George Michael promoting Wham!’s 1984 single Last Christmas. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
From John Fahey, the Sonics and the Waitresses to Slade, Wizzard and Mariah Carey, we count down the best festive numbers
by Michael Hann – The Guardian
- John Fahey
The First Noel
Tiring of the fact that no one wanted to buy albums of experimental American primitive guitar music, but they bought White Christmas every year, John Fahey recorded an album of Christmas instrumentals. It was, by a margin, his bestselling record. Atypical of his work, but beautiful.
- The Sonics
Don’t Believe in Christmas
The Sonics believed some folks liked the taste of straight strychnine, so of course they didn’t believe in Christmas. What happened when they stayed up late to try to catch a glimpse of Santa? “Well, sure enough, don’t ya know / The fat boy didn’t show.” Cheeky so-and-sos.
- Emmy the Great & Tim Wheeler
Christmas Day (I Wish I Was Surfing)
Sounding much more like Ash than Emmy the Great – and the loudest, most raucous thing on their 2011 Christmas album – this is a song that sounds joyous, but is really about the desire to escape, to anywhere that isn’t cold. So long as it’s not alone.
- Little Joey Farr
Rock’n’roll and rockabilly are a treasure trove of Christmas novelty numbers (try Marlene Paula’s I Want To Spend Xmas with Elvis), but we’ve only got room for one. So, given Christmas is all about the kids, bless their souls, let’s have a song by an actual kid who promptly disappeared from the pop world.
- Lou Rawls
Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town
One imagines this would be the soundtrack to Don Draper’s Christmas – as creamy as eggnog, with a supple swing that’s nagging but not unobtrusive, it’s exactly the sound of an idealised Christmas from the 60s. Rawls made a ton of Christmas albums, but his first from 1967 is the best.
- Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, Rudy Sarzo & Simon Wright
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
How would Christmas sound reimagined by Black Sabbath? Almost exactly as you would imagine, to be honest. The most oddly foreboding of all the big Christmas songs suits the grinding and roaring. And it helps, naturally, that it contains a reference to “Satan’s power”.
- Saint Etienne
I Was Born on Christmas Day
From fire and brimstone to prosecco and chocolate, bursting with optimism for the winter: “Getting groovy after Halloween / Mid-November, got back on the scene / I’m so glad that I just got my pay / I was born on Christmas Day!” A song as sweet as a selection box.
- The Free Design
Close Your Mouth (It’s Christmas)
Probably the song that goes on in Don Draper’s apartment after Lou Rawls, when the hip young kids have arrived. “Get to know the people in your house,” they sing. “You might like them.” Draper knocks back a whisky, raises an eyebrow and shakes his head.
- Sally Shapiro
A gorgeous bauble from the mid-00s wave of Scandinavian music that crossed electropop with the feyest indie. Sally falls in love on a Tuesday before Christmas, “at a gig with a band that we both liked”. But will she end up by herself “or in the perfect kiss”?
- Solomon Burke
Presents for Christmas
The king of rock’n’soul pitches himself somewhere between a revivalist preacher and Santa Claus: “We want to give out a present to everybody this Christmas! All around the world for every man, woman, boy and girl!” he exclaims in the intro. One of the few artists whose spoken sections routinely rival the songs (track down a copy of Soul Alive! if you don’t believe me).
- Joy Zipper
Blank-faced and affectless, here’s Christmas for the shoegazers from the duo briefly toasted at the start of the last decade. Kevin Shields and David Holmes produced, and you can bet Beach House were listening.
- Neil Halstead
The Man in the Santa Suit
Truthfully, this version is only here because the Fountains of Wayne original – an homage to the Kinks’ Father Christmas – isn’t on Spotify. But what a perfect, sad song: “And he’s a big red cherry / But it’s hard to be merry / When the kids are all laughing / Saying: ‘Hey, it’s Jerry Garcia.’”
- The Everly Brothers
Christmas Eve Can Kill You
The Man in the Santa Suit is a laughfest compared to this Everly Brothers number from 1972, about a hitcher alone the night before Christmas. Organ and pedal steel sound like the wind whistling through the trees as our hero trudges on: “The sound of one man walkin’ through the snow can break your heart.”
- Santo & Johnny
Do we need cheering up? I think we do. Thank goodness, then, for the twangy guitars of Brooklyn duo Santo & Johnny, the gaudy, overlit shop window that contrasts with the stark loneliness of the Everly Brothers.
Christmas in Hollis
Hip-hop hasn’t been a huge source of Christmas songs, but Run-DMC were on top of it back in the first golden age. What would you do if you found Santa’s wallet on Hollis Avenue? It’s a perennial question. Run decides its best to post it back; he is rewarded for his honesty.
- Shirley & Dolly Collins
The Gower Wassail
Two of the greatest British folk voices combine for a drinking song that, if we’re honest, is unlikely to be ringing out in pubs this Christmas. The asceticism of the British folk tradition can be a useful astringent amid the sleigh bells and tinsel.
