Aux Cord Chronicles VIII: The Happy Holidays Edition
Eartha Kitt, CeeLo Green, J. Cole, the Whispers and more — 41 songs to keep you in that #UndefeatedHoliday spirit
One of the more divisive topics in all of American culture is holiday music. Some love it. Some absolutely despise it. Whatever your stance, there’s no avoiding it. And, no, these aren’t the annoying five or six songs heard in every department store in the country. Rather, consider this a voyage through time narrated by some of the finer (and perplexing) holiday carols from folks like Louis Armstrong, The Jackson 5, Prince, Eazy-E, TLC, Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, Kanye West and 30-something more.
It’s been a pretty incredible inaugural campaign for Aux Cord Chronicles. We’ve given you cookout anthems (which will be updated sometime next year). Music to make sense of all the nonsense in the world. Music to creep to. Music to continue creeping to. Music to relive your college days. Even Serena Williams and President Obama received their own individual playlists. So it’s only right we close the year out by decking the halls with a final installment before the new world order kicks in next month. Happy holidays to everyone who faithfully visits The Undefeated. I think I speak for everyone here when I say, thank you. You’ve helped change our lives for the better. And hopefully this little thing called journalism, too. Bless up.
Eartha Kitt — “Santa Baby” (1953)
The song has been covered several times in the past half-century since it was recorded. Think of all / The fun I’ve missed. But none have topped Eartha Kitt’s original, which is more a romantic ode to St. Nick than mere Yuletide tune.
Louis Armstrong — “Christmas In New Orleans” (1954)
The growly man known as “Satchmo” hitting that “good ol’ Creole beat” just makes me want to visit The Big Easy more than I already want to. I’m going to New Orleans in 2017. Book it.
Nat “King” Cole — “The Christmas Song” (1961)
And every mother’s child is gonna spy / To see if reindeer really know how to fly. There’s an interesting backstory to Nat “King” Cole’s Christmas classic. In the original 1946 pressing, Cole, a renowned perfectionist, simmered over a grammatical mistake in the song, saying “reindeers” instead of “reindeer.” He recorded the song again in 1953 and later in 1960 — the latter became the classic all of our grandparents play. Cole’s “Christmas Song” is thought by many to be the first holiday standard by a black person (though Ella Fitzgerald fans would beg to differ), thus opening the doors for artists such as Lou Rawls, Kim Weston, Ray Charles and more.
Darlene Love — “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” (1963)
Darlene Love sees herself as “20 feet from stardom.” As a background singer — for artists such as Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and Dionne Warwick — it was difficult for her to ever receive the credit she deserves. Yet no one can take away what Love has meant to the sound of holiday music — don’t forget she performed “Come Home” on David Letterman’s late night show nearly every year between 1986 and 2014.
Stevie Wonder — “Someday At Christmas” (1967)
If 2016 has shown us anything — gone are Muhammad Ali, Phife Dawg, Gwen Ifill, Prince, David Bowie, Bill Nunn, Florence Henderson, Thomas “Tommy” Ford and so many more — we have to give flowers to icons like Stevie Wonder while they can still smell them. So if you’re feeling really festive, consider also adding Wonder’s “What Christmas Means To Me” — covered by everyone from Al Green, En Vogue, Darlene Love and CeeLo — and “Oh Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion” to your own playlist. Even in a world that fails to make sense on most days, at least Wonder’s voice still does.
The Jackson 5 — “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (1970)
It’s funny how this plays out. Here, Michael Jackson and his brothers are hype about the impending arrival of the big guy who can apparently fit down every chimney ever created. But then there’s …
The Jackson 5 — “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (1970)
… that one image I’ll never be able to erase from my memory: the scene in The Jacksons: An American Dream when Katherine (Angela Bassett) catches Joe (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) creeping and proceeds to give him a two-piece and a biscuit that’d make Mike Tyson blush. And, yes, the song was about a father dressed as Santa planting a wet one on his wife. But you couldn’t have blamed Katherine had she decided to step out with a man who only visits once a year anyway.
