I love Christmas … but I really love Christmas music.
I’m the kind of guy who will start listening to the Yuletide classics immediately after Halloween—and only if I wait that long.
While I love the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” and I can appreciate Frank Sinatra’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” no one does Christmas music like black folks. Below, in no particular order, are the 10 most essential Christmas songs performed by black artists.
This is the official black Christmas song. If you disagree, you’re just wrong. In fact, if I walk up to you and say, “Shake a hand; shake a hand; shake a hand," and you don’t know what I’m talking about, I will assume you’re the feds.
There have been efforts to modernize the song by adding slick production (see the horrific rendition by Destiny’s Child on their album 8 Days of Christmas) and efforts to recapture the feel of the original (like the earnest version by Chris Brown), but nothing can eclipse the original’s emotional depth and virtuosic musicianship.
Imani Perry, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, sums it up like only she can: “‘This Christmas' by Donny Hathaway is to Christmas as 'Before I Let Go' is to cookouts and as 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' is to Martin Luther King Jr. breakfasts and HBCU graduations.”
The Temptations’ rendition of this Christmas classic is a soulful blend of the sacred and the secular. Listening to the falsetto makes me do the ugly church face ubiquitous in black churches when the pastor begins to close the sermon.
I’m an unapologetic jazz snob. I’m not here for the cheap-white-wine, Kenny G approach to jazz. If it doesn’t have edge and soul, then you can miss me with your whitewashed shenanigans. The full version of “My Favorite Things” is a 13-minute-long encounter with the divine by way of a saxophone. It is a masterpiece.
If you were to ask most Americans, regardless of ethnicity, to name a Christmas song, this is the one that would probably come to mind. As Charles Hughes, director of the Memphis Center at Rhodes College and author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South, notes, “It's a crucially important song, because it framed what a Christmas song should be through a black voice … a sexy black voice at that.”
This one almost didn’t make the cut. It suffers from overexposure; but folks would have been storming the gates if I left this one off the list. It’s a bit too much pop for my taste, but the jazz- and gospel-influenced introduction set the stage for the sheer power of Carey’s vocals. (I miss her 1990s voice.)
Perhaps best known as Trish Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon film series, Darlene Love has a vocal range and command of tone that should have made her a star. Instead, she spent her life 20 feet from stardom singing backup for better-known artists. Her charisma makes this song a classic. Listening to it, one wonders why her name is not mentioned in hushed tones alongside stars of her era like Diana Ross.
Before she called Marcus “Daaaaarling” in Boomerang, Eartha Kitt was an activist, actress, Broadway star and all-around magical black girl, and in 1953 she recorded this sly, smoldering song while accompanied by the Henri René orchestra. Often used to inspire a sense of mischievousness in the listener, this is a rare Christmas song sung by a woman of that time to gain widespread popularity.
In light of current events, Wonder’s hopeful, mournful reflection on the state of the world is what we need to hear.
No list of black Christmas songs would be complete without a tune suitable for juke joints and liquor houses. Charles Brown’s vocalizations put one in the mood to sip something brown and aged while yearning for the one who got away.
Christmas happens in winter, and winter is a part of cuffing (and baby-making) season. Unlike the sketchy “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (which sounds like a song written by a man who has no problem slipping a roofie into the drink of a woman on a date), “Let It Snow” is the definitive sexy Christmas song.
"I am a ’90s new-jack-R&B enthusiast, and perhaps no holiday album exemplifies the sound of that era like the Boyz II Men album, Christmas Interpretations,” says Elon Dancy, professor of education and associate dean for community engagement and academic inclusion at the University of Oklahoma. He is a scholar world renowned for his research into black men in higher education, but is also an underappreciated cultural critic.
“From 'Let It Snow' to 'Cold December Nights,' nearly every song is a roaring fire and that perfect cup of hot chocolate to guard against the frost outside," he says.
Making a list of 10 Christmas songs performed by black artists was a nearly impossible task. Honorable mentions are the following:
- “Back Door Santa” by Clarence Carter because it’s petty, trifling and brilliant;
- “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-DMC, the definitive hip-hop Christmas song;
- “Christmas in Harlem” by Kanye West, an underappreciated gem;
- “White Christmas” by Otis Redding because … it’s Otis; and
- “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” by the Jackson 5. Young Mike’s vocals on this track are everything.
If you disagree, you’re wrong. Fight me … and Merry Christmas.
Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International. Ware’s book on the life and thought of C.L.R. James will be published by Verso Books in the fall of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.