- Tracey Thorn
Snow in Sun
Originally from Scritti Politti’s sublime 2006 album White Bread, Black Beer and reworked by Thorn on her gorgeous album Tinsel and Lights – which is enough to qualify it as a Christmas song – here is a featherlight breath of winter to freshen your face.
- Mahalia Jackson
Go Tell It on the Mountain
You can’t really have Christmas without acknowledging that someone significant was born on 25 December – and not just Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne. The queen of gospel wants you to spread the news far and wide, and she imparts her message with due gravitas.
- Big Star
Big Star’s Third is the least likely album to contain a Christmas song, but amid the desperation and despair was this huge burst of fervour. Did Alex Chilton mean it? Was it a joke? Its effect is magnified by the music that surrounds it on the rest of the album.
Green Grows the Holly
Gorgeous and stern, and undoubtedly the best adaptation by an Americana band of any poem written by Henry VIII. The horns bloom, like the flowers of the song, turning something indisputably English into a desert lament.
- Jimmy McGriff
McGriff opens with a squall of organ that doesn’t lead you to believe Christmas is coming anytime soon, then takes Winter Wonderland at such a leisurely pace that it takes a moment to recognise it. (If you like this, try Jimmy Smith’s Christmas ’64 as well.)
- Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects
When you live in poverty, certain logistical problems come to mind. Namely, if you’re in a big public housing block, how does Santa get the presents underneath the tree? A fabulous addition to the long line of socially conscious soul and funk Christmas music.
- Sons of Heaven
When Was Jesus Born?
We all know the answer, but when it’s posed this beautifully, in such impeccable close harmony, the obviousness of the question can be forgiven. There are many versions of this, but it’s a hard song to do anything but beautifully.
- Thea Gilmore
Listen, the Snow Is Falling
Yoko Ono’s is the original version and Galaxie 500’s rendition is more celebrated, but Thea Gilmore gets the perfect ratio of iciness to wonder – it sounds like a Christmas tree, if such a thing were possible. The 2009 album Strange Communion is highly recommended.
- The Temptations
Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
Oh, wrap yourself in the blanket of those glorious voices! Motown took Christmas seriously, with the result that you could probably do this list entirely from Motown tracks. This one gets selected because what is really a fairly dismal song is transformed by a perfect arrangement.
- Clarence Carter
Back Door Santa
Pure Christmas filth. Back Door Santa can “make all the little girls happy / While the boys are out to play.” But don’t mistake him for Father Christmas: “I ain’t like old Saint Nick / He don’t come but once a year.” I dare you not to dance, though.
Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight) is better known as a Ramones Christmas song, but the sublime Danny Says gets the nod, qualifying on the grounds that the desperate, lonely band are stuck on the road deep in winter and “it ain’t Christmas if there ain’t no snow”.
Things Fall Apart
No matter how bad your Christmas is, it’s not as bad as Cristina’s. Mind you, given it’s the early 80s New York art underground, she was probably forbidden from liking something so bourgeois. Even a party can’t cheer her: “I caught a cab back to my flat / And wept a bit and fed the cat.”
- Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell is bereft, too, on this gorgeous piano ballad, when Christmas just makes her mourn her relationship and flee Laurel Canyon for her home in Canada, where there might be a frozen river she could skate away on, away from everything.
- David Banner
The Christmas Song
Completing the mini-run of joyless Christmases, here’s the most joyless of all – when the only way to pay for Christmas is to rob and deal and kill. The climactic “jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way” is not intended as cause for celebration.
Little Drummer Boy
Hans-Peter Lindstrøm takes almost 43 minutes to assemble a Christmas song – from electronic squiggles, through the martial drumbeat, to the melody coming in at eight minutes. It then spends a further 25 minutes warping and mutating, picking up and discarding musical phrases, before exploding orgasmically in its final 10 minutes or so.
- William Bell
Every Day Will Be a Holiday
It doesn’t actually mention Christmas, but gets counted – and not just by me – as a Christmas song because of the little horn lift from Jingle Bells, for it being about being lonely waiting for his baby to come home (presumably for Christmas), and because its B-side was Please Come Home For Christmas. It’s also a fabulous piece of Stax soul.
- Belle and Sebastian
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
On the 2000 charity album It’s a Cool Cool Christmas – which was pretty strong – Belle and Sebastian took on the most beautiful of all the Christmas hymns. Something so delicate suited them. Also recommended: El Vez merging Feliz Navidad and Public Image.
- The Staple Singers
Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?
The Staple Singers are worried: too many wars, too much space exploration means people are “searching for light and can’t seem to find the right star”. Jesus isn’t just another baby boy, they warn. So show some respect. Glorious.
- The Watersons
Sound, Sound Your Instruments of Joy
Just listen to the voices: this is Christmas as it must have sounded when it was a religious festival in the depths of winter, rather than an excuse to rack up debt. Make your own fun! Maybe weave an Action Man out of three pieces of straw! And yet it’s so beautiful.
