We all know that there’s a lot of terrible holiday music out there. You can hardly walk through a department store or turn on the radio without hearing some plodding version of “Little Drummer Boy” (easily the most boring song ever written about a drummer) or being subjected to the emotional manipulation of “The Christmas Shoes.” And who has time for “The 12 Days of Christmas?” (Let’s cool it with the geese-a-laying and swans-a swimming, OK? I’m not trying to start a zoo over here.)
So we went out and asked local musicians, radio hosts and music lovers about their favorite Christmas tunes — complete with artist and album — to make your holiday playlist a little hipper this year. With everything from Bach to Bootsy Collins to John Coltrane, this holiday playlist is sure to liven up your next Christmas party.
Jingle Bells By Jimmy Smith from “Christmas Cookin’” Guru of the B-3 Hammond organ, Jimmy Smith’s smoky tone and funky riffs hit just the right groove for lastminute shopping or holiday reveling. Pared down to a trio with Grady Tate on drums and Detroit guitarist Kenny Burrell, Smith’s arrangement will get you in the holiday mood.
The Merriest By June Christy from “This Time of Year” My wife loves this song so much she’s made it her ring tone. And why not? It’s an absurdly optimistic take on the season: “May the day be the bowl of cherry-est, and to you, the merriest!” Hard to listen to this and not smile. From the era of “Mad Men” and Kennedy’s Camelot, 1961. Father Christmas By Etienne Charles from “Creole Christmas” Can I recommend the whole album? No? Okay then, let’s do the first track. MSU professor, trumpet wizard, composer and Guggenheim award winner Etienne Charles lays out some home cooking (all the way from Trinidad) with this very hip Calypso ditty. The singer is waiting for Santa, only to be served papers for — why spoil the surprise? Listen for yourself.
Blue Xmas By Miles Davis from “Jingle Bell Swing” Miles adds a splash of vinegar to the holiday punch with this cynical Christmas track. Several of the same players from Davis’ “Kind of Blue” sessions join him here, along with a swinging Wayne Shorter saxophone solo. But the real treat is vocalist Bob Dorough’s reedy delivery of lyrics: “It’s the time when the greedy give a dime to the needy,” and so on. A delight for all the Grinches.
Last Christmas By Wham from “Music From the Edge of Heaven” This is probably no surprise, coming from the singer of an ‘80s cover band, but I consider this song a classic. It was originally released in 1984 as a B-side to a single,“Everything She Wants,” and the band donated all proceeds to help fight the Ethiopian famine happening at the time. George Michael’s vocals are as sassy and soulful as ever, crooning over sweet pop synths. It makes me smile every time I hear it.
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) By Darlene Love from “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector” After working retail for a few years, you come to develop a deep fear of Christmas-music-induced psychosis. This is the album I turn to when I can’t take the holiday music anymore, and Darlene Love’s “Christmas” is my favorite track by far. Love’s vocals are powerful, and emotion seeps through her declaration that it’s just not Christmas without her sweetheart. I love the spot-on background vocals and full sound Spector is known for producing. In 2010, Rolling Stone named it the top Christmas song of all time.
Linus and Lucy By the Vince Guaraldi Trio from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” While the first two picks were shoe-ins, I had a really hard time narrowing down a third song. I love cross-genre holiday music, and there are a ton of fun punk, reggae, pop and classical favorites to pick from. But I finally landed on this upbeat piano-driven number from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” This is one of the few Christmas albums I could listen to all year long without feeling weird. Any time this song comes on, I find myself dancing around "Peanuts"-style.
Jesus Christ By Big Star from “Third” After releasing three masterpiece albums throughout the 1970s, Big Star became one of the most enigmatic cult band of all time — heavily influencing R.E.M. and the Replacements. The obscure band’s Memphis roots, paired with its anglophile tendencies, made for rock ‘n’ roll perfection. Vocalist/songwriter Alex Chilton was likely drunk and/or high on Quaaludes when he recorded this song, but his lewd behavior doesn’t translate onto the record. Poetic-pop majesty happens when the band chants “Jesus Christ was born today” over a sonically colossal chorus.
If Christmas Can’t Bring You Home By Reigning Sound from “Home for Orphans” Greg Cartwright of Reigning Sound is the most underrated songwriter of our time. Since the early 1990s, he’s released a pile of critically acclaimed records. Known for both fiery rock ‘n’ roll stompers and lyrical acoustic ballads, his range is diverse. Among his vast catalog is one of the most sincere holiday tunes. In “If Christmas Can’t Bring You Home,” Cartwright dismally croons, “Drove by your house to sneak a peek at you, you were standing by the tree, kissing someone new. Your present’s on my seat, but I guess I won’t be needing it no more.” Who can’t identify with that un-jolly rejection?
