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The 80's not only had great Christmas music, Bruce's "Merry Christmas Baby" for one, it was the era of The Bionic Woman, Jenny Craig and the Medifast diet, multi-colored slouch socks and New Coke to name just a few 80's contributions.

"Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town," Bruce Springsteen (Columbia)

Released officially in 1981 for the children's album In Harmony 2, the release is actually the end of the story. Bruce, musicologist that he is, played this song in concerts that fell within the holiday season going back to at least 1974, and the tune was widely bootlegged until the official release. In fact, until the record industry began cracking down on the practice, the tune occasionally turned up on the radio at Christmas time as disc jockeys would bring in their own bootleg copies to play. The fact that there were a number of different versions, recording quality bad to reasonably legible, coupled with the fact that audiences really liked the song, probably led to the official release. A promo single was serviced to radio stations, but as far as I know was never released to the public. Note that Bruce used the Phil Spector arrangement for his version, although without backing vocals. Update: Jeff and Erin Fitzpatrick-Bjorn point out "Santa" finally got a single release as the B-side of "My Hometown" in 1985 and got re-released as a CD single in 1994. Further update: Louie Sherwood says that version was different from the one mentioned at the start of this review, with more audience singing. He also says the original version snuck out on a 1975 Columbia compilation called Christmas of Hope.

"War/Merry Christmas Baby," Bruce Springsteen (Columbia)

Of course there can be too much of a good thing, as Bruce probably discovered from the incessant requests for an official release of "Santa." At some point, he switched his holiday allegiance to another rock chestnut, "Merry Christmas Baby." The tune first turned up as the B-side to his version of Edwin Starr's "War," from the live box set, and was also donated to A Very Special Christmas. Bruce's rendition is more on the upbeat side compared to most versions of the song. Note that both of Bruce's Christmas songs are live concert recordings.

"Thanks For Christmas," The Three Wise Men (Virgin)

AKA XTC, this lovely little slice of power pop came out circa 1983, about the time of the Mummer album. Although it was originally issued only on a single, its goodness is proven by the fact that lots of 90s-era Christmas compilations have unearthed it. It's also reissued on the Rag 'n Bone Buffet album, along with the B-side, "Countdown to Christmas Party Time," a bit of 80s-era dub/dance goofing around. XTC revisited the Christmas genre in the next decade with "Always Winter, Never Christmas."

"Do They Know It's Christmas," Band Aid (Columbia)

Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats is widely credited with drawing the music industry's attention to the famines in Ethiopia. He organized this ad hoc group of mostly British rock stars in 1984 and wrote the song with Midge Ure of Ultravox to raise money for food relief; its success was copied by the artists of several other countries, including USA for Africa, and that all led to 1985's Live Aid concerts. As for the song, well, it's a little dated-sounding, but it's still fun to listen to and try to pick out who's singing lead at any given time. You need the 12-inch single to see who all is involved with the record, though. Update: There was a Band Aid II version in 1989, although I can't seem to scare up a list of the cast of characters. A new recording with current stars under the Geldof/Ure auspices was released for 2004. Further update: Thanks to Jim from basicrep for additional information on Band Aid II -- it was produced by Stock, Aitken and Waterman, hot pop producers of the late 80s, and the artist roster was mostly folks whose non-holiday records they produced. They were: Bananarama, Big Fun, Bros, Cathy Dennis, D-Mob, Jason Donovan, Kevin Godley, Glen Goldsmith, Kylie Minogue, The Pasadenas, Chris Rea, Cliff Richard, Jimmy Somerville, Sonia, Lisa Stansfield, Technotronic and Wet Wet Wet.

Christmas Time, Chris Stamey and Friends (Collectors Choice)

