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Every year, radio stations fall into the same holiday-music trap. Countless spins of the same ol’ Christmas tunes by Mariah Carey and Paul McCartney take over the airwaves. Crowded shopping centers blast unnecessary covers of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” It’s a dreadful stream of glossy, polished-pop nonsense.
For those looking to escape the relentless hum of holly-jolly jams, City Pulse has compiled a track list of rare, rough-aroundthe-edges Christmas tunes. Sure, these six singles might not be as polished as “Santa Baby,” but at least they’re new to your ears.
Bob Seger ‘Sock it to Me Santa’
The bearded Bob Seger might be best known for his massive hits like “Night Moves” and “Main Street,” but before he reached superstardom in the mid-’70s, he was just another Michigander with a dream. In 1966, he recorded a James Brown-esque tune called “Sock it to Me Santa.” This single, issued on the Cameo Records imprint, is one of Seger’s funkiest numbers — and much better than his drab 1987 take on “Little Drummer Boy.”
White Stripes ‘Candy Cane Children’
Before their 2011 breakup, the Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes were among the biggest rock stars to come out of Michigan. Before the Grammy Awards and international tours, the primitive-rock duo spent years cutting their teeth in Detroit’s gritty underground rock scene. In 1998, the pair cut “Candy Cane Children,” with the ominous un-jovial lyrics: “So when Christmas finally comes/And nobody’s got a gun/And you think it might be fun/To hang around/Think again girl.”
The Dirtbombs ‘My Last Christmas’
Born from the same Motor-City circle as the White Stripes, the Dirtbombs were, and still are, known as Michigan-rock royalty. Led by guitarist/vocalist Mick Collins (who also cofounded the Gories), the group perfected their hybrid of lo-fi rock ‘n’ roll with blasts of soul and dance music on the milestone 2001 LP “Ultraglide in Black.” A year prior, the band cut the moody “My Last Christmas” for Flying Bomb Records’ “Surprise Package” series. “No more seasonal depression/ No more holiday aggression/ This is my last Christmas,” Collins downheartedly sings. Note: Lansing native Jim Diamond, the band’s former bassist, co-wrote the tune with Collins.
Nathaniel Mayer ‘Mr. Santa Claus (Bring Me My Baby)’
In the early 1960s, one of Detroit’s biggest R&B stars was the teenaged Nathaniel Mayer. Thanks to his electrifying hit single “Village of Love,” in 1962 on the Fortune Records imprint, he scored a national hit and even an “American Bandstand” appearance. That same year, the locally-owned Fortune label also had him cut the guttural “Mr. Santa Claus” on their in-house, low-rent equipment. If you can track down the original 45 rpm, the B-Side is the equally brilliant — but non-holiday themed —± “Well, I’ve Got News (For You).”
Mayer passed away in 2008, but before his death he saw a resurgence after the Black Keys, and a string of other young bands, championed his overlooked discography of Detroit soul.
Nolan Strong & the Diablos ‘White Christmas’
Traditional holiday songs were initially axed from this mix, but an exception had to be made for the late Nolan Strong and his doo-wop group the Diablos. Also on the Fortune Records label, Strong achieved national fame in 1954 thanks to his now classic track “The Wind.” The ethereal tune, long revered by staunch doo-wop fans, showcases Strong’s distinct falsetto voice — a sound a young Smokey Robinson adored and copped for himself. In fact, Robinson’s first ever demo session as a teenager was a spot-on cover of Strong’s first single, “Adios, My Desert Love.” Like much of Strong’s mysterious life (it’s even unclear of how he died), the recording date on his take of “White Christmas” is unknown — but it’s still a shining example of what was once the hottest voice in pre-Motown Detroit.
The Verve Pipe ‘This Christmas Time’
For those who had a pulse and lived in East Lansing in the ‘90s, it was hard to miss show fliers for the Verve Pipe. When “The Freshman” blew up in 1996, it landed on MTV and went Platinum, making the alt-rock band the biggest deal to come out of the Capital City, perhaps, ever. In the ensuing years the buzz died down, but the band has continued touring and recording records. In 2007, the guys issued a foursong EP, “A Homemade Holiday,” which features classics like “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” However, the standout track is “This Christmas Time” — a rollicking original tune by Lansing’s own Donny Brown.