Snowman Magic By Dwight Twilley from “Have a Twilley Christmas” Dwight Twilley is the ultimate “he should’ve been huge” songwriter. Released in 1976, his “Sincerely” LP is a power-pop masterwork. One track, “I’m on Fire,” hit the top 20, but that’s where it fizzled. While his label mate Tom Petty went on to pack stadiums, Twilley ventured off into the rock underground where he remains today — still filling clubs with devoted fanatics. Twilley’s output hasn’t slowed either. In 2005 he released a Christmas album stocked with holly-jolly hooks. The centerpiece of the disc, “Snowman Magic,” would make John Lennon proud. Twilley’s grand vocal delivery forces you to ponder the mortality of snowmen. as he belts out, “Snowman magic, he comes here each year. When the warm wind blows, he disappears.”
This Christmas By Donny Hathaway from “Soul Christmas” Knowing Hathaway’s personal story — he struggled with depression and paranoid schizophrenia — I understand how real his songs of joy are. Outside of the context of this perspective, the arrangement, groove and vocal performance make this song a true Christmas classic.
Someday at Christmas By Stevie Wonder from “Someday at Christmas” While acknowledging the magic of the holiday season, Stevie poses the possibility of one day being able to celebrate a world where “men won’t be boys” and won’t play with bombs “like kids play with toys.” And let’s face it, Stevie Wonder is the man.
Give Love on Christmas Day By the Temptations from “Give Love at Christmas” The opening sequence of this song reminds me of waking up as a child and realizing that it’s Christmas. Its almost like it was queued to play at that precise moment. With the excitement of tearing through gift wrap at the forefront of my adolescent mind, this song provided a sobering counterweight to balance my perspective on what the day is truly about.
The Bells of Christmas By Julie Andrews from “Firestone Presents: Your Favorite Christmas Music,” vol. 4 This is joyful, beautiful music-making and the kind of lush arranging we don’t hear anymore. My family used to wait anxiously every Christmas for the Firestone and Goodyear Christmas albums. We still have them and play them every holiday season.
Silent Night By Take Six from “He is Christmas” The epitome of a capella singing as it should be. Complex harmonies sung with deep soul.
What are you doing New Year’s Eve? By Barbra Streisand from “Christmas Collection” What can I say? It’s Streisand. No one colors words like she does.
Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance By Sufjan Stevens from ”Songs for Christmas” Sufjan Stevens is a prolific songwriter and has put out 10 volumes of Christmas music. His two Christmas collections, ”Songs for Christmas” and ”Silver & Gold,” comprise 100 Christmas songs. There is a lot to choose from here, but “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance” definitely brings the Christmas cheer.
Must Be Santa By Bob Dylan from ”Christmas in the Heart” Bob Dylan is Jewish by birth, but Christian by practice (sort of). His Christmas album doesn’t worry too much about labels. His rendition of “Must Be Santa” is a ridiculously high-energy polka variation, and the accordion in it does a great job of getting you psyched for Christmas time. He also added a weird bridge where he adds presidents’ names to the list of Santa’s reindeer. It’s very clever.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas By She & Him from “A Very She & Him Christmas” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is my favorite Christmas standard, and there has been no lack of cover versions over the years. One of the best, though, is the subtle, humble and beautiful version on the She & Him Christmas album. Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward are a great indie-music team.
Please Come Home for Christmas By the Eagles This song makes think of togetherness, but most of all my dad. I grew up listening to the Eagles, and every time I hear this, I think of him. We bonded over our love for classic rock (aka dad rock).
The River By Joni Mitchell from “Blue” Although this song is depressing, Mitchell’s voice and this song takes me on a lyrical journey that sings to my heart. It’s a reminder not everything is reindeers and peppermint sticks during this time of year.
White Christmas By Otis Redding It’s Otis Redding … enough said.
Once in Royal David’s City By St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir from “Christmas Carols from St. Paul’s Cathedral” I remember a December evening when I was in high school. Mom was in the kitchen baking cookies, my many siblings bustled around the house and I was snuggled up next to my dad on the couch in the living room. He was sitting in the darkened room, gazing at the rainbow lights and years’ worth of homemade ornaments on our Christmas tree. This timeless choral song was playing in the background, and I will always associate it with that lovely moment. I couldn’t tell you a single word of the song, but I will never tire of the melody.
Oh Little Town of Bethlehem By Elvis Presley from “Elvis’ Christmas Album” Last year, I bought this record for a dollar at the East Lansing Public Library. It was July, but that didn’t stop me from listening to the whole thing. “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” remains one of my favorite tracks, mainly because of the organ and background vocals.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas By Frank Sinatra from “Christmas Songs by Sinatra” This is one of my favorite Christmas songs to sing or play. I love how the lyrics invite the listener to travel through time — remembering the past, being present with loved ones in the moment and facing the future with hope. This, to me, is the meaning of Christmas.
