The 15 Best Christmas Songs: Ranked
- Craig Angus
- 22 October 2020
From Paul McCartney's controversial hit 'Wonderful Christmastime' to Low's indie classic 'Just Like Christmas'
Christmas songs are a peculiar phenomenon. They are written with a few weeks of the year in mind, designed to provide the soundtrack to office parties, kids parties, last minute dashes to the supermarket, Christmas Day itself, maybe Boxing Day too if you've not sickened yourself – and then they vanish again, hibernating the whole business starts over, and making a healthy amount in royalty payments for their creators.
For something with such a narrow purpose, some of these compositions (often written in the time it takes to boil the kettle, and then recorded in the middle of summer) are classics that have endured for decades – though whether that's enough for them to get played on radio in late October and early November is highly debatable. Here we countdown, and rank, our favourite Christmas songs.
15. James Brown – 'Santa Claus, Go Straight To The Ghetto'
The opening track from the second of three Christmas albums the Godfather of Soul released between 1966-1970 is a poignant one. Brown tacitly acknowledges the extreme poverty of his childhood in South Carolina and Georgia by willing Santa Claus to visit those less fortunate kids first. Even with that social conscience, there's still some signature Brown bravado ('tell 'em James Brown sent you!') over, surely, the funkiest Christmas track ever committed to tape. The champ never forgot where he came from.
14. Jona Lewie – 'Stop The Cavalry'
One part festive anthem (the brass band is quintessentially Christmassy), another part protest song (complete with references to nuclear fall-out zones, bombs, and a partner waiting nervously at home), 'Stop The Cavalry' is an outlier, unique amongst Christmas tunes. Lewie's understated delivery contrasts with the jaunty musical arrangement, and the lyrics – which transcend a specific time – are powerfully direct, targeting not one war, but the pointlessness of all war.
13. Elton John – 'Step Into Christmas'
On one hand, 'Step Into Christmas' is so inane, you'd have a hard time believing Elton John and Bernie Taupin spent the length of the tune writing it. In reality they devoted slightly longer (an entire morning) on their festive masterpiece, which literally opens with the line 'welcome to my Christmas song'. And yet 'Step Into Christmas' has such an unabashedly celebratory vibe that none of that matters. It might have been a cynical cash grab rushed out at the end of 1973 (a good year for Elton, which he mentions and thanks his fans for in the song's second line) but it's the sound of letting the hair being down, the champagne being popped, someone making the alcohol induced decision to photocopying their arse for the entire office. On its release it peaked at #23 in the UK chart – it seems to get more popular every year.
12. Joni Mitchell – 'River'
One of the all-time great songwriters, Joni Mitchell, conjures up a vivid tale of heartbreak and isolation in 'River'. It's a meticulously crafted track – there's the misdirection of the 'jingle bells' intro, the word-perfect scene setting ('cutting down trees', 'singing songs of joy and peace') and then the beauty of the hook that completely shifts the direction of the song ('I wish I had a river I could skate away on'). The rest of the song is pure heartbreak, Mitchell lamenting a lover who packed up and left. But what a beautiful view as she wistfully gazes from the window, what a beautiful view.
11. Slade – 'Merry Xmas Everybody'
Nothing screams 'it's Christmas!' like hearing a man from Walsall scream 'It's Christmas!'
10. The Pretenders – '2000 Miles'
A beautiful Christmas ballad by Chrissie Hynde, written for the band's founding guitarist James Honeyman-Scott in the year following his untimely death aged 25. Robbie McIntosh, who replaced him, plays some gorgeous Byrds-inspired arpeggios, the notes chiming and falling like snowflakes, as Hynde sings a lament that's melancholy, yet rousing.
9. Paul McCartney – 'Wonderful Christmastime'
Some people love it, some people hate it, but Paul McCartney's output at the end of the 1980s is hard to not form an opinion on. Recorded during the sessions for his experimental post-Beatles peak McCartney II, 'Wonderful Christmastime' is a brilliant exercise in economy, a truly DIY effort from one of the best known, wealthiest musicians on the planet. It also inspired a brilliant Peter Serafinowicz parody – that well illustrates the line between whimsy and irritating that McCartney walks. For us, it's a keeper.
