The holiday season is naturally one of traditions. As comforting as our traditions may be, the omnipresence of holiday music at the end of each year may occasionally leave us wishing for a brief respite, something off the well-worn grooves of memory. In that spirit, what follows is a collection of tracks that offer something a bit different, or the opportunity to listen with fresh ears. At the outset, I acknowledge this mini-playlist is largely secular, on the presumption that you don’t need me to remind you What Christmas Is All About. Thankfully, we all have Linus Van Pelt for that.
1. “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!” by Sufjan Stevens
It is a fair bet this track is underrated, given that most people have never heard of indie composer Sufjan Stevens, let alone heard his Christmas music. Despite the title,”Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!” is a gem, at first capturing the barely-contained, goofy exuberance of children at Christmastime, but eventually weaving in both the sacred and mundane and creating a sense of larger community as well.
2. “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,” by Wizzard
After stints in The Move and the Electric Light Orchestra, Roy Wood went for Glam rock with Wizzard. Although largely unknown in the United States, this neo-Spectorian blast (complete with children’s choir) is a seasonal staple in the United Kingdom. At first, however, it was even underrated in the UK, losing out to Slade’s “Merry Christmas, Everybody” for the coveted Christmas number one spot in 1973 (Those who have seen “Love Actually” know about this annual competition). I can live without this track’s opening cash register bell, but forget about it by the time the swinging saxophone riff rocks the chorus.
Honorable mention: “Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End),” by The Darkness, an even more Glam take on the season, which missed the UK’s Christmas number one slot in 2003. It sounds like what Queen would have written as a Christmas song, which I presume the band would take as a compliment.
3. “The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” by Andy Williams
Not to break format or get Slate-pitchy, but one way for a track to become underrated is to become so ubiquitous as to become aural wallpaper, as this one surely has. But as the lyrics roll through your head (because you may not realize you know them by heart), consider these: “There’ll be scary ghost stories / And tales of the glories / Of Christmases long, long ago.” Ghost stories? This may seem odd at first blush, but telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve was a big tradition in Victorian England. Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is the one example to become popular on this side of the Atlantic. On this track, Williams is so dynamic and joyful that we rarely register this lyrical twist.
4. “The Christmas Song,” by The Raveonettes
Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo are occasionally — and unfairly — dismissed by hipsters as a lesser version of the Jesus & Mary Chain. Both bands, however, are firmly rooted in pop classicism, and this number is no exception. The sound is updated early-Sixties Pop, with a lyric almost as traditional. The weather outside is not yet frightful, but the Raveonettes wish for it, to push them inside for cozy comfort and companionship. Even Santa is coming to visit, and not just to leave gifts.
5. “We’re A Couple of Misfits,” by Billie Richards and Paul Soles
Over the years, people have come to realize that the North Pole as described in the classic “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a cold place indeed, even cruel and intolerant. Rudolph is shunned by his peers and — in the 1964 Rankin-Bass animated classic — even by Santa himself (Rudolph’s parents are little better). Yet the Rankin-Bass crew used this song, and the invention of the Island of Misfit Toys, to reclaim the original Robert L. May tale. Indeed, the message of this seemingly slight tune was powerful enough for viewers to complain that Santa was not shown including the Misfit Toys in his annual delivery, prompting a newly-shot ending in which Santa picks up the Toys, as shown from 1965 onward.
6. “How Do You Spell Hanukah / Hannukkah / Chanukah,” by The LeeVees
The title itself explains one reason why Hanukah has problems gaining traction in holiday music. The Leevees, led by Adam Gardner of Guster and Dave Schneider of the Zambonis, gamely try to turn the tide. There are plenty of novelty holiday songs around, but this one really rocks. The next time Grandma is about to get run over by a reindeer, put this one on instead.
Honorable mention: Guster’s take on the 1959 novelty hit, “Donde Esta Santa Claus,” which is potentially annoying — but with tremendous earworm potential.
7. “Maybe This Christmas,” by Ron Sexsmith
An underrated song from an underrated songwriter. “Maybe This Christmas” is probably the song Paul McCartney wishes he wrote instead of “Wonderful Christmastime.” Sexsmith’s voice is dulcet, the music is as light as Wings and the lyrics subtly suggest the reason for the season. The line between sentiment and sentimentality is easily crossed, but Sexsmith never does here.
8. “That’s What Christmas Means to Me,” by Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder has been a fixture on our musical landscape for so long that it is easy to forget there was a period in the late Sixties and early Seventies where he could do no wrong musically. In 1967, Motown’s Allen Story, Anna Gordy Gaye, and George Gordy supplied Wonder with the hoariest of Christmas clichés and Wonder (with snappy assistance from the Funk Brothers) infused them with infectious glee.
9. “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” by Ella Fitzgerald
I would not generally class Ella Fitzgerald as underrated, but here she does something quite difficult and makes it seem easy. In the hands of many, mostly lesser artists,”Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” turns mawkish and even self-pitying. On this track, a saucy arrangement and Fitzgerald’s assured delivery combine to place a fresh spin on a timeless tune without sounding incongruous.
10. “Fairytale of New York,” by The Pogues, featuring Kirsty MacColl
One way to write an underrated Christmas song is to open with,”It was Christmas Eve, babe / In the drunk tank…,” then throw in some mild profanity and a gay epithet. The kids will never be taught this tune in public school. Indeed, the BBC threatened to censor it in 2007, but backed down in the face of public opinion. Coincidentally, this is yet another song which failed to win the Christmas number one derby, yet who remembers the Pet Shop Boys won covering “Always On My Mind”? Controversy aside,”Fairytale of New York” is a tour de force of songwriting, as Shane MacGowan’s lyrical reverie stumbles from tough to hilarious to tear-jerking over the course of a few stanzas, while the rest of the Pogues give the music melancholy and majesty, often simultaneously. Kristy MacColl, whose duet with MacGowan was fortuitous, also turns in a bravura performance. This fairytale turns out to be a tragedy, yet it is nearly impossible to avoid exhilaration listening to it.