With the holiday season in full swing…
by Bethany Rose
… you might find yourself grimacing. Not I! I love this time of year—the smell of holiday trees, the baking of lots of calorie-laden goodies, and the continuation of old tradition paired with the creation of new tradition. Last year, I made a holiday movie list for your viewing pleasure. This year, I thought I’d turn your ear to the sound of Christmas music. I usually start listening to it at the start of November. Many of my playlists are separated by decade or genre, which still tends to create time limits within a decade or two. I love that my Christmas list incorporates songs from a variety of decades and musical artists. But there is a lot of it. It seems like just about any artist who’s ever had a hit single has also released a Christmas song or album. Pair that with artists trying their hand at creating their own new Christmas hit, and it seems like a Christmas playlist can be longer than your wish list. But do you really want to hear 15 versions of Silent Night?
If not, then I am here to help! I have created an essential Christmas Playlist for you. I pick some of my favorite unique holiday songs, along with what I consider the must-listen versions of classic carols. There are some songs that aren’t here not because I don’t think they are holiday essentials, but because I think they are best sung on your own or with a group (like “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Rudolph”—especially that one, since singing it on your own gives you enough time to add the extras like “Like a Lightbulb!”). As an added bonus, I’ve given you a few tips on what to skip, too. I hope you enjoy the results as much as I do.
- The 12 Days of Christmas—Performed by Straight No Chaser: A great way to kick off a playlist. It is upbeat and catchy, which should get you in the mood for singing along to the rest of the songs on this list. Plus it takes one of the most dreaded Christmas songs (even Pee Wee Herman ducked out of a performance of it) and mixes it up with a sped up rendition that incorporates samples from other holiday songs like “I Have a Little Dreidel,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” to an unexpected holiday styling of Toto’s Africa.
- Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree—Performed by Brenda Lee: While you’re still in a toe-tapping mood, you might as well join Brenda Lee at her Christmas party hop. There are plenty of versions of this song floating around, but I find this well-known version is the best.
- Santa Baby—Performed by Eartha Kitt: Go ahead and slow things down for a bit with this naughty list song that will make you check your wish list twice and possibly add a (faux) sable or two.
- I Wonder as I Wander—Performed by Andy Griffith: After Eartha tempted us all to be on the naughty list, it’s time to make nice and listen to this hauntingly beautiful song by my favorite person ever, Andy Griffith.
- A Mad Russian’s Christmas—Performed by Trans-Siberian Orchestra: Time to take a break from all that singing and enjoy this pulse-pounding orchestral piece.
- All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)—Performed by Spike Jones and His Slickers: George Rock was the vocalist in the group that created the iconic child’s voice we all hear when the song comes on. This silly little tune was one of my dad’s favorites, so you know it just had to go on this list.
- I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas—Performed by Gayla Peevey: Speaking of silly songs with iconic sounds, this fun song brings out the kid in everyone. And I bet you try mimicking the exact voice as you sing along (or, at the very least, make sure you try it when you sing “rhinoceroseses”).
- Jingle Bells—Performed by Barbra Streisand: Connecting the goofiness of our previous two songs back to a traditional Christmas carol, Streisand’s fast-paced “Jingle Bells” is so fun, you won’t even be tempted—or have the time—to sing the “Batman Smells” lyrics in place of the traditional ones. (Note: This particular version is sometimes titled “Jingle Bells?” Once you listen to the song, you’ll realize why!)
- The Christmas Song—Performed by Nat King Cole: An old standby that never actually gets old. Cole’s smooth crooning makes this the rendition to edge out all the others of this song.
- It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year—Performed by Andy Williams: I remember a commercial featuring Williams singing this song, his arms spread open as if to say “Hey, Christmas, let’s hug.” So it is extremely hard for me to sing this essential Christmas tune without throwing my arms to prepare for my own Christmas embrace.
- My Favorite Things—Performed by Julie Andrews: It heals every dog bite and bee sting, or at least it makes you not feel so bad about them. I don’t even particularly care for schnitzel with noodles, but when Andrews sings of their glories they sure sound appealing to me.
- Blue Christmas—Performed by Elvis Presley: Oh, Elvis, have you not listened to anything Andy or Julie just sang? Though Presley might be feeling blue, I instantly perk up every time I hear this song—but only if I hear Elvis’ version.
- The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)—Performed by Alvin & the Chipmunks: Fun for the whole family. Now somebody buy me a hula-hoop.
- Do You Hear What I Hear?—Performed by Johnny Mathis: It’s a lovely song on its own, but after it was featured in Gremlins, it probably skyrocketed to the top of many Christmas playlists (or, at that time, mix tapes).
- Silent Night—Performed by Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Back in the day, my sister had a cassette of Christmas songs performed by a variety of artists. I’m thankful it included Sister Rosetta’s rendition of “Silent Night” because otherwise I’m not sure I’d have ever heard it. Consider this my Christmas (or holiday, or Tuesday) gift to you all.
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas—Performed by Judy Garland: Another song with a million and one versions, but Garland’s is not only my favorite because of her vocals. This is the version from Meet Me in St. Louis, so every time I hear this particular version I think about one of my favorite Christmas scenes in a film.