Donny Hathaway — “This Christmas” (1971)
There have been countless covers of this holiday staple — Destiny’s Child, The Temptations, Gladys Knight & The Pips, SWV, Usher, Aretha Franklin, CeeLo Green, Patti LaBelle, and that’s just cracking the surface. But anyone who says Donny Hathaway’s isn’t 1) the absolute, undisputed best version and 2) the single greatest Christmas song ever created was raised by people who play UNO one card at a time. Maybe it’s the catchiness. Maybe it’s Hathaway’s soulful voice effortlessly painting the picture of the family all together at the dinner table or around the tree, providing those memories we carry with us for the rest of our lives. Or maybe it’s both. Whatever the case may be, it’s a reminder that holiday music doesn’t get better than this. Nor will it ever.
Marvin Gaye — “I Want To Come Home For Christmas” (1972)
Compared to 1973’s “Purple Snowflakes,” the vibe here is a lot more somber. Marvin Gaye really, really, really had an issue with the Vietnam War. Not only did it play a significant role in the creation of his 1971 landscape-changing What’s Going On album, but the long conflict was also the inspiration for this early ’70s ode to prisoners of war he recorded during the Trouble Man era of his career. Gaye, like so many artists, had a way of making relatable the frustrations of others. But I can’t promise my eyes this sight / Unless they stop the fight / ‘Cause I’m a prisoner of war, he sang. Lying here in my cell / Hoping my family is well / Wish they wouldn’t worry so much about me / Just try to get us home / In time for the Christmas tree. It’s about as melancholy a holiday song as you’re going to find. But it’s a necessary reminder that pain is a year-round ailment. And one only intensified by the holidays.
The O’Jays — “Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas (Without The One You Love)” (1974)
The gifts are cool. The parties are always fun (as long as you’re not the one who drank too much and passed out in a corner). And who doesn’t love the annual 24 hours of A Christmas Story airing on TBS? But what good are the holidays if you can’t be around people who you consider an extension of yourself. Shout out to The O’Jays. A great holiday record, no doubt. But I’m still tripping — years later — about the fact that The O’Jays’ 1978 “Brandy” is actually about a dog.
The Whispers — “Happy Holidays To You” (1979)
This song just reminds me of Christmas Eve, my grandma placing the last gifts under the tree and all the kids in the house wondering how they’d fall asleep on the longest night of the year. Those were good times, man. Really good times.
The Temptations — “Silent Night” (1980)
You know the old saying about sequels — they rarely eclipse the original. Well, The Temptations are an exception. There’s nothing wrong with the 1970 original from The Temptations Christmas Card album. In fact, it could very have made this cut … had it not been for the remake 12 years later. There’s really no comparison. It’s the superior version in every regard. You won’t find many songs receiving more burn during the holidays in black households than this one. Plus, it’s not really the holiday season until you hear, Merry Christmas, from The Temptations …
Al Green — “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (1983)
Nearly a decade following the infamous grits incident, Al Green’s popularity had waned. But his voice remained as sultry as ever. This is why he could still take “formulaic music” and turn it into a moment of soulful bliss all his own.
Prince — “Another Lonely Christmas” (1984)
Last night, oh, I spent another lonely, lonely Christmas / Darling, baby, you should’ve been there / ‘Cause of all the ones I dream about / You are the one that makes my love shout / You see, you are the only one I care for. The great majority of Christmas records revolve around joy and love, but Prince Rogers Nelson was anything but conventional. The Purple One was hurt having to celebrate another holiday season without the only one he ever desired.
The Treacherous Three — “Christmas Rap” (1984)
You lucky all you did was get ripped off / And it’s time you keep your big, fat a– up north / ‘Cause after my last few Christmas nights / If I see you ’round the neighborhood / I’m shooting on sight. Listen. They dissed Santa Claus! For delivering bootleg gifts! Don’t ever tell me hip-hop isn’t great. Kiss my mistletoe!
Run DMC — “Christmas In Hollis” (1988)
A transformative year for rap, 1988 birthed classics from Public Enemy and N.W.A. It wasn’t all bucking the system and giving the police the bird, though. Rev. Run, DMC and the late, great Jam Master Jay came with a cut so infectious that nearly 30 years later — the scratches at the beginning, Run’s eternally dope verse and DMC describing the G.O.A.T. Christmas dinner menu — it’s safe to say this is the definitive hip-hop Christmas ode. And likely always will be. I’m just fine with that.
