The problem with coming up with a list of Christmas songs isn’t so much narrowing down which songs to include, but which versions.
There are a certain number of standards, mostly written between the mid-1930s and the mid-1960s, that every singer dusts off when it comes time to do the inevitable Christmas album.
Much like with hula hoops, miniskirts, and the Kennedy family, the 1960s were the golden age of Christmas songs. Crooners like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, and Andy Williams recorded classics cranked out by writers from Tin Pan Alley to the Brill Building, in the last hurrah of pop music before it was overtaken by rock and roll. You can almost count on one hand the number of classic Christmas tunes that have been recorded since 1965.
So the dilemma for an artist becomes: do you record another version of a song that everyone has heard a million times, or a new song that no one wants to hear at all?
Trying to narrow down the output into a coherent list is enough to make one add another dash of rum to the eggnog. Which version of which standard is better? Is Bruce Springsteen’s rock version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” better than the Jackson 5’s Motown version? Which “Santa Baby” is best, Madonna’s or Eartha Kitt’s? What’s the creepiest line in “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” regardless of who sings it?
First, a few honorable mentions:
”Merry Christmas, Baby” – Bruce Springsteen
A rockin’ version of a bluesy standard, the Boss’s vocals and Clarence Clemons’ saxophone bring holiday cheer.
”Santa Baby” – Madonna
A slightly slinkier version than Kitt’s ‘60s original, Madonna out-purrs TV’s Catwoman.
”Snoopy’s Christmas” – The Royal Guardsmen
With its driving drum cadence and its story of Snoopy versus the Red Baron, this is a kitschy holiday treat.
”Dominick the Donkey” – Lou Monte
”I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” – Gayla Peevey
A double serving of holiday novelty songs. Like much ‘60s comedy, “Dominick the Donkey” teeters along the line between humor and mildly offensive ethnic stereotype. Meanwhile, “Hippopotamus” is a reminder to all children to go all-in when making up your Christmas list. You can’t get what you don’t ask for.
Now, the list.
10. ”Please Come Home for Christmas” – The Eagles
A classic of the melancholy Christmas genre, this cover of a Charles Brown tune is a plea to be reunited with a lost love for the holidays.
9. ”Father Christmas” – The Kinks
One of the exceptions to the post-’60s rule, Ray Davies’ tale of being mugged by a gang of neighborhood toughs while dressed as a department store Santa also has a social message. While the holidays are a time of joy and family, there are people with needs beyond a shiny new present under the tree.
8. ”It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” – Johnny Mathis
One of the songs that’s been covered by every crooner and adult contemporary singer around, Mathis’s version is probably the definitive take.
7. ”Linus and Lucy” – Vince Guaraldi Trio
While not technically a Christmas song (it is just an instrumental, after all), its inclusion in the Peanuts Christmas special makes it a holiday classic. A lite-jazz piano track, it’s an easy listening tune perfect for sitting down next to a roaring fire and your sad little Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
6. ”What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” – Ella Fitzgerald
Once again, it never hurts to ask. Ella lists all sorts of reasons why she’s sure her crush won’t have time for a New Year’s Eve date. But she’s going to check, just to be sure. Is there any doubt he’ll say yes?
5. ”Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” – Darlene Love
For years, Love appeared on David Letterman’s late night shows each holiday season to perform her 1963 hit. It’s an upbeat but plaintive plea not to be left alone for Christmas.
4. ”Sleigh Ride” – The Ronettes
Love often recorded back-up vocals for the Ronettes and other groups produced by Phil Spector. Spector’s personal life is troubling to say the least, but the man knew how to produce a pop song. Here, Ronnie Spector’s vocals and the bouncy “ringa-linga-linga-ding-dong-ding” back-ups drive a classic of Spector’s “Wall of Sound” technique.
3. ”Someday At Christmas” – Stevie Wonder
A socially-conscious holiday classic. Who can’t get behind the sentiment of this song, to bring real, lasting peace on Earth? Wonder manages to send a message without being preachy.
2. ”All I Want for Christmas Is You” – Mariah Carey
Carey is at her mid-’90s peak in this song, probably the greatest of the post-’60s Christmas tunes. The song that’s launched a thousand Hallmark Channel holiday movies, “AIWFCIY” has earned its place in the pantheon of holiday classics.
1. ”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Frank Sinatra
Believe it or not, this song’s original lyrics were even more depressing than they are now. Judy Garland reportedly asked for a rewrite when it was composed for her 1944 movie “Meet Me in St. Louis.” With millions of American men overseas at the time fighting in World War II and not sure if they would ever make it back, the song had a special resonance. And what more fitting song for 2020, the year of lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing than one whose lyrics promise, “Some day soon, we all will be together, If the fates allow”? In this holiday season, those are the words America needs to hear.
Follow Ryan Marshall on Twitter: @RMarshallFNP