It’s that time of year again. The time of year when I have to listen to people complain about holiday music. I really don’t get you people. If you want to complain about holiday music in early-November, I’ll give you that. I don’t get it, but whatever. You can complain then. Once Thanksgiving week is here, I’m dusting off the holiday records and you can keep your cynicism to your damn self. I say bah humbug to your lack of Christmas cheer.
Of course, everyone has gotten in on the cash cow that is holiday music at this point. If someone is even remotely famous, you can bet they have a holiday song or entire album. Check out Stephen Colbert’s hilarious “Another Christmas Song” and listen to the lyrics about how everyone is writing another “royalty earning” Christmas song. So how does one choose which songs to add to the holiday tradition and which to leave out in the cold? Simple. I’ve done it for you.
As always, there are rules to this list.
- Only one version per song. My iTunes Holiday playlist has seven different versions of “The Christmas Song” but I’m not putting them all on here. I have to choose one.
- No more than one song per artist. This makes it trickier. I could easily just pick every song off of A Charlie Brown Christmas because every song on that album is probably my favorite version. It wouldn’t require much thought or be a provocative list if I just said, “Just download the entire A Charlie Brown Christmas album. You’re welcome.” But seriously, just download the entire A Charlie Brown Christmas album. You’re welcome.
I think those are my only rules. If there are more, I’ll make them up as I go along. Actually, here’s one more: The list can’t go on forever. I have to be somewhat selective or I’ll end up with fifty songs on the list. Some are better than others. Before I officially get started, here are a few honorable mention songs that didn’t make my cut:
It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year – Andy Williams
To be honest, the SNL “Mark Jensen Family Christmas” sketch is the reason I like this song. Will Ferrell’s performance alone is enough to earn this song honorable mention here. I couldn’t find the clip on YouTube, but if you haven’t seen it, look it up.
Feliz Navidad – Jose Feliciano
This song always made me happy. Then I had kids who attempt to sing along in the back of the car and butcher the words adding an entirely new level of fun.
All I Want for Christmas is You – Mariah Carey
It’s a nice Christmas song. Congrats to Mariah for performing the only new Christmas song in 50 years that anyone listens to. I think it’s overrated and unworthy of such hype. The only reason I listed it here is for people who read this, then message me saying, “You forgot Mariah on your list.” No, I didn’t forget. It was intentional.
Christmas in Hollis – Run DMC
“But Charlie, you love hip hop so much. How can this not be on your list?” I’m not from Hollis. I didn’t grow up on Christmas hip hop. It’s a great song and I enjoy it, but it just doesn’t fill my heart with the Christmas spirit like the others on my list.
Happy Xmas (War is Over) – John Lennon
Like a lot of other things, Yoko ruins this one for me.
Last Christmas – Wham!
I enjoy this song, but it sounds too dated. Nobody has made a better version of it that I’ve found. Someone get on that.
Nutmeg – John Legend
John Legend and Stephen Colbert somehow make a sexy holiday slow jam based on a spice. This song is hilarious, but it’s far too filthy to include in a serious holiday playlist.
Now that I’ve eliminated those, I’m going to divide this in to two parts. Part one are the warmups. They’re some of my favorite Christmas songs. Part two are the essentials. They’re the best of the best. Here’s the list of appetizers before I bring out the main dish:
The Birth of Christ – Boyz II Men
In the late-1980’s the “A Very Special Christmas” compilations started hitting the Sam Goody shelves filled with holiday hits performed by the popular artists of the day. Hidden in the midst of 1992’s “A Very Special Christmas 2” was this gem written and performed by hot new Philly R&B sensations Boyz II Men. A haunting a cappella retelling of Jesus’ birth. Boyz II Men released their own album full of original Christmas music that’s enjoyable and well worth a listen, but none of the tracks on that record compare to this one.
