The only time I’ve ever wanted to punch Bob Dylan was after listening to his version of “It Must Be Santa.” That noxious little holiday polka appears on Christmas in the Heart, an album of mostly conventional Christmas songs Dylan released in 2009. At the time, I thought the project was conceptually hilarious, since Dylan was possibly the last person on the planet you’d expect to deliver something as corny as a Christmas record. But the album’s real problems lay elsewhere. Put bluntly, Christmas in the Heart sounded halfhearted—sounded, in other words, a lot like any other star’s obligatory Christmas album. Most of its material was forgettable, or forgettably performed, all but the unfortunately memorable “It Must Be Santa,” which gets my vote for the most persistent, most dogged earworm of all time. I haven’t heard the song in more than a year, but it’s still lodged in my head.
Christmas songs generally are the worst, i.e., the most effective, earworms. I walk around from Thanksgiving until Dec. 25 just waiting to be attacked by “The Little Drummer Boy.” It can be sung by choirs of children, piped in by elevator Muzak, or caroled by a strolling minstrel—the source doesn’t matter. As soon as those first thumpety-thump-thump notes come at me, that tune and all its many, many verses will be with me until the spring thaw.
So I have what could most optimistically be called a love/hate relationship with Christmas carols and songs. (Taxonomically speaking, I’m sure there’s a difference, but I’m sure I don’t care.) Sometimes I think I wouldn’t mind if all Christmas music disappeared from the face of the earth.
Then I hear the Drifters singing “White Christmas,” or Merle Haggard doing “If We Make It Through December.” Or Handel’s Messiah comes at me out of the blue. Or Spike Jones cracks me up with his subversion of The Nutcracker. (“Mr. Tchaikovsky, this sure is tough-skee”).
Or I stumble across the just released Silver & Gold, Sufjan Stevens’s second big package of Christmas songs, 57 by my count, some of them originals, some re-workings of Christmas classics.
This is a little more Christmas than I’m willing to take on, but give Stevens credit: he’s gotten under the hood and tweaked and cross-wired this material until you have to pay attention. You may not immediately dig a nearly 10-minute version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” complete with chanting vocals riding over what sound like dueling drum machines, but you won’t get bored. Listening to a musician who’s clearly not going through the motions, you begin to understand what’s wrong with most of the music you hear at this time of year.
Is Silver and Gold a coherent album? Not hardly, but that’s only par for album-length Christmas fare. The only records I’ve found to be wholly successful as albums are A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector, jazz composer and bandleader Carla Bley’s Carla’s Christmas Carols, the late guitarist John Fahey’s The New Possibility, Dan Hicks’s Crazy for Christmas, and Atlantic Records’ Soul Christmas, which is an anthology of cuts from other albums but still, no lumps of coal.
No, even the best Christmas albums usually boast only two or three terrific tracks. The rest is filler, which means you have to listen to “The First Noel” and “The Christmas Song” a lot more than you might like.
For my money, the best music of the season is found on singles. And all crabbiness aside, the good stuff is out there. You just have to work to find it. Here’s a small Santa sack of solitary gems to get you started (and a seasonal salute to Andrew Romano for helping make this list so much better).
Merle Haggard, “If We Make It Through December”
A guy who just got laid off down at the factory wonders how he’s going to make Christmas right for daddy’s girl. Is Merle a better songwriter or a better singer? Do we have to choose? In the Best Country Christmas Song race, his version of “Blue Christmas” is a close runner-up.
Staple Singers, “No Room at the Inn”
A gospel number that bewails the circumstances of the Nativity, this is one of those songs that seems to have sprung fully formed from the earth. You can take it apart and study the entwining vocals or the way Pop Staples’s guitar plays off the organ player, but none of that will get you any closer to the sorrowful but somehow triumphant spirit that drives this song into your heart.
Willie Nelson, “Pretty Paper”
Roy Orbison had the hit with this melancholy song about a guy selling wrapping paper and pencils on the street, but Willie wrote it, and no one ever sang it better.
Carla Thomas, “Gee Whiz It’s Christmas”
Her baby-doll voice backed by the cream of Memphis soul just makes you forget every crummy thought you ever had about Christmas.
