When you think of Christmas songs, you know the classics. You’ve got “White Christmas.” You’ve got “Blue Christmas.” There’s Rudolph and Frosty. We have infinite ways of singing to someone to enjoy the holidays, from “Have yourself” to “We wish you a” to “Have a holly, jolly.” Standards and carols and hymns have been reinterpreted and modernized since the jazz era. But even as the old tunes persist, we’ve consistently had pop, rock, and hip-hop performers turning out original songs and updated versions that have become their own kind of modern classics. With allowances that this doesn’t pretend to be a complete list, we respectfully submit our nominations for the new Christmas music canon. Feel free to chime in with your own recommendations.
1. Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home) – Darlene Love – 1963
The 1963 album A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records (later amended to from Phil Spector) gathered a number of artists that worked with producer Phil Spector to record twelve familiar songs and one brand-new one. That new song was recorded by frequent back-up singer and girl-group member Darlene Love, and it became a classic. A 2011 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Love would perform the song on Late Night with David Letterman and his subsequent The Late Show an amazing 27 times.
2. Sleigh Ride – The Ronettes – 1963
One of the familiar songs from the A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records, this one was recorded by The Ronettes of “Be My Baby” fame. The future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers put a unique spin on the tune with their “Ring-a-ling-a-ling Ding-dong-ding” refrain in the background vocals.
3. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) – John Lennon – 1971
John Lennon’s seventh single after the dissolution of The Beatles was recorded with his wife as John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band. The backing chorus was the Harlem Community Choir. Inspired by Lennon and Ono’s activism, the song is based in part on the structure of an English ballad called “Skewball,” about a racehorse. Since its initial release, the song has been covered by dozens of artists; in 2018, Lennon and Ono’s son Sean Ono Lennon released a version recorded with Miley Cyrus and Mark Ronson.
4. Step into Christmas – Elton John – 1973
Sir Elton’s 1973 single was deliberately mixed to sound like the Phil Spector jams of the ‘60s. The song has been certified Gold in the U.K. by the British Phonographic Industry.
5. Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town – Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – 1975/1985
Originally recorded in 1975 at a gig at C.W. Post College in New York, The Boss’s take on the 1934 classic received substantial rock radio airplay even before he released it as the B-side to “My Hometown” in 1985. Bruce and the gang still play the song regularly when touring during the winter, though they did bust it out by request at Bonnaroo in June of 2009.
6. Father Christmas – The Kinks – 1977
Who would have thought that The Kinks would be slight cynical about the holidays? Okay, it’s not a shock. But the deceptively upbeat song does reflect the truth that it’s hard to explain to underprivileged children why Santa brings more and bigger presents to the wealthy ones.
7. Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth – David Bowie & Bing Crosby – 1977
It might sound crazy on paper: the king crooner and Ziggy Stardust having a duet. But that’s exactly what happened in the CBS television special Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas. Bowie did the special because his mom was a Crosby fan; unfortunately, this would prove to be the last of Crosby’s ongoing series of yuletide shows as he would pass away before it aired. Aside from its popularity, the song is notable because Bowie didn’t think his voice matched “Little Drummer Boy,” so three songwriters created the “Peace on Earth” lyrics on the spot in under an hour. The singers nailed the scene in three takes, and the song became a solid-selling single in both the U.K. and the U.S.A.
8. Give A Little Bit – Supertramp – 1977
This one’s a curveball. It’s not an overt Christmas song, but the Roger Hodgson-penned single has become associated with the season because of its frequent inclusion in Christmas-themed commercials and a 1990s charitable re-release in the U.K. A cover of the song by the Goo Goo Dolls had a life of its own in a series of Gap ads featuring the tune sung by a variety of artists, including Liz Phair. Essentially, it’s a song that’s become a Christmas song by osmosis, so we’ll induct it into the canon. (Not so for Leonard Cohen’s beautiful and heartbreaking “Hallelujah;” yes, the Osmonds did record a version with altered lyrics and other groups try to repurpose it for the holidays, but it’s thematically very, very different and never going to be a “Christmas” song.)
9. Christmas Wrapping – The Waitresses – 1981
Post-punk new wave band The Waitresses turned the tale of a busy year and song writer Chris Butler’s ambivalence about Christmas into a holiday anthem. The title of the song is a play on the fact that singer Patty Donahue delivers the lyrics in an almost rap style. Today, the song has been covered by over a dozen artists and appears in a number of films.
