I am a person who has strong opinions about music — and as a somewhat reformed music snob, I also have pretty strong opinions on Christmas music. There are so many Christmas songs that are mediocre at best but get played constantly. There are a few that are just terrible. And then there are the few shining stars atop the metaphorical Christmas tree of Christmas music. I suggest you add them to your holiday playlist as soon as possible.
For the record, I actually celebrate Chrismukkah, aka Christmas + Hanukkah, but there are unfortunately not many Hanukkah songs or albums, although I do recommend the album Bagels and Bongos by the Irving Fields trio for all your Hanukkah music needs. Somebody needs to get on this untapped niche, though.
And so, without further ado: the best Christmas songs.
“Merry Christmas (I don’t want to fight tonight),” The Ramones
I’ve been a fan of the Ramones since I was a teenager, so this is always going to be on my wishlist of Christmas songs I actually want to hear. You wouldn’t think you could marry punk rock and a festive Christmas song, but you’d be wrong.
“Christmas in Hollis,” Run DMC
This song has a great sample (from “Back Door Santa” by Clarence Carter, if you like your Christmas songs full of double-entendres, that one’s for you!), fantastic rapping, jingling bells, and an ode to Christmas time in Hollis, Queens. I promise some of the musicians on my list won’t originate from Queens.
“Christmas Wrapping,” The Waitresses
There’s something so delightfully 1980s about this tune, which starts off with a “Bah Humbug” and has a great bassline. And if you listen to the lyrics, it’s actually about how Christmas is kind of a crazy time of year and it would be great to just catch your breath, but then maybe you have to go back out for last-minute stuff… and meet a cute guy at the grocery store and voila, Christmas magic. It’s a rom-com in Christmas song format! Why hasn’t anyone made this into a Christmas movie yet?
“Fairytale of New York,” The Pogues
Okay, yes, my Christmas music list is pretty NYC-centric, but I’m a New Yorker. This is a fairytale for those who aren’t exactly window-shopping at Saks, but I love it. RIP, Shane MacGowan (who, by the way, was born on Christmas Day). This song is even more melancholy now.
“Another Lonely Christmas,” Prince
A Prince ballad. Christmas, but make it sexy!
“Last Christmas,” Wham!
See, I don’t automatically hate Christmas songs just because they’re popular. “Last Christmas” is just such a fun song. Plus, you can play Whamageddon, where you try to go as long as possible without hearing “Last Christmas.” I’ve already lost, but I’m not mad about it.
“Mele Kelikimaka,” Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters
This song would probably never fly today because of the cultural appropriation of the language of the indigenous Polynesian people of the Hawaiian Islands. However, I love the vocal harmonies of the Andrews Sisters and the way they complement Bing Crosby’s smooth-as-silk voice. Plus, I like to imagine that one day I’ll get to spend Christmas in Hawaii. A girl can dream!
“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” Darlene Love
An amazing example of the “Wall of Sound,” the music production technique pioneered by Phil Spector. Darlene Love has an amazing voice!
Anything by Kacey Musgraves, but especially “Present Without a Bow” (featuring Leon Bridges)
I think Kacey Musgraves is a goddess who can do no wrong. She has given the world a Christmas album, A Very Kacey Christmas (the most perfect Christmas album ever), as well as a Christmas special, The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show, which you should watch as soon as possible for the most Christmassy vibes ever. Kacey’s album and show feature a mix of cover songs (she covers “Mele Kelikimaka” with Zooey Deschanel, a delight!) and originals, and I love this duet she does with Leon Bridges.
“Merry Xmas Everybody,” Slade
This song is huge in the UK — it was a #1 hit! — but somehow people in the US never seem to know it… or know about ‘70s glam rock band Slade in general, which is a darn shame! (The Quiet Riot hit “Cum on Feel the Noize” is a cover of a Slade song, by the way. Slade, like Prince, loved to spell words in wacky ways, or should I say wayz). This song is great, with its optimistic chorus “So here it is Merry Christmas, Everybody’s having fun. Look to the future now, It’s only just begun.”
Those are the good Christmas songs. But I have a few more opinions I need to get off my chest, too. For instance: the Christmas song with the best conspiracy theory.
“Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time,” Paul McCartney
And I’d be remiss not to list the Christmas songs I never need to hear again:
“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” Jimmy Boyd
To adults, this song makes perfect sense. Santa Claus is actually Dad. But to a kid, it’s confusing! And who is supposed to be enjoying songs about Santa if not… kids?!
“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” Elmo and Patsy (not that Elmo, just a guy who happened to be named Elmo)
This song is pretty awful. Grandma got run over by a reindeer and Grandpa is happy about it?
“Dominick the Donkey,” Lou Monte
It’s like nails on a chalkboard (do kids today even know what that expression means?). The braying donkey sounds… I just can’t.
“All I Want for Christmas is You,” Mariah Carey
I know, plenty of people love this song. But I’ve heard it way, way too many times. I’m over it, sorry. Please don’t send me hate mail like the woman who once emailed me to tell me I was a horrible person after I wrote about not doing Elf on the Shelf.
Janine Annett is the author of the humor book I Am “Why Do I Need Venmo?” Years Old. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Real Simple, Parents, and many other places. She lives in New York with her husband, son, and dog.