Christmas music is a nostalgia trip.
Generally speaking, pop music prizes novelty — fresh songs, surprising sounds, this week’s hit, the Next Big Thing. But once a year, a soundtrack that reaches back decades and centuries chimes into earshot once more. Of course, nostalgia is built into the holiday season, when our secular religion of capitalist consumption gets stirred together with Christian traditions, ancient pagan rites and a vague longing for the old-fashioned comforts of home, hearth and the pastoral yesteryear. In December, we long to hear songs, as Irving Berlin once put it, “just like the ones I used to know.”
The Christmas canon includes many traditional carols. But radio station and streaming platform playlists are dominated by Christmas pop songs, the vast majority of which were composed in the years during and immediately following World War II. Those midcentury Christmas hits range from chirpy novelties (“Holly Jolly Christmas”), to sentimental ballads (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”) to story-songs aimed at kids (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”). The songs are goofy, schmaltzy and nearly always crassly commercial, bald-faced in their eagerness to cash in on Christmas. Yet their association with the holiday season has given these songs an aura similar to that of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Good King Wenceslas” and other immemorial hymns. Even a piece of pure Tin Pan Alley pap like “Frosty the Snowman” has the power to stir spiritual pangs and induce spasms of nostalgia.
Thanks to her seasonal blockbuster “All I Want for Christmas,” Mariah Carey has become this century’s Bing Crosby, the entertainer who soundtracks the holiday.
The midcentury Christmas songbook so dominates hearts and earbuds, that the Christmas music of more recent times is often overlooked, or regarded as wanting. But the rock, soul and hip-hop eras have produced hundreds of excellent holiday songs. Many pick up on the themes pioneered by songwriters of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Some songs cheekily subvert those themes. There are lots of songs that explore the underbelly of Christmas: ‘Tis the Seasonal Affective Disorder, you might call it, the feelings of alienation and anticlimax that millions experience during the holiday season. There are lots of sacrilegious Christmas songs, about things like Santa Claus getting wasted and getting laid. There’s Christmas funk and Christmas punk and Christmas metal and Christmas rap.
Here’s our ranked list of the 50 finest Christmas songs of the last 50 years.
50. Paul McCartney, “Wonderful Christmastime” (1979)
Evergreens festooned with silver tinsel and gold baubles, bright red sweaters emblazoned with reindeers and snowflakes — Christmas and kitsch go together, and the holiday songbook is no exception to the rule. With “Wonderful Christmastime,” the most kitsch-prone of songwriting geniuses delivered a doozy: maniacally chipper seasonal sentiments, served up over burbling synthesizers. It’s inane, it’s tacky — but try to dislodge it from your mind’s ear.
49. John Lennon and Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” (1971)
John Lennon was of course regarded as McCartney’s salty, skeptical counterpart, yet he was not averse to his own brand of kitsch. Lennon’s 1971 Christmas single came on the heels of “Imagine,” and it had a similar blend of protest and pomp: an antiwar message whisked together with Christmas utopianism, buoyed by a cresting melody and booming production by Phil Spector.
48. Kacey Musgraves, “Christmas Makes Me Cry” (2016)
Kacey Musgraves teams with two frequent co-writers, Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, to craft a ballad of quiet desolation, a Christmas bummer classic. “Seems like everybody else is having fun / I wonder if I’m the only one,” Musgraves sings — but of course there are millions like her.
47. Akim & Teddy Vann, “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” (1973)
A charming Afrocentric answer to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” masterminded by songwriter-producer Teddy Vann. The song is winningly sung by Vann’s 5-year-old daughter, Akim, who slips in a “Happy Kwanzaa” for good measure.
46. Slade, “Merry Xmas Everybody” (1973)
This revved-up Christmas perennial, a smash hit in the U.K., comes on like a party anthem, with a singalong glam-rock chorus. But scrutinize the lyric sheet and you find surprises: jokes and puns, images of Santa Claus getting drunk and bareback-riding reindeer, and a homely vision of a middle-class English Christmas (“Are you waiting for the family to arrive?/Are you sure you got the room to spare inside?”).
45. Dolly Parton, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1990)
A hearty and wise rendition of the classic testimonial, which starts out contemplative before erupting, about halfway through, into a double-time gospel rave-up.