10. Last Christmas – Wham! – 1984
What’s the biggest-selling song in the history of the U.K. charts to never reach #1? This one. Part of that is due to the omnipresence of the supergroup charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas” by Band Aid, which held “Last Christmas” to #2 (a fact fraught with irony, as Wham! singer George Michael appears on both tracks). Michael and co-member Andrew Ridgeley also donated all of the proceeds from the single toward Ethiopian famine relief. The song has been a perennial favorite on the U.K. charts, regularly re-entering for weeks at a time every year near Christmas.
11. Do They Know It’s Christmas – Band Aid – 1984
Though it’s given short shrift these days for a couple of lyrical passages that are either misunderstood (no, Bono isn’t really thanking God that someone else is starving; he’s awkwardly telling you to be grateful) or painfully generalized to stereotypical (yeah, there can be snow in Africa, though the rains are frequently blessed; no, not everyone celebrates Christmas), the song was still a charity single featuring a shocking amount of talent marshalled in one place. Written by Midge Ure and Bob Geldof, the song’s proceeds were intended to fight famine relief in Ethiopia. Participants included Sting, Phil Collins, Paul Young, Boy George, George Michael, Jody Watley, and members of U2, Duran Duran, Bananarama, Style Council, Kool and the Gang, Culture Club, Ultravox, The Boomtown Rats, Spandau Ballet, Status Quo, and Heaven 17. David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and the band Big Country also contributed to spoken word passages on the B-side. The song launched an era of charity singles (including “We Are the World,” which Geldof also worked on); whether or not critics appreciated them, they represent doing something for a good reason. In terms of charitable effectiveness, this song raised around $24 million for relief, the subsequent “We Are the World” pulled in $63 million, and the Geldof-organized Live Aid concert, featuring acts preforming simultaneously in London and Philadelphia on July 13, 1985, raised $150 million.
12. Another Lonely Christmas – Prince – 1984
How do you add to the legacy of mysteriousness left by His Royal Badness? You throw in a song that Prince played live exactly once. That’s the case with “Another Lonely Christmas,” which was released as the B-side of “I Would Die 4 U” from Purple Rain. A soulful evocation of love and loss, the tune may not be the most feel-good holiday anthem, but it’s a worthy, overlooked tune from an unassailably great artist.
13. Fairytale of New York – The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl – 1987
Irish band The Pogues have always been able to wring humor and heartache out of the same song; this is no exception. Part immigration fable, part tale of a disintegrating relationship, “Fairytale” is sung as a duet between Shane MacGowan of The Pogues and guest Kirsty MacColl. Thoroughly Irish down to instrumentation and rough language, the single hit #2 in the U.K. and has reached the U.K. top 20 again on 15 occasions. The Telegraph reports that it’s the most-played Christmas song of the 21st Century in the U.K. as well.
14. Christmas in Hollis – Run-DMC – 1987
Inspired in part by Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You, the compilation album A Very Special Christmas was assembled by producer Jimmy Iovine. Iovine wanted to do a Christmas album as a sort of tribute to his father, and Iovine’s wife suggested that the record benefit the Special Olympics. The record became a series, eventually raising over $100 million for the organization. One of the tracks from the first record was dropped by legendary hip-hop group Run-DMC, which combines Joseph “Run” Simmons’s fanciful tale of finding Santa’s wallet with Darryl “DMC” McDaniels’s recounting of family Christmas in Hollis, Queens.
15. The Little Drummer Boy – Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band- 1987
Another entry from A Very Special Christmas, this version of “Drummer Boy” is distinguished by the delivery of Bob Seger. The stirring sax solo is performed by Alto Reed, longtime member of Seger’s Silver Bullet Band. While various recent publications have derided “Little Drummer Boy” in general for its repetitious nature, the Seger version conveys a level of emotional intensity that other takes on the tune frequently miss.
16. Put A Little Love in Your Heart – Annie Lennox & Al Green – 1988
Originally recorded by Jackie DeShannon, who co-wrote it with her brother and Jimmy Holiday, the song was a huge hit in 1969. In 1988, Annie Lennox and Al Green cut a cover for the soundtrack of the Bill Murray film Scrooged. With sparkling production by Lennox’s Eurhythmics partner Dave Stewart and a Christmas-themed video to go with the film, the song’s themes of love, giving, and celebration make a perfect match for Yuletide. And did we mention . . . Annie Lennox and Al Green?!
17. Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight) – The Ramones – 1989
Punk legends The Ramones might not be the first artist you think of when it comes to Christmas music, but they have a documented love of 1960s rock and they worked with uber-producer Phil Spector on their End of the Century album, so it’s not really a huge leap. Nevertheless, the band put their own spin on the notion of a holiday singalong; it’s a vaguely dark look at a relationship in trouble wherein the narrator juxtaposes traditional Christmas images against the backdrop of constant fighting.
18. Frosty the Snowman – Cocteau Twins – 1993
Alternative critical darlings Cocteau Twins weighed in with this take on “Frosty” on their EP Snow. The two-song disc also includes a version of “Winter Wonderland.” This cover is largely notable for Elizabeth Fraser’s ethereal vocals. If you’ve never heard the band before, you may have heard Fraser in Middle Earth; she’s the vocalist on the “Lament for Gandalf” that’s heard in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
19. All I Want for Christmas is You – Mariah Carey – 1994
Need we say more? Mimi’s epic tribute to the Spector style has earned her over $60 million in royalties as of 2017.
20. God Rest You Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings – Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan – 1996/2004
Recorded in 1996 and widely circulated since then on other compilations, this team-up from two of Canada’s biggest acts also landed on an official Barenaked Ladies Christmas release in 2004. It’s a fairly straightforward acoustic reading elevated by the clear mezzo-soprano of McLachlan.
21. O Come All Ye Faithful – Twisted Sister – 2006
Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider has been given to comment in interviews that the melody for the band’s biggest hit, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” bit from this Christmas standard. When the group decided to put out a Christmas album in 2006, they made that connection explicit. Not only is their arrangement of “Faithful” consistent with the arrangement of their hit single right down to the cowbell, they also drop in a note-for-note rendition of the “We’re Not Gonna Take It” guitar solo.
22. The Season’s Upon Us – Dropkick Murphys – 2012
The Dropkick Murphys don’t just recognize their Celtic influences; they lean into them. Hard. They’re also not afraid to poke fun at Irish stereotypes in their music, something that they do with gusto on this nudge and wink-filled tune about an extended family’s rowdy holiday. When you hear vocalist and bassist Ken Casey delivering lines about his nephew like, “He likes to pelt carolers with icy snowballs; I’d like to take him out back and deck more than the halls,” you know it’s meant to be in jest.
23. Underneath the Tree – Kelly Clarkson – 2013
In the parade of Spector homage, it’s Kelly Clarkson’s turn. She co-wrote this song with hit-machine writer/producer Greg Kurstin for her Wrapped in Red Christmas album. Kurstin produced the song with a similar Wall of Sound revival treatment that Mariah Carey employed, and the result is an extremely catchy tune that is becoming firmly entrenched as a worldwide seasonal chart performer. Just last year, it hit the charts in Switzerland, Ireland, and Germany for the first time.
24. Mary, Did You Know? – Pentatonix – 2014
Pentatonix has one of the more unusual origin stories for successful pop groups in this decade. Three high school friends joined two other singers to form a group to compete in the third season of the reality TV competition The Sing-Off in 2011. With their innovative arrangements and impressive abilities that made their group of five sound much larger, they ended up winning the season. That attention, combined with savvy use of YouTube and social media promotion, catapulted the group into stardom. This cover of a 1991 Michael English song can be found on their That’s Christmas to Me album; it charted on both the U.S. Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary lists, and the accompanying video has been viewed over 191,000,000 times.
25. It’s Not Christmas ‘Til You Come Home – Norah Jones – 2017
This one’s a bit of a rarity. Recorded last year at Spotify Studios in New York, it’s not widely available. However, it does present a classic Jones performance, recorded in her jazz-influenced style.
26. Christmas Medley – Foo Fighters – 2017
Foo Fighters appearing on Saturday Night Live isn’t news. They’ve been on more than half-a-dozen times. But this particular night was different. The band was touring for their Concrete and Gold album and brought along the three back-up singers that accompanied the group on that tour. After performing their single The Sky is a Neighborhood, they returned later in the show with a Christmas medley that combined their classic “Everlong” with “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” and an instrumental jam on “Linus and Lucy” from A Charlie Brown Christmas. The clip went viral the next day, with dozens of musical outlets writing about it. Inexplicably, the original isn’t on YouTube at the moment; only second-generation cuts can be seen. However, the original is still up in a couple of places, if you know where to look.
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