Here's the deal: People who don't like Christmas music are the worst and they are not to be trusted. I assume we are on the same page with this, yes? Good then. But here's another thing: there is actually an unbelievable amount of terrible Christmas music, and it can be difficult digging through all of it to find the good stuff. Basically, for every "All I Want For Christmas is You," there are five total throwaways like "Oh Santa."
With some effort, though, you can put together a playlist—individual songs tend to work better than full-lengths, which are often spotty—that will serve as the perfect soundtrack to your every December, whether you're cooking, cleaning the apartment, drinking alone in your living room or hosting an actual Christmas party. The key with any such list, I believe, is to achieve the correct combination of dopey lighthearted stuff, crushingly sad classics and even a handful that will inspire drunk people to dance and or sing along. On the following pages, (or in this handy Spotify playlist), you'll find the 35 songs I turn to over and over again.
Elvis Presley — “Blue Christmas”
I think this is probably an unpopular opinion among people who know a lot more about Elvis than I do, but this has always been my favorite vocal performance of his: he sounds like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and the female backup singers somehow manage to make the whole thing sound even sadder.
The Partridge Family — “My Christmas Card to You”
I don't know, you guys. I was born in 1978 and this record has been in my family for as long as I can remember. It is unbelievably good from start to finish (save for the single most boring version of "Frosty the Snowman" you've ever heard in your life), but "My Christmas Card to You" is included here because it's the only original song on the record.
Marah — “New York is a Christmas Kind of Town”
No one really likes Marah, I don't think (or not anymore, anyway), but the Springsteen-loving Philly band released a predictably but also enjoyable rowdy Christmas album a few years back, and this is a definite standout, with lines like "Every subway stop is a Jingle Bell hop, every taxicab is a sleigh. Every icy wind is a long-lost friend to greet you on your way."
The Waitresses — “Christmas Wrapping”
The best thing about this song is how the narrator makes it clear right from the start that Christmas is actually her favorite holiday, so her continuing to insist that she's going to skip it this year is immediately sad rather than grouchy, which of course makes the happy ending even more satisfying. But maybe not as satisfying as those horns. Crazy.
They Might Be Giants — “Santa’s Beard”
Because what says Christmas more than a song about your wife cheating on you with Santa Claus? The line "I don't like that fat guy around" should not be quite as touching as it is here.
Deer Tick — “Christmas All Summer Long”
This song sounds pretty much exactly how you might think an original Christmas song by Deer Tick would sound, which of course is to say loud and rambunctious with one really well-placed "fuck."
Johnny Cash — “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”
There's really no voice in the history of voices that's better at capturing the mix of joy and sadness one feels around this time of year. The moment his vocals come in on this song, I am a puddle, and I stay that way pretty much until January.
The Ventures — “Jingle Bell Rock”
One of these days, I'm going to have a Christmas party where all the dudes have to wear blazers and turtlenecks and all the women have to wear fancy mod party dresses. The only drink we'll serve will be an Old Fashioned, and the only song we'll play will be "Jingle Bell Rock" by the Ventures. It's going to be fucking awesome.
Man or Astroman — “Frosty the Snowman”
I take back what I said about the Ventures song: we may play this song at our party too.
Vince Guaraldi Trio — “Linus & Lucy”
You could replace this with any number of the insanely sad sounding songs on this most stellar album, but save that shit for your alone time. This here is a crowd-pleaser.
Camera Obscura — “The Blizzard"
Aside from its subject matter, there's not actually much separating this song, a cover of an old country song, from all the regular Camera Obscura songs, but there's something about their understated elegance and general flair for melancholy that just automatically feels Christmasy.
James Brown — “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”
Like "Father Christmas" by the Kinks (more on that later), "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" is a song about how the less fortunate among us experience Christmas. Or about how they might experience Christmas if James Brown weren't around to give Santa Claus such specific orders.
Bing Crosby — “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
If anyone says there's a better version of this song, they're lying. No matter how many times I hear it, I am completely, utterly shocked when the creepy Rudolph voice comes in. They really don't make 'em like they used to.
Run D.M.C. — “Christmas in Hollis”
As I mentioned earlier, I was born in 1978, which put me at pretty much the perfect age to lose my shit when shit song came out. What I didn't mention earlier is that I was also born in Hollis. So yeah. This song, you guys, it is totally about me. Except it's not. Like, at all.
