I listen to a lot of Christmas music. I get the itch around July and begin listening on my iPod. The moment trick-or-treating is over, I can listen to it out loud around the house, of which I take full advantage. I love the classics, the new stuff, and everything in between. And I stay sharp by putting together a Christmas music compilation CD every year with my wife, for the holiday party we host. Now that’s dedication!
I’ve listened to so much Christmas music that I feel compelled to rank the 10 best. Here are my criteria:
- first and foremost, great Christmas music should exemplify and celebrate the very reasons I love the holiday season in general: time with family & friends, goodwill, memories, introspection, hope, joy
- great specific recordings (i.e., a specific artist performs a magnificent and unique rendition; see #6 below)
- time-tested, but not ridiculously overplayed/cliché (admittedly, the “overplayed/cliché” bar for Christmas music is very high and entirely subjective…that’s why I have my own list)
- not too cheesy (which eliminates most of the new offerings the last few years)
- if cheesy, at least fun and clever
Without further ado…
10. I’ll Be Home for Christmas — This song and “White Christmas” are the two great WWII Christmas songs, both eloquently speaking for travel- and war-weary soldiers. I prefer this song to “White Christmas” for its simplicity and the fact that it’s not quite as overplayed/overblown.
Definitive version: I’m not sure anyone will top Bing Crosby’s (White Christmas) rendition (you can say that about most of his Christmas recordings).
Other noteworthy version: Elvis Presley (Elvis’ Christmas Album): I’ve always wondered whether Elvis intentionally hammed it up on his Christmas songs or if he was being earnest. Either way, this song is a real gem — and a real hoot.
9. Little Saint Nick — There isn’t a more perfect marriage between Christmas music and a pop/rock band than this. It edges out “Run, Rudolph, Run” for me as the best pop/rock Christmas song.
Definitive version: The Beach Boys (The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album): as I just mentioned, this song embodies The Beach Boys (upbeat, great harmonies, car references, etc.) better than any other Christmas song embodies its artist. Consequently, I offer no other noteworthy versions…this is the only one for me.
8. Auld Lang Syne — Such a wonderful melody and sweet, melancholy lyrics. You can’t have a New Year’s Eve party without it. Not a Christmas song, but close enough.
Definitive versions: Guy Lombardo (Auld Lang Syne) and the last scene from It’s A Wonderful Life. That scene chokes me up every time.
Other noteworthy versions: Mairi Campbell & Dave Francis (The Winnowing) perform my absolute favorite rendition of this song, in Scots verse with an extraordinary, wistful tone. Lou Rawls (Christmas Is the Time) also does a wonderful a cappella version.
7. Santa Baby — Fun, clever, cute…a Christmas radio staple. Yes, it’s played a lot, but it’s so good, I don’t mind.
Definitive version: It’s hard to imagine anyone doing this song better than Eartha Kitt (Purr-Fect), but…
Other noteworthy version: I actually prefer Jane Krakowski’s (Broadway Cares: Home for the Holidays) version. It’s showtune-over-the-top and Krakowski’s got a great voice.
6. Blue Christmas — A very simple, sad Christmas song that’s absolutely made by its definitive version.
Definitive version: Elvis Presley (Elvis’ Christmas Album). If you don’t know this rendition, you’ve never listened to Christmas music in your life. And yet it never gets old.
Other noteworthy versions: Chris Isaak (Christmas) does this one up Elvis-homage/country western/bluesy style that only he can, while Harry Connick, Jr. (Harry for the Holidays) offers a very good Big Band version. Bright Eyes (Maybe This Christmas) also does a good alt-rock version.
5. River — A beautiful, sad, hopeful song. It paints a very vivid, unique picture of the Season…even though it’s only tangentially about Christmas.
Definitive version: Joni Mitchell (Blue) performs this song in a delicate, wounded manner that only a song’s writer can.
Other noteworthy versions: I actually prefer Sarah McLachlan’s (Wintersong) version to Mitchell’s. I know that Mitchell’s style is more in keeping with the idea of the song, but McLachlan’s voice and the music are just so beautiful. Heresy, I know…forgive me. The Indigo Girls (1200 Curfews) do a wonderful live version.
4. 25th December — Youthful mistakes, adult regret, and a not-quite-sure-how desire to make it right. This is a rather dark Christmas song, but beautifully and perfectly so. I probably like this song more than #2 and #3 on my list, but it’s so hard to rate anything above those classics. Maybe in a few years.
