Any list of songs, best or worst and in between, contains the potential of inspiring polar emotional responses, but perhaps on no topic is this more true than Christmas music. After all, personal feelings and memories play such a key role in how we evaluate holiday tunes that often our selections have far more to do with nostalgia than musical quality. Having registered that disclaimer, here's my take on the most memorable (and not necessarily the best) pop/rock holiday songs of the '80s, offered in no particular order and merely as a starting point for debate.
Perhaps no rock and roll Christmas tune was heard more often during the '80s or was more emblematic of the decade than this charity song recorded to support Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof's Band Aid project. Geldof gathered many of the UK's most popular early-'80s new wave, pop and rock music artists for the record, released during the holiday season in 1984 to raise money to aid famine-stricken Ethiopia. Though sometimes dismissed as over-the-top and treacly, the song sports a soaring melody, provided by Midge Ure of Ultravox, and an unbelievably talented vocal ensemble (including the Police frontman Sting, George Michael and U2's Bono) to communicate Geldof's lyrics.
As a native Southerner, perhaps I was exposed to this song more heavily than listeners in other regions, but it definitely holds a strong, nostalgic place in my holiday memory. Released in 1983 at the height of the superstar country-pop band Alabama's career, the song functions as a gentle, picturesque take on the holiday season across the nation. While it will probably never gain the status of all-time holiday classic, at least the tune stands on its own as an original, seasonal composition instead of merely a run-of-the-mill reinterpretation of previously successful Christmas music for a specialized country music audience.
As only a slightly closeted Dan Fogelberg enthusiast (I can't seem to avoid feeling mildly ashamed when emotions well up listening to "Leader of the Band"), I freely admit a soft spot for this rather lengthy, bittersweet narrative about a Yuletide encounter with a former lover. With a lyrical approach that sounds quite autobiographical, the song paints a surprisingly moving, rather unflinching portrait of the passage of time and how people often swallow romantic disappointments they may never quite forget. This soft rock classic's placement of the events during the holidays, when people are most inclined to reflect upon the past, is successful and appropriate.
One of the most signature '80s post-punk and college rock bands makes an old holiday chestnut its own here, as Bono's typically overwrought vocal style fits the bittersweet quality of the tune perfectly. Bono has always had the ability to transform various styles of music into inspirational affairs, and here he does so with the same abandon that characterizes the band's best work. As such, the song dances on the verge of gospel with its sweeping, epic delivery. This one makes Christmas heartache somehow much more bearable.
OK, so I'm doing it again, making flighty exceptions in the face of the calendar's rigidity. But I really think Paul McCartney's synth-laden holiday romp belongs far more to the '80s than the preceding decade. More than that, its constant place within my holiday memory remains stronger, for better or worse, than probably any other Yuletide song I can think of. Maybe that's just a personal thing, but I think this jaunty tune fits the season particularly well because, like much of the season's music (and even a great deal of McCartney's solo efforts), it functions as a rich, syrupy confection that would be perfectly at home with any number of tasty party treats.