I’ve been listening to a lot of Christmas music, especially in the car. I love it. I look forward to the switch to all every year, and like everyone, I have some favorites I’m excited to hear.
“The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain…Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves.” ― Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
So many Christmas songs have an ability to move me in ways that other types of music lack. Maybe that is just because they are played annually and often during the season. Maybe it is just that the holiday season is full of activity, and that gives these songs special meaning. There are a handful of songs that make me think of the smell of the Santa bag we had at our house one year. Another group transports me to my grandparents’ house on a December evening, the tree glowing intensely red.
I’ve made a “Top 15” list here, which was pretty hard. There are so many I love. A week from now, this list could be a completely different one too. At the time of writing this, these are my favorite Christmas songs.
15. Darius Rucker — Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
1739, Darius Rucker recording 2014
This is one of my favorite carols by anyone, and Darius Rucker does a beautiful job. Few songs give me as many Christmasy feelings as this one.
14. Ivy Winters — Elfy Winters Night
This is a brand new song for 2016, and I’m very into it. It’s a fun modern swing sort of thing. It’s the kind of song that makes me think of a speakeasy, but in a theatrical sense… the type of song performed in a movie scene in a 1920s or 1930s bar.
13. Thurl Ravenscroft (uncredited) — You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch
This is one I try to resist loving, but it is just so tied to my Christmas experience that I can’t not love it. It’s been recorded by other artists, but the original from the 1966 special is really the best. Incidentally, the voice actor who sang the song, Thurl Ravenscroft, was not credited for the song, but he’s most well-known as the voice of Tony the Tiger. He did so many other recognizable things as well, and his voice is just so perfect for this song.
12. Pentatonix — Mary, Did You Know?
1991, Pentatonix recording 2014
Pentatonix is sometimes criticized, including by me, for being too plastic. There is such a thing as too polished, and they often go a step too far for me. But what they absolutely do right in this song is give it the power it deserves. A friend pointed out that this song is about a revelation that should be delivered with a certain vehemence, something most singers fail to deliver. This version really builds beautifully and the lands softly. It’s really a journey, and I enjoy being taken on it.
11. Gayla Peevey – I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas
This song is so ridiculous and cute, and for me is less obnoxious than the other Christmas songs by and for kids. It makes this list because it makes me smile every time I hear it.
10. Bing Crosby — Little Drummer Boy
1941, Bing Crosby recording 1962
Little Drummer Boy was my grandpa’s favorite Christmas song. It makes me think of his house as it was in the 1980s at Christmas, music coming from the stereo cabinet in the living room and the tree intensely lit in red lights. It makes me think of red three-wick candles, large ceramic Mr. & Mrs. Santa figures, and boxes of wrapping paper at the ready. It conjures up the smell of brown and serve rolls, the taste of Aunt Chick’s cookies, and the energy of a house well lived in. It is Christmas for me.
9. Megan Mullally — Silent Night
1818, Megan Mullally recording 2001
I love Megan Mullally’s voice. She does a fantastic version of Silent Night here, and seems so unique to her own style in parts. Silent Night is one of the songs I like by most artists, but I sometimes feel like the style doesn’t match the themes of the song. This one does a pretty good job with that. This was included on an album of NBC stars, and at that time Will & Grace was enjoying its greatest success. Megan Mullally went on to release several albums, all amazing and worth looking into.
8. Burl Ives — Holly Jolly Christmas
1962, this Burl Ives recording 1965
What is Christmas without Burl Ives? Sad, that’s what. I really appreciate that Ives recorded this for his Christmas album the year after it appeared on the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Soundtrack. That version had been so rushed and I like this slightly slowed one much more. This song, and really any song from Rudolph, makes me feel like a kid in all the right ways.
7. Scott Matthew — Silent Nights
This original song is sweet, sad, wistful… it’s one of the feelings I can identify with, especially during Christmas. It’s beautiful, and Scott Matthew is the absolute master at making me feel sad and then making feel okay about feeling sad. His songs are usually wrapped in melancholy, but I’m always glad they are.
6. Carpenters — Merry Christmas Darling
All the Christmas feelings. This one is similar to Silent Nights, but far more hopeful. You feel mildly sad that these two won’t be together for Christmas, but are left with little doubt that they will eventually reunite.
5. Mariah Carey – All I Want For Christmas Is You
I got this album when it came out, and I have yet to get enough of this one. It is just as perfect as it ever was. It’s so full of the joy that makes Christmas wonderful, and truly a timeless classic.
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4. Ella Fitzgerald – Sleigh Ride
1948, Ella Fitzgerald recording 1960
Ella. Need I say more?
3. Dolly Parton — Hard Candy Christmas
1978, Dolly Parton & Movie recording 1982
This might be surprisingly high on my list… maybe? It wasn’t conceived as a Christmas song, but I’m happy to listen to it over and over during December. This song makes me want to drink cocoa and warm up under a blanket with a good book.
Dolly Parton’s Solo Studio Version
Film Version featuring Dolly Parton & the Cast of The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas
2. Wham! — Last Christmas
This one is polarizing. I’ve seen it on as many lists of worst Christmas songs as best Christmas songs. For me it is almost at the top of my favorites. I suppose if you have an aversion to 1980s pop music, you might not care for this, but I love 80s pop. I especially love anything from George Michael, and I’m happy to hear this in every store during the holidays.
1. Trans-Siberian Orchestra — Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)
1914 (Carol of the Bells), traditional (God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen)m Trans-Siberian Orchestra recording 1996
Carol of the Bells is probably my favorite Christmas carol, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra really takes it to another level here. This song is a great storytelling. It’s very moving.
Here are some other songs I love, but they just didn’t quite get on my list. It’s pretty hard to narrow down to 15; I could probably do a list of 100, and I’d still have to leave things off that I love.