8. Greg Lake – 'I Believe in Father Christmas'
Kept off the top of the charts by 'Bohemian Rhapsody', the prog-rocker's sophisticated homage to Christmas (which samples Soviet composer Sergei Prokoviev, naturally) still sounds as magical as ever in the present day. It's been described by Lake himself as a protest at the commercialisation of Christmas, but it feels more fitting to listen to 'I Believe In Father Christmas' with the innocence of youth, and a wide-eyed belief in impossible magic, in mind.
7. Judy Garland – 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'
First heard in the musical Meet Me In St Louis in the 1940s, the message of 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' rings true in 2020, after a year of great anxiety and upheaval. The events of the classic that Garland made famous take place in a year of great struggle, and the song itself inspires hope and assures of better days yet to come ('next year all our troubles will be out of sight'). The music itself is a comfort blanket of soothing melody. Many have had a go, but no one did it better than this.
6. The Ronettes – 'Sleigh Ride'
The best Christmas album by a distance is A Christmas Gift To You, which features contributions from the likes of Darlene Love, The Crystals and – of course – The Ronettes, and that classic Phil Spector wall of sound production. 'Sleigh Ride' is the pick of the bunch, a triumph of arrangement and production, but also of performance. The whole record is soured by Spector being, well, a murderous lunatic and a less-than-ideal-to-put-it-mildly husband to Ronnie. The music is, undeniably, amongst the greatest pop music ever put to tape.
5. The Waitresses – 'Christmas Wrapping'
We're all suckers for a show-stealing brass section. Patty Donahue's storytelling, delivered in a stream-of-consciousness drawl (which recalls the rap stylings of her fellow New Yorker Debbie Harry) carries 'Christmas Wrapping' along wonderfully, before that brass comes in and seals the deal triumphantly. And then what do The Waitresses do? Sit back on that hook? Hell no – there's another, additional hook, even better than the first, arriving hot on its heels.
4. Wham! – 'Last Christmas'
George Michael's loss is still felt, especially at this time of year when one of his best creations – he more or less played everything on the recording – comes back into circulation. What a singer, and what a song. 'Last Christmas' is a bitter and vulnerable tale of heartbreak, which – atypically for most songs in this field – holds the same chords for its duration, meaning the melody of the tortured, heart-on-sleeve lead vocal does a lot of the heavy lifting. Kept off number 1 by Band Aid, 'Last Christmas' is the best-selling single in the UK never to top the charts.
3. Low – 'Just Like Christmas'
How many modern indie rock bands are able to write legitimately good Christmas songs? Few, if any, can get it right. 'Just Like Christmas' is a perfect example of the form, though. Ostensibly a song about an American band witnessing the change of the seasons on tour in Scandinavia, it's about the passing of time in a grander sense, looking back fondly to lost youth. Sparse and impressionistic, like the best poetry it says a million things, and conjures a lifetime of memories, with a handful of words. The sleigh bells too, are inspired.
2. Mariah Carey – 'All I Want For Christmas Is You'
Apparently written in an inspired 15 minutes by Carey and co-writer Walter Afanasieff, 'All I Want For Christmas Is You' still dazzles. Owing a debt to the Christmas classics of the 1960s, the duo left no stone unturned in the production of the song, a high-energy, uptempo banger packed with sleigh bells, harmonies, doo-wops and ahhhs, and the most exhilarating vocal performance of Carey's career.
1. The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl – 'Fairytale of New York'
Legend has it that Shane MacGowan spent two years perfecting 'Fairytale of New York' after Elvis Costello bet him he couldn't write a Christmas duet. It was time well spent, to say the least. 'Fairytale of New York' is a Christmas fable of cinematic proportions – an evocative portrayal of a city, a failed relationship, shattered dreams and kinship – all told through a to-and-fro between MacGowan's unreliable narrator and Kirsty MacColl that's both tender and furious. The band weren't sure about MacColl for the part, but after hearing her take, MacGowan was moved to do his own vocals once more, knowing the song had just been lifted up a notch. We don't think anything beats it.