Why would anyone pay to see a show of Christmas songs when every Walgreens speaker has been blasting the same carols since Halloween? The best answer is because it’s Brian Wilson singing The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album in its entirety. Though the 1964 record doesn’t have the cachet of Pet Sounds or the intrigue of Smile, The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album exudes a special charm, with the bandmates putting their beautiful spin on songs you’d think would make you puke if you ever heard them again.
The record begins with five original Wilson compositions in which the Beach Boys conjure the Christmas spirit through harmonies and handclaps that’ll have you imagining snow on Southern California’s beaches. The last seven tracks are where the bandmates do the impossible by making the standards listenable. They pour their seemingly sunny disposition into tunes you’ve heard thousands of times, such as “White Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and “Frosty the Snowman,” but what gives the songs added resonance is they wander into the realm of sad nostalgia used later in “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “In My Room.” It hits you someplace between your heart and your gut.
The Beach Boys weren’t the only rock band to get Christmasy. Probably the most famous was their peers and rivals the Beatles. From 1963 until they broke up in 1970, the Fab Four every December mailed members of their fan clubs in the States and United Kingdom a flexi disc of Christmas songs and greetings to play on a turntable. Last year saw the release of a box set of all seven Christmas records on vinyl. Most of them are Beatles versions of “Jingle Bells” or kitschy tunes such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Ringo.” The one real treat is “Christmas Time Is Here Again!” which was released in 1967 and sounds as psychedelic as that year has always been portrayed.
John Lennon later took the December holiday more seriously with “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” The 1971 song he wrote and recorded with Yoko Ono includes the Harlem Community Choir providing both a sad and festive spirit meant to inspire an end to the Vietnam War and war in general. Not to be outdone (though he was), Lennon’s ex-bandmate Paul McCartney, along with Wings, released 1979’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” sporting synths that made the song sound like the theme to an old Atari game.
To raise money for famine in Ethiopia, dozens of artists contributed to 1984’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Among the contributors were U2, Sting, Phil Collins, Duran Duran, George Michael, and Boy George. The star power of the earnest anthem made it the biggest-selling album in U.K. history, even though the song took awhile to build up to its haunting chorus.
Other rocking carols to check out include the Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” the Fall’s “(We Wish You) A Protein Christmas,” and, most famous, Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis,” which has been used in a slew of Christmas movies, including Die Hard and The Grinch.
But possibly the greatest Christmas album of the 21st Century might have once again come from Brian Wilson. In 2005, he released What I Really Want for Christmas, where he redid some of the songs from The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. His voice might not have the same range it once did, but it still reaches the pitch that could trick you into drinking eggnog. And his rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” might just get you through December 25.