Like clockwork, the waning of each year brings another slew of Christmas songs. Even Dylan has gotten in on the act. The vast majority of the seasonal crop is either nostalgic rehashings or sentimental cash-ins, but there are always a choice few that far outshine the rest. Below are eight season-appropriate entries that exude brains, heart, and soul.
The Fall "Hark The Herald Angels Sing"
Nobody can quite take the piss out of a song like Mark E. Smith, and so it's great fun hearing him ambush such a reverent holiday classic. Flanked by kooky backup singers, his slurred intonations are dripping with even more sarcasm than usual on this Peel Session.
Kurtis Blow, "Christmas Rappin'"
How cool is Kurtis Blow? Included on his self-titled 1980 debut, this funk-damaged gem shares plenty of DNA with his definitive hit "The Breaks" but wisely doesn't extend past four minutes. This live clip shows off the man's tireless delivery, buttery rhymes, and nonchalant strut.
The Baby Dolls "The Bell That Couldn't Jingle"
It's easy to detect Burt Bacharach's fingerprints on this bittersweet yet uplifting ditty, which neatly incorporates the chorus of "Jingle Bells." This 1964 take by the English sisters of the Baby Dolls has an aching girl-group soul and holds up better than Herb Alpbert's schmaltzy hit version.
The Murder City Devils "364 Days"
If you think the Pogues' "Fairytale Of New York" is the best Christmas standard punk has produced, think again. From the Devils' final EP, "364 Days" is soaked through with longing, loneliness, and whiskey, brought to fiery life with Spencer Moody's throaty howl as strings and accordion swell around him.
The Ventures "Sleigh Ride"
There should be more instrumental Christmas songs. Hewing close to the Ventures' signature surf twang, this brief undertaking of Leroy Anderson's orchestral original simply adds sleigh bells and chimes to the mix. It's breezy, harmless, and imminently repeatable.
The White Stripes "Candy Cane Children"
Yes, it sounds like every other White Stripes tune from this era, but this 2002 single is actually a cover of a cult '80s entry by Laughing Hyenas. Centered on Jack's gnashing guitar and Meg's numbing thump, its lyrics are be seedy enough to banish any thoughts of sugarplum fairies.
The Kinks "Father Christmas"
A smartass snapshot of Christmas as a yearly bounty of greed, this hooky anthem sees children baying for cash in place of toys. Pessimistic though it may be, the tune has endured over the years. How many holiday favorites include threats of physical violence against Saint Nick?
Johnny Cash "Christmas As I Knew It"
This heartbreaking dirge relies entirely on Johnny's mournful spoken-word recitation of lyrics penned by June Carter Cash and country star Jan Howard. The background embellishment is a bit different with each version over the years, but the emphasis on a family overcoming hardship is something that's too often absent in Christmas songs. Amen.