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Essential soul, hip-hop and alternative Christmas songs

Three New York tastemakers name their essential yuletide hits.

Photograph: BDub Williams
Jonathan Toubin

RECOMMENDED: See the complete guide to Christmas in New York

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

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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The self-proclaimed “Blog@R” and content director at the excellent Rap Radar(rapradar.com) shares his hip-hop holiday picks.

Snoop Doggy Dogg ft. Daz Dillinger, Tray Deee, Bad Azz and Nate Dogg, “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto”

Death Row made a Christmas compilation album and this was the lead single. It’s too smooth. This will make you want to celebrate Christmas all year round.

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Run-D.M.C., “Christmas in Hollis”

This is so iconic. Whether or not you’re from Queens, everyone can identify with D.M.C.’s opening line: “It’s Christmas time in Hollis, Queens / Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens.” That’s what Christmas is all about.

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DMX, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Remix”

When DMX added his twist to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” it was an instant classic. This will go down in history...forever!

Kanye West ft. Cam’ron, Jim Jones, Vado, CyHi Da Prynce, Pusha T, Musiq Soulchild, Teyana Taylor and Big Sean, “Christmas in Harlem”

Kanye follows in Run-D.M.C.’s footsteps and celebrates December 25 in Uptown.

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The enigmatic creator of NYC’s indispensable indie resource, Brooklyn Vegan, reflects on what makes a truly alternative Christmas anthem.

Brooklyn Vegan: "With so few hours in the day and so many great alternative holiday songs, it felt impossible to create a list of the five greatest, let alone decide what “alternative” is anymore. We decided the Kinks’ “Father Christmas” was not alternative enough for this list, but we do love it. Without further ado, here are five alternative holiday songs that we love a lot (they might even be the best ever)."