The Beach Boys, “We Three Kings”
The single off their Christmas album was “Little Saint Nick,” but if you really want to hear Brian Wilson’s genius at work, check out his arrangement of this hymnal standard, complete with a cappella coda (in 3/8 time, it must be one of the few oddly metered songs in any hymnbook).
She & Him, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”
The duo of M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel have taste to burn, and they know how to keep it simple. His lean arrangement of this covered-by-everyone classic leaves plenty of room for her beguiling vocals.
Charles Brown, “Please Come Home for Christmas”
Everything about this song is just right in an understated way, from the bells that kick it off to the tasteful guitar break, but what makes it indelible is the delivery by Charles Brown, a gorgeous but stunningly unaffected singer who had only to open his mouth and then get out of the way.
Keith Richards, “Run Run Rudolph”
The freelancing Rolling Stone’s first single was this ragged but right cover of Chuck Berry’s witty tribute to the season, complete with a boy child who craved “a rock and roll electric guitar.” This thing just jumps out of the speakers.
The Waitresses, “Christmas Wrapping”
Yeah, it’s weird that there are so many songs about being alone at Christmas, but this one has a happy ending! Recent covers by the Spice Girls and Glee gave the tune some welcome new visibility, but accept no substitutes for the 1981 original’s seasonal sass and unbeatable dance-floor-friendly rhythm section.
Joni Mitchell, “River”
Nobody will ever take this song a’caroling. It’s too downright sad and full of recrimination to fit comfortably in the Christmas song canon. But it begins and ends by referencing “Jingle Bells,” and it’s perfect company for those odd moments during the holidays when you’re nursing the suspicion that things, as usual, haven’t lived up to expectations. They don’t write many songs about that side of Christmas, so treasure this one.
Kurtis Blow, “Christmas Rappin’”
Always preaching the gospel of enthusiasm, hip-hop pioneer Kurtis Blow could light up a morgue, never more so than on this house party classic, which includes an encounter with a certain gentleman of the season: “He was rolie, he was polie, I said, holy moley.” Who wouldn’t?
NRBQ, “Christmas Wish”
No band ever rocked a house harder than NRBQ, but their secret weapon was a guileless innocence—a sweetness, even—that banished irony and allowed them to sing like they meant every word. This song is the very definition of disarming.
Clarence Carter, “Back Door Santa”
Send the kids out of the room before Clarence (“I make my runs about the break of day”) Carter changes ho ho ho to heh heh heh. The funkiest Christmas song ever, no contest.
The Chieftains, “Once in Royal David’s City”
A 19th-century English hymn arranged here for traditional Irish instruments and a choir that would give angels a run for their money.
The Drifters, “White Christmas”
They start off great and then just get better. When that melismatic falsetto “I-I-I-I-I’m dreaming …” kicks in halfway through, it’s the musical equivalent of helium. But what really sells this song is the singers’ contagious pleasure in their performance. There are few recordings in any genre that more perfectly encapsulate the sheer joy of singing.
And then of course there’s Otis Redding’s version, equally indelible in an utterly different way. And then there’s … but no, there’s no one else. The Drifters and Otis own “White Christmas.”
Stephen Colbert, “Another Christmas Song”
What would happen if you deliberately set out to write a classic Christmas song, one that summed up everything (awful) about holiday music? If you’re as talented as Stephen Colbert, it would sound like this.
Porky Pig, “Blue Christmas”
Who says there are no new Christmas classics?
The Nutcracker Variations:
Any parents who have wept in agony at the thought of having to sit through one more performance by their little sugarplums of this, um, chestnut should sit down with Duke and Spike and be nursed back to health by two very different but equally effective geniuses.
The All-American Christmas Song
“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”
When a song becomes a culture’s common property, even though it was composed by professional songwriters, does that make it a folk song? Just asking. But however it’s classified, is there anyone in this country not familiar with some version of this durable song? It’s a standard by any definition, although calling it a standard belies the very flexibility—the ability to reincarnate for every generation—that’s kept it so alive.
Debuting on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November 1934, this Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie tune sold 400,000 copies of sheet music in a month (100,000 the day after the Cantor show aired). For most of a century, it’s stayed popular with both audiences and musicians across the spectrum—though no one, not even Bill Evans, has mined its possibilities with more success than Joseph Spence, the fabulous and fabulously eccentric Bahamian guitarist (his vocals take some getting used to, but that man took improvisation to a celestial level).
A sampling of the best: