In the late 1980's, music empresario Jimmy Iovine cobbled together quite a collection of pop and rock artists to record songs for a Christmas album benefitting the Special Olympics. In 1987, A Very Special Christmas was released and rapidly became an instant holiday classic thanks to the star powered lineup and major label promotion.
The Very Special Christmas franchise fumbled along with eight more records in the pop collection plus smooth jazz and world music versions as well. The additional eight pop offerings included a live version and an "acoustic" version that was actually country and bluegrass, but we assume it wasn't dubbed "country" to keep from scaring off the Yankees. Like bad movie sequels, the quality of these records has declined mightily over the years, but the first album is a classic.
Since everyone is being subjected to holiday music, we thought we'd go back over this track by track.
"Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" - The Pointer Sisters
One of the weaker tracks on the record was the first. The intro complete with baby talk banter from the pop siblings. While it is aided by the Motown arrangement, the constant yapping over instrumental parts in an attempt to create a party atmosphere is just distracting. Bonus points for the bass walk down at the end of each bridge.
"Winter Wonderland" - Eurythmics
Who would have thought this creepy synthesized version of the classic from the 1930's would catch on? It's quintessential 80s, but decidedly weird.
"Do You Hear What I Hear?" - Whitney Houston
Remember when Houston really believe crack was whack and she was the unquestioned queen of r&b? We do and this gospel infused version of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" complete with vocal acrobatics Mariah Carey likely studied for hours is a classic for good reason. The woman could belt that shit out. We bet Cissy was proud.
"Merry Christmas Baby" - Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Springsteen was never afraid to let his inner cornball out on display. The guy was and is fearless. His version of this classic R&B Christmas tune notably covered by Chuck Berry and Ray Charles among others has all the typical energy and fun associated with the E Street Band. Maybe not as iconic as his "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" joint, but damn close.
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" - The Pretenders
We must confess that this is one of our all time favorite covers of any Christmas song. The crystalline guitars and melancholy vocals of Chrissie Hynde make this bittersweet classic nearly perfect. Most remember the Judy Garland version or the Frank Sinatra reset, but we'll put this one up there with them any day.
"I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" - John Cougar Mellencamp
Recorded at a time we believe to be the height of Mellancamp's soulful Americana, he took a goofy kids song and made it a folk rocking romp that would have fit in perfectly on Lonesome Jubilee. Even the cute, off key little girl singing at the end feels right.
"Gabriel's Message" - Sting
Sting can be a serious motherfucker, but which we mean both serious in personality and in talent. Both are on display in "Gabriel's Message." Leave it to Sting to choose a Basque Christmas folk carol as his entrant on the record. His arrangement is reminiscent of his song "Russians" on Dream of the Blue Turtles -- both beautiful and haunting.
"Christmas in Hollis" - Run-D.M.C.
We seriously doubt anyone in 1987 would have believed that a rap song could ever become a Christmas classic, but Run D.M.C. would quickly shatter that perception with "Christmas in Hollis." Not to overly inflate it, but in a country that had spent the better part of 50 years appreciating Christmas songs from a very caucasian perspective, it was cool to hear what it was like in Hollis during the holidays. Plus, ill reindeer!
"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" - U2
Despite their soaring popularity beyond 1987, we still think of this era as the peak for U2. Recorded during the Rattle and Hum sessions when Bono and the boys were deeply entrenched in their fascination with all things American and southern, they absolutely nailed this Phil Spector/Darlene Love classic.
"Santa Baby" - Madonna
So many of the artists on this album were in their prime and Madonna was certainly one of them. She had just released the soundtrack to Who's That Girl and the remix compilation You Can Dance. Plus, she was still a couple years shy of naked photos, video controversy and all that. Her rendition of Eartha Kitt's sarcastic "Santa Baby" not only fit in well with her "Material Girl" quirkiness, but the arrangement pays tribute to her love of the 1940's.
"The Little Drummer Boy" - Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band
This is certainly not our favorite version of this song. We still prefer the Bing Crosby version and we wonder if this was the best choice for the raspy, southern snarl of Seger. We could also do without the flourishes of overly reverbed saxophone, but it was the '80s. Still, out of his comfort zone or not, it's a fine addition to the collection.
"Run Rudolph Run" - Bryan Adams
This might be the most surprising track given the fact that we never really considered putting Chuck Berry and Bryan Adams in the same sentence, but Adams holds his own with this energetic live boot stomper. Not bad for a Canadian.
"Back Door Santa" - Bon Jovi
And then there's Bon Jovi. As quickly as Adams gave us hope that appropriate treatments of more bluesy Christmas songs could come from unexpected places, we get beaten down by this overwrought, synthtastic hair band special. The ladies loved Bon Jovi back in the day, but more for cute than sex, which the original version of this had in spades. Ho ho NO!
"The Coventry Carol" - Alison Moyet
Similar to "Gabriel's Message," Moyet delivers a dark, ghostly performance of this little heard 16th century composition. Her deep, smoky voice is ideal for the part chamber orchestra part '80s synth ballad. We're certain that this is the least appreciated track on the record and Moyet doesn't carry the star power of the others here, but her voice more than makes up for it.
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"Silent Night" - Stevie Nicks
As much as we love Fleetwood Mac and as hot as Nicks was when she was laced up and witchy, we were never big fans of her wavering vibrato and it was never more obviously on display than in this gentle carol. There are some very pretty moments throughout, however, and we've heard some live versions that are downright magical.