Definitive version: As far as I know, Everything but the Girl (Amplified Heart) offers the only version. Listen to it just once and you’ll realize that no other version is necessary.
3. The Christmas Song — A simple song, really, with rather generic references to Christmas icons and ideas. But it has a comforting, warm melody that puts me in the Christmas mood faster than just about any other song. In the right hands, it’s holiday magic.
Definitive version: Nat King Cole’s (Nat King Cole Story) is the most famous version, by far. His warm voice is a perfect match for the melody.
Other noteworthy version: Frank Sinatra’s (A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra) rendition is my favorite. I love the lush accompaniment…and you really can’t beat Frank’s voice for Christmas.
2. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas — As you can probably tell from the list so far, my preference for Christmas music leans toward the melancholy. This song plays melancholy perfectly, striking the right balance between sad and hopeful. Almost the perfect Christmas song.
Definitive version: Judy Garland’s (Meet Me in St. Louis) original version is rightfully the definitive one. Who knows melancholy better than she?
Other noteworthy versions: Well, actually, Frank (A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra) is no stranger to melancholy (yes, I realize how many times I’ve used “melancholy” in this post). His is my favorite version. I really like Coldplay’s (Maybe This Christmas) and The Pretenders’ (A Very Special Christmas) versions, too.
1. Christmas Time Is Here — It’s only fitting that the best Christmas song comes from the best Christmas special (and best Christmas album). This is the perfect Christmas song. Perfect lyrics. Perfect melody. Perfect sentiment. No song says Christmas to me more definitively than this one (some of that credit goes to the Charlie Brown special). oh, that we, could always see, such spirit through the year
Definitive versions: Vince Gauraldi Trio (A Charlie Brown Christmas): The instrumental version is a beautiful piece of small combo jazz, while the vocal version with children’s voices perfectly captures all of the Season’s emotions (most cover versions of this song emphasize the earnestness/wistfulness, without properly capturing the youthful joy).
Other noteworthy versions: Diana Krall’s (Christmas Songs) rendition is amazing, if somewhat sad. Sarah McLachlan’s (Wintersong) is wonderful, though a tad too earnest at times (Christmas Time Is Here trivia: Diana Krall plays the piano on McLachlan’s version).
There you have it, the Top 10 list from someone who listens to too much Christmas music. What’s your Top 10?
Bonus material for you…
- The best rendition of any song that didn’t make my Top 10 is Trombone Shorty’s “O Holy Night” from the Christmas episode of Studio 60. It’s powerfully moving, especially if you saw that episode. The majesty of the song and of the trumpet are so abundantly clear in this rendition. Always gives me chills. Barenaked Ladies & Sarah McLachlan’s medley “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen / We Three Kings” on Barenaked for the Holidays is pretty good, too.
- My favorite Christmas albums are…
5. Chris Isaak’s Christmas: fun, funky, and sweet
4. Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong: remarkably beautiful songs
3. Bing Crosby’s White Christmas: the benchmark by which all other Christmas albums are measured; chock-full of Christmas classics
2. Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra: as I mentioned above, you can’t beat Frank’s voice for Christmas songs
1. Vince Gauraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas: a great two-fer: awesome Christmas album, awesome jazz album
- The Christmas songs I hate the most…
Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime”: mind-numbingly simple and repetitive. He shoulda asked for Lennon’s help writing this one.
Madonna’s “Santa Baby”: I love this song, so it takes a lot to ruin it for me. A grown woman pretending to be a kid is cute. A grown woman trying to sound like a toddler while singing is unnerving.
The Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas, Darling”: I like slow, sad Christmas songs, but come on! Let’s try for more than 10 beats per minute. And “Christmasing” is not a word!
Anything by Céline Dion: You don’t have to sing every word of every song like it’s the most important word ever sung. And you don’t have to sing like you’re trying to reach every person in the world simultaneously without the help of speakers/radios/other amplification devices.
Anything by Michael Bolton: The female version of Céline Dion, except without a good voice.
- With all due respect to “Wonderful Christmastime”, the worst Christmas song ever written is “Christmas in San Francisco”, made famous by Vic Damone. It’s really a song about the tourist traps of San Francisco, with the word “Christmas” randomly sprinkled in. Check out the lyrics here. It’s so bad, though, that it’s endearing (especially after you’ve heard it a thousand times on KOIT-FM) and, therefore, not on my most hated list.