Last week, I posted a list of my Least Favorite Christmas Tunes. It was pretty well-received, but even those who were laughing and nodding gave me some gentle ribbing over the general Scrooginess of the post, and said they hoped to see a list of my favorites at some point as well. So here, to balance things out and show that in general I do enjoy the season — as if the fir fronds in the background weren’t clue enough — are a sampling of my favorite Christmas songs. I actually enjoy quite a few more than this, but I’d have difficulty ranking after a certain point (truthfully it’s hard enough as it is), and going with 12 again provides a nice balance.
I kept to a few of the same rules when making this list (at least, the relevant ones). First, I’m not listing any of the comedy songs. Those will get their day in the snow, but it’ll probably be next year given that the calendar is winding down to Christmas (and yes, I assure you, I have enough for a full list.) And second, when applicable I’m going with songs that I enjoy for their own sake, and not just because of who is performing them. Of course, there are certainly cases where I enjoy a particular artist’s rendition more, and a few songs are only really by one artist. Also, though I generally draw a slight distinction, I’m not distinguishing between Christmas songs and general winter songs for this list. And since these are songs I actually like this time, I will be including clips of one version of each song in the post — not necessarily my favorite versions (in fact, some I just discovered), but versions I think are good and provide a little variety.
Just to let people know where I’m coming from on this, I am a Christian but not a churchgoer. As such, my favorites include a mix of traditional and non-traditional, spiritual and secular song. And more Gene Autry than I would have expected before making this list.
#12: “White Christmas”
Yes, the old standby only makes it in at #12. I like the song but it’s a little on the slow side for me, and as noted before, I don’t live in an area where we usually get snow around Christmas — western Oregon’s snows have a greater tendency to come in February. Though, of course, the weather chose to mock my statements about that this year by dumping a few inches on us a couple days ago. That said, this has been a Christmas classic ever since Irving Berlin wrote it and Bing Crosby sang it. It may not be a song I’d seek out, but it’s always great to listen to in the background — and better than most.
We’ve all heard Bing Crosby’s version a few million times. Nothing against Bing (it’s popular for a reason), but let’s go with someone whose version isn’t as ubiquitous — the Moody Blues.
#11: “32 Feet and 8 Little Tails”
Gene Autry produced a few different Christmas tunes. “32 Feet and 8 Little Tails” may be one of the more obscure ones — unlike some of the others it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia entry. But I’ve enjoyed it ever since I was introduced to it in elementary school music class, and it’s always a pleasure to hear it on the rare occasion it gets airtime on the radio.
Here’s Gene himself.
#10: “Wizards in Winter”
Classical heavy metal may be an odd mixture, but it’s one I happen to like. When blended with Christmas music, the kings of the genre are undoubtedly Trans-Siberian Orchestra. “Wizards in Winter” is a great instrumental track that conveys the idea of winter in a fun and very listenable song.
While many Trans-Siberian Orchestra songs are electrified mixes of classic songs, this one is all original. As such, there’s only one version to go by.
#9: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
Almost certainly Gene Autry’s most famous Christmas song, although it was actually recorded first by Harry Brannon. Nevertheless, Autry’s is far and away the definitive version. I assume it really needs no introduction, and of course, a large part of why it’s one of my favorites is the association with childhood memories and the Rankin/Bass Christmas special.
For this one, let’s go to another special: A Claymation Christmas Celebration. Here’s a Motown-inspired version by the California Raisins. I actually prefer the original versions, but this is enjoyable and it’s amazingly hard to find “straight” versions of this song. Everybody wants to put their own spin on it. This is better than most.
#8: “(There’s No Place Like) Home For the Holidays”
I’ll admit I’ve never been far enough away from home for “home for the holidays” to be a wish rather than a fact. But I like this song for it’s cheerful approach and showing just why going home is such a pleasure. It certainly beats the quietly depressing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”. I also like the little “gee, the traffic is terrific” quip.
Perry Como’s version is the best-known, and frankly the best I’ve heard. So for this one we’ll play it straight.
#7: “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)”
It takes a certain audacity to label one’s song simply “The Christmas Song”. Nevertheless, Mel Tormé arguably earns it with a song that keeps it short and simple and mentions a lot of the pleasant aspects of Christmas.
Nat King Cole has the most famous version, of course. But today we’re going with Twisted Sister. Because a: you probably didn’t know it existed. And b: you probably wouldn’t have thought they’d play it fairly straight.
#6: “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”
Every year rock and pop artists try to create new Christmas classics. It almost never works. One of the few successes was Brenda Lee’s recording of Johnny Marks’ “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in 1958. Notably, it took ten years for anybody else to cover it, a few more decades for it to be commonly covered… and still nobody’s really displaced Brenda Lee as the definitive version.
Since she’s who everybody thinks of with the song, I’m just going to go with Brenda Lee’s version. Hard to believe she was just a teenager, isn’t it?
#5: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”
One of the religious Christmas carols I’m fond of, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” has an upbeat message and lends itself easily to being sung in different ways. It can be sung straight, or it can be sped up a bit to make it even more upbeat-sounding.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is, for some reason, a very popular song to include in medleys. As such, it’s a little tougher to find on its own. Here’s a good version by Belinda Carlisle.
#4: “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”
Here’s another one that’s simply about how much fun Christmas is. Snow, nostalgia, caroling, partying, and telling ghost stories. Yes, really. People nowadays mostly just remember A Christmas Carol, but when Dickens wrote that, he was reviving an older tradition of Christmas time. So kudos to songwriters Edward Pola and George Wyle for remembering that detail.
Andy Williams recorded it first and is the best known. This version isn’t as well-known (at least, not on the standard stations, I suppose country stations are likely to play it more). But you’ve certainly heard of the singer, Garth Brooks.
#3: “We Three Kings”
An old, traditional religious Christmas carol, “We Three Kings” is rather somber in places, but I like it a lot anyway. There are traditionally five verses to the song, an intro, a conclusion, and a verse for each of the kings and their gifts, but it’s relatively rare to hear the whole thing in full. A lot of singers just sing the initial verse and chorus, and virtually all instrumentals leave it at that.
Here’s a complete — and colorful — version by Hugh Jackman, David Hobson, and Peter Coulsen.
#2: “Carol of the Bells”
The “Carol of the Bells” does have lyrics, and I’ve heard some great vocal versions, but it’s one of those songs that’s almost always better performed as an instrumental. The frenetic pace makes for great listening.
For this one, I’m going back to Trans-Siberian Orchestra. “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo (12/24)” contains a little bit of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (see what I mean about that song and medleys?), but after the first few seconds it’s all “Carol of the Bells”.
#1: “Here Comes Santa Claus”
And, once again, a Gene Autry song makes the list. It’s cheerful and it keeps a quick pace that makes it fun to listen to and sing along with. Autry’s version is also notable for being a rare instance of a song that references both the secular and religious aspects of the holiday, with the line “Santa Claus knows that we’re all God’s children”. For some bizarre reason, covers often change this to “good children” and drop the next verse which states “peace on Earth will come to all if we just follow the light” and “Let’s give thanks to the Lord above ’cause Santa Claus comes tonight.”
My initial inclination was to go with Gene Autry himself again, but on second thought, here’s another good version that sticks to Autry’s original lyrics, by the one and only Elvis Presley.
And those, at least for the moment, are my 12 favorite Christmas songs. If I left any of your favorites out — or omitted your favorite version — let me know in the comments. And Merry Christmas.