One of the best things (for some people) about Christmas is the collection of songs. There is no holiday that can match it in terms of quantity or quality of music. From the church classics to the early popular music selections to the early days of rock, and even featuring a collection of novelty songs. There really isn’t anything like Christmas music (especially if it comes before Thanksgiving; in which case, you’re the problem, and I hate you).
So, to continue A Sacred Wall Christmas (The Greatest Gift of All), I decided it’s about time to take on my hardest list yet, and create the definitive list of The Top Ten Greatest Christmas Songs. This was an insanely difficult list, because there are literally sooooooo many songs. Songs of every style, genre, type, and artist. Some songs have been covered ad naseum, so there’s the added question of artist and interpretation. In other words, there’s a lot. However, I think I’ve managed to shape this unwieldy beast into one definitive list of the ten greatest songs for the world’s favorite holiday.
Before I began, I had to set parameters. These had to be songs written for the holiday, and solely for the holiday. This ruled out any song for a Christmas Special, including “Heat Miser/Snow Miser” from The Year Without a Santa Claus, “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch” from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, “Silver and Gold” from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, “Christmas Time Is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, and any song from A Colbert Christmas. While these songs are great, they were written for a specific special instead of for the holiday itself, thus ruling them out.
And now for the honorable mentions, for which there are many. From the religious sector, we have “Joy to the World,” “O Holy Night,” “The First Noel,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Adeste Fideles (O Come, All Ye Faithful). From the old classics, we have “Jingle Bells,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” From the rock and roll sector, we have “Blue Christmas,” “Run Rudolph Run,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Little St. Nick,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” From the Great American Songbook section, we’ve got “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Santa Baby” (both Eartha Kitt and Madonna), and “Holly Jolly Christmas.” And I even looked at novelty songs, like “Feliz Navidad,” “Last Christmas,” and “Nuttin’ for Christmas: (the best rendition will be shared soon. Decidedly not on this list is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for which I’m firmly in the camp of “Iffy at Best, Rape-y at Worst” (“Say what’s in this drink?” is a frightening line). And if you’re wondering what came the closest to making the list outside of these, let me share this video really fast.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s focus on the Top Ten Greatest Christmas Songs!
10. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
The classic song about bigotry and eventual acceptance, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is one of the first Christmas songs people hear. Maybe they sing it in school as a child. Maybe they hear it on the radio. Maybe the first see it as part of the Christmas special of the same name. No matter what, it’s one of the most beloved Christmas songs ever (despite only being written in 1939, which seems so recent it amazes me), teaching a story of acceptance that fills people with a joy that lasts throughout the season, whether by Gene Autry, The Temptations, The Ronettes, Dean Martin, The Barenaked Ladies, or my pick for the Best Rendition…
Best Rendition: Burl Ives. Honestly, there might not be a more definitive version of this song than what Ives did for the Christmas special. It’s just so damn charming and uplifting. How can you not like it?
9. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
This is the only incident of me breaking my own rule. Technically, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was written for Meet Me In St. Louis. However, what’s so remarkable is how separate it is. You hear “Grinch,” and you immediately think of the special. I honestly didn’t know that this song was written for a movie until very recently, and I make myself know EVERYTHING about movies. However, this song of longing, yearning and nostalgia tries to get people to look on the bright side, no matter how bleak the world around them (rejected lyrics were “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas/It may be your last…” which I absolutely love). Despite any ominous undertones, it’s the type of Christmas song everyone loves, and has been covered by many a great artist, including Frank Sinatra, Sam Smith, Lorna Luft, Karen Carpenter, The Pretenders, and…
Best Rendition: Judy Garland. Always go with the O.G., kids. Yes, no one sang this song with as much zest, as much oomph, and as much heart as Queen herself, Judy Garland. The first person to sing it, for St. Louis, she’s the one that gave it its staple and gave us a classic heard ‘round the world.
