take long for Smith to spring off the familiar hymnal’s composition into some of the most lively-fingered soloing and riffing that could possibly be built around an originally stately and contemplative carol. So he made the title ironic — big deal. It’s still joyous, ain’t it?
The Temptations, “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1968)
If “Frosty The Snowman” is kiddie, “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” is real toddler hours, doofy enough that it necessitated a lot of kids’ early introductions to ad-libbing their own little subversions into the lyrics — All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names (“like poophead!”), or what-have-you. It grew into one of the most popular standards of an entire generation thanks in part to the endearingly weird stop-motion Rankin/Bass TV special of the same name, but what happens when the children of 1964 grow into the adolescents of 1968 and start to chafe at having to deal with childish nonsense when there’s a war going on? The answer is you get the group that had, earlier that same year, said goodbye both David Ruffin and the old Motown Sound on The Temptations Wish It Would Rain and would hit the peak of their Norman Whitfield-driven psychedelic phase over the next few years. Originally released as a ’68 B-side to their version of “Silent Night” and still au courant enough in 1970 to lead off The Temptations’ Christmas Card, their Eddie Kendricks-led “Rudolph” is a whole lot of fun and pulls its own little subversions on the song’s originally lighthearted, bouncy structure (“Hey Rudolph!”) to smooth it out over a classic Funk Brothers backbeat.
The Greedies, “A Merry Jingle” (1979)
A supergroup that sort of wasn’t, the Greedies — alternately known as the Greedy Bastards — had a short-lived and remarkably weird existence that lasted for a handful of live shows in ’78 and approximately one single a year later. Which is just about what you might expect from the unlikely (yet effective) idea of putting Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott and a rotating number of his bandmates in the same group with a few different punk contemporaries. Having the hard rockers that gave us “Jailbreak,” “The Boys Are Back in Town,” and the greatest power ballad of the 1970s join up with a bunch of order-disrupting anti-longhairs turned out better than expected, with the punk-simpatico Lynott (who namedropped huge swaths of the scene on Solo In Soho closer “Talk In 79″) finally putting it on tape after bringing in Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham and drummer Brian Downey to gig with Sex Pistols-turned-ex-Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Strangely enough, their sole studio recording was a solitary Christmas single, a medley of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” and “Jingle Bells,” that did the live TV rounds a couple times but didn’t exactly land coveted UK Christmas #1 status. Maybe the most oddball performance of “Jingle Bells” that didn’t involve smashing mustard packets with a hammer, it’s like some sort of armistice movement in the war between punks and longhairs that was only topped by the wider emergence of Motörhead that same year.
Rev Run & The Christmas All Stars, “Santa Baby” (1997)
Hip-hop’s never been the most cover-heavy genre — samples, interpolations, and callback references are in its DJ-derived production lifeblood, but actually rerecording somebody else’s song in full is rare and most instances are closer to homage or parody than out-and-out covers. Still, in 1997 — the same year Priority put out the new-school-does-old-school tribute In Tha Beginning… There Was Rap — one of the MCs responsible for rap’s most famous cover version of all time got a bunch of other rappers and singers together to wrangle up some kind of b-boy version of the Eartha Kitt classic “Santa Baby.” It’s all lyrically rearranged in a weird mixture of warmhearted, giving sentiment and political cynicism: Salt & Pepa decry commercialism and gangbanging, Onyx yell Grinch threats (“Kids open up they gifts, they all gonna be empty just like mine was!”), and Keith Murray pisses off Megyn Kelly 16 years early by stating that “Santa Claus is a black man.” The extra touch of weirdness here involves having much of the backing beat, initially credited to Run, Jam Master Jay, and Justine Simmons, essentially just be Salaam Remi’s remix of the Fugees’ 1994 single “Nappy Heads.” It’s lighthearted enough, yeah, but I’ll take “Christmas In Hollis,” thanks.
Grandaddy, “Alan Parsons In A Winter Wonderland” (2000)
Grandaddy’s new-wave power pop deserves to go down as some of the most hauntingly strange indie rock of the late ’90s and early ’00s, the lonely detritus of late-capitalist America synthesized (in more ways than one) into a body of work that recalls Weezer if they were weird enough to be into restoring vintage Mellotrons, or Pavement if they were more into Gary Numan than the Fall. Naturally, if you ask Jason Lytle to do a Christmas song, he’ll pick an opportunity to turn a half-pun about Parson Brown from the bridge in “Walking In A Winter Wonderland” in an excuse to make some top-notch referential jokes about the Pink Floyd engineer/Chicago Bulls soundtracker Alan Parsons and/or his Project. And in the way these things sometimes get, a joke executed with some measure of sincere affection and musical care will wind up unusually affecting in its own way (“he’ll say ‘have you listened to my new band’/we’ll say ‘no but we really like that one song that goes time keeps flowing like a river’”). Happy holidays to electronic bands with frostbitten hands.
Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra, “O Come All Ye Faithful” (2007)
Shawn Lee’s got an odd place in current indie-funk, in that he seems dead bent on following the career arc of genuine obscurities — the arrangers, composers, and session players from the kinds of records that get sampled by only the most diligent cratediggers. This has led him into some remarkable collaborations — his albums with Chinese Guzheng player Bei Bei are beguiling as all hell, as is his note-perfect yacht rock side project Young Gun Silver Fox — but he’s also had albums that sound like uncanny attempts to recreate semi-anonymous ’70s library music LPs, background music that eventually insinuates its way into the foreground. A Very Ping Pong Christmas, one of a metric ton of albums he released for Ubiquity as Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra, has the vibe of some theoretical Christmas record that somehow involves both UK keyboard maestro Alan Hawkshaw of “The Champ” renown gigging with David Axelrod and his session crew — and if you have even the slightest idea what that means, congratulations on the deep, deep level of severe beat-nerd obesssion you’ve now joined me in. Come for this funkified 17th century carol; stay for the version of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” that makes it sound like the Animals’ take on “House Of the Rising Sun.”
Mac DeMarco, “White Christmas” (2015)
Take your fuzzy family memories of long-ago childhoods in decades past and warp it through the unreliably durable medium of VHS videotape, plug it in to your old CRT monitor with the DOS prompt burn-in, and wonder to yourself if it’s the nostalgia, the whiskey, or the music itself that’s making everything sound so wobbly and upsetting. Try to weave through a curdled sentiment as bewildering as your inability to tell whether those happiest memories were things you experienced or just saw in gauzy Vaseline-filtered commercials. This is the sound of all the batteries running out in the toys you just unwrapped 30 minutes ago.