As you can see, I have many more favorite Christmas songs than least favorite, which I suppose says something good for Christmas music. Honestly I had a hard time eliminating a few other songs from this list—I could put two whole Amy Grant Christmas albums on this—but I had to keep the list to a five-increment number. After much deliberation, here is my list, in no particular order.
“Christmas Song” by Luther Vandross
Luther Vandross’ voice is wonderfully smooth here, but what really catches me every time I hear this song is the opening organ riff (I think it’s an organ). That, combined with the jazzy base, sets the tone for the rest of the song: rhythmic, swinging, and addictive. Vandross puts a smooth spin on this traditional song with both the music and his voice, which makes it much more interesting (and pleasant) to listen to. And the refrain at the end (“Have yourself a merry, a very merry merry . . .”) makes the song that much more unique: Vandross’ lovely tenor floating above the rest of the music, including the horns, serves as a fitting ending to the song.
“This Christmas” by Donny Hathaway
It’s very hard to not like this song. The opening horn riff identifies the song right away, and Hathaway’s voice is characteristically smooth and blues-y, dancing along flexibly with the music, filled with just the right amount of vibrato and hitting the high notes in the chorus with ease. Hathaway knew just when to hold back and when to open up, and it shows in this song, especially in the last chorus when he hits a high note on “Christmas.” The piano solo in the bridge is also a wonderful auditory treat.
“My Favorite Things” by Barbra Streisand
I’m not a huge fan of Streisand as a singer, only because I think she sounds too breathy sometimes—except in this song. Her rendition of “My Favorite Things” is my all-time favorite one because it’s so different than all the others: dramatic, somber, and mysterious. Streisand’s voice is marvelously clear, deep, and full from the very first word, and she changes many of the notes in the melody to create a rather minor-sounding song (see the words “moon” and “things” at the end of the first verse). When Streisand hits “Girls in white dresses” all rules are gone; she is simply singing and making the song what she thinks it should be, traditional melody be damned. Yet she, like Vandross and Hathaway, knows when to draw back, as with “When the dog bites . . .” But my favorite note has to be on the final “bad”—a note I couldn’t see anyone else thinking to hit in this song. It’s brilliant, eerie, and perfect.
“Winter Wonderland” by Eurythmics
I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the Eurythmics’ instrumentation, but I don’t mind their songs and really like Annie Lennox. Here, the Eurythmics’ style and Lennox’s wonderful voice both contribute to make this song even better than it traditionally is. I actually like the music here, despite its electronic tendencies; I especially like the snappy percussion and the light keyboards which make the song feel “bouncy” and cheery. And of course I like Lennox’s voice (how could you not?) and the way she harmonizes with herself. My favorite parts of the song are when Lennox goes off on her own after the second chorus, singing nonsense syllables, and the end of the song when Lennox sings over her “Walking in a winter wonderland” with a succession of words, culminating in the chill-inducing wail, “Won’t you down with me-e?” Yes, I will.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Frank Sinatra
There are a lot of nice versions of this song, but this one is in my opinion the best because it captures the true mood of the song—not happy but somber, wistful, and melancholic. The lack of most instruments, haunting background vocals, and Sinatra’s longing voice all combine to create this mood, bringing chills and not allowing the listener to view the song in a happy light. Indeed, this is the way soldiers far from home would (and do, I think) feel—not happy, not hopeful in an excited way, but hopeful in a wistful way; haunted; perhaps nostalgic.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland
I like this version best out of all others I have heard for the same reason as above—it best captures the mood of the song—and also because this is the original recording, and thus the original mood. This is what (in my opinion) the song should sound like, because as it was originally performed in Meet Me in St. Louis, this is how it originally sounded. Garland’s voice is rich and beautiful, and similar to Sinatra’s voice in the above song, wistful and burdened by hardships. The real meaning of this song is emphasized further when one thinks of the scene in which Garland’s character sings this song in the film: in a sad, seemingly hopeless moment, she sings to her crying little sister to comfort her. Garland’s thoughtful, wearied face speaks volumes and adds powerfully to the depth of the lyrics. Also, the song ends on a wonderful note which gives the sensation that it isn’t quite finished yet—it leaves the listener feeling a little “off,” i.e., that life isn’t quite right yet, which is exactly the circumstance the song reflects.
