While ZZ Top is not known for Christmas songs, the band has a holiday connection. The Beach Boys have recorded Christmas tunes – but an especially memorable holiday effort is tied to the season by context instead of content.
However much lyrics about presents and reindeer may fill some movies’ scenes, there are plenty of moments when a classic carol is no substitute for a potent piece of pop.
“Christmas music” is a term that can, and should, be very flexible. Theologian Mark D. Roberts once wrote that for some, hearing a performance of Handel’s Messiah during Lent “seemed about as sensible as singing Jingle Bells on the Fourth of July” – but the time shift makes more sense when you look closely at the composition. For that matter, the famed “Hallelujah Chorus” comes in Messiah’s “Passion/Resurrection/Pentecost section,” Roberts wrote.
As for ditties like Jingle Bells and Sleigh Ride, they’re winter songs, not Christmas per se.
But hey, for most people, they fit this season. And when it comes to Christmas movies, especially, songs don’t need to come from precise thematic territory to suit a particular moment – or to give a soundtrack recording a little variety.
In keeping with that, here are 10 noteworthy selections from Christmas films that belong to the season, no matter what they say. Someone saw Christmas in them, and you can, too.
• The Beach Boys, “God Only Knows.” From “Love Actually,” 2003. This ensemble piece for the holidays blends Christmas fare (notably “All I Want for Christmas Is You”) with nontraditional songs including the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump,” Kelly Clarkson’s “The Trouble With Love Is” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” There’s even a storyline about turning a non-Christmas song, “Love Is All Around,” into the holiday-specific “Christmas Is All Around.” But it’s the Beach Boys’ achingly beautiful work that closes the movie and underscores its message of love. Also, any Christmas-movie list I make has to include “Love Actually” somewhere.
• Chris Brown, “Try a Little Tenderness.” From “This Christmas,” 2007. I know. The irony, however unintended at the time, is inescapable. Still, Brown is really good. And if that doesn’t get you past his personal problems, you can substitute another “This Christmas” song: Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”
• Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, “Sisters.” From “White Christmas,” 1954. This holiday perennial – also starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye – added a little edge with this song and its memorable lines: “Lord help the mister who comes between my and my sister/And Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man.” But some fans love it even more when Crosby and Kaye lip-synch the women’s vocals.
• Bing Crosby, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” From “Holiday Inn,” 1942. The movie was about an inn open only on holidays, and Irving Berlin wrote songs for many occasions. When Berlin started pushing the movie’s music, author Jody Rosen says Berlin began with this Valentine’s Day song. But the smash hit was then-new “White Christmas,” which resonated far more with Americans deep in World War II.
• Al Green and Annie Lennox (and the movie’s cast), “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” From “Scrooged,” 1988. The Green/Lennox duet sung over the closing credits to this modernization of “A Christmas Carol” is fine by itself. But there’s even more joy in the cast singing the song as the movie concludes – and in Bill Murray trying to get the audience to sing along.
• Whitney Houston, “I Believe in You and Me.” From “The Preacher’s Wife,” 1996. Whitney, at the height of her powers, sings. Nothing more need be said.
• New Edition, “Can You Stand the Rain.” From “The Best Man Holiday,” 2013. Morris Chestnut, Terrence Howard, Taye Diggs and Harold Perrineau give the ladies in the audience a little something extra by lip-synching – and dancing – to this boy-band chestnut. The fedoras are pretty nice, too.
• Elvis Presley, “Rubberneckin’.” From “Fred Claus,” 2007. We could take a long digression to ponder why a movie boasting Paul Giamatti, Kevin Spacey and – as an elf – Ludacris didn’t work. But there’s at least the scene where Santa’s brother Fred (Vince Vaughn) shakes up the workshop with this Elvis gem.
• Louis Prima, “Pennies From Heaven.” From “Elf,” 2003. This jaunty piece, and Prima’s playfulness, just added to the charm of the arrival in New York by Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell).
• ZZ Top, “Sharp Dressed Man.” From “The Santa Clause,” 1994. Tim Allen and the North Pole crew rock out to this song as they prepare to deliver presents. The flame-retardant red suit is pretty sharp.
Deanna Stevens Ulrich contributed to this story.