The 25 best Christmas songs of all time
2nd Dec 2014 | 09:06
Whether they're blasting from the department store speakers as you make that final present-buying dash, or being sung by the dancing Santa that you wish you'd never bought, once you get into December, Christmas songs are inescapable.
There's no point fighting it: you may as well accept right now that, for the next month, you're frequently going to be told tales of last Christmas, wonderful Christmas times and bells ringing out for Christmas Day.
This being the case, it's time to set aside the bah humbuggery and enjoy the festive season, and to help you get into the holiday mood, we present MusicRadar's now traditional rundown of the top 25 Christmas songs of all time. Let's start with the little guy who's at the heart of this whole celebration: Mary's Boy Child.
Mary's Boy Child
Mary’s Boy Child was a substantial hit for Harry Belafonte in 1956, although the best-known version (and the one likely to appear on your Xmas Hits compilation) is Boney M’s take, re-worked and re-titled to Mary’s Boy Child - Oh My Lord. Watch the disco-tinged German band performing 1992’s Christmas Mega Mix for a reminder.
Written by: Jester Hairston (and Frank Farian, Fred Jay on the Oh My Lord version)
Listen: Harry Belafonte - Mary's Boy Child
Next: Frosty The Snowman
Frosty The Snowman
Originally recorded by Gene Autry And The Cass County Boys in 1950 as a follow-up to the previous year’s hit Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty The Snowman - as well as spawning an animated short in 1954 - is another oft-covered standard in festive music. They don’t come much better than the Jackson 5’s stomping Motown version...
Written by: Walter ‘Jack’ Rollins and Steve Nelson
Listen: The Jackson 5 - Frosty The Snowman
Next: Winter Wonderland
The tune adopted by chanting fans on football terraces is, of course, from Winter Wonderland. Released first by Richard Himber in 1934, the song, like every festive staple, has attracted its fair share of interpretations. And ‘Wonderland’s are as diverse as any you'll hear: Bob Dylan, Cocteau Twins, Cyndi Lauper, Ozzy Osbourne ft. Jessica Simpson… we could go on.
Written by: Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith
Listen: Elvis Presley - Winter Wonderland
Next: In Dulce Jubilo
In Dulci Jubilo
This list doesn’t contain any traditional carols, apart from this one: In Dulci Jubilo (translated to ‘In Sweetest Rejoicing’ or ‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice’) is thought to have been written by the “German mystic” Heinrich Seuse in 1328-ish.
It was translated into English by Robert Lucas de Pearsall in 1837 and it was this version that multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield transformed into the festive standard we know and love today.
Written by: Heinrich Seuse, Robert Lucas de Pearsall, John Mason Neale
Listen: Mike Oldfield - In Dulci Jubilo
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
Possibly the best tool a parent has for keeping their kids in check throughout the year: “He [Santa] knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake".
Written by: J. Fred Coots, Haven Gillespie
Listen: Bruce Springsteen - Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
Next: Santa Baby
With memorable covers by the likes of Madonna, Kylie Minogue and, er… Ally McBeal, this ode to gluttony, Girl Power and stockings stuffed with Tiffany’s swag is the soundtrack to any self-respecting diva’s holiday season.
However, it’s the late Eartha Kitt’s brilliant 1953 original take that we’re paying tribute to here. Orson Welles once described her as the “most exciting woman in the world." That, and the most demanding…
Fact: Eartha Kitt passed away on Christmas day, 2008.
Written by: Joan Javits, Philip Springer
Listen: Eartha Kitt - Santa baby
Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree
Brenda Lee’s 1958 swinging version of Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree is a cracker. Mel (Smith) & Kim (Wilde)’s 1987 Comic Relief cut with added spoken word lines written by Smith and sometime partner in crime Griff Rhys Jones, does indeed provide some comic relief. And it’s somewhat better than Gareth Gates and the Kumars doing Spirit In The Sky.
Written by: Johnny Marks
Listen: Mel & Kim - Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Like The Christmas Song, Let It Snow was penned in sunny California during one of the hottest days on record!
And, just like The Christmas Song, it became a staple cover of the Rat Pack alumni after Vaughn Monroe took it to number one in 1945. Fact: while Let It Snow certainly marks the festive season with its cheery lyrics, there is actually no mention of Christmas at any point. Both composer and lyricist were Jewish.
