Essential soul, hip-hop and alternative Christmas songs

Three New York tastemakers name their essential yuletide hits.

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DJ Jonathan Toubin

Jonathan Toubin

Jonathan Toubin Photograph: BDub Williams

The mastermind behind NYC’s famed Soul Clap and Dance-Off party reveals his festive favorites.


Top five soul tracks

James Brown, “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” (1968, King)

The quintessential soul Christmas artist’s quintessential soul Christmas song from the quintessential soul Christmas album, A Soulful Christmas. The Godfather has enough great seasonal songs to warrant his own separate list! This is also one of JB’s first socially conscious ones; the LP also includes “Say It Out Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” “Santa Claus! The soul brothers need you.… Tell them James Brown sent you!”

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Della Reese, “It Was a Very Good Year” (1966, ABC)

While this one isn’t specifically about New Year’s, I start turning the supreme version of this song in late December, as it fits with the end-of-year theme. And wowza! Dig that super-funky, ahead-of-its-time beat and the killer Hammond [organ]! “From the brim to the dregs / It poured straight and clear / It was a very good year.”

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Bob Seger, “Sock It to Me Santa” (1966, Cameo-Parkway)

A lot of folks don’t know that Bob Seger was once one of the wildest rockers in showbiz. This [song] is one of his earliest and most explosive—a supercharged novelty mash-up of Mitch Ryder’s 1966 hit “Sock It to Me Baby” and James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” “Christmas just won’t be a drag, cause Santa’s got a brand new bag!”

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Nathaniel Mayer, “Mr. Santa Claus” (1962, Fortune)

My favorite Detroit rhythm-and-blues singer wants Santa to bring his baby back. All we have here is a tough, steady beat, a four-chord progression repeated over and over, punctuated by a thousand exciting, scratchy-throated variations courtesy of Mr. “Village of Love” himself. Please, Santa, don’t bring her back—or he may stop begging!

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Rufus Thomas, “I’ll Be Your Santa Baby” (1973, Stax)

Though this is the world’s oldest teenager’s 61st-best song, his humor and voice belong here at the Christmas table to counteract all of the saccharine material we overdose on every year. Rufus just wants to slide down your chimney and leave you still asking for more when New Year’s rolls around.

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