Blue Christmas – Elvis Presley
At the risk of incurring the wrath of my in-laws, I do not love Elvis. I recognize game, but for the most part, his music doesn’t do it for me. However, nobody should ever, ever attempt to remake this song. Elvis owns this one and nobody sings it like he does. He conveys the blue of “Blue Christmas” perfectly.
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – U2
I know some (most?) would argue the Darlene Love version of this song is the gold standard, but I’m partial to mid-80’s U2. The Edge’s guitar and Bono’s vocals edge out the 60’s soul vibe for me on this song.
Deck the Halls – Musiq Soulchild
I’m usually traditional when it comes to my holiday music. I don’t like artists messing with what already works. In 2009 one of my favorite Philly R&B/neo-soul artists, Musiq Soulchild, released an album called Christmas Musiq full of contemporary R&B takes on traditional holiday music. In the case of “Deck the Halls” he takes what I typically find to be a corny, dated song and turns it in to a funky soul hit. Some cool syncopated rim shots and unexpected key changes turn this in to a song that will have you nodding your head and smiling. A brilliant twist on an otherwise stale Christmas carol.
Home for Christmas – Hall & Oates
In 2006 Philly soul legends Hall & Oates released a holiday album called Home for Christmas to very little fanfare. It’s still relatively difficult to find…at least as difficult to find as something can be in an era when I can usually find any music I want in a matter of seconds. I know I can’t stream it on Apple Music. My favorite song on this album is the title track, an original Hall & Oates work about how they still dream about being home for Christmas every year, even when they can’t be there physically. It reminds me of my mom because I know she loves H&O, but also because it’s been so long since she’s been back home for Christmas that I wonder if she feels the way Daryl Hall does in this song.
I’ll Be Home for Christmas – Seth MacFarlane
Seth MacFarlane has been around long enough at this point that most people are aware of his wide range of talents. When I first spotted his album Holiday for Swing! back in 2014 I thought it must be a joke. Even the album cover with his big smiling face in the middle of a wreath felt like it could be some kind of Seth MacFarlane gag going over my head. Certainly this album had to be full of offensive Christmas parodies filled with some edgy racial humor or light misogyny. Nope. Turns out MacFarlane is a fantastic crooner and sounds amazing over these traditional holiday classics. I like this version because of the intro and smooth flugelhorn solo.
Jingle Bells (Cha Cha) – Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
Remember that time in the late-90’s when Swingers was everywhere, everyone was calling each other “baby”, and big band/swing music made a brief comeback? Other than Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, perhaps nobody benefitted more from this fad than the SoCal band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. After swing music disappeared BBVD released two enjoyable Christmas albums. As fun as their swing music is, I love this interpretation of Jingle Bells. It’s difficult to imagine any way to make this song cool, but they pull it off. There are no vocals on this stripped down track and the melody is carried by a baritone sax over the top of a funky mix of percussion and flute. Kudos to whoever came up with this odd but extremely satisfying arrangement.
Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow – Harry Connick Jr.
In 1993 when I first discovered this album I was playing in the high school jazz band. This was the first Christmas music I ever heard that I thought, “I wish we were playing THIS in our band!” I still love this version of the song and it brings back great memories. It’s the first Christmas album I remember buying. I couldn’t believe I was spending money on a Christmas CD.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – The Temptations
Every time this song comes on my wife says, “It’s the California Raisins!” and I get pissed off. It’s the damned Temptations. Motown soul legends. Show some respect. The California Raisins did Marvin Gaye’s “Heard it Through the Grapevine”. Not even the same people. Get it? Grapevine? Raisins? Then I Googled it. Damn it. Yep. It was the California Raisins. It was obviously the Temps singing it, but now at least I know what she’s always talking about when she says it was the Raisins.
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town – Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
The Boss! Damn it, this song is just fun. Bruce brings his trademark energy and the band takes a children’s song and turns it in to a four-minute party. Tell me you don’t sing along every single time you hear “you better be good for goodness sake!” RIP Clarence Clemons.
