Written by Eric Sperrazza
The holiday season is ruled by nostalgia. The ubiquitous smells, decorations, and music all aim to transport you back to a more innocent time when the world was filled with magic and joy. But, just because we’re engrossed in the winter pageantry of it all, does not mean our music must be confined to Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams.
Here are 15 tracks to add to your holiday playlist when you want to stay in the spirit, but you crave more rock than what the original Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree has to offer!
Chuck Berry – Run Rudolph Run (1958)
Many artists have covered Chuck Berry‘s “Run Rudolph Run” and, admittedly, I do enjoy the 2000 Lynyrd Skynyrd version when it plays on the radio. But nothing – and I mean nothing – ever comes close to the original! That early rock guitar mastery and Chuck Berry‘s soulful vocals put this holiday classic in, both, the categories of essential and legendary. Chuck Berry is rock & roll and this version rocks.
The Ronettes – Frosty The Snowman (1963)
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town (1975)
In 1975, as Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band were climbing up the mountain of popularity from obscure bars in Asbury Park to mainstream radio, they recorded a version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” during a show at Long Island University, C.W. Post. At that moment, with Clarence Clemons whaling on the saxophone and the audience singing along with Bruce‘s rustic Jersey voice, an instant classic was born.
The Kinks – Father Christmas (1977)
Wildly considered one of the first punk rock bands, The Kinks wrote an anti-holiday song about poor children accosting a department store Santa for his money… not his toys. Other punk acts like Bad Religion, Green Day, and Save Ferris went on to cover this delinquent carol, but The Kinks got it right the first time, and it needs no reboot.
The Waitresses – Christmas Wrapping (1981)
Hailing from the great state of Ohio, The Waitresses hit the radio in 1981 with “Christmas Wrapping,” although most people had mistakenly assumed it was a Blondie song. The following year, the band separated themselves from their mistaken identity by releasing “I Know What Boys Like.” To this day, “Christmas Wrapping” is still a staple in holiday movies and shopping malls, the world over, but I bet you can still find at least one person that still believes that it’s Debbie Harry on vocals!
Queen – Thank God It’s Christmas (1984)
U2 – Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (1987)
Sometimes, lightning strikes twice. With a hit and with U2’s Christmas, Baby Please Come Home, that is exactly what happened. The original, a winter classic by Darlene Love, was once ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as the #1 Greatest Holiday Rock Song of all time. But in 1987, hot with popularity touring on their Joshua Tree album, U2 decided to cover this classic with Darlene Love on vocals. Today, U2‘s version is just as recognizable and enjoyable.
RUN DMC – Christmas In Hollis (1987)
Born on the same New York anti-establishment streets as the punk rock movement, rap was beginning to rise to Top 40 popularity in the ’80s. At the front of the line, fast becoming rap music stars were RUN DMC. In 1987, with the help of legendary producer, Rick Rubin, RUN DMC gave the world a peek into what made the holidays special in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Hollis, Queens. With the help of MTV, this one-off song, meant for a compilation album with the likes of Whitney Houston, Bob Segar, and Sting, Christmas in Hollis continues to stand alone as a timeless holiday gem.
The Ramones – Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight) (1989)
In March of 1989, The Ramones released the album, Brain Drain, with the 12th track being an oddly-placed Christmas song called “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight).” It had no rhyme or reason, as it was not released during the holidays and no other songs on the LP were holiday-themed and thus no real attention was given to it. But, that all changed when MTV released the video for the track the following holiday season. Since then, “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight)” is just as synonymous with the leather-clad punks from Queens as “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
Trans-Siberian Orchestra – Christmas Eve – Sarajevo 12/24 (1996)
For the fans of the rock-opera band, Savatage, you may remember a song of theirs called “Sarajevo” off their 1995 album, Dead Winter Dead. It is no accident that it sounds strikingly similar to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra‘s Christmas Eve – Sarajevo 12/24. That is because Savatage songwriter, vocalist, keyboardist & producer, John Oliva, is one of the founding members of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra! Along with fellow Savatage producer and songwriters, Paul O’Neill and Robert Kinkel, Trans-Siberian Orchestra rebooted “Sarajevo”
My Chemical Romance – All I Want For Christmas Is You (2004)
Whenever anything is gladly welcomed into the halls of mainstream pop culture fame, there is always a counter-culture movement that deems it passe’. That is exactly what we are witnessing, in real-time, with Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas is You.” Just turn to social media to see the digital eye rolls people offer up whenever the song is brought up in conversation. But, Gerard Way and My Chemical Romance leaned in, hard, to this tune and released a cover that is one part ironic, one part fun, and two-parts everything you love about punk rock. Do you still want to sing along to your favorite holiday radio hit without looking like an old relic, void of any cool? You can feel confident in blaring this version out of your car!
Twisted Sister – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (2006)
In 2006, hair metal fans rejoiced as Dee Snyder and the boys of Twisted Sister released a new album… a holiday album. That’s right, with all the head-banging flair Twisted Sister is known for, they tackle such timeless classics as “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silver Bells.” But none greater than the opening track that sets the pace for the rest of the album, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Dee Snyder plus Christmas carols. Need I say more?!
Flyleaf – What’s This? (2008)
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a huge Disney hit that is both a Halloween horror tale with heart and a macabre Christmas rom-com, all at once. The soundtrack has stood the test of time in the Disney catalog. But, in 2008 various artists covered said soundtrack in their individual styles on an album called Nightmare Revisited. From Marilyn Manson to Korn, each track was a fantastic take from the world of Jack Skellington. In my humble opinion, the best track to transcend your Emo-Punk Spotify Playlist to a firm footing in your Holiday Sing-Alongs is none other than Flyleaf‘s cover of What’s This?
Dropkick Murphys – The Season’s Upon Us (2013)
Dropkick Murphys hit the scene with a boom, proving that you can be just as punk as anyone else, in Quincy, Massachusetts! Their songs have always had an Irish Pub feel with all the energy and pace of legendary punk acts like The Bad Brains & Black Flag. So, to expect a wholesome holiday hit is an exercise in futility. Yet, with their song, “The Season’s Upon Us,” in a very dysfunctional way, you do get a snapshot into a family celebrating the season and the love they all have for each other, at the end of the day. Further, this song is probably more relatable to most of us than any Rockwellian imagery painted in traditional holiday songs. So grab a drunk uncle and a criminal sibling and have yourselves a nice sing-along, this December!
The Brian Setzer Orchestra – Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree (2015)
Brian Setzer arrived on the scene, fresh out of Long Island with a vintage rockabilly sound alongside the Stray Cats. With some radio attention in the ’80s, Setzer saw the second coming of his career, during the Ska Punk and Big Band boom of the late 1990s. the Brian Setzer Orchestra was responsible for swinging hits like “Jump, Jive & Wail” and even found itself in retail commercials in the early 2000s. If you long for the days of your wallet chain and a bowling shirt, quoting the movie Swingers to all the beautiful babies this holiday season, the Brian Setzer Orchestra released a holiday album in 2015 that is, simply put, good-spirited fun! If I had to pick one track on that album that has both a BSO and a Stray Cats feel to it, it would surely be their ‘get up and dance’ version of “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree!”
That’s all for my winter soundtrack essentials. See if you can find a home, amongst your Bing Crosby classics, for one or all of these tracks around your roaring fire, this holiday. Feel free to add to this list in the comments, below!
Most importantly, have a happy and healthy New Year out there in Music Land.