- Winter Wonderland—Performed by Darlene Love: The way this song should be performed. You’re talking to a snowman, and dreaming by fires, and planning your life in a winter wonderland. Don’t slow it down. Even though I’ve been singing this song since a Cabbage Patch Doll topped my Christmas list, I almost always switch the new bird and the blue bird when I’m singing this song. I don’t have the time or the care to worry about that gaffe when I’m gleefully singing this one.
- Holly Jolly Christmas—Performed by Burl Ives: Another song with a famous Christmas film connection. The season wouldn’t be complete without a viewing of Rudolph, and Ives’ “Holly Jolly Christmas” is one of the many reasons the movie is a classic. Plus, who doesn’t want a cup of cheer?
- Christmas Wrapping—Performed by The Waitresses: This song took its time growing on me. I hope you take to it sooner. While Wham might think they cornered the market on catchy ‘80s Christmas songs, I think this one outdoes it. Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas …
- Frosty the Snowman—Performed by Jimmy Durante: I love Jimmy Durante. So much so, that even though Andy Griffith had his chance at narrating and performing songs for a Frosty movie, Durante edges him out.
- Feliz Navidad—Performed by Jose Feliciano: Merry Christmas is nice. Buon Natale is beautiful. But Feliz Navidad is the most fun of all.
- White Christmas—Performed by Bing Crosby: Crosby crooned this lovely tune in two holiday films: The highly outdated Holiday Inn (I’ll never know why they chose to create routines for both Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays. If they’d just done Valentine’s Day instead of Lincoln’s birthday, they might have saved the film!), and the far less shame-inducing White Christmas. If you must watch Crosby perform it, go with the latter.
- The Chanukah Song—Performed by Adam Sandler: Sandler has recorded a few versions of this song, but I like the first best.
- I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus—Performed by The Jackson 5: This one really should be performed by a younger singer or group.
- Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town—Performed by Bruce Springsteen: The live performance adds an extra layer of fun. The saxophone solo really solidifies this version as the tops.
- This Christmas—Performed by Donny Hathaway: Nobody needs to mess with this version of the song, and I’ve never bothered to listen to anyone who has. It’s perfect as is.
- All I Want for Christmas is You—Performed by Mariah Carey: Speaking of perfection, this song, which is one of the more recently written and recorded of all the songs on this list, needn’t be redone (though I know it has). And you know you always try to hit that high note.
- Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy—Performed by David Bowie and Bing Crosby: A duo of songs with an interesting story behind it. No matter, though, because the end result was this unlikely pair created a beautiful song. If you’re spending the holidays with someone special, one of you can sing Bowie’s part, the other Crosby’s.
- Ave Maria—Performed by Charlotte Church: I don’t even attempt to sing this one. No need to. Church does it just fine all on her own, resulting in a beautiful and haunting song.
- O Holy Night—Performed by Hanson: OK, so there’s a few things about the last song on this list. First of all, it’s not just “O Holy Night.” The actual song title is “Silent Night Medley” and features both of those songs, along with “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” This medley is the perfect ending trio of songs for the playlist. But I also wanted to take a second to draw your attention to Hanson’s Christmas album Snowed In. With the exception of maybe one song, it is a fantastic Christmas album. There’s a reason perennial favorites like “Run, Run Rudolph,” and “Merry Christmas Baby” were absent from this list. It’s because those, along with a host of other great renditions of classics, are on this album. So I recommend adding the entire album to the list.
Phew! It was hard to narrow the list to only 30 (with only a slight case of cheating), but I think it’s a good playlist for the start of a holiday party or background music for unwrapping gifts. But if you get adventurous and decide to add some more tunes, I have a short list of some I recommend avoiding.
- The 12 Days of Christmas—Nearly any version except for the one on my essentials list. Again, if even Pee-Wee Herman, filled with the Christmas spirt, can’t make it through this song, then most of us don’t stand a chance.
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas—Performed by James Taylor: Even if you don’t go with Garland’s version, opt for Streisand or, really, almost any other version but this one. Unless, that is, you are having trouble getting the kids to fall asleep on Christmas Eve. Then by all means, blast this song through the house.
- Do They Know It’s Christmas?—Performed by Band Aid: OK, let me start by saying I applaud the good that came from this song. I know it raised money. I know it was created with good intent (for the most part). And if in 1984 it raised money and awareness for the famine in Ethiopia, wonderful. Great. Awesome. But I don’t think it’s helping anyone in 2015. Would I be opposed to a song by a Band Aid-like group coming out every year to bring awareness to a cause? Absolutely not! So maybe let’s do that instead of breaking up our holiday cheer with a bleak reminder. I’m sorry if that makes me horrible.
- The Christmas Shoes—Performed by NewSong: Since you already think I’m horrible, let me tell you about the first (and only) time I watched Terms of Endearment. I was so put off by the film that I spent a large portion of it yelling, “Just die already!” That’s not to say that there aren’t some overly weepy terminal illness movies that don’t get to me, but if an overly weepy terminal illness movie rubs me the wrong way, then I turn into Elaine Benes at a screening of the English Patient. But this song is the worst of the worst. It’s awful. I once watched a guy on the “L” get swindled out of $50 playing Three-card Monte during the holiday season. All I could think was, “There goes money he probably was about to buy Christmas presents with.” That’s basically what’s happening to the guy in this story.