8. Little Drummer Boy & Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth
I’m doubling these up with two Christmas classics: one an old church hymn, one a modern showstopper. The original “Little Drummer Boy” was always my favorite church hymn (and Christmas special-I was a weird little child), interrupting its storytelling with vocal precussion, and offering up a story of a young boy trying to figure out how to honor Baby Jesus, and realizing he didn’t have anything to give, just plays a song for the baby. Sure, if you really think about it, no mother would nod approvingly if you walked up to her newborn and just started banging on a drum loudly after just getting him to sleep, but hey, it’s the thought that counts. I’m not sure if the song itself is what I’ve always considered good, or the spectacular rendition by the Vienna Boys Choir, but something about it stands out in my mind. However, what’s perhaps even more remarkable than this piece of music is that one time Bing Crosby hung out with David Bowie. There’s really no example in modern pop culture that can describe how absolutely bizarre this team up was. All of a sudden, on Bing Crosby’s Christmas special, the old crooner was joined by the young androgynous sex symbol. And they sang together: Bing a rendition of “Drummer Boy,” and Bowie, disinterested in the older stuff, singing a new song about Christmas bringing about peace and love on Earth. And it’s one of the greatest Christmas songs ever written. Both artists are now deceased, and I hope they still reenact this scene up there for this, their first Christmas together.
7. All I Want For Christmas Is You
YES THIS DESERVES A SPOT ON THIS LIST AND I WILL FIGHT ANYONE WHO SAYS OTHERWISE! Ahem, I’m calm, I’m calm. I’m well aware this song has an earworm-esque quality that happens to piss off most listeners, but I don’t care. Mariah Carey can sing like nobody’s business, and her electrifying love song-Christmas song fusion is the shot of adrenaline the genre has always needed. Try not singing along with this when it comes on the radio. Go ahead, I dare you. Sure, it was featured in the movie that shall remain nameless (f*ck Love Actually). But I don’t care. This is a song that can stand on its own, needing and wanting for nothing, except your heart. Just give her your heart, you devils. Give in. You’re welcome.
6. The Chipmunk Song
My one and only novelty song on this list, there are few Christmas songs I love as much as “The Chipmunk Song.” And that’s not just because of a college friend who loved/was mocked with this song. No, Dave Seville’s playful Christmas song performed by “three little chipmunks” is everything great about the holiday: childishly innocent, filled with cheer, and filled with just enough sass to keep things fun (Alvin’s stubborn “Ok!” is still my aesthetic). To this day, I’m not sure which I want more: a plane that loops the loop, or a hula-hoop. All I know is that I don’t want Christmas to be late (because apparently that’s a thing that can happen).
5. Santa Claus is Coming To Town
Another song, not unlike “Rudolph,” that is among the first Christmas songs we learn, there may not be a song we connect to Christmas as much as “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.” It’s the heralding of Christmas’ second most beloved figure (first, depending on how secular you are), and hosts a yearning and a joy for the season to finally arrive, in the former of a jolly old man with a white beard and a big belly. It’s message also comes with a sense of irony, considering the fact that when the lyrics are boiled down, it’s essentially an attempt by parents to tell their kids to shut up for a few days if they want Santa to come. But I don’t care. It’s a brilliantly written little ditty, one that sold out instantaneously upon release, and, in a way songs like “Rudolph” haven’t, it has had some of the most brilliant reinterpretations around, including beloved versions by James Taylor, Cyndi Lauper and Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond (huh?), The Carpenters, Eddie Cantor, Fred Astaire, two of the greatest reinterpretations in The Crystals and The Jackson 5, and the greatest around…
Best Rendition: Bruce Springsteen. This is how significant The Boss’ version of this song is. I’m not even a big fan of his version, and I still understand how significant it is. His New Jersey style of rock and roll brought a classical styling to a modern twist, blending the old with the new, and creating a joyful, inspiring song for every generation, all in one rendition. It’s the rock and roll Christmas song, and frankly, it is the only version that really can’t be done by any other artist. Springsteen’s take is truly one of a kind.
