This time of year is notable for two things: the holidays and making pointless lists on the Internet.
Let’s combine the two, and count down the best Christmas songs of all time.
This was actually a very tough list for me to narrow down to ten. Contrary to all indicators, my cold, black heart and I greatly enjoy Christmas music, and my iTunes is stacked with it this time of year. There were a number of very tough cuts, including Tom Waits, Low, Louis Armstrong, Wilson Pickett, Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Danger. When in doubt, I erred on the side of sincerity rather than cynicism or sarcasm. So a lot of good songs like The Kinks/Father Christmas, and The Ramones/Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight) fell by the wayside.
10. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band/Merry Christmas Baby – Download
Springsteen has two Christmas classics to choose from, both nods to either R&B or Phil Spector Christmas recordings, but Merry Christmas Baby gets the nod over Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town because fewer artists have covered it, and because of Bruce’s impassioned vocal take.
9. The Eels/Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas – Download
Indie bands have recorded holiday covers and originals vastly exceeding the rate that old college rock or alternative bands ever did. That’s partly because indie rock, at least in the Sufjan Stevens/Arcade Fire era, is steeped in honest emotion — which lends itself well to Christmas songs. But The Eels find a nice balance between emotion and detachment with this song, in which the title is turned into a mantra.
8. Band-Aid/Do They Know It’s Christmas – Download
What can I say about this song that hasn’t been said before? Yes, it’s ridiculous. Yes, the line, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you,” is inane. But it kicks the ass of We Are the World, it paved the way for Live Aid, and it united Kool & the Gang, Bananarama, Wham and Paul Young. That’s accomplishment enough, even without the killer synchronicity of Sting singing about “the bitter sting of tears.”
7. John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band/Happy Xmas (War is Over) – Download
A trite choice, but a worthy one. How many Christmas standards that get played on lite FM stations were written as Vietnam protest songs? Plus, the British “Happy Christmas” always sounds much cooler than the American “Merry Christmas.”
6. Elvis Presley/Santa Claus is Back in Town – Download
No one has recorded more great Christmas songs than Elvis. (Sorry, James Brown.) And Elvis was liveliest when he strayed from traditional carol territory, as with this entrant in the “Santa Claus is a metaphor for me when I am sexing you” genre of holiday songs. With all due respect to Back Door Santa, this song’s the strongest example of that trope.
5. Run D.M.C./Christmas in Hollis – Download
Most hip hop Christmas songs suck. That’s a fact. And that includes Run D.M.C.’s own Christmas Is. And it especially includes everything on Death Row Christmas. But this is one of the main reasons why the original A Very Special Christmas is the best Christmas album ever made. Three songs on this list come from that album, and at least two more were legitimate contenders.
4. Ron Sexsmith/Maybe This Christmas – Download
Ah, maudlin Christmas songs — my favorite Christmas songs of all. Especially this type of maudlin Christmas song, which features hopelessness masquerading as hope.
3. The Pogues/Fairytale of New York – Download
You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last
2. Otis Redding/White Christmas – Download
There are many, many brilliant soul and R&B versions of classic Christmas songs. Wilson Pickett, Redding, Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke, some of the Stax crew and many more recorded killer takes on these old traditionals, and I prefer them to the Motown Christmas genre — which does admittedly have its own charms. This version of White Christmas keeps the schmaltzy accompaniment to a minimum, and simply lets Redding and his voice do their thing.
1. U2/Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Download
U2, with all their bombast, were built for this type of soaring, earnest anthem. I like to play it back to back with Angel of Harlem, with its lines about snow melting on the ground.
…and the worst Christmas song of all time: Ryan Adams/Hey Parker It’s Christmas
Parker Posey has made a lot of good movies, but she’s going to have to make a lot more to live down the legacy of that song.