Originally released in 1985 on Coyote as a 12-inch EP with seven songs, a 1993 CD re-release on East Side Digital ballooned it to 17 tracks, though it deletes another Stamey track from the original, "Something Came Over Me." For 2006, Collectors Choice reissues this CD with six new tracks. As to the album itself, it remains a fairly slapdash affair that evokes the spirit of the Beach Boys Party album, with a cast of characters that is mainly power popsters from the right coast: Stamey and his former partners in the dBs, Alex Chilton and his former band Big Star, Syd Straw, Caitlin Cary, Marshall Crenshaw, Don Dixon, Ryan Adams with Whiskeytown, and a number of other folks. The original EP had the feel of something that had been slapped together on Christmas Eve over double eggnogs, but the additional cuts detract from that feel a little bit. Still, if you were a fan of the dBs, this feels almost like a lost dBs album. Top cuts include the title song, the dBs' "Holiday Spirit" and their silly take on "Feliz Navidad," Big Star's "Jesus Christ," Cathy Harrington's girl-groupy "Sha La La" and Ted Lyons's "The Only Law Santa Claus Understood," a hilarious recasting of Santa as a Wild West reprobate. Syd Straw gets points for a Christmas pun in the form of a cover of Blondie's "I'm Always Touched by Your Presents, Dear." The new songs are "Lonely Christmas" by Marshall Crenshaw, "Home For the Holidays" by the dBs with Cary, "I Saw Three Ships" and "Christmas is Saturday" by Don Dixon, "Christmas Time Is Here" by Thad Cockrell and Roman Candle, and Whiskeytown's "Houses On the Hill." Some of the other tunes on here are a little too earnest to suit me, but the good cuts make it worthwhile. If it keeps growing like this, by 2052 it will be a box set and around 2200 or so it will have subsumed all the songs mentioned on this site. Update: The reissue gives, and the reissue takes away. Missing from the West Side Digital release are Syd Straw's song, "Occasional Shivers" by Chris Stamey and "Silver Bells" by Kirsten and Brent Lambert.

Christmas Wish (Deluxe Edition), NRBQ (Clang!)

This originally was an eight-cut vinyl EP on Rounder in 1986, in fact, I have a copy of that but never got around to posting an entry on it until now. The liner notes do a pretty good job of tracing the history of NRBQ and Christmas, and this deluxe edition adds a number of cuts from over time, starting with a cut from a different 1978 EP and ranging through to 1995. The band, a critics' favorite that never had a real live hit, essentially broke up in 1994 but its various members keep coming together for projects and anniversary shows. Their original Christmas song, "Christmas Wish," has turned up on a few compilations over the years and was covered in 2007 by Darlene Love. It turns up three times here, in the original version, as a reprise, and in a "TV version" that is an instrumental. Overall, this CD, which started out as a slapdash EP project in the vein of Beach Boys' Party and Christmas Time Again by Chris Stamey and friends, is a little too slapdash, with the vast majority of the 19 songs being under two minutes and a fair number being live bits of goofing around with traditional carols. Terry Adams' "Electric Train" and "Holiday are the only other original tunes, all of which date back to the first issue of the EP. This is probably more for NRBQ fans and completists, though the title song remains an overlooked gem.

"Stop the Cavalry," Jona Lewie (Stiff)

This actually was a Top Ten hit in Great Britain and made no. 1 in several European countries upon its single release in 1980. It's a soldier's holiday lament, fusing synth-pop and martial music to create its mood. For some reason it appears on Dr. Demento's Holidays in Dementia, although it seems not particularly demented to me. Of course, if the good Doctor hadn't compiled it I would have never known that Jona started out in the British blues scene -- and for sure you never would have guessed it from his recordings for Stiff. He was part of the second-wave Live Stiffs tour, along with Lena Lovich, Rachel Sweet, Wreckless Eric and Mickey Jupp, and his other hits included "You'll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties" (single cover shown at left) and "God Bless Whoever Made You."

"Christmas," The Buzz of Delight (DB Records)

Post-new wave jangly pop-rock from Matthew Sweet, who wrote and performed most instruments on this tune from the 1984 EP Soundcastles, co-produced by Don Dixon. Sweet's vocal is buried, so it's tough to parse the lyrics; I detect a relationship song hung on the Christmas peg. This tune was also a single, and I'm guessing the original vinyl versions are pretty rare. Fortunately, they're on a Sweet rarities disc titled To Understand -- The Early Recordings of Matthew Sweet, on Hip-O.

3 Ships, Jon Anderson (Opio Media)

I get a fair number of requests to list this 1985 album by the singer for Yes, and while it clearly belongs here, it's been out of print for years and I've never been enough of a Yes fan to pay auction prices for a copy. Well, it's been reissued, in Europe anyway, as a 22nd anniversary edition, which means it's probably been remastered and it definitely includes five bonus tracks, which are interspersed through the running order rather than grouped at the end. As to the actual music, well, it's not unexpected if you're familiar with the work of Yes, though it's arranged more for orchestra than for small combo. Anderson writes the bulk of the material, though a fair number of classic carols are part of the set list, including the title song and the Mozart version of "Ave Maria." Much of Anderson's music, in fact, takes its cue from the antique carols, and there's very little rock going on here. One might consider this a forerunner of Mannheim Steamroller and Trans-Siberian Orchestra, though with far less bombast than those two. Though it's Jon's show, he's assisted by sometime Yes-men Trevor Rabin and Vangelis, the latter of whom contributed a full song and a co-write, and, for you trivia buffs, Elliot Easton of the Cars performs on electric and acoustic guitars. As for other Yes-oriented Christmas music, mustn't forget "Fox On the Run," not part of this album.

A Midnight Christmas Mess, various artists (Midnight International)

I just unearthed this 1984 collection out from under a pile of vinyl. My copy is cheaply packaged with photocopied liner notes and cover art and not even a way to tell which is the A-side, at least not in a faintly lit room, anyway. Whether this is a promo copy or the actual final release is probably lost in the sands of time. Update: Definitely a promo, just found the full-color cover art at left. End update. Nevertheless, there's good 80s vintage indie music in these grooves. The early 2000s wasn't the first time there was a fad for retro 60s garage rock, as about half of this album attests. Plan 9's "Merry Christmas," Yard Trauma's "Christmas Tyme (Baby)," "Forget It" by Nadroj and the Wolrats, "Schizophrenic Xmas" by Suburban Nightmares are all in this vein, as well as the album's best cut, "Gloria (In Excelsis Deo)" by The Tryfles, a witty combination of "Angels We Have Heard on High" and Them's "Gloria." Think about it for a second, it'll come to you. Elsewhere on the LP, we get power-pop from Wednesday Week on "Christmastime Here (Could Never Be Like That)," the Dogmatics on "Xmas Time (It Sure Doesn't Feel Like It)" and The Point with "On Comet," Cheepskates give us a pop-rock "Christmastime With You" and a surf instrumental "Last Minute Rush," Johnny Rabb goes garage on "Christmas Dance" and rockabilly on "Gotta Get Lucky for Xmas," and Screamin' Jay Hawkins (the very same) gives us a blues piano take on "It's Xmas (A Time For Giving)." And there's a nod to Phil Spector with the Droogs' version of "Silent Night" to close the album. A few of these cuts have trickled out on other compilations over the years, but I think this collection could stand the test of time as a CD reissue. Sean Delany writes in to tell us that this album was just volume 1, there was a volume 2 in 1986 and volume 3 in 1987.

It's a Wonderful Life (Gonna Have a Good Time), Fishbone (Columbia)

This holiday EP from 1987 has been excerpted on a number of compilations over time, mainly the title tune and "Slick Nick (You Devil You)." The title tune is a clattery rave-up of the kind that Fishbone made famous on their regular albums, playing off the classic Jimmy Stewart movie, while "Slick Nick" is an organ-led ballad castigating the jolly elf for his carousing ways. The uptempo "Just Call Me Scrooge" tells Ebenezer's story in a danceable way. Rounding out the EP is "Iration," a swaying reggae prayer that is not necessarily holiday-related. Nice stuff, and pretty hard to find -- my copy is a Japanese import.

"Run With the Fox," Yes (Atco)

Originally a single in 1981, this Yessong by Chris Squire, Alan White and Pete Sinfield is a fairly straightforward holiday tune. Most folks think symphonic-length compositions when they think of Yes, but this tune tops out at just over four minutes; it has the high vocal harmonies and arrangement with ship-in-a-bottle detail you would expect, but it's uptempo and kind of catchy. Still available on the Yesyears box set. Update: A reissue of Jon Anderson's Three Ships holiday album is imminent, according to Ken Kessler.

"It's a Rockabilly Christmas," Johnny Que (Rhino)

This came out in 1981 at the height of the early 80s rockabilly revival, and is pretty much as advertised. I never heard of JQ before or since this record, but it's a sprightly performance, very much in the vein of those old "let's write a song about Elvis Presley" records. I don't think this ever turned up on a Rhino Christmas compilation, strangely enough. Update: Carolyn Stuart reports that Que is still an active performer and that this song should now be available on iTunes.

"Giddy-Up," The Dumbells (EG)

This is actually Roxy Music, from 1980, not long after the band reformed for the Manifesto album. The song is a masquerade, too, it's actually an instrumental of "Sleigh Ride," with a touch of "Auld Lang Syne" thrown in. Once you know it's Roxy, you'll catch yourself nodding your head in recognition. The flip side of this single is a Dumbells original, "A Christmas Dream," another, more New-Agey instrumental.

"2000 Miles," The Pretenders (Sire)

Originally released for Christmas 1980 in Britain as a single, the U.S. record company figured nobody cared about an original Christmas song recorded for the season and sat on it, letting it sneak out on a subsequent album a few years later. A worthy tribute to the season, Chrissie Hynde should try again, putting her "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from A Very Special Christmas on the flip side. Oh, I forgot, the record business doesn't care about singles that aren't intended to sell an album anymore....