“Happy Holiday” by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme
I’ve always liked the “different” feel of this version that comes in part because of the intense and already crescendo-ing strings in the beginning, and the equally dramatic opening vocals of Steve Lawrence. Lawrence over-pronounces “Happy holidays” (as he always seems to do in every song), giving the song a slower, more drawn-out feel which I like. He and Eydie Gorme sound great together as well (as they always do), and the whistling and “la di da” vocals add yet another unique and charming feature to this version. But Gorme’s voice is what makes this song for me. Lawrence’s voice is fine, but Gorme’s voice knocks this song out of the park for me every time. It’s deep, rich, assured, and floating on air. I could listen to her for hours.
“The First Noel” by Al Green
This and the subsequent two songs are all from a 1989 Christmas album that featured various artists singing traditional Christmas songs in unique ways. I’ve heard this album over and over since I was a little kid, and would have put nearly all its songs on this list (First Call’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” nearly made it) but of course I couldn’t; so I chose three. This is certainly a unique recording of “The First Noel,” and definitely my favorite. No one else could sing this like Al Green. He brings soul, funk, and gospel together to create an incredibly catchy, entrancing version. There’s some great bass, drums, harmonica, and of course Mr. Green’s superb voice that just gets better as the song goes on. Starting at the second chorus Green gets off-track and funky, and never looks back. As the choir behind him swells to a crescendo Green jumps in with them, singing, “Noel, noel, noel, noel, born is the King” in all of his raspy enthusiasm, and if your heart isn’t pumping and you don’t feel like dancing at this point you must be dead. When I was younger I used to think Green’s laugh at the end was creepy, but now I think it’s hilarious and very appropriate. He’s happy.
“One Small Child” by David Meece
The opening violin strains are a marker of this song, and the chimes and ensuing drum beat blend to create a mysterious aura before Meece even starts singing. Meece’s voice itself is mysterious—high-pitched and sensitive, echo-y and subdued, even hidden. The lyrics themselves are mysterious and beautiful too: “One small child in a land of a thousand,” “one king bringing us life,” “See His mother praising the Father, / See his tiny eyelids fall.” The whole song is a wonderful juxtaposition of rich and poor, pride and humility, divinity and humanity.
Then the piano comes in, the drums intensify and everything rises to converge: Meece’s voice becomes louder, though no less shrouded in some kind of audible mist—then falls to quiet again with the rest of the music, only to swell back into a powerful, gradually-increasing wave of drums, chimes, piano, voice and strings. Whoever arranged this song was a genius. It’s absolutely beautiful and haunting in the way Christ’s birth was and should be remembered.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” by Phil Keaggy and Kim Hill
Phil Keaggy’s acoustic guitar is the first instrument you hear on this recording, and it is spellbinding. The bass adds a wonderful counterpoint to it, and then Kim Hill’s voice, deep, quiet and serious, swings us into the melody. This song has a mysterious vibe to it, too, as the guitar and bass continue and the vocal harmonies come together. Then the song takes on a more rhythmic melody, with the drums becoming more prominent, and Hills’ and others’ voice combine and overlap to create a cacophony of song and, again, a crescendo culminating in a delightful “yeah” and a dramatic decrease in sound, with the guitar our main instrument again as the song fades.
“Celebrate Me Home” by Kenny Loggins, Tied With “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” by Elvis Presley
How is it possible to have a tie when I’m not ranking these in any order? Well, it’s really not possible, but here’s why I say this is a tie: all the other songs had to be included. These two were ones I was torn between, because I wanted my list to be fifteen songs (NOT sixteen—has to be a flat five-increment number, you see). This was not an easy decision. I finally decided to make these songs a “tie”; so technically there are sixteen songs on this list, but really there are only supposed to be fifteen (shh, don’t tell).
Some people might say “Celebrate Me Home” isn’t really a Christmas song, and I can see their point. However, this song is all about coming home for the holidays—presumably Christmas is included and/or meant specifically—and so I think this can be called a Christmas song and thus make my list. Because it is a beautiful song. The piano is what makes it distinctive: as soon as you hear that opening line you know the song, and the piano continues throughout the whole song even in the midst of the other instruments. Kenny Loggins’ voice is great in this song as always, perhaps especially when combined with the background vocalists towards the end when repeating “Well I’m finally here / But I’m bound to roam . . .” Loggins’ voice always conveys a certain sadness as well as peace and optimism, and it does so perfectly in this song that is at once melancholic and loving, accepting of the way things are yet wishing they could be different.