Johnny Gill — “Give Love On Christmas Day” (1989)
Eazy-E — “Merry M—–F—— XMas” (1992)
Ain’t no Christmas like a Compton Christmas. Yep, even the “Godfather of Gangsta Rap” got into the holiday spirit. As a heads up, though, and as per the case with 99.7 percent of Eric Wright’s music, just be careful of who you play this around. Leave it to Eazy to turn “Jingle Bells” into a X-rated interpolation.
TLC — “Sleigh Ride” (1993)
Never forget these two facts about Home Alone 2: Lost In New York. One, the current president-elect makes a brief cameo. And two, its soundtrack featured one of TLC’s definitive tracks. I could be wrong, but TLC might be the clubhouse leader in Aux Cord Chronicles appearances since we started this thing in the spring.
OutKast — “Player’s Ball (Original) Christmas Day” (1993)
Purely coincidental, but not only were “Sleigh Ride” and “Player’s Ball” on the LaFace Family Christmas album, they were also back-to-back. Months before the release of their classic debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Big Boi and Andre 3000 first raised eyebrows (on a mainstream level, at least) with the Christmas version of the record that would eventually become their first single. More importantly, though, it’s the single they’d eventually perform on Martin. #TheMoreYouKnow
Boyz II Men feat. Brian McKnight — “Let It Snow” (1993)
Written by Boyz II Men’s Wanya Morris and McKnight, this is one of the most romantic holiday songs ever recorded. It just doesn’t feel like winter without this cut. And if it’s actually snowing outside? Even better.
Mariah Carey — “All I Want For Christmas” (1994)
It’s best you hear it from me and not someone else. This song — one of the most popular and successful songs in any genre from any artist — was actually … about me. I know, I know. Crazy, right? FYI, Mariah Carey’s “Miss You Most (At Christmas Time)” is worth a nod, too.
Luther Vandross — “Every Year, Every Christmas” (1995)
To my mother, who might not let me in the house if I somehow forgot this song from her favorite artist of all time.
Whitney Houston — “Who Would Imagine a King” (1996)
Yes, this appears on Whitney Houston’s 2003 Christmas album. But it first popped up on The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack, which also held her cover of “Joy To The World.”
Alicia Keys — “Little Drummer Girl” (1996)
Five years before the release of her 2001 debut, Songs in A Minor, a 16-year-old Alicia recorded this for Jermaine Dupri’s classic 12 Soulful Nights of Christmas.
Snoop Dogg feat. Daz Dillinger, Nate Dogg, Tray Dee & Bad Azz — “Santa Claus Goes Straight To The Ghetto” (1996)
Dr. Dre deflected in March. Tupac was murdered in September. Suge Knight ended up incarcerated on a probation violation in November for his role in stomping out Orlando Anderson the night ‘Pac was killed (and would later be sentenced to nine years in prison the following March, eight days before The Notorious B.I.G. was murdered in Los Angeles). And by the top of 1998, Snoop confirmed his own exit from the most controversial rap label of all time, telling the Long Beach Press-Telegram, “I definitely feel my life is in danger if I stay in Death Row Records. That’s part of the reason why I’m leaving.” So, you wouldn’t be too far off base saying this December 1996 cut — inspired by James Brown — was one of the last dope cuts that “The House Suge and Dre Built” gave hip-hop.
Babyface — “White Christmas” (1998)
Written by Irving Berlin and recorded by Bing Crosby in 1942, I just remember my mama always playing this version around the holidays. That’s probably why I’m so partial to it. That, and I rock with Babyface — though don’t let my guy Bomani Jones see this.
Kirk Franklin feat. R. Kelly, Crystal Lewis, The Family, Mary J. Blige & Bono — “Lean On Me” (1998)
Oh, there’s a child / Who is sick and begging to be free / But there is no cure for his disease. If I can be completely honest, I hate this song. Not because it’s bad, because it’s not. This song forever reminds me of the last few weeks of my uncle’s life. For whatever reason, “Lean On Me” would always play either riding to or from the hospital in Richmond, Virginia, going to see him as he battled colon cancer in the winter of 1998. Blige’s verse in particular still makes me tear up — off the strength of how I saw my grandma doing any and everything to make my uncle (her son) comfortable in what she knew were his last days.