"Christmas Time/Reggae Christmas," Bryan Adams (A&M)

Adams has a lot of fans, and just as many people who dismiss him as a watered-down Tom Petty. Needless to say, we won't dissuade the fans or change the minds of the nay-sayers with a single 45. "Christmas Time" is the A-side, and it's your basic Bryan Adams tune with a Christmas tilt. "Reggae Christmas" is a little bit more fun; you see the video for it on VH1 and MTV every year, with the five original MTV vee-jays and a crowd of others forming a conga line behind Bryan and his band. Let's see, they were J.J. Jackson, Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn and .... drat, who was that dark-haired guy with the perm .... oh yeah, Mark Goodman.

"Yuletown Throw Down," Blondie (Chrysalis)

Actually, I only ever found this on a flexidisc from Britain's Flexipop magazine back in 1981. Taking the track from "Rapture," Debbie Harry and Fab Five Freddy do a little Christmas rapping, no Kurtis Blow reference intended. A fun item if a rare one; I think this has managed to go unissued from that day to this one.

"Christmas Cuts," The BoDeans (Slash)

Available only as a promo CD as far as I know, the guys dashed off these two tunes at a 1989 soundcheck, "Christmas Time" and "Jinga Bell Rock," both originals. "Jinga" is a flat-out rocker with a touch of "Walk This Way" in it, and "Christmas Time" is more mid-tempo and reflective. Both are excellent performances but easily recognizable as BoDeans tunes.

"Home For Christmas," Kate Bush (Columbia)

"December Will Be Magic Again," Kate Bush (EMI)

The holidays apparently are close to the heart of this British pop-rock diva, since she did these two tunes at different points in her career. Both were available on singles, although never both on the same one. "December" also is available on The Edge of Christmas compilation album. These are dramatic and ethereal, just like Kate herself usually is. Younger readers who aren't familiar with Kate might recognize someone she obviously had a huge influence on -- Tori Amos.

"She Won't Be Home (Lonely Christmas)," Erasure (Sire)

The synthesizer duo with the pop hooks and elaborate shows released this single in 1988, and it's aces, a danceable beat and terrific melody. There's no reason a record like this can't become a radio staple, but it's not. Originally available as a single and on a rare Warner Brothers compilation promo album, it was also on their Crackers International EP. The B-side of the single is "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen."

"Rock and Roll Christmas," George Thorogood and the Destroyers (EMI)

George is better known for leaving his band high and dry in the spring while he runs off and plays baseball, or for his one great video of "Bad to the Bone" with Bo Diddley. Still, he apparently has a soft enough spot for the holidays that he wrote both sides of this single, the B-side being "New Year's Eve Party." The A side is also on EMI's Coolest Christmas.

"Christmas Wrapping," The Waitresses (Ze)

The title's a pun on late lead singer Patty Donohue's talk-sing delivery of a great song about being single on Christmas Eve. An instant classic, as is the Waitresses' first song, "I Know What Boys Like." Originally released on the Ze Christmas album, also released as a single, and is on the group's best-of album as well as EMI's The Edge of Christmas and Excelsior's A Rock 'n Roll Christmas. King Biscuit Flower Hour recently released a live Waitresses album from 1982 that includes a concert version of the song.

"Christmas Together," Shooting Star (Enigma)

Shooting Star, despite being on alternative label Enigma, was more of a pop/hard rock act, with all the late-80s shiny production that suggests. But having said that, this isn't a bad Christmas rocker, although the production suggests something that's played over the closing credits of a movie. From their greatest-hits album, circa 1989, although it may have been recorded earlier than that.

"Christmas Island," Leon Redbone (Private)

Long a cult artist since he turned up in the early 70s with a fair amount of hype in Rolling Stone magazine, most people only know of him today through his Budweiser commercials. Leon's thing has always been early jazz-age pop singing with period instrumentation, and this 1989 collection of pop Christmas chestnuts is solidly in that tradition. A little too sedate for a rock 'n roll Christmas, perhaps, but his duet with Dr. John on "Frosty the Snowman" is a nice change of pace on your Christmas mix tapes.


Eras: The Beginning, The Sixties, The Seventies, The Eighties, The Nineties, The 21st Century

Genres: Reggae, Soul/R&B, Rap, Blues, Punk, Surfin' Xmas, Tropical

Novelties: Fifties and Sixties, The Seventies, The Eighties, The Nineties, The 21st Century

Compilations: Regular Comps, Charity Comps, Soundtracks

Special Reports: Recent Releases, Hanukkah, Miscellaneous