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The Rock Christmas Canon

How rock ‘n roll saved the Christmas song.

CeeLo Green performs at the 80th annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 in New York. (AP)

CeeLo Green performs at the 80th annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 in New York. (AP)

From Gregorian chants to classic carols to the Messiah to Burl Ives, people have long loved to sing and hear song at Christmas.  Then came rock and roll, announcing – sometimes sweetly, sometimes loudly – that Bing Crosby and Foom Foom Foom would not be the last word.

Motown chimed in.  The Indie world.  And suddenly there was a new continent of song for the holidays.  Some wonderful.  Some whacky.  Some sacred in a new way.

This hour, On Point:  How rock and roll came to Christmas.

-Tom Ashbrook


Tim Riley, music critic and assistant professor at Emerson College. He’s editor of the “Riley Rock Index” website.

From Tom’s Listening List

Here’s John Lennon’s Happy X-Mas (War is Over).

Chuck Berry rocked with Run, Run Rudolph.

The King of Rock himself with Merry Christmas, Baby.

Here’s The Waitresses with Christmas Wrapping.

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  • jefe68

    Tom Waits, a classic, what more needs to be said.

    • nj_v2

      Our local PBS just rebroadcast that show (Austin City Limits, 1979). Great stuff.

  • 228929292AABBB

    Billy Squier – Christmas is a time to say I love you!

  • Steve__T
  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

    I’ll add “Christmas all Over the World” by Tom Petty.

    And “Christmas Wrapping” has been on the radio less this year. I hope it’s not going out of “style”.

    (Addendum: I know this hour is about rock, but I gotta smile at how “A Charlie
    Brown Christmas” is about every post-boomer’s first jazz album, except nobody knew it at the time. I certainly didn’t.)

  • mrtwilight23

    We can thank Eunice Kennedy Shriver for some of the best Christmas music of the last 20+ years. Special Olympics had their Very Special Christmas series with some great songs by U2, Eurythmics, Tom Petty, and my absolute favorite of any of them – The Smashing Pumpkins “Christmastime”. Good stuff!

  • Seth Gordon

    Here’s a brand new one from this Christmas that you might like!
    (There’s No War On Christmas) When Christmas Is In Your Heart by The Mockers

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    I don’t listen to broadcast radio anymore (even NPR is usually off the computer) – what kind of Christmas stuff are they pumping out for the kids? Do they even do it anymore?

  • Mike_Card

    It isn’t rock, but “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” get’s my vote, no matter who covers it.

    • Steve__T

       Ok here you go your fav by Twisted Sister


      • Mike_Card

        Thanks!  While we’re at it, what’s the song Title/group who did the song sung by the angel atop the Christmas tree?  Sort of a plaint about “who stuck this pine tree up my a$$? (sticky, sticky, sticky).”

        I only heard it once, listening to KBCO while driving through Colorado, but never forgot it!

  • Steve__T

    One of my favorites Peace at least by Rotary Connection w/ Minnie Riperton The funniest comedy Christmas songs ever.


  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    It would be sad to talk about 80′s Christmas music and not mention “2000 Miles” – so pretty.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joseph.creary Joseph Creary

    For traditional Christmas carols done in a full on rock idiom, you need to check out “The December People: Sounds Like Christmas”

  • r_nichols

    I love The Texas Tornados’ version of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” – a great blending of border rock and Christmas music. It’s a fun blending of cultures.

  • Larry_in_Vermont

    Still waiting to hear how rock & roll changed anything about Xmas music. Everything Tim says is true of the older Tin Pan Alley Xmas songs: secular, commercialized, vernacular, romantic . . . So what’s new about rock Xmas songs?

  • Shawn4

    “Keeping it real” (out with insincere piety), doesn’t have to mean devoid of spiritual feeling or meaning.  I love the Beach Boys version of the Lord’s Prayer on their Christmas album.

  • http://twitter.com/setaspellmedia setaspell media

    Bruce Cockburn  The Huron Carol.. my favorite christmas carol


    • Mike_Card

      Had to hear “Last Night of the World,” last Thursday night.

  • fakeDIY

    This might be an unpopar opinion but I can’t stand rock n roll/pop Christmas songs. Radio stations are riddled with them during the season and every song just sounds so gaudy and awful. If I hear one more cover of “Last Christmas” I might just lose it.

  • pattiinvt

    DOn’t forget CHristmas as fundraiser, consciousness raiser:

    “Do they Know its CHristmas TIme at all” (Feed the World)

  • Dave Nocella

    Jason and Scorchers
    “Oh Holy Night”… Incredible!!!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4WARN3MMC225SRENE6RCXGKD7M Jaki Reis

    Has anyone mentioned Randy Newman’s Christmas in Cape Town?  Not a standard, but a healthy dose of reality, which I guess may not be so welcome this time of year…  Merry Christmas everyone!

  • bobspears2004

    Hi Tom
    Blue Yule from Rhino records – as good in July as  December

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4WARN3MMC225SRENE6RCXGKD7M Jaki Reis

    I just remembered that Randy Newman and John Lennon were among several artists asked at the same time to write new Christmas songs, and Lennon wrote “Merry Xmas (The War is Over)”  and Randy wrote “Christmas in Cape Town.”  Needless to say, neither song was added to the compilation album.

  • Steve__T

    David Bowie & Bing Crosby little drummer boy a good blend


  • http://profile.yahoo.com/EPSAJPA2DPVRUQA2VLMASAOI7Y Bob

    Hey there! Tom was playing a great rendition of O Come, O Come Emmanuel…can anyone share the artist’s name with me? I think he mentioned that it was a Bluegrass singer. Thanks!

  • osullivan11

    The one and only;

    Fairytale of New York- The Pogues and Kristy McColl

  • nj_v2

    By any measure, it’s not rock, but i have to hear Christmas in the Trenches at least once every holiday season, or things just don’t seem right.

    Christmas In The Trenches – YouTube

  • rich6183

    Rockers have done some good covers of traditional songs (see Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” for example), and early rock/pop (up to 1965 or so) produced a number of original songs that have become standards, but how many Christmas _standards_ have come out since then? We’re talking nearly 50 years here people. I can’t come up with more than half a dozen, and I wish Tom Ashbrook had pushed critic Tim Riley on that more. Further, Riley came across as incredibly fatuous: “If I like it, it’s rock, and if I don’t, then it’s not ‘real’ rock ‘n’ roll.” Please.

  • Pingback: blog riley | WAIT FOR IT…

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