44. Albert King, “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’” (1974)
“Christmas,” sings blues guitar great Albert King, “is for the children.” As for Christmas Eve: “Mama’s in the kitchen cookin’/And her children are fast asleep/It’s time for ol’ Santa Claus/To make his midnight creep.”
43. Ariana Grande, “Wit It This Christmas” (2015)
How much innuendo can one superstar stuff into a 2-minute, 40-second-long song? Plenty, insists Ariana Grande, whose slinky ode to Christmas, um, relaxation puts to euphemistic use such holiday staples as milk and cookies, gingerbread and candy canes, and the Little Drummer Boy (“I’m the only drum that you gonna play”). The violin solo is a delicious and unexpected flourish.
42. The Magnetic Fields, “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree” (2010)
Lyrics about “laughing gas perfume,” a weird nickname for Santa, a verse sung in German — yep, it sounds like a Stephin Merritt song. The droll singer-songwriter behind Magnetic Fields spices up the Christmas ballad in his typical way, mixing morbid wit with flashes of sentimentality. All together now: Alles ist ein großer Tannenbaum.
41. Staple Singers, “Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas” (1970)
Half a century ago, the world was in crisis, and the redoubtable gospel-R&B group had a message, folded into a pun: We need more merry, and more Mary — more joy, and more old-time piety. Even nonbelievers will find the beat irrefutable.
40. The Carpenters, “Merry Christmas, Darling” (1970)
A sumptuous ballad that could have been written by a Tin Pan Alley ace circa 1950. Karen Carpenter wraps her plush contralto around a tune that hits the Christmas sweet spot, conveying tidings of comfort and joy — and bummed-out longing.
39. Pet Shop Boys, “It Doesn’t Often Snow at Christmas” (1997)
The great English synth-pop duo perform a yuletide miracle, ruthlessly subverting pieties (“Christmas is not all it’s cracked up to be / Families fighting around a plastic tree”) while delivering a driving dance-floor anthem and a tune that twists the heartstrings.
38. Poly Styrene, “Black Christmas” (2010)
“I’m dreaming of a black black Christmas/Black smoke glows against a midnight sky…A child is born on Christmas Day/But they crucified him anyway.” The bleakest Christmas song ever written? Quite possibly.
37. Trinidad James, “Black Santa” (2017)
“Black Santa, red bands / I’m on these hoe-hoe-hoes / I got gifts in my trunk / I’m smoking mistletoe.” Et cetera. Profane and delightful.
36. Los Lobos, “Llegó Navidad” (“Christmas Is Here”) (2019)
In 2019, East L.A.’s — or, maybe, America’s — finest rock ‘n’ roll band released “Llegó Navidad” (Christmas Is Here), a collection of mostly Spanish-language Christmas songs from across North, South and Central America. The title track, written by Cuban great Javier Vasquez and originally recorded by the Puerto Rican salsero Ismael Rivera, welcomes in the season with smoldering son montuno groove and a pan-Latin shoutout to Chicanos, Boricuanos and Colombianos.
35. Phoebe Bridgers, “Christmas Song” (2018)
A superb new entry in the Christmas canon, written by Dan McCarthy of the rootsy Omaha rockers McCarthy Trenching, and lifted to the stratosphere by the 21st century’s indie queen, Phoebe Bridgers. Her twinkling cover version squeezes maximum pathos from the song’s shapely tune and melancholy punchlines. (“The sadness comes crashing like a brick through the window/And it’s Christmas so no one can fix it.”) That guy singing harmony vocals? It’s Jackson Browne.
34. John Denver, “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)” (1975)
The honky-tonk tune is jaunty, but the story, narrated in the voice of an 8-year-old boy, is devastating: “Please, Daddy, don’t get drunk this Christmas / I don’t want to see my mama cry.”
33. Snoop Doggy Dogg, “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto” (feat. Big Tray Deee, Bad Azz, Daz Dillinger and Nate Dogg) (1996)
Simmering G-funk update of James Brown’s eponymous holiday song, in which Snoop and various Death Row Records confederates describe, in lingering detail, Christmas Day goings-on in the hood, licit and illicit. Quoth Snoop: “On the first day of Christmas, my homeboy gave to me/A sack of the Krazy Glue and told me to smoke it up, slowly.”