The Beach Boys “Santa’s Beard”
Again, aside from the fact that they say "Santa" about a million times, there's not much separating this from all the other Beach Boys songs of the era. But still, so good.
Eazy-E — “Merry Muthaphuckkin' Xmas”
You know, let me be honest here: I usually wind up skipping this song if it comes on when I'm by myself. There are some funny moments, of course, but it's way too long and, well, sort of not that Christmasy. Regardless, leave it on your playlist just in case. It goes over well at parties.
The Pogues — “Fairytale of New York”
If you don't know, now you know. But you already knew. I love you guys. Every single one of you.
John Prine — “Christmas in Prison”
I'm not sure what kind of person you'd have to be to hear the lines, "It's christmas in prison/There'll be music tonight/I'll probably get homesick/I love you. goodnight" and not be totally crushed. Though I do know I would not want to hang out with you.
Alvin and the Chipmunks — “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”
Get the kid a fucking hula-hoop for christ's sake, you know? (This is another album I've had in my possession since roughly the time I was born. Shit just cannot be fucked with.)
Otis Redding — “Merry Christmas Baby”
Honestly, I think I included this one because I'm really into the organ part, and because it's fairly lighthearted, at least compared to his version of "White Christmas," which I sometimes physically cannot bear to listen to. No one has ever wanted another person's days to be merry and Christmases to be white as badly as Otis Redding did. Holy shit.
Mariah Carey — “All I Want for Christmas is You”
It's a perfect song. There's literally not a single thing about it that could be better. Everyone knows it, no one can fight it. Merry Christmas.
Darlene Love — "Christmas" (Baby Please Come Home)"
Such a stately and commanding vocal performance over a classic Phil Spector arrangement. It doesn't get much better than this.
U2 — “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”
So yes, the original Darlene Love version will always have its place in the Christmas music canon, but what Bono and the gang did to it on A Very Special Christmas in 1987 was equally special. 1987... not a bad year for those guys, eh?
Low — “Silent Night”
Nothing terribly surprising here (aside from virgin births, of course). but hooboy, this sure is pretty.
The Jackson 5 — "Up On the House Top"
There's so much energy in this vocal it couldn't possibly have come from someone who didn't at least half think there was a chance Santa was actually on the roof.
Frank Sinatra — “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
Here's where you slow dance. Seriously. Just start slow dancing with the person nearest you. No one will regret it, I promise.
Sufjan Stevens — “It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!”
I know there's a whole new batch of Sufjan Stevens Christmas songs, and I'm sure plenty of them would be worthy additions to your holiday playlist, but it's hard to imagine any of them being better than this one, in which Mr. Stevens recommends singing a Christmas carol for your mom.
James Brown — “Merry Christmas, I Love You”
It doesn't get more straightforward than this: Merry Christmas, I love you. This song always makes me think about how pretty all the best Christmas songs could just be called "Merry Christmas, I Love You."
The Kinks — “Father Christmas”
What would the holidays be, really, without at least one horrible guilt trip?
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band — "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"
I don't even want to think about what this song might be like if they performed it live now, now that Clarence Clemons is no longer with us. Fortunately, I don't have to.
Okkervil River — “Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas”
A song about Christmas music doing exactly what Christmas music is supposed to do? Yes, please, especially with the perfectly placed Otis Redding homage snuck in there at the end.
Otis Redding — “White Christmas”
Ugh, ok, fine. I wasn't going to include it, but at this point there's no use hiding. Just go ahead and give yourself over to it completely. (You have more to drink, right?)
Wham — “Last Christmas”
It might feel like something of an amateur move, including this on your playlist, but don't worry: as long as you stick with the original and not one of the millions of terrible covers that have been pushed on us in recent years, there is no shame.
Brenda Lee — “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree”
If I had to cut this list down to 10 songs, "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree" would still be on it. The sax solo, the instrumental breaks, and of course Brenda Lee's vocals, recorded, almost unbelievably, when she was only 13 years old.
The Ramones — “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)”
In the video for this song, there's a couple fighting before the song starts, and the woman says, in the thickest New York accent, "We were supposed to visit my parents in Mineola!" This song would still be really awesome even if my high school wasn't in Mineola and my parents didn't live in the next town over, but it certainly helps.