- Eartha Kitt
We’re into the start of the big songs now, and Eartha Kitt’s contribution is the precise opposite of the Watersons’ vision of Christmas. She wants a sable, a convertible, a yacht, a platinum mine … She wants every sensation. And what’s Jesus got to do with anything?
- Otis Redding
Who knew the most famous Christmas hit of all could be so emotionally wrought? Where Bing Crosby sounded as if he was fondly pondering his Christmas, Otis sounds like he’s breaking into a sweat trying to will it into existence through sheer force of desire.
- The Pretenders
Sometimes simple is best: Robbie McIntosh’s guitar playing on the Pretenders’ 1984 hit is a model of folk-rock restraint, taking from the Byrds, and offsetting Chrissie Hynde’s voice and lyric with a sense that everything, somehow, is going to be OK.
- Bob Seger and the Last Heard
Sock It to Me Santa
“Santa’s got a brand new bag!” hollers Bob Seger, who was a Detroit R&B shouter years before he became a heartland American beard rocker. Sock It to Me Santa is a fabulous explosion – garage rock and soul brought together into something made for the best bar in the city on Christmas Eve.
A big Christmas hit that was unlike previous UK seasonal singles – it wasn’t wrapped in sleigh bells, there was nothing consciously novelty about it. Perhaps George Michael had been paying close attention to some of the great US Christmas soul singles, because this was a heartbreak song that just happened to be set in December.
- Darlene Love
Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector codified the sound of Christmas: maximal, filled with signifiers of the season (there is nowhere sleigh bells can’t be draped). Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) was the standout on a record on which the quality didn’t drop from start to finish.
I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday
Roy Wood’s enduring contribution to the season owed a huge debt to Phil Spector – there’s almost certainly a kitchen sink section at work somewhere in the mix – but it transcends imitation by its sheer verve. It was recorded in summer, with the studio air conditioning turned down to make everyone feel wintry. Attention to detail, right there.
Merry Xmas Everybody
Christmas 1973 brought not just Wizzard but the most enduring of all British Christmas singles. Forty-six years later, people still bellow “It’s CHRISTMAS!” in Noddy Holder’s face, which, apparently, gets a little wearisome. The whole thing was Jim Lea’s mum’s idea – why didn’t Slade have a song they could release every year? She got her wish.
- Donny Hathaway
It wasn’t a hit at the time, but took off when it was included on a 1991 reissue of the 1968 Atco compilation Soul Christmas. To which you can only say: why did it take the world so long to notice? It’s a Christmas song that stands up regardless of the season. And according to the publishing body Ascap, it’s now the 30th most performed Christmas song of all time in the US.
- Tom Waits
Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis
Probably not one to play when you’re unwrapping the presents. A character study that begins grimly, then offers hope, as the narrator says things are getting better – before ripping the rug away without ceremony. Do you want to know the truth of it, she asks: “Charley, hey, I’ll be eligible for parole come Valentine’s day.”
- Marvin Gaye
A song so beautiful it’s almost otherworldly – Marvin Gaye’s flawless falsetto, the unexpected chord changes, the sense of mystery. Yet it’s wrapped up in the most comforting of Christmas imagery – chestnuts roasting, blankets of white – without ever explaining why the snowflakes are purple.
- The Waitresses
Like Cristina’s Things Fall Apart, Christmas Wrapping was originally written for the Zé label’s 1981 compilation – the most punching-above-its-weight Christmas comp ever. It’s a fabulous stream of consciousness, during which Patty Donahue talks herself from wanting to miss Christmas to knowing she can’t miss Christmas, that bursts into joy at its horn refrain.
Just Like Christmas
Low’s 1999 Christmas EP – released as a “gift” to fans – was one of the most unexpected seasonal delights: ascetic indie band embracing the season without irony. Its lead track was a joy, the discomfort of touring reminding them of when they were young, and it feeling just like Christmas. Just two verses, and a repeated refrain – perfect.
- The Pogues
Fairytale of New York
There’s almost nothing left to be said about Fairytale of New York, a song that has been impossible to avoid for more than 30 years. Such is the strength of the songwriting and the grace of the performance that, despite the overexposure, it feels fresh every single time. That a scrappy folk-punk band produced something that will endure as long as Christmas itself is a real Christmas miracle.
- Mariah Carey
All I Want for Christmas Is You
The best Christmas songs should only work at Christmas. They should make you feel festive, in the same way that the 174th repeat of The Snowman does. They should work anywhere – in shopping centres, in bars, pumping out of PAs in gig venues after the band has gone off, on the radio in a cafe, in your home or on your headphones. All I Want for Christmas Is You is all of those things. It’s a shameless pastiche of Phil Spector that’s so brazen and joyful and simple – it took Carey and Walter Afanasieff only 15 minutes to write – that it transcends its lack of originality. It’s the rare modern Christmas song that has become a standard, and deservedly so.