Someday at Christmas – Andra Day & Stevie Wonder
I’m breaking one of my rules here as you’ll see Stevie on this list again later. You know what, it’s freaking Stevie. If anyone belongs on a list of musical greatness twice, he does. Besides, this is a duet. This song is a Stevie original from 1967. The version I prefer was a single in 2015 with Stevie and one of music’s truly unique voices, Andra Day. The song was actually in a commercial for Apple, and thankfully they released it on iTunes so people like me could add it to our holiday playlists.
There are Much Worse Things to Believe In – Stephen Colbert & Elvis Costello
I’ve referenced Colbert several times on this list already. His 2008 holiday special “A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All” is perfect Colbert: Absurd, laugh-out-loud funny, kind of awkward, smart, and heartfelt. The special is loaded with jokes and parodies performed by the likes of Willie Nelson, John Legend, Jon Stewart(?!), and Feist. At the end Colbert sits at the piano with Elvis Costello and they sing a beautiful song about how there are worse things to believe in than a holiday that is supposed to be about the birth of a king who was sent here to teach us all to love one another. A sweet finish to a ridiculous special. Perfect Colbert.
Winter Wonderland – Tony Bennett
Hot take: Tony Bennett sings much better holiday music than Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. It’s not even close. Yes, The Chairman is amazing. I love his music. Songs for Young Lovers is one of the great albums I own on vinyl. He can’t sing a Christmas song like Tony Bennett. This song is my favorite Tony Bennett work.
You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch – Thurl Ravenscroft
Two fun facts about the Grinch: In the 1966 animated special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” Boris Karloff gets credit for all of the vocal work, but the famous song was performed by singer Thurl Ravenscroft. Now for the fact that will ruin this song for you forever: Mr. Ravenscroft is also famous for being the voice of Frosted Flakes’ animated spokesfeline Tony the Tiger. Try listening to this song again for the rest of your life without hearing that same voice yelling, “THEY’RE GRRRRRRRRRRREAT!” One more fun fact: Thurl Ravenscroft is one of the greatest names of all time.
This list is already too long, but we haven’t even gotten to the best stuff yet. Here are my holiday essentials:
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – John Legend feat. Esperanza Spalding
I know this version of the song is brand new, but it’s already my favorite. John Legend and Esperanza Spalding bring the perfect mix of classic sound and new twists. They sound amazing together. The first half of the song is traditional with the two of them harmonizing beautifully. Then at the 1:45 Spalding takes the baseline for a walk (yes, she’s a bassist, too) and the vocals get jazzy. I love this take on one of my favorite Christmas songs. My daughter Lucy has been asking for “the song with John Legend and the girl” for a month now since we first heard it.
A Holly Jolly Christmas – Burl Ives
What’s December without Burl Ives wishing us a Holly Jolly Christmas?
Joy to the World – Sufjan Stevens
I had a difficult time picking out the appropriate Sufjan song for this mix because his work is so good. His Songs for Christmas collection has a little bit of everything. It’s hard not to to pick something fun and unique like “It’s Christmas, Let’s Be Glad” or “We’re Goin’ to the Country!” His version of “Amazing Grace” is beautiful and my favorite interpretation of the song, but is that a Christmas song? I say no. He has instrumentals like “The First Noel” and “Jingle Bells” that could easily make this mix as well. I chose “Joy to the World” because it captures everything I love about his Christmas music in one song. Simple and beautiful. I can’t recommend this album and song highly enough.
Silent Night – Lauren Daigle
I discovered the album “Behold” by Lauren Daigle two years ago when I was searching online for some new Christmas music. I chose it strictly based on the album art. It looked like an old Blue Note record. I had never heard of Ms. Daigle. From the moment I pressed play on the album I knew I found something special. Her voice is stunning. The music screams New Orleans jazz. When you’re done tapping your toes to “Jingle Bells” and marveling at her vocals on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” you’ll be blown away by her take on “What Child is This”. Truth be told, that’s probably my favorite song on the album and should be on this playlist. However, after an album full of holiday greatness, she hits you with a sweet, understated version of “Silent Night” that will bring you to tears. A Charlie Brown Christmas will always be my high bar for holiday perfection, but Sufjan Stevens’s Songs for Christmas and Lauren Daigle’s Behold are not far behind.