Lauryn Hill — “Little Drummer Boy” (1999)
I totally forgot this appeared on, wait for it, Rosie O’Donnell’s A Rosie Christmas.
Destiny’s Child — “8 Days of Christmas” (2001)
I guess if Beyoncé says it’s eight days of Christmas and can sell over 500,000 copies doing so then it really is. Keeping it a buck, too, Destiny’s Child had quite the run in 2001, releasing both Survivor — housing the singles “Independent Women,” “Survivor,” “Bootylicious,” “Emotion”— and 8 Days of Christmas.
Toni Braxton — “Snowflakes of Love” (2001)
Long before the Killer B’s (Braxton and Birdman) were a real thing, Toni Braxton dropped this laid-back homage to that warm, fuzzy feeling you get in your stomach when a certain person comes around.
Faith Evans — “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (2005)
Faith Evans has always had one of the better voices in R&B (though I’m really hesitant about that rumored joint album with Biggie). Case in point: her cover of this holiday classic right here.
Jim Jones feat. Stack Bundles & J.R. Writer — “Ballin’ On XMas” (2006)
What I really regret is Dipset’s Christmas album didn’t happen between, say, 2002 and 2004 — The Diplomats’ prime years. You know how much it pains me to accept the fact Cam’ron and Hell Rell never remixed “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” or Juelz Santana never gracing upon the world the Spanish Harlem take on “I Saw Mami Kissing Santa Claus?” A whole lot, B. On that note, too, don’t expect it to ever happen either.
Chris Brown — “This Christmas” (2007)
Allow me to repeat this once more. No one will ever top Donny Hathaway. That being said, Chris Brown more than did this justice. When it dropped in November 2007, there really was no limit to how high Brown’s ceiling was. It’s amazing how much life changes — how much he changed his life — in a decade.
Beyoncé — “Ave Maria” (2008)
It was all good eight years ago this month. The Obamas were the new first family and the most powerful woman in the free world was performing at Christmas specials in Rockefeller Center.
Ledisi — “Be There For Christmas” (2008)
Further proof, again, no one wants to be alone during the holidays.
Ghostface Killah — “Ghostface X-Mas” (2008)
Merry Christmas from a living hip-hop legend. Now go do like Ghost says and splash some Henny in your eggnog.
Kanye West feat. Teyana Taylor & CyHi Da Prynce — “Christmas In Harlem” (2010)
The iTunes version of hip-hop’s take on A Christmas Carol only has Teyana Taylor and CyHi Da Prynce running alongside Kanye West. But the original — as we all remember from Kanye West’s ridiculously entertaining 2010 “G.O.O.D. Friday” series — featured Taylor, Prynce, Cam’ron, Jim Jones, Vado, Big Sean, Musiq Soulchild and Pusha-T.
J. Cole — “Home For The Holidays” (2010)
I was fresh up off a scholarship / Dressed like a black man in college s— / Got a little knowledge now I’m following the politics / But I still gotta holla at my old chick / So sweet, so thick, girl pick up your phone, it’s me / She said, ‘What we ain’t homies no more?’/ ‘You go to college now you act like you don’t know me no more?’ / Girl please, we got history, semester seem so long/ The last time I seen ya baby you ain’t have no clothes on. Basically, the soundtrack for every person who ever left home for college. And came back during Christmas break.
Lloyd — “She’s All I Want For Christmas” (2011)
Really adding this just to say it’s great to have Lloyd back making music.
Kenny G — “The Christmas Song” (2012)
Kenny G’s a bad, bad man with that saxophone. A little something for you and your special someone to curl up to while sipping on the aforementioned spiked eggnog.
CeeLo Green — “Mary Did You Know” (2012)
Back in 2012, the History Channel premiered a miniseries called The Bible. I never saw it, but apparently CeeLo’s vocals “really made the best” of a “poignant, modern hymn.”
Bonus: I’d be remiss not to include the second greatest Christmas song of all time on this list. Long live Earl Simmons — in rap circles we call him Dark Man X — for spreading holiday cheer for generations to come with these soft, buttery vocals.
Double Bonus: Long live East Atlanta Santa aka Gucci Mane. “Jingle Bells” will never, ever be the same.