Say what you want about the commercially-belabored Christmas Season™, no other time of year presents such a strong cross-section of domesticity and pop culture. We have as many individual memories of the season (for better or for worse) as we have collective ones. Our collective yuletide nostalgia is how TBS gets away with twenty-four whole hours of A Christmas Story every effing year, whether anybody asks for it or not. Is “It must be Italian!” still funny the twelfth time you see it the same day? I’m asking.
It’s also how local radio gets away with nonstop Christmas music for a full month, from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day, with a pool of, like, fifty songs that spin over and over and over until by December 1st you already feel like throwing up your PSL every time that little shit on 101.1 wants a hippopotamus for Christmas. How long, really, before the novelty wears off? How long before the sanctioned enjoyment of the unrepentantly saccharine grows old and we start reaching for the Radiohead once again? How many fucking times must we sit through the whole intro to Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”? How much of it can you recite, just off the top of your head? Hey band! You guys know what time ‘a year it is?! What’s that?! Oh yeah, Christmas time! You guys all been good and practicing real hard? ET FUCKING CETERA AD INFINITUM.
At least my dad had the good sense to cut off that stupid chiding intro – Everybody out there been good, or what? OHH THAT’S NOT MAANYYYYYYY NOT MAANYYYYYYY UGH BRUCE SHUT UPPPP!!! – when he made his legendary Christmas compilations. He was a reverent student of the classics – Mssrs. Crosby, Mathis, and “King” Cole received their due representation and then some – but he also included plenty of songs that, as I later discovered, had not been fully accepted into the Christmas canon. And so it’s in honor of this slightly askew interpretation of history that I present the Top 5 Dad Rock Christmas Songs.
I’m using a pretty loose definition of “dad rock” – a term I first saw in Steven Hyden’s review of Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, which led me to assume it meant “rock music that sounds like it’s trying to sound like Let It Be.” As the march of time bends ever forward, however, pop fans with all sorts of different allegiances are sticking their noses into dadhood. People who grew up on Green Day now have kids in high school, which means Green Day is one type of dad rock. The same will eventually be true of The Strokes and Vampire Weekend and whatever replaces rock and roll when we finally decide it’s enough already.
So this one’s for all you Baby Boomer Santas out there. I hope this list adequately panders to your demographic’s well-documented historical vanity.
Rules and Exemptions
In observance of the Too Obvious Rule, I’ve tried to steer away from songs that still get heavy airplay during the most funderful time of year (with one minor exception). Examples include Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas,” Elvis’s “Blue Christmas,” and pretty much all of the standards, none of which fit the “rock” label anyway, no matter how many dads still get glassy-eyed over “The Christmas Song.” Also exempt are all Beatles-related Christmas songs, all for different reasons: Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” because it’s wildly overrated; McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” because it’s wildly popular despite being disliked by most serious humans (I absolutely love it, TBH); and “Christmas Time is Here Again,” the sole full-band attempt at a holiday song, because it sucks.
Chuck Berry – “Run Rudolph Run”
Here’s an uncomfortable question: Have we exhausted the possibilities of rock and roll? A clue to the genre’s seemingly finite reserve of usable melodies might be found in the back pages of its very originators. Every art form in its embryonic stages struggles to keep up with the demand for fresh product, but Chuck Berry – the premier capitalist of rock’s first golden age – was also rock’s most shameless recycler of his own melodies. For every Chuck Berry song, there’s another Chuck Berry song that sounds exactly – exactly – the same but is about 50% as good. For instance, “No Particular Place To Go” has the same melody, meter, rhythm and rhyme scheme as “School Days,” but the latter is only half as good as the former. (History is nicer to “School Days” because it came first and because it contains the classic “Hail! Hail! Rock and roll!” line, but one of rock’s bedrock principles is that songs about cars and driving are always better than songs about school. This is why reasonable people tend to stop listening to the Ramones around the same time they stop being virgins.)