Oi to the World By No Doubt from “A Very Special Christmas 3” The original version by the Vandals hearkens back to classic British punk, but No Doubt’s cover cleans the song up a bit with a less grungy, more ska-inspired sound. Both versions are great, and the song tells a story you could maybe call heartwarming.
White Christmas By the Drifters from “Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters” Kevin McCallister embodies exactly how I feel when I hear this song when he sings into his hairbrush in “Home Alone,” channeling his inner doo-wop crooner. I’m still not sure which part of this song is more fun, the lead vocals or the background singing.
Children Go Where I Send Thee By Natalie Merchant from “A Very Special Christmas 3” Usually sung with a blues or country edge, this song is one of the most soulful Christmas tunes out there. Natalie Merchant’s alt-rock version, which pulls in soul and gospel elements, is pretty cool.
Boot-Off By Bootsy Collins from “Christmas is 4 Ever” Whenever I’m feeling a little blue around Christmas time, I remind myself that Bootsy Collins made a Christmas album and it brings a smile to my face. The flamboyant funk bassist is best known for his work with James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic (and for his trademark star-shaped sunglasses). Bootsy Collins’ “Christmas is 4 Ever” features ridiculously funky takes on Christmas classics. “Boot- Off,” a re-imagining of the classic reindeer song, tells the story of Boot-Off the funky soul reindeer, who is tasked with driving the P-Funk Mothership.
Christmas in Jail By the Youngsters This 1950s doo-wop gem was the B-side to the Youngsters’ biggest hit, “Dreamy Eyes.” After a few too many drinks, our protagonist gets behind the wheel, gets pulled over and has to spend the night sobering up in jail. The track even earned the group a complimentary letter from the National Safety Council, who hoped the song would discourage youths from drinking and driving. The moral of the story is summed up in the song’s closing lines: “I got rocks in my head. I wish I was dead. Ain't gonna drink and drive no more.”
(Everybody’s Waitin’ For) the Man with the Bag By the Brian Setzer Orchestra from “Boogie Woogie Christmas” This song kicks off my carefully curated Christmas Spotify playlist. When I hear Setzer sing “Old Mr. Kringle is soon gonna jingle the bells that’ll tingle all your troubles away,” the holiday season has officially begun. Setzer’s collection of Christmas tunes is exuberant and fun, but with the right touch of rockabilly snarl to make things interesting. (A close runner-up is Setzer’s vibrato-soaked take on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from the “Christmas Rocks” album.)
My Favorite Things John Coltrane, any version you can find Some people hate it when Julie Andrews’ “My Favorite Things” gets pulled out each year at Christmastime, but I’m not one of them. Inside its pine-coney pertness nestles a meaty seed: sheer appreciation of life. That was enough for tenor sax giant John Coltrane to grow into a towering sequoia of sound. Maybe it’s crass to draft Coltrane’s euphoric, epic version(s) into the service of the season, but those two oscillating chords, blinking like quasars in an interstellar blizzard of saxophone for 20, 30, even 40 minutes (depending on the version you hear) can stand up to anything — even Christmas, when we need some real spirit more than usual.
Christen, ätzen diesel Tag (Christians, etch ye now this day), BWV 63 By J.S. Bach Sound the trumpets! Bum-ba-bum the timpani! Bach wrote this achingly gorgeous oratorio exactly 300 years ago, for Christmas 1715, and it’s the best of the dozen or so Christmas blowouts he produced in his lifetime. The final chorus, with its twirling oboe flourishes and a majestic choral fugue, mixes unbuttoned joy and solemn ceremony to perfection.
We Free Kings By Rahsaan Roland Kirk from “We Free Kings” Hands down, this my favorite jazz version of a Christmas carol — ever. Kirk, a superhuman woodwind specialist best known for playing three horns at once, glides, grooves and growls through the famous carol’s somber, Eastern-flavored melody, finding hidden doors of liberation.
The Nutcracker By and the National Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Richard Bonynge, from “The Nutcracker” I realize Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” isn’t a “song,” but rather a fulllength story ballet. It is also a masterpiece — among the greatest music ever written. While it may lack the “fa la las,” it captures the spirit, magic and wonder of the season like nothing else. Every household should have this album and play it each year from beginning to end for all to hear. Turn it up! It will fill your home with magic. I like Bonynge’s version, but there are many fine recordings out there from which to choose.