Written by: Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne
Listen: Dean Martin - Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Next: Little Saint Nick
Little Saint Nick
Brian Wilson and Mike Love took the rhythm from Little Deuce Coupe, added the “run run reindeer” bridge and some obligatory sleighbell magic and made the track that may or may not have invented snowboarding.
Little Saint Nick was first released as a single in 1963 and re-recorded for 1964’s The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. Another alternative version, which borrows the melody from Drive-In, was added to the 1992 reissue.
Written by: Brian Wilson, Mike Love
Listen: The Beach Boys - Little Saint Nick
Next: Christmas Wrapping
While the word ‘Wrapping’ is usually (and rightly) associated with shiny festive paper, The Waitresses’ Christmas Wrapping is actually a nod to rap music which was making its mark in 1981. Hence Patty Donahue’s deadpan delivery.
Fact: the song was covered by the Spice Girls in 1998, who changed the very American lyrics appropriately: enter “Tesco” and “the all night garage".
Written by: Chris Butler
Listen: The Waitresses - Christmas Wrapping
Next: Little Drummer Boy
Little Drummer Boy
Another classic to be honoured with an animated short film by the same name is Little Drummer Boy.
The song first came to prominence with the Harry Simeone Chorale in 1958, but the real recording to be treasured is David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy. Watch this clip from Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas TV special to see and hear why.
Written by: Katherine K. Davis, Henry Onorati, Harry Simeone
Listen: Bing Crosby and David Bowie - Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth
Next: Jingle Bell Rock
Jingle Bell Rock
Credit where credit’s due for Bobby Helms’s 1957 original rockabilly version of Jingle Bell Rock. It’s great. But anyone who’s seen Mean Girls will know that the only way to enjoy the song fully is to have Lindsay Lohan and three scantily clad Santa’s helpers dancing along to it. See? OK, maybe not. Listen to Arcade Fire’s take instead.
Written by: Joe Beal and Jim Boothe
Listen: Bobby Helms - Jingle Bell Rock
Driving Home For Christmas
On its first release in 1988, Driving Home For Christmas barely dented the UK chart at number 53, only to slightly better itself 19 years later in 2007 with a re-entry at 33.
Despite this, no Christmas compilation worth its weight in salt grit should be without Chris Rea’s classic, which cunningly turns something as monotonous as “driving home” through “top-to-toe tail-lights” into a magical quest to “see those faces”. Ahhhh, bless.
Written by: Chris Rea
Listen: Chris Rea - Driving Home For Christmas
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
First uttered by Judy Garland in 1944’s romantic tear-jerker Meet Me In St. Louis, before being modified, re-recorded and brought to prominence by Frank Sinatra in 1947.
And then again and again by a few hundred more would-be crooners including Mel Torme, whose version soundtracks everybody’s favourite Macaulay Culkin movie - scratch that, everybody’s favourite Christmas movie - Home Alone.
Written by: Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane
Listen: Ella Fitzgerald - Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Next: The Christmas Song
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)
Apparently the ‘most-performed Christmas song of all time’ was written on a blistering hot summer day in an effort to “stay cool by thinking cool”.
First released in 1946 by The King Cole Trio and covered by just about everyone from Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra to Christina Aguilera and ‘N Sync. Most-performed indeed.
Written by: Mel Tormé, Bob Wells
Listen: Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
In 1963, The Ronettes' Ronnie Spector couldn't pack the right emotional punch for this rousing slice of holiday magic.
So legendary producer Phil Spector chose Darlene Love to bring it on home for his essential A Christmas Gift For You compilation. And oh, how she did, summoning up heartbreak and the yearning for Christmases gone by.
Written by: Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Phil Spector
Listen: Darlene Love - Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday
I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday is the first of two entries from Yuletide’s glam rock year, 1973.
Unfortunately this office party favourite has always played second fiddle to Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody (beaten to the number one spot for five consecutive weeks!), and this countdown is no exception. Surprising when you consider that Wizzard (aka Roy Wood) boasts a beard to rival even Father Christmas’s.
Written by: Roy Wood
Listen: Wizzard - I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday
I Believe in Father Christmas
One third of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Greg Lake, wrote I Believe In Father Christmas as a protest against the commercialisation of Christmas.
The original accompanying video was criticised for containing shots of the Vietnam War - not light-hearted enough for MTV or VH1’s Mega Xmas Countdown, presumably.
Written by: Greg Lake/Peter Sinfield
Listen: Greg Lake - I Believe in Father Christmas
Do They Know It's Christmas?
A song that's sure to evoke emotion - either a bile-inducing hatred for Bob Geldof, or the feeling that we just must, somehow, save the world with music. MusicRadar’s plumping for the latter!
Band Aid may have numerous flaws (Simon Le Bon's horrific over-singing of the oh-so-evocative line "but when you're having fun" to name but one) but the immediacy of the recording and (overall) sincerity of the cause shine through.
Written by: Bob Geldof, Midge Ure
Listen: Band Aid - Do They Know It's Christmas?
All I Want For Christmas Is You
It has to be said, it’s not every day you’ll see Mariah Carey taking pride of place in a poll voted for by musicians. It also has to be said that when the American diva sings “I don't care about the presents, underneath the Christmas tree,” we don’t believe her.
Regardless, All I Want For Christmas Is You is not only the most recent festive release (1994) to make the list, it’s a staple soundtrack to every office party, turkey preparation session and mistletoe shenanigan the world over.
Written by: Mariah Carey, Walter Afanasieff
Listen: Mariah Carey - All I Want For Christmas Is You
Next: Merry Xmas Everybody
Merry Xmas Everybody
The second entry from 1973 and surely glam rock’s finest festive hour, without the “alarmingly hirsute" Noddy Holder bawling, "It's Chriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiistmaaaaaaaaaas!" on Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody, how else would we know what season it was?!
Fact: on its initial release, the track hung around in the UK singles chart well into February 1974. Surprising, as that’s probably more of a nod toward its rival, I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday. Literally, every day.
Written by: Noddy Holder, Jim Lea
Listen: Merry Xmas Everybody - Slade
Next: Last Christmas
Going up against Do They Know It’s Christmas? for the coveted Christmas number one spot in 1984 was never going to be easy, so it’s no real surprise that Last Christmas became the biggest selling single in the UK never to reach the top of the charts!
Still, we’re sure George Michael didn’t mind, being heavily involved in Band Aid himself. In fact, he donated all of the song’s royalties to the Ethiopian famine appeal. Now that’s charity.
UPDATE: Check out Brett Domino's version of Last Christmas using TC-Helicon's Voicelive Touch. Astonishing.
Written by: George Michael
Listen: Wham! - Last Christmas
Next: White Christmas
A croon for those longing for the Dickens-esque Christmas Carol white blankets of old. Bing Crosby’s version remains one of the best selling singles of all time and, with heart-warming lyrics about ‘glistening treetops’ and heart-wrenching memories of Christmases at home - “just like the ones I used to know” - you’d have to be Scrooge himself not to hear why.
Fact: the song’s writer Irving Berlin’s opening verse is often dropped from many of its covers. Darlene Love’s take on A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector is one of the few to include it.
Written by: Irving Berlin
Listen: Bing Crosby - White Christmas
Next: Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
With lyrics based on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 billboard campaign which displayed the words "WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It) Happy Christmas from John and Yoko" in cities deeply entrenched in the Vietnam War, it’s perhaps surprising that the song’s original release failed to chart in the US.
Fact: The song’s whispered beginning is a greeting to the couple’s children - Yoko says “Happy Christmas, Kyoko" and John says “Happy Christmas, Julian” - not, contrary to popular belief (and incorrectly included in the lyric sheet from 1982’s The John Lennon Collection!), “Happy Christmas, Yoko. Happy Christmas, John”.
Written by: John Lennon, Yoko Ono
Listen: John & Yoko - Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Fairytale Of New York - The Pogues
Your top Christmas song is set in the underbelly of New York City, and guaranteed to melt the hardest of hearts.
An anthem for anyone who finds themselves staring into the bottom of a glass, reminiscing about lost love and wasted opportunities. Certain to provoke raucous sing-a-longs in bars across the globe until the end of time. Here's the late Kirsty MacColl performing live with Pogues on St. Patrick's Day back in 1988.
Fact: the song's typically Irish lyrics include the words “faggot” (slang for a lazy person) and “slut,” which BBC Radio One deemed unsuitable for its listeners in 2007. Literally on the same evening of the ban, the Beeb reversed its decision. To this day, however, VH1 still scramble the offending lyrics, plus the word “arse.”
The Pogues themselves found the whole incident “amusing.”
Written by: Jem Finer, Shane MacGowan
Listen: The Pogues - Fairytale of New York
Liked this? Now read: 14 kick-ass alternative Xmas anthems
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