32. Neko Case, “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis” (2000)
“Hey Charley, I’m pregnant,” begins Tom Waits’ hardscrabble Christmas carol, and it only gets seedier and more darkly comic. Waits’ saloon ballad original is great, but Neko Case’s cover, with churchy organ accompaniment, brings new dimensions to the story and its twist in the final verse.
31. Fountains of Wayne, “I Want an Alien for Christmas” (1997)
30. Nick Lowe, “A Dollar Short of Happy” (2013)
Nick Lowe’s transformation from new wave prime mover to silver-haired, silvery-voiced elder statesman with retro-pop leanings has been a delight to behold. “A Dollar Short of Happy” showcases Lowe’s easeful vocal style, but don’t let the croon fool you: This Christmas tale about a yuppie’s descent to skid row is pitch black.
29. Fairfield Four, “Children Go Where I Send Thee” (1992)
The legendary gospel close-harmony group Fairfield Four, formed in Nashville nearly a century ago, knows its way around the Black church’s trove of great Christmas music. “Children Go Where I Send Thee” is one of the best gospel Christmas songs, as this sparkling a capella performance demonstrates.
28. Tracey Thorn, “Maybe This Christmas” (2012)
Superlative reading of songwriter Ron Sexsmith’s searching ballad. “Maybe this Christmas will mean something more / Maybe this year / Love will appear / Deeper than ever before.”
27. Martha Wainwright and Lily Lanken, “The Rebel Jesus” (2005)
Fancy some righteous indignation with that eggnog? If so, take a swig of this track from the excellent “McGarrigle Christmas Hour” LP, a collection of folk- and country-injected yuletide songs from various McGarrigle-Wainwright family members and associates. “The Rebel Jesus,” written by Jackson Browne, pours wrath on religious hypocrites who have distorted Jesus’ message and profited in his name. Martha Wainwright and Lily Lanken’s sweet harmony singing makes the song go down smooth, but the spiky sentiments are not to be mistaken: “They’ve turned the nature that I worship in / From a temple to a robber’s den.”
26. Fishbone, “Slick Nick, You Devil You” (1985)
L.A.’s most inventive party band is famous for its raucous anthems. But this obscure gem, from a 1985 Christmas EP, tilts in the opposite direction. Singer Angelo Moore narrates a Christmas Eve close encounter with a drunk, dissolute Santa Claus, belting soulfully over a spartan arrangement of organ and handclaps. Spooky and hilarious.
25. The Kinks, “Father Christmas” (1977)
The most English of songwriters, Ray Davies, sings a very English Christmas song, snarling out working-class umbrage over power chords. A mob of Dickensian street urchins descends on a department store Santa, demanding cold cash and offering advice: “Give all the toys / To the little rich boys.”
24. Ghostface, “Ghostface X-mas” (2008)
Certified national treasure Ghostface riffs gloriously on things yuletidish, a whirlwind tour that sweeps from the North Pole to wintry Staten Island: “I see snowmen, snowflakes / Cinnamon cakes / Sisters and brothers / Sliding down garbage can covers.”
23. The Jackson 5, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (1970)
Children have often been hauled into recording studios to sing Christmas novelty songs. But in 1970, Michael Jackson offered a different kind of novelty: This 12-year-old was, audibly, a vocal genius. The Jackson 5’s take on the old Christmas chestnut is a pure adrenaline rush. Years later, Bruce Springsteen borrowed the group’s arrangement for his own cover version, an E Street Band concert staple ever since.
22. Chavela Vargas, “Amarga Navidad” (“Bitter Christmas”) (1996)
An onslaught of recriminations and regrets, stormily sung by the late great Mexican balladeer. “Amarga Navidad” (Bitter Christmas) is one of the bitterest Christmas songs in any language.
21. Ohio Players, “Happy Holidays, Pt. 1 & 2” (1975)
The lyrics are a mishmash of yuletide clichés. (“Deck the halls for Santa Claus… / Chestnuts roasting, people toasting.”) But the music is electrifying psychedelic-soul: lush strings, percolating bass and what may be the wildest background vocal arrangement ever to appear on a Christmas record. A stoop-front serenade from the world’s funkiest carolers.