Also in this vein is the case of “Little Queenie” vs. “Run Rudolph Run,” and here again I must side with the underdog. For one thing, “Run Rudolph Run,” by virtue of its subject matter, avoids the classic dad-rock pothole of retroactively questionable lyrics, into which its sister song falls ass-first. (“She’s too cute to be a minute over seventeen,” he sang, aged thirty-three.) And for another, the song reconciles better than any other the historically fraught relationship between rock and roll and holiday music. By 1957, tone-deaf opportunists had already poisoned the well with the mincing “Jingle Bell Rock,” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” – released the same year as Berry’s song – didn’t help matters. Look, I like those songs too, but ask yourself who’s more rock and roll: Chuck Berry or Brenda Lee? I’ll wait.
The Kinks – “Father Christmas”
Let’s spill one on the curb for any shitbird who’s ever used the phrase “the meaning of Christmas” unironically. The Kinks were expert at facing difficult but unquestionable truths head-on and battering our illusions with maniacal glee. Clowns also die, boys are also girls, and Christmas isn’t about Jesus or family or even giving – it’s about receiving. Who can disagree? The common denominator among the most well-worn Christmas classics is that they were engineered in the spirit of suppressing our collective shame. We want things – we want money – and the guilt derived from our innate greed drives us to create abstractions to explain the impulse. Thus we invoke asinine mantras like “the season of giving” to convince ourselves that it’s cool to revel in our reapings as long as we throw some scratch back into the pot. But that’s a very middle-class myth, one that reeks of trickle-down condescension. Leave it to the brothers Davies to throw the distribution of wealth in your face when you’re trying to have a good time. Don’t bring toys. Bring jobs. Bring money. Give all the toys to the little rich boys.
Billy Squier – “Christmas is the Time to Say ‘I Love You'”
I will never understand why this song doesn’t get more traction on my local holiday station. “Christmas is the Time to Say ‘I Love You'” is just about the most joyous non-drug song ever released, sung by one of our great forgotten vocalists at the height of his abilities. Sure, Squier’s little more than a pop curiosity these days, but you won’t catch the laity blasting Jose Feliciano in the off-season either. Honestly, what’s the deal? It doesn’t make sense to chalk it up to ’80s prejudice; McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” was released in the waning days of ’79, but it’s far more, ahem, of its time than Squier’s tune. This is an actual rock song that is also an actual holiday song, balancing muscle and heart, never leaning too heavily this way or that. My theory? At a time of year when mainstream commercial radio turns aggressively, irredeemably Christian, the tepid and timid among us would rather not be reminded of the guy who did “The Stroke.” Fucking puritans.
Squeeze – “Christmas Day”
It’s no mystery why this one never caught on. It’s too high-concept, for one thing. Difford and Tilbrook essentially transpose the story of the nativity into an episode of EastEnders, smashing the holy mythos of the holiday right up against its modern role as just another domestic ritual. Mary and Joseph are placed on the same shelf as Laurel and Hardy; Jesus is almost an afterthought. On top of all that you have the music, which is quintessential Squeeze – another reason why it could never hang with contemporary holiday radio. The diminished chords and backward arrangements characteristic of peak Squeeze (the song was released in ’79, between classic singles “Slap and Tickle” and “Another Nail in my Heart”) are on full display here. For Christ’s sake (ha!), the chorus is in a minor key! Again we have the creeping question of what Christmas is really about, and the answer is brusque and unceremonious: “Cracker surprise/Lights on the pine tree/More aftershave.” Oh, and Jesus. Almost forgot.
The Three Wise Men – “Thanks for Christmas”
It’s hard not to read that title – and that fake band name – as passive-aggressive, sarcastic, practically baiting, especially when you look backwards through the historical telescope. For the so-called “Three Wise Men” were none other than Swindon’s own XTC – you know, the band who would later score a minor hit with “Dear God,” an aggressively unsubtle ode to atheism, half sung by actual no-shit children, fer crissakes. Which makes it even weirder that “Thanks for Christmas” is possibly the most sincere – and at least the most earnest – selection on this list. The distinctive horns that open the song recall Greg Lake’s pretty-decent-but-still-inferior “I Believe in Father Christmas,” without all the allusions to Prokofiev. There’s a sense of genuine gratitude for the fact that, despite the religious grandstanding and Pavlovian consumerism that surround the season, there’s beauty here, too. There’s kindness, friendliness, a childlike sense of hope. Christmas, as it happens, is all around.