4. The Christmas Song
Ooh, you thought this was going to be #1, didn’t you? Well you aren’t alone. I, too, thought that Nat King Cole’s haunting, soothing send-up to the season was going to be #1. It’s a gentle song, opened with the lyrics “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” which is the musical equivalent of Star Wars opening with “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” Immediately, you know what’s coming, you know exactly how you’re going to feel, and you know how much you’re going to love it and be filled with joy. What’s best about this song is just how nostalgic it is. You’re immediately calm while this song plays, wanting to wrap yourself up in a big blanket, drinking egg nog and cocoa and stare at a Christmas tree for a couple hours. It also doesn’t hurt that Cole’s voice is so damn soft that you feel cozy. It’s the song that people most associate with the season, and one of my favorites, but it’s still not the greatest. We’re getting close to that, though, as we move on to our #3 song…
3. Silent Night
I was torn on the ratio of religious hymns and popular selections going into this list. I couldn’t figure out what the right number should be. In the end, I found most of the hymns to be fairly simple or ditty-esque, and found only a couple that really stood out. However, of those that did, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the impact of “Silent Night.” This is a hauntingly beautiful song. It’s literally the message of the season in a way no other song understands. No pomp, no circumstance, just a simple harmony about a silent moment when something monumental happened. It’s beautiful message transcends everything. It’s a song so powerful, it literally ended a war, if only for one day and one night. It’s a song so powerful, it works in every language. It’s a song so powerful, it can be crooned like Crosby, doo-wopped like The Temptations, belted like Carey, or performed quietly by a choir. It’s a soulful, beautiful, poignant song, and is one of the greatest Christmas songs ever written.
2. White Christmas
Ok, come on, this has to be Top 3 on the list. It’s, like, the Christmas song. You think Bing Crosby, you think Christmas. You think Holiday Inn, you think Christmas. You think the song “White Christmas,” and you think of like thirty different versions of this song, each of which you absolutely adore. Filled with nostalgia, joy, happiness, and a general goodwill towards fellow man, it’s decidedly earnest and exciting, in a way that few other songs are. Written by America’s greatest popular songwriter, Irving Berlin, as part of a holiday collection, the song sings of the idyllic Christmas, filled with snow, childhood memories, glistening landscapes, and the hope that everyone will have this happy of a holiday. There’s been several different renditions, including great ones by Otis Redding and The Drifters (Home Alone!), but you’ve already figured out who the Best is, haven’t you?
Best Rendition: Bing Crosby. Look, this song belongs to Crosby, ok? He sang it three times on film, had two movies pretty much dedicated to it, and had the #1 song for it. There’s a reason the phrase is “We’re going to have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny f*cking Kaye.” It’s because this song is forever associated with Crosby. Nothing can take that away from him. Except, perhaps, our #1 greatest Christmas song…
1. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
This song is the absolute Greatest Christmas Song of all time. There’s quite a few reasons for that. Let’s start with the fact that it is unique in and of itself. There simply weren’t any Rock n’ Roll/Motown-style Christmas songs before this one. It just wasn’t done. Sure, Elvis had dipped his toes in the water before this, but it really wasn’t to the same effect of Darlene Love’s knockout. It forever changed the Christmas genre, and is the reason we have so many great Christmas songs now. Speaking of Love, that’s the second reason I picked it: it’s Love’s only great hit. Darlene Love was a famous background singer for Phil Spector and other producers, serving as the lead female voice on most of your favorite songs. But she was never given her own song. That was before 1963, when she performed her big debut. It was also her last solo project (at the time-recent fame has allowed her to break out). This made the song’s power all the more poignant. And then there’s its lasting power. Here I give credit to David Letterman. The talk show host had Ms. Love on every year from 1986 to 2014 (with the exception of the Writers’ Strike) to perform her anthem. It lent itself to the show’s groundbreaking platform, and properly rung in the Christmas season. I’m not even going to bother listing other renditions. This song begins and ends with Love, and I’m not going to take her success here away from her.
That wraps up this week’s rankings of the Christmas season. Tune in next week for one last look at Yuletide festivities. Oh, and if you’re looking for one more Christmas song, I do have one thing to share with you. What follows is the Most Christmas Song I’ve ever heard. And I do mean most. It’s real heavy in a bizarre way. I don’t think this song is as bad as people seem to think nowadays, but really diving deep into it, there’s some real issues with it’s overall message, as well-intentioned as it is. I’ll let Patton Oswalt explain, but be warned: that clip is definitely NSFW. Enjoy.