20. The Everly Brothers, “Christmas Eve Can Kill You” (1972)
A hitchhiker braves subzero temperatures, and stares down death, as car after car passes him by on an arctic Christmas Eve. “God forgive the man who drives right by the other man / Have pity on the stranger in the cold.” Brutal, beautiful.
19. Run-D.M.C., “Christmas in Hollis” (1987)
Run finds Santa’s wallet in the park. D.M.C. rhymes “yule log” with “eggnog.” Jam Master Jay throws sleigh bells in the mix and interpolates snatches of “Joy to the World,” “Jingle Bells,” “Frosty the Snowman” and Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa.” Christmas cheer guaranteed.
18. John Prine, “Christmas in Prison” (1973)
Over a gentle country-folk waltz, John Prine does the usual: wrings out your heart like a dishcloth with vivid details and plainspoken eloquence. “It’s Christmas in prison / There’ll be music tonight / I’ll probably get homesick / I love you / Goodnight.”
17. Marvin Gaye, “I Want to Come Home for Christmas” (1972)
A swooping, scalding ballad in which the soul visionary pleads for a yuletide reunion. “I’m a prisoner of war / Lying here in my cell / Hoping my family is well.” Recorded during Gaye’s most fertile creative period, and you can tell.
16. Willie Colón, “Aires de Navidad” (“Christmas Spirit”) (1970)
Can you worship the infant Jesus while cutting a rug at a wild dance party? You can if it’s Christmas, and the great Héctor Lavoe is fronting Willie Colón’s legendary orchestra. Turn “Aires de Navidad” (The Smell of Christmas) up loud.
15. The Ramones, “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” (1989)
The Ramones’ guitars rumbled and blared, but Joey Ramone’s punk rock yawp was a plaintive, rueful sound. A perfect pairing, in other words, for a punk-rock carol that combines warped seasonal imagery (“Snowball fighting, it’s so exciting, baby”) with a lover’s plea for domestic tranquility (“Christmas ain’t the time for breaking each other’s heart”).
14. Willie Nelson, “Pretty Paper” (1979)
An old-fashioned tearjerker about a pauper begging for change while holiday shoppers bustle all around him, heading home with brightly wrapped Christmas presents. Bring a hankie.
13. The Waitresses, “Christmas Wrapping” (1981)
It’s hard to resist the Christmas rom-com that unfolds in this 1981 cult classic. A meet-cute at a ski shop is followed by months of missed connections and, finally, a happy Christmas Eve reunion in a 24-hour grocery store. The tale is told with deadpan charm by singer Patty Donahue; her bandmates’ fizzy new-wave funk is not at all Christmassy, and the better for it.
12. The Pretenders, “2000 Miles” (1983)
Over guitars that chime like a bell choir, Chrissie Hynde croons a mystical requiem for the Pretenders’ late guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who had died the previous year: “The children were singing / He’ll be back at Christmas time.”
11. Aretha Franklin, “Silent Night (Solo Piano Version)” (2008)
It would not exactly be accurate to characterize this torrid, operatic performance as “stripped down.” Instead let’s say that to hear Aretha Franklin singing “Silent Night,” alone at the piano with no other accompaniment getting in the way, is to have an unmediated encounter with something not quite of this world — call it the Christmas spirit, if you like.
10. Wham!, “Last Christmas” (1986)
Has Christmas ever sounded so swank? Wham!’s 1986 breakup ballad features a bravura George Michael vocal performance and a period-perfect wash of synthesizers. The video, filmed at what appears to be an Alpine ski resort, features a truly memorable array of high-'80s bouffants and shoulder pads.
9. Outkast, “Player’s Ball” (1993)
The debut single from the mighty Atlanta rap duo takes the Christmas song to novel territory: to the annual gathering of pimps known as the Player’s Ball. The Christmas-themed puns and allusions come fast and furious, tucked into vivid scenes of macking and partying. Outkast’s slippery, speedy cadences and the song’s syrupy funk groove were a revelation in 1993. Today, the music still sounds great, as does the rappers’ cheerfully sacrilegious brand of Christmas merriment: “You thought I’d break my neck, to help y’all deck the halls / Oh naw / I got other means of celebrating.”
8. Bing Crosby and David Bowie, “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” (1977)
An intergenerational musical summit as enthralling as it was unlikely.
