Secular Christmas Songs: My all-time top 5.5
Little known fact about me:
I’m an armchair music connoisseur. Not because I played tenor sax for two years in middle school (which I did), but mainly because it’s in the genes. Grandpa played piano; uncle Jeff plays bass and has gold records and Junos; my sister Dana is the most sought-after Mulatto Soprano on Chicago’s opera scene.*
*No, we’re not what people once called “mulatto” and now label “biracial.” But lots of operas have “tragic mulatta” roles. My sis sings and looks the part, so she gets the calls. But I digress.*
So yes, nature and nurture have blessed me with a good ear and strong ideas about what I consider good music. And when I love a song, I love hard. If I’m half a block from home and a great song comes on the radio, I’ll take a detour rather than leave the car while the it’s playing.
Yeah, I’ve driven around the block for early-career Anita Baker. On several occasions.
And I feel just as strongly about bad music. Granted, my daily playlist contains some guilty pleasures — I’ve spent entire days at the office with this song on repeat — but taste in music could make or break a deal. If a woman tries to play me some Trey Songz I might just lose her phone number.
Which leads me to a second little-known fact about me:
I hate secular Christmas music.
Religious carols? Great.
But Christmas pop? Unless it’s “Christmas in Hollis,” miss me with it please.
And that space where secular carols morph into Christmas jazz is where you’ll find some of the most annoying music ever recorded. If you don’t think “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Jingle Bell Rock” constitute the most aurally offensive 1-2 punch of the holiday season, we might have to reconsider the friendship. You don’t inflict those songs on people you care about.
There are, however, a few non-religious pop Christmas songs I adore, and which receive fairly steady play at my place every December. My top five is as follows:
5. Boyz II Men, “Let it Snow”
Because every RnB Christmas playlist needs at least one slow jam, and this is, for me, is some of Boyz II Men’s best work. If you took the same tune and made it about something other than Christmas you’d still listen. Captures holiday sentimentality without spilling over into signature Boyz II Men sappiness.
4. McCartney, “Wonderful Christmas Time”
Yes, this song is putrid. Every bit as bad as Madonna’s “Santa Baby” and Wham’s “Last Christmas,” when George Micheal “gev” you his heart, and the very next day “you gev it away.”
My Christmas wish is to un-hear all of it.
But in the hands of a skilled sampler it provides the platform for an underappreciated hip-hop classic.
Doesn’t get much randomer than a Nice & Smooth homage, yet Dove executes one — flawlessly. Channels Greg Nice in the first verse, Smooth B in the third and completes a thorough re-purposing of an otherwise unlistenable piece of holiday pop.
3. Luther Vandross, “Every Year, Every Christmas”
I’d forgotten how much I liked this one until Monday, strolling through the Bay at Square One, trying to block out the Christmas pop wafting through the air like a faint but unpleasant smell. Usually I try to enter, shop, and exit the store as quickly as possibly, lest I get caught flat-footed when “8 Days of Christmas” comes on.*
But as I was leaving they played this one and I actually slowed down and lingered in the store just so I could listen until the end.
That’s the power of Luther — vocalist enough to get you to listen to songs that would bore you to tears if anybody else were singing them.
2. Donny Hathaway, “This Christmas”
Has one song spawned so many lacklustre covers?
Nothing touches the original.
Shake a hand, shake a hand.
1. Albert King, “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”
What happens when Santa Claus is Born Under a Bad Sign?
He goes on a midnight creep when the “chirren” are asleep.
This is grown folks’ Christmas music.
My late father was a big Albert King fan, and introduced me to his music when I was clearly too young to be exposed damn near anything King was talking about. Thankfully, when had me sit down and listen to Born Under a Bad sign he directed me to concentrate on bass lines and guitar riffs, so I didn’t pay much attention to lyrics. How, after all, would you explain “Crosscut Saw” to an eight-year-old kid?
The same way you’d explain “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’.”
You’d wait until they were old enough to figure out on their own.
Well, I understand now. It’s not like “The Velvet Bulldozer” hit his meaning behind layers of clever metaphor. He was as subtle as the nickname implies.
If love is the greatest gift you can give or receive at Christmas, lovin’ runs a close second, something King clearly understand.
So from me to all of you, may the holiday season bring you great food, good company, lots of love and plenty of lovin’.
See you after Christmas.