Elvis did some great renditions of Christmas songs, but this one has to be my favorite, because it’s the most authentically blues-ish. The piano and drums are pounding and Presley’s unmistakable voice is gruff and unpolished. Also, the lyrics, for a pop Christmas song, are pretty blues-y too: they don’t sugarcoat anything. “Well, you be a real good little baby,” Presley sings, which is a rather demanding and suggestive line; he gives a rather creepy-sounding Santa laugh; and later sings the most suggestive lines of all: “Hang up your pretty stockings / Turn off the light / Santa Claus is comin’ down your chimney tonight.” We know what this song is about. I’m not saying I necessarily like it, but I do like that this song, as much as it can for a pop song, keeps with the blues tradition.
“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” by Ray Charles
I always forget about this version, but even though I don’t much like the song itself I have to include this one, because it’s so unique. Ray Charles doing a Christmas song—how could that be bad? As soon as Charles’ voice enters the song you hear the syncopation, with the organ and drums and his voice all in glorious rhythm. Charles knows just how to sing on rhythm but simultaneously off-rhythm—he waits half-beats to come in, adds a word here and there to extend the line, raises and lowers his voice (see “Yeah, he knows when you’re awake” and the last “Santa Claus”), and generally plays around while the rest of the instruments continue on in steady rhythm. The organ solo is good too, but I appreciate this song so much because of Ray Charles. His voice and singing style makes this song what it is: really darn good.
“White Christmas” by The Drifters
The first time I heard this version several years ago I was blown away, and had no idea who The Drifters were. Now I know, and this song is just as cool as it’s always been. Putting a doo-wop spin on a Christmas song is a great idea, so whoever’s idea it was, thank you. The combination of a bass voice in the lead with the background vocalists behind, and then the high tenor singing lead in the second verse, is brilliant. All the voices are strong, but the standout ones are the backing vocals—they provide that wonderful doo-wop rhythm, walking up and down at points—and the tenor: “Yi, yi, yi, I’m dreaming of a white—Christmas!” Also, the ending is great: everyone goes silent except for the lead bass, and then everyone sings, “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way—ooooh,” and an organ finishes the song off. It’s fun and catchy like a Christmas song should be.
“I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” by Jo Stafford
I love this song but couldn’t remember which female vocalist I liked singing it. I prefer Jo Staffod in her younger days when she sang with the Pied Pipers, but her voice in her solo period was just as strong, and her voice in this song is rich, clear, jazzy, and light as the song requires. The horns are my favorite out of any version, providing a strong introduction, and Stafford’s voice doesn’t sound shrill or overpowering on high notes (unlike, I’m sad to say, the lovely Doris Day’s voice does in her cover of this song). Stafford also stretches and shortens notes, dancing a bit like Ray Charles does, notably when she starts the second verse with a drawn-out “Myyy heart’s on fire.” The last vocal note, a blue note, makes me very happy.
“Hard Candy Christmas” by Dolly Parton
I never thought I’d like a Dolly Parton Christmas song—or any other of her songs for that matter—but apparently I’ve thought wrong on both counts. Technically this song doesn’t have much to do with Christmas, but I still consider it a Christmas song (call me a hypocrite, but this is a far cry from “Last Christmas”). Last year I heard this song on the radio, and I was instantly intrigued by the oddly minor key (most Christmas songs are not overtly sad); the melancholic, delicate female voice; and the very realistic lyrics. I completely identified with the lyrics because of what I was going through then, so I was shocked to discover the song was by Dolly Parton. What?? Parton is a country singer! This couldn’t be her!
But it was, and as I listened to the song over and over I grew to appreciate her voice, and the song, even more. My least favorite parts of the song are the background vocalists at the very end singing “I’ll be fine”—Parton don’t need no background vocals, people—and also the chorus because of its major sound. But the minor guitar and piano and Parton’s flexible, vibrato, twangy voice (which I have grown to really like, surprisingly), continue to make the song one with which I can identify and which gives me comfort. Parton knows what I’m feeling. I’m not alone.