Like it or not, there’s simply no escaping Christmas music.
Do Christmas songs put you in that toasty warm and fuzzy holiday mood or do they make you want to drive an icicle into your skull? Well, there’s good and there’s bad. Naughty and Nice.
Here are my top 20 favorite Christmas songs:
1. The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole
Chestnuts Roasting on the Open Fire. For me, Nat’s rendition is the ultimate version of the ultimate Christmas song. Smooth and melancholy. Sweet and evocative.
2. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) by U2
The 1963 Darlene Love version is great - the power of Love’s vocals and Phil Spector’s lush production make this the best Christmas song of the rock-n-roll era. But I especially love U2’s version. For my money, Bono has never sounded better.
3. Happy Xmas (War is Over) by John Lennon
Sure it’s sappy and the children’s choir is a bit much, but this really is a beautiful tune. Some people think it’s too political. I don’t know. Is Peace on Earth political?
4. O Holy Night
As a rule, the more traditional and religious-themed songs don’t do much for me – probably because I’m not a Christian. “O Holy Night” is an exception. In the hands of a quality singer, this beautiful carol, composed in 1847 by Adolphe Adam, is a real holiday treat.
5. White Christmas by Bing Crosby
6. 2,000 Miles by the Pretenders
One of the few Christmas songs of the rock era that manages to capture that melancholy feel of the more traditional standards.
7. Father Christmas by the Kinks
Santa gets mugged and the true meaning of Christmas comes shining through. This yuletide rocker is my favorite of the anti-Christmas songs.
8. Christmas Wrappings by the Waitresses
Another great anti-Christmas song with an infectious touch of ska and a 1980s new wave feel.
9. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
You can’t go wrong with a Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett version. (Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders does a nice job too). Ubiquitous and melancholy – a true Christmas classic.
10. You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch by Thurl Ravenscroft
In case anyone needed further evidence that Dr. Seuss was a genius.
11. Santa Claus is Coming to Town by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Sure this one gets played to death, but it still manages to leave a smile on my face. The rollicking piano, glockenspiel and sleigh bells festively compliment Bruce’s giddiness.
12. Frosty the Snowman by the Ronnettes
My favorite version. There’s a sweetness and sadness in Ronnie Spector’s voice that works perfectly for Christmas songs.
13. The Christmas Waltz by Frank Sinatra
One of the great holiday standards, Sinatra’s phrasing and the ethereal arrangement create a magical, floating feeling.
14. Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth by Bing Crosby and David Bowie
Crooners spanning the generations, this was recorded just a month before Bing Crosby died. The pairing of Bing with the androgynous Bowie must have struck people as a strange idea, but it works nicely.
15. Christmas in Hollis by Run D.M.C.
Irrepressibly joyous and kicking.
16. Fairytale of New York by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.
Drunken, dysfunctional and poignant; a modern classic.
17. Merry Christmas Baby by Otis Redding
Springsteen’s version pales by comparison. Otis delivers holiday soul and sexiness with a Stax groove.
18. I’ll be Home for Christmas
Another melancholy classic. Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and the Carpenters all recorded beautiful versions. It occurs to me that my favorite Christmas songs are the ones that are full of either sadness or irony.
19. Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight) by the Ramones
Nothing melancholy here.
20. Merry Christmas from the Family by Robert Earl Keene
Family dysfunction, lots humor and plenty of booze. A fun Christmas tune that rings true.
In the spirit of ecumenism, I should probably also include a list of the top Chanukah songs. Instead, I’ll note that at least 7 of the 20 Christmas songs had Jewish composers.
I also considered listing the worst Christmas songs but found it to be far too depressing an endeavor. But the absolute worst? Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.”