7. Prince, “Another Lonely Christmas” (1984)
Only a fool would expect a conventional Christmas song from Prince. But even by his woolly standards, this 1984 power ballad is out there. It keeps taking strange twists: There are memories of Pokeno card games and late-night skinny-dips; there are images of ice skaters on frozen lakes and drunken banana daiquiri binges. Midway through comes the big revelation. This isn’t a chronicle of a breakup, it’s an elegy: the lost lover for whom Prince is pining “died on the 25th day of December.”
6. Merle Haggard, “If We Make It Through December” (1973)
It doesn’t sound grim. This 1973 country chart-topper moves at a jaunty clip, and Haggard’s easygoing baritone soothes the ear. But beneath that placid surface lurks a soul-crusher: the story of an unemployed factory worker, dreaming of better times in warmer climes while facing a dark holiday season. “My little girl don’t understand,” he sings, “why Daddy can’t afford no Christmas here.”
5. Joni Mitchell, “River” (1971)
“They’re putting up reindeer / And singing songs of joy and peace,” says Joni Mitchell. But “River,” from Mitchell’s groundbreaking “Blue” album, is a different kind of Christmas song: a ruminative postmortem for a broken relationship, narrated by the party who broke it. So many Christmas songs are about homecoming. Mitchell’s is about leave-taking — about a woman who can’t wait to skate away, on a frozen river, into a new life.
4. José Feliciano, “Feliz Navidad” (1970)
This monster international hit puts on no airs. It is, simply, a musical Christmas card, wishing you and me and everyone a Feliz Navidad and Merry Christmas — over and over and over and over again. Super catchy, too.
3. Donny Hathaway, “This Christmas” (1970)
Donny Hathaway, who died in an apparent suicide in 1979 at the age of 33, did not live long enough to see the sultry, sinuous “This Christmas” enshrined as the unofficial Black American Christmas anthem. The song accomplishes an unusual feat. It makes almost no concessions to Christmas music conventions — not a sleigh bell to be heard — but manages through sheer force of good cheer to feel Christmassy, and to revamp our expectations of what a Christmas song could, even should, sound like. Hathaway’s Christmas idyll is noticeably a grown-and-sexy one. No children or Santa Clauses intrude on the scene; just blazing hearth fires, late-night caroling and the promise of other adult pleasures. Hathaway’s verdict: “A very special Christmas for me.”
2. The Pogues, “Fairytale of New York” (feat. Kirsty MacColl) (1987)
Christmas nostalgia, Christmas debauchery, sex, drugs, breakups, makeups, New York, Ireland, Frank Sinatra —
the Pogues’ yuletide ballad packs it all into four exquisite, uproarious minutes. Written and scabrously sung by Shane MacGowan, poet laureate of punks and drunks (with help from duet partner Kirsty MacColl), “Fairytale of New York” taps into a deep vein of cultural history: It’s set in a quasi-mythic midcentury Manhattan filled with striving (and barely surviving) Irish immigrants, and the song is meant to evoke such sentimental old Eire airs as “The Rare Old Mountain Dew,” which gets a shoutout from MacGowan. The lovers’ feisty repartee includes misogynistic and homophobic slurs that have caused some critics to call for bans. But few can resist the song’s romance, rowdiness and epic sweep.
1. Mariah Carey, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (1994)
Of course. Mariah Carey’s ebullient holiday jingle is first and foremost a great pop song, with abundant hooks and a propulsive beat. But what makes “All I Want for Christmas Is You” undeniable is its appeal to all comers, the way it incorporates nearly every tried-and-true Christmas song move, mood and trope.
For the kids, there’s Old Saint Nick and his reindeer. For the grownups, there’s a wink at sex. The lyric strikes an anti-commercial note (“I don’t care about the presents”), but the stage-setting — a cheery domicile hung with stockings and mistletoe and all the Christmas trappings — hints at plentiful creature comforts. There’s a glimpse of old-fashioned Victorian Christmas scenery (“All the lights are shining / So brightly everywhere / And the sound of children’s / Laughter fills the air”); Carey’s sky-scraping gospel melisma adds a hint of spiritual yearning. The music carries echoes of several previous pop eras, but it doesn’t sound dated.
In any case, it’s inescapable. If you want to test the theory, turn on the radio, or take a trip to the pharmacy, or stick your head out the window, any time between now and Dec. 26.