With Thanksgiving almost in the rearview mirror, it’s finally time to cue up the Christmas tunes (Unless you’re one of those people that start listening to holiday music in November, in which case, shame on you!). Whether holiday music makes you feel like a kid on Christmas morning or Ebenezer Scrooge shouting “Bah humbug” at poor orphans, we promise that you’ll find something on this list to put you in the holiday spirit. From old favorites to recent releases, here are 20 of the greatest holiday songs the Bluff City has to offer!
“Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday” by William Bell
If you’re looking for some sweet Southern soul to add to your Christmas playlist, you can’t do much better than the album “Christmas in Soulsville.” In fact, the compilation of Stax Record’s best holiday tunes is so essential that I couldn’t pick just one. Our first entry comes from the criminally underrated singer William Bell, whose “Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday” was named “the Greatest Christmas record of all time” by Hot Press Magazine. Once you hear it, it’s easy to understand why.
“Jesus Christ” by Big Star
A holiday college-rock radio staple, Big Star’s “Jesus Christ” is a curious song for several reasons. For starters, it appears on the band’s third album “Third,” which is decidedly not a Christmas album. It also illustrates a rare religiosity from lead singer Alex Chilton, whose faith (or lack thereof) had never really made its way into Big Star’s music before. Either way, the song remains a holiday favorite of hipsters around the world.
“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by Booker T. & the MGs
In 1966, Memphis’ greatest house band released their holiday album “In the Christmas Spirit,” a collection of twelve funky instrumental covers of holiday standards. As always, the team of Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, and Al Jackson, Jr. proves irresistible.
“Silver Bells” by McKenna Bray
One of the newest songs on our list, “Silver Bells” finds singer-songwriter McKenna Bray tackling a holiday classic with her signature sound: sweet vocals over a country-tinged instrumental. If you haven’t heard of McKenna Bray yet, then do yourself a favor, because she’s undoubtedly one of the Bluff City’s fastest rising stars.
“Hark! The Angels Sing” by Luther Dickinson
Luther Dickinson, the lead guitarist and vocalist for the North Mississippi Allstars and the son of record producer Jim Dickinson, provided this song to the excellent 2014 compilation “An Americana Christmas.”
“Soulful Christmas” by Tav Falco
For nearly four decades, Tav Falco has reigned as one of the Mid-South’s greatest musical eccentrics and revivalists. In 2017, he graced us with the album “A Tav Falco Christmas,” a collection of both standards and obscure tracks all recorded at Sam Phillips Recording studio. While the album has plenty of stand-outs, my favorite is the funky “Soulful Christmas.”
“Awake on Christmas” by Robby Grant
This low-fi jingle comes from Robby Grant, a prolific musician whose credits include groups such as Mellotron Variations, Vending Machine, and Mouserocket. If you enjoy this DIY ditty, be sure to check out the album “Put a Quarter in the Christmas Vending Machine,” which is filled with similar gems.
“The Christmas Song” by Al Green
Released in 1983 after his incredible string of hit records had ended, Al Green’s “The Christmas Album” proved that the iconic soul singer still had it. While the album’s song selection may be a bit predictable, Green’s joyous singing makes it a worthwhile endeavor.
“Merry Christmas” by Jessie Mae Hemphill
Hill Country blues singer Jessie Mae Hemphill released this foot-stomping tune in 1984, although it sounds like it could have come out decades earlier. If you’ve grown tired of the schlocky and over-produced Christmas tunes that seem to dominate the season, this one’s for you.
“All I Want For X-Mas Is My Charges Dropped” by Indo G
Without a doubt the strangest, funniest, and most explicit addition to this list, rapper Indo G’s “All I Want For X-Mas Is My Charges Dropped” is not for the faint of heart. The song is just one of the many hilarious tunes from his “Christmas N’ Memphis” album, the very existence of which is still hard to comprehend.
“Rock and Roll Christmas” by Cordell Jackson
Cordell Jackson, who became a national sensation in the 1980s as “the Rock ‘N’ Roll Granny,” was actually much more of a pioneer than she generally gets credit for. In 1956, Jackson founded Moon Records in Memphis and is believed to be the first woman to produce, engineer, arrange and promote music on her own label. One of her earliest releases was “Rock and Roll Christmas,” a raw and charming tune from a true innovator.
“Let It Snow” by Valerie June
With her plume of thick dreadlocks, distinctive voice, and undeniable musicianship, Valerie June has become one of Memphis music’s biggest success stories over the past decade. This month, she released her new Christmas single “Let It Snow,” putting her own unique spin on a holiday favorite.
“Lonesome Christmas” by B.B. King
Although a little overproduced for my taste, B.B. King’s 2001 album “A Christmas Celebration of Hope” is still a captivating example of the blues legend’s unparalleled guitar skills. Unlike many holiday albums, it also seems like B.B. is having plenty of fun with this material, especially on the song “Lonesome Christmas.”
“Silent Night” by Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins
In 1977, Johnny Cash assembled some of his old friends from Sun Records to join him on his TV program “The Johnny Cash Show” for the annual Christmas Special. The result is a surprisingly powerful rendition of “Silent Night,” although the plethora of mustaches and polyester is admittedly a bit distracting.
“Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley
However you feel about Elvis (and every Memphian has some opinion on The King), “Blue Christmas” is a stone-cold classic. Recorded in 1957 during the height of his power and popularity, “Blue Christmas” is probably Memphis’ best-known holiday tune and a perennial Christmas staple around the world.
“A Kiss at Christmas” by Jessica Ray
In early November, R&B singer Jessica Ray released her Christmas EP “A Christmas Vibe,” a welcomed new addition to the Memphis holiday canon that includes two covers and two originals. Although all four tracks are worth checking out, her original “A Kiss at Christmas” is my personal favorite.
“Merry Christmas, Baby” by Otis Redding
No Memphis holiday playlist is complete without this classic from the late, great Otis Redding. Like almost every song the soul icon covered during his career, Redding may not have written “Merry Christmas, Baby,” but he certainly made it his own.
“Santa Claus Wants Some Loving” by Mack Rice
From Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa” to Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby,” there is a long tradition of Christmas songs that are downright thirsty. Add Mac Rice’s “Santa Claus Wants Some Loving” to that oddly long list. Rice, who is probably best known as the songwriter of the classic soul tune “Mustang Sally,” was a good singer in his own right, as evidenced by this track. Since its initial release, “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’” has gone on to be covered by everyone from Albert King to Bill Murray.
“The Last Month of the Year” by The Staple Singers
Before they became superstars with songs like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” in the 1970s, the Staple Singers were a relatively unknown family gospel group. However, their anonymity doesn’t mean they weren’t already wonderful. Perhaps the greatest testament to the group’s early sound is their 1962 holiday album “The 25th Day of December,” a collection of songs that Rolling Stone named as the fourth best Christmas album of all time.
“12 Days Of Memphis (Christmas)” by Star & Micey
This 2010 track from Star & Micey is a raucous ode to the band’s hometown, updating the classic “12 Days of Christmas” to include references to Bluff City staples such as Gus’s Chicken, Black Lodge, Big Star, and more.