Tis the season, and the corresponding music is inescapable. Most of us have been listening since November—some because we’re festive, others because we live in a society and the grocery store will start looping Mariah Carey the minute Thanksgiving is over.
All this to say: we have opinions, and figured we’d start some drama by listing our personal picks for the best and worst holiday songs of all time.
“The Christmas Song” by Nat “King” Cole is a favorite that gives me great peace and comfort during the season. One of my least favorite ones is “Back Door Santa” by Bon Jovi...way too intense, way too 80’s-rock-esque, it just clashes with the spirit of Christmas.
Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is both the best and worst. It’s so good but so inescapable. It’s essentially the musical equivalent of brain freeze while eating ice cream: yes it causes me pain, but I still love it.
The Michael Crawford version of "O Holy Night" is stunning. When he hits that high note on the sixth ‘noel,’--the vibrato and the drama! It’s akin to the rush you feel when midnight mass is over and you get to go home and drink wine. On the other end of the spectrum, I have nothing but disdain for "I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas." I don't want a large water-dwelling mammal/sentient tank anywhere near my house. They're comfortable and happy in their habitats and should not be pulled out just because a child requested one as a present. Hard pass.
"Last Christmas" by Wham! takes the top spot for me. George Michael is an ineffable force, and manages to convey an emotional story without being cloying and contrived with Christmas conceit. It’s a C Major pop song that is effortlessly sad, hopeful, and nostalgic. The vocal hook on the chorus is razor sharp and timeless. I love this song and can’t not sing it whenever it plays. As for the worst...."Baby It’s Cold Outside." Just take the girl home, dude. I don’t care how many revisionist interpretations or charitable artist readings come out, this song sucks. If it must be played, the only acceptable version is the one by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan.
I no longer holiday shop in person for the sole purpose of avoiding “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey playing on an endless loop. Now, the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” by Tchaikovsky is one I can listen to all day. It’s a beautiful dream of musical notes, and it makes my orchestral heart happy.
My all-time favorite is a tie between “Silent Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” These are Christmas songs on a higher level, timeless classics that beautifully tell the Christmas story. Then there's “Mary Did You Know?” by Pentatonix. It’s a sappy song, an even sappier rendition, and as the argument goes...yes, she knew. I played it again just now to give it another shot, and yes, I still think it’s the worst Christmas song in existence. There, I said it. Now, please pass the eggnog and let’s celebrate.
“Let It Snow” by Dean Martin wins, simply for nostalgia. Growing up, we didn't celebrate Christmas. But that didn't stop my young self from getting into that holiday cheer. I would be immersed in my regular school routine up until I'd start hearing the song everywhere. I couldn't wait for what was coming: the lazy mornings with limitless TV, delicious varieties of hot festive drinks, and so on. However, even as a non-celebrant romanticizing Christmas..."Jingle Bells" sucks. I don't even know the lyrics beyond the schoolyard version involving the Batmobile, and I don't want to.
"Santa Baby" by Eartha Kitt was my favorite recording for the voicemail machines of the 1990s and early 2000s. So there I go, dating myself again...in second place is Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"… rockin' the universe for 40 years and counting. And the award for worst of all time goes to the absolute mess that is the entire William Shatner Christmas album. "Shatner Claus" should have never seen the light of day, it pains me to even remember it exists.
While I am somewhat biased, I have two favorite Christmas songs, both by the old crooner. The first is "Do You Hear What I Hear?" The song was my #1 pick for years, but then David Bowie and Bing Crosby came together to sing "The Little Drummer Boy," which matched two iconic voices to produce a wonderful sound. The song adds a bit of thought, especially noting the importance of peace on Earth, which we all need these days. As for what I consider to be the worst Christmas song...as a kid I was never really a fan of Alvin & the Chipmunks, so their rendition of "The Christmas Song" was quite low on my hit list. Their voices were like fingernails on a chalkboard.
"The Little Drummer Boy" is a terrible song and a terrible story, I said what I said. It’s the same couple bars over and over, not even vocally impressive, and while I’ve never given birth, I feel like it’s an ordeal and the last thing you’d want is for some kid to pull out ye olde SoundCloud right after. Now, Mariah’s "All I Want for Christmas Is You," there’s a timeless bop. The dramatic intro. The drums (and yes I’m thinking of that Vine). The energy. The movement. The range! She hits and sustains an A6, that takes the lungs of an Olympic swimmer. I don’t care how overplayed it is; I’ve worked in customer service and heard it looped incessantly, and I still love it.