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tunes keeping the city singing

Lugging Christmas décor from our Brooklyn basement last weekend, I pressed play on the chunky third-generation iPod still spinning our family’s yuletide tunes. I realized my eclectic playlist is a jumble of New York City memories masquerading as holiday songs on old tech — a fitting tribute to a city that’s still singing along to a wacky combination of holiday melodies that somehow sound joyous, even in the wobbly urban infrastructure we call home.

First up is Whitney Houston’s soaring “Do You Hear What I Hear?”: also a hit for the Salvation Army crooner who has belted it out at Bloomingdale’s for years. Memories of her red kettle and clanging bell, plus an equally fine version of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” landed both songs on my list. 

Next track, “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-DMC. “Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens” is as much my Kentucky grandmother’s stew pot as the DJs’ in Queens.

Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC
“Christmas in Hollis” by Run-DMC is another addition to the playlist.
Corbis via Getty Images

Then, Sting’s world beat “I Saw Three Ships” and Wyclef Jean’s rousing reggae “Little Drummer Boy/Hot Hot Hot” remix. Both sound great on bucket drums that still echo through the A train in December. 

Then, Stevie Nicks’ mournful “Silent Night,” so beloved I requested it repeatedly, until my husband shushed me, at Fleetwood Mac’s Madison Square Garden encore — in March. 

We sing traditional hymns at church and go caroling near the Borough Hall holiday market — to generate foot traffic (instead of Amazon clicks) and spread cheer. I do love the classic John & Yoko, Bruce and Mariah blasting in the Wegmans aisles and piped onto Fulton Mall. 

But New York’s melting pot has yielded some offbeat holiday additions. My kids’ school was too atheist for overtly Christian carols, but not, apparently, for Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Bob Geldof and his 1980s pop stars got nothing on angelic New York City third-graders crooning “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime” and merrily whacking gyils and djembes and tooting panpipes.

I added Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” an odd Christmas choice thanks to winter recess orchestrated by the math teacher leading the high school assembly in “We don’t need no education” — one verse in British accents. Ah, brownstone Brooklyn. But both are on permanent rotation on the iPod and in my heart.

Adam Sandler performs "The Chanukah Song" to a Saturday Night Live crowd.
Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” was performed on Saturday Night Live.
NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Ditto the “Messiah” after that year in a friend’s posh Carnegie Hall box, her mom onstage — forever conflating Handel’s sacred score with plush velvet seats, little gilded doors and the shuffle of the pricey front rows evacuating after the “Hallelujah” chorus.

“Feliz Navidad” conjures The Bronx, thanks to Alan in my office mailroom, who, God bless him, gamely tried for years to teach me to salsa at our holiday party. Ditto Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” played by Rob from facilities on his bass guitar rocking out for cheering colleagues.

Broadway: check. “We Need a Little Christmas” from “Mame,” once a reminder of Kentucky community theater, my New York dream then just a glimmer, now a festive sing-along memory from a 2 a.m. visit with my truck-driver brother to West Village piano bar Marie’s Crisis. 

My husband loves The Waitresses’ 1981 “Christmas Wrapping,” with its peppy tune and serendipitous all-night-deli reunion with an old crush buying cranberry sauce — an NYC bodega tale if I ever heard one.

Enter Adam Sandler’s hilarious “Chanukah Song” and Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” added by my son’s Jewish girlfriend the year she taught me to make latkes — now a Christmas Eve tradition alongside my Duane Reade menorah. Alas, we lost that pharmacy to theft last year. But I still smile spinning the Blind Boys of Alabama’s “Born in Bethlehem” thanks to that surprise appearance at City Winery.

The outside of Nederlander Theater at the RENT 10-year anniversary.
The most impactful song on the playlist is “Seasons of Love” from RENT.
Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

And there’s the haunting Celtic Woman’s “Auld Lang Syne” recalling a New York from “Sex and the City” — the 1990s version, not this year’s woke reboot.

My five-CD changer is still loaded with last year’s yuletide discs. Vince Guaraldi Trio’s Charlie Brown CD used to recall Jazz at Lincoln Center but is now a tribute to the Grand Canyon streatery on Montague Street, cheerily decorated with Peanuts stuffies in surgical masks in a bid to hang on.

There’s also the “Now That’s What I Call Christmas!” disc left in the used Ford Explorer I bought from a Bay Ridge firefighter. “Keep it,” he said, “and think about first responders in December.” Ten years later, I still do!

But perhaps the best tune on my Big Apple holiday playlist is “Seasons of Love” from “Rent.” In a city that’s somehow still singing and wobbling along this holiday season after two tough years, love’s really the only way for New Yorkers to measure a year.

Caroline Aiken Koster is a New York City writer and attorney.

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