Wexford Carol By the Choir and Orchestra of Clare College, Cambridge, directed by John Rutter, from “Christmas from Clare” This is just one of the many great carols — spanning five centuries and 11 countries — on this fabulous album. This group performs in the spacious 17th century hall of Clare College in Cambridge, England. The resulting sound is spiritual and transporting. Rutter has other similar recordings that are also fine. In my experience, anything from Clare College and Rutter is excellent.
Let is Snow, Let it Snow, Let is Snow By Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme from “The Great Songs of Christmas” I am old-school about my Christmas faves, and Steve and Eydie own this one. The arrangement is fabulous, and the studio orchestra backing them up is smokin’.
Who Would Have Dreamed By Sovereign Grace Music from “Prepare Him Room: Celebrating the Birth of Jesus in Song” Jason Hansen and Bob Kauflin wrote this Christmas original; McKenzie Kauflin performs the solo. It is a fresh, new pop ballad. The lyrics are powerful and non-cliché — and this goes for the other original Christmas songs on the rest of the album as well.
Jingle Bells The King’s Singers from “Joy to the World” The King’s Singers is such a talented ensemble, and this is a fun-filled arrangement of the beloved Christmas carol. The harmonies are tightly packed and transition well from one section to the next. This arrangement goes along at a blistering pace and features several musical surprises.
We Three Kings
By Mario Lanza from “Christmas with Mario Lanza” This is my guilty pleasure choice. When I was growing up, my dad played this 33 rpm vinyl over and over at Christmas time, so this album has much sentimental value to me. I pull this out every Christmas and play it loud for my family to hear — admittedly, I don’t think they are drawn to it as much as I am. I love the radio orchestra style that accompanies Mario, and I look forward to hearing the quick, inserted narrations by Ray Sinatra. “And Belshazzar spoke,” and so on … very theatrical and memorable.
Fairytale of New York By the Pogues Voted best Christmas song many times over in Ireland and the UK — where it eventually went platinum — “Fairytale of New York” lives in relative anonymity stateside. Released in 1987, the lyrics open on a man sobering up in a New York jail cell on Christmas Eve. It becomes a duet as singer Kirsty MacColl joins in the fray, and the song becomes a call and response about youthful dreams lost while the bells of time toll on, waiting for no one. Celtic Irish punk rock, great for a pub sing-along with a full pint raised in the air.
Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis By Tom Waits from “Blue Valentine” Like Tom Waits, I also enjoy beautiful melodies telling me terrible things. Reality is so much more real than a typical Christmas song might lead us to believe. Holidays bring us together, but it isn't always raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. On this 1978 track, Waits' gravely voice, accompanied by his killer jazz and blues piano work, tells the tale of Charlie reading a holiday letter from the eponymous hooker, catching him up on all the good things that have happened since they last spoke. The melodic warmth belies the truth under the text revealed in the last phrase. Life can be so complicated sometimes, and Waits never shies away from splaying open the truth on how rarely plans work out they way we'd like.
Gabriel's Message By various artists Ok, time for a classic — but one that’s a little less known than “The Christmas Song” or anything else you might hear at an elementary school holiday pageant. Think of it as a grown-up precursor to “Away in a Manger.” “Gabriel's Message” is an old Basque folk carol from the late 1800s that follows the story of Mary being told that she would give birth to the son of God. It's moody and Gothic, and I'm a sucker polyphonic minor key vocal arrangements. An ideal listening room is an ancient cathedral or monastery with a choir of robed monks during vespers. But if that isn’t an option, Sting did a version in 2009 that will sound pretty damn good on your home stereo.
Christmas Unicorn By Sufjan Stevens from “Silver & Gold” A native Michigander, Sufjan Stevens makes Christmas everything I dreamed it could be. “Christmas Unicorn,” — one of 59 tracks on his Christmas compilation, “Silver & Gold,” — experiments with synthetic sounds to make the listener feel absolutely magical. While this song is 12 minutes long, it is most definitely worth the time. While I typically despise Christmas music, Stevens’ take on Christmas music is magnificent. It not only gets me in the Christmas mood, it makes me feel like anything is possible — I am the Christmas Unicorn.
Homo Christmas By Pansy Division from “Pile Up” A song about gay sex under the Christmas tree? What’s not to love? Pansy Division takes the stress out of Christmas with this holiday track. California-based Pansy Division is mostly comprised of gay musicians, and its music focuses largely around gay themes. My favorite line, “Licking nipples, licking nuts, putting candy canes up each other’s butts,” is by far the greatest lyricism I have ever had the pleasure of hearing.
Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight) By the Ramones from “Brain Drain” A Christmas classic for any punk rock music lover. This alternative Christmas tune is everything you would expect from the Ramones. It’s core message of not fighting during the Christmas season is one all should take to heart. The band’s masterful use of just three chords is all I need to make my Christmas delightful.