December is here and seasonal music fills the air with almost disconcerting ubiquity. So, with songwriters happily napping with visions of royalty checks dancing in their heads, last week performing rights organization ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) announced its Top 25 most-performed Holiday songs for the first five years of the 21st Century. Recorded over and over, decade by decade, these Christmas/winter holiday favorites continue to appeal to young and old alike and pay the bills for many a songwriter.
The great songwriter Johnny Marks leads this list with three tunes — “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” They all sound pretty great to me.
Working the songwriting crowd, Marilyn Bergman, ASCAP President and Chairman of the Board said, “More than anything else, music sets the mood for the Holidays, evoking the magic of the season and memories of Holidays past. These timeless classics have been recorded by artists in every genre, yet each song retains the original stamp of its creators.”
Here’s the list with some random commentary from me (song title, songwriters):
1. “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” – Mel Tormé,
The most performed ASCAP Holiday Song of the 21st Century is “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” written by Robert Wells and the singing great, Mel Tormé. The song, written when Tormé was 19 and Wells was 22, became a seasonal classic with the release of Nat “King” Cole’s 1946 recording. Cole’s version remains the most popular on radio today. Other popular recordings include versions by Celine Dion, Luther Vandross and Natalie Cole.
2. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” – Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie
Bruce Springsteen’s version — based upon Spector’s ’63 arrangement for the Crystals — was recorded in 1975 when Springsteen was still young and hungry and just coming into his own as a real rock star. I love the playful banter with the band and the audience, the ebulience of the performance, and the jazzed satisfaction in Springsteen’s voice that he finally had the attention of the world. That and Clarence’s jolly “ho ho ho’s.”
This perennial, originally written in 1934, was recorded the same year by orchestra leader George Hall.
3. “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” – Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin
Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — written for her in 1944 by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin for the MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis — is one of the saddest, most touching and profoundly vulnerable performances on record, her trembling voice fighting through to the final stanza:
Through the years
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
We don’t typically equate Christmas with “muddling through,” at least in song, but there is an emotional honesty here that recognizes muddling through is sometimes the best we can do as the Fates bandy us about like feathers in a gale.
4. “Winter Wonderland” – Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith
A very young, high-spirited Aretha Frankin turns in a delightful upper register romp through “Winter Wonderland” with orchestra, recorded in ’64 while she was still with Columbia and before she found her soul groove. This may be her finest recording of the era.
Sometimes I like even better the inspired electroglide version by the Eurythmics, and I also have a fondness for the Cocteau Twins’ quirky, ethereal take.
5. “White Christmas” – Irving Berlin
Irving Berlin’s beautiful, longing ode to snow and the Christmas spirit that captures both the celebration and underlying melancholy present for many at the holiday. While Bing Crosby’s version, introduced in the film Holiday Inn in 1942, is the biggest-selling single of all time, I am partial to the Drifter’s swinging, doo-woppy R&B version. I’m not putting down Der Bingle though, I particularly like his harmony riff off the melody near the end.
“White Christmas” is not only the most recorded Christmas song, with over 500 versions in dozens of languages, but is the most recorded song of any kind, period.
6. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” – Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne
Rene Marie, who combines luxuriant, playful sensuality with precision — Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald — stretches and yawns like a cat in front of the fireplace on “Let It Snow Let It Snow Let It Snow” and only the most foolish man would argue.
7. “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” – Johnny Marks
Gene Autry’s folksy original is still the standard.
8. “Jingle Bell Rock” – Joseph Carleton Beal, James Ross Boothe
Bobby Helms’ relaxed rockabilly classic still conjures up the open-ended promise of the ’50s.
9. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” – Walter Kent, Kim Gannon, Buck Ram
Seasonal poignance in the vein of “Have YOurself a Merry Little Christmas”
10. “Little Drummer Boy” – Katherine K. Davis, Henry V. Onorati, Harry
The sonorous harmonies and lush intonations of the Vienna Boy’s choir pulsing to a majestic drum beat pushes their original version to the sublime.
David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s odd couple pairing for a ’70s TV special on “Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth” has rightly become a strangely affecting standard as well.
11. “Sleigh Ride” – Leroy Anderson, Mitchell Parish
Johnny Mathis’ infectious good cheer, oddly appealing nasal tonality and flawless enunciation on this jingling pile of corn makes it not only believable but plausible, almost.
12. “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” – Edward Pola, George Wyle
13. “Silver Bells” – Jay Livingston, Ray Evans
Introduced in the film The Lemon Drop Kid (1950), the Roches’ eccentric three-part harmony is put to endearing use on their charming version.
14. “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” – Johnny Marks
Brenda Lee’s rockabilly counter part to Helm’s “Jingle Bell Rock” – both flavorful classics.
15. “Feliz Navidad” – José Feliciano
Rousing bit of Latin-flavored seasonal cheer from Jose.
16. “Blue Christmas” – Billy Hayes, Jay W. Johnson
Elvis swaggers in for his bluesy, soulful “Blue Christmas,” which reveals the other end of the emotional spectrum that the intensity of the holidays often brings forth. When the norm and expectation is of joyous togetherness, its absence is particularly distressing.
17. “Frosty The Snowman” – Steve Nelson, Walter E. Rollins
Ella Fitzgerald is her staggeringly flawless, lovably girlish self on a nicely rhythmic pop arrangement of “Frosty the Snow Man.”
18. “A Holly Jolly Christmas” – Johnny Marks
Burl Ives’ singing snowman version from the original Rudolph TV presentation is among that show’s arsenal of great musical secret weapons (“Rudolph” “Silver and Gold” “Holly Jolly”).
19. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” – Tommie Connor
20. “Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)” – Gene Autry,
21. “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” – Meredith Willson
Dionne Warwick’s chipper rendition is my fave.
22. “(There’s No Place Like) Home For The Holidays” – Bob Allen, Al
23. Carol Of The Bells – Peter J. Wilhousky, Mykola Leontovich
24. “Santa Baby” – Joan Ellen Javits, Philip Springer, Tony Springer
Eartha Kitt purred out her definitive “Santa Baby” in ’53 with a sensual force sure to get a rise out of any Santa worth his suit – Madonna’s ’90 take for the first A Very Special Christmas is a pale imitation.
25. “Wonderful Christmastime” – Paul McCartney
I dig the Paulie, but this one doesn’t do much for me. Written and recorded in ’79 it’s the most recent vintage of the bunch and I am perplexed that it made the list at all.
(Don’t forget this lists only contains songwriters signed to ASCAP, there’s another world out there with BMI, SESAC, etc, though ASCAP is the largest.)