White Christmas – Bing Crosby
Dirty secret: I’ve never actually seen White Christmas. Messed up, right? No matter. This is another song that needs no intro or explanation. Every holiday mix must include it. Bing’s voice is like a glass of warm buttermilk. Christmas perfection.
*2019 update: I watched White Christmas last year for the first time shortly after I wrote this. They weren’t lying. It certainly was white…
What Christmas Means to Me – Stevie Wonder
Of all the unbelievable qualities possessed by Stevie Wonder, the one that truly blows my mind is his ability to write so clearly about human emotion without being able to see. For someone “blind” he writes detail in his music better than any of us. He captures the spirit of the season in this song better than anyone with 20/20 vision could.
Wonderful Christmastime – Paul McCartney
I used to hate this song. If it came on I’d demand it be turned off. Not sure when I did a 180 on it. Now it makes me happy every time I hear it. I have no idea why. It has mostly awful 80’s synth that feels nothing like a traditional Christmas carol. The lyrics are kind of stupid. Yet it grew on me. My kids love this song. Respect to Paul McCartney for creating a holiday classic that truly stands out. There’s not another Christmas song like it.
These final two songs are the best of the best. There are no Christmas songs greater. Either of these songs could move me to tears if the mood is right. Either one of them makes me truly sad if played for some reason between January and October because they make me wish it was Christmas. They bring back every great memory I have of Christmas growing up. They make me think of my three kids and how they’ve brought the magic back to Christmas. They will never be topped:
The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You) – Nat “King” Cole
My grandmother died 20 years ago this December. She spent the final days of her life in bed as pancreatic cancer took her life. You could tell looking at her in those final days that it was an awful way to go. Yet I’ll never forget my mom telling me that she went peacefully with my grandpa, mom, and her siblings by her bedside while this song played. I honestly can’t think a better way to go. Surrounded by family at the best time of the year listening to this. The best Christmas vocal performance ever. Period. The strings and piano are the perfect complement.
Christmas Time is Here (Instrumental Version) – Vince Guaraldi Trio
I like conversations about music. Inevitably someone always asks, “What’s your favorite song?” or, “What’s your favorite album?” The favorite album question is usually answered with something like Blowout Comb by Digable Planets, Voodoo by D’Angelo, Purple Rain by Prince, or even Malibu by Anderson .Paak, depending on my mood. Truth be told, my favorite album is A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio and my favorite song is the instrumental version of “Christmas Time is Here” from that album. The problem is, I can only listen to it for about six weeks a year. As I mentioned above, if I hear this music any other time of year it makes me sad because I wish it was Christmas again. This song brings back so many amazing memories. This album is the reason I love Christmas music. The simple lesson from the cartoon is something I always carry with me. Charlie Brown is having a crisis. He can’t figure out why he doesn’t feel the way the others feel. When he finally snaps his boy Linus makes it clear to him: On Earth peace and goodwill toward man. That’s what Christmas is all about. In that moment you can see Charlie Brown have an epiphany and everything that was bothering him melted away. Nobody can bring him down. I’m far from religious, but I love Jesus. For 11 months out of the year we listen to people argue about everything and most of it is garbage. We’ve gotta deal with Trump caging up kids and launching tear gas at families searching for a better life. We’ve got mass shootings every month. Officials in the churches where we celebrate Christmas are molesting kids. There are awful people doing awful things all over the world. Yet, for one month between Thanksgiving and Christmas we are reminded about peace and goodwill toward man. To me, that’s what Christmas is all about. Being good to one another. That’s what this song reminds me of and that’s why it’s the best.
If you’re an Apple Music subscriber and would like to stream or download this list you can click here. They aren’t all available there, but most of them are.