I’ve never been that into Christmas music. Who’m I kidding, I used to hate it. It seems like the same stuff over and over again, and most Christmas songs are schmaltzy and overplayed. Truth be told, I think I was also snobbish about it, as a music lover. But as I got older, and as a dancer always on the lookout for danceable holiday music, I was at least able to admit that there is some Christmas music I enjoy, and artists I like create new holiday music to join the canon. Plus, living in California, the land of perpetual sunshine and no seasons, I need a little music to get into the holiday spirit. So after my list of Favorite (RomCom) Christmas Movies last week, here’s a list of my favorite Christmas songs. Hopefully there are a few here you’re not familiar with (I love teaching people about new music).
My Favorite Christmas Songs:
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, by Ella Fitzgerald: Why not start with a classic? I’ve always loved this song. Even while spewing vitriol for other carols, this one was always the sweet and beautiful exception. I love the interesting melody and chord progressions, and the lyrics are lovely. Ella can do no wrong in my book, and as a dancer, I really like her slightly jazzed up but still gentle fox-trot.
Merry Christmas Darling, by The Carpenters: The Carpenters are so great, and no one in the history of pop music has as unique and lush a voice as Karen Carpenter. As cheesy as The Carpenters often are—and believe me, they are—I adore them. It’s odd that I’m complaining about how cheesy Christmas music is and yet I love this incredibly cheesy 1970s band. This beautiful holiday song gets me right in the feels.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, by Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan: I have been a massive BNL fan since the early 1990s. While I’m not as familiar with their most recent albums, and I maintain their best works were their first two albums (Gordon and Born on a Pirate Ship), their Barenaked for the Holidays is one of the best Christmas albums ever. So many great songs on it, including at least 5 originals songs (see later on this list). This one is not an original, obviously, but it’s an awesome arrangement of two beautiful classic carols, and Sarah McLachlan adds her lovely voice to it. Even though she messes up a little at the end, the rest of it is so great, with its infectious swing beat, acoustic instrumentation, and a tinge of classic BNL neurotisicm.
Elf’s Lament, by Barenaked Ladies: This is one of BNL’s original songs, from the aforementioned Holiday album. They collaborate with Michael Bublé on this one and it’s fun and swingy with an entertaining concept: Santa’s elves have a grievance against their work and the Big Red Man, and want to express their other desires besides just making toys.
2000 Miles, by The Pretenders: This beautiful song by the Pretenders just melts my heart. The opening sound of guitar and keyboard sounds like glistening snow, and the reveal that her love is thousands of miles away is heartbreaking.
Christmas Day, by Dido: This is on the simply-titled album “Christmas Songs,” which also includes BNL’s God Rest Ye, a song from Sarah McLachlan (see below), and a number of other Canadian artists. The whole album is awesome, and it’s difficult to narrow it down to just one song—in fact, I’ll take a moment to mention a couple of the other great songs on this album: Tara MacLean’s Winter Wonderland, which makes a kitschy, overplayed classic enjoyable again; Lily Frost’s Skating on the River, a sweet, lovely depiction of winter fun and romance; and Mediæval Bæbes’ version of Gaudete, the Gregorian classic. The only problem with the album is Meryn Cadell’s manipulative The Cat Carol, which makes me cry so badly I can’t even bear to talk about it, let alone listen to it. (Seriously, I’m worse than this woman.) But for this list, I chose Dido’s song because of its sweet melody, soothing sound, and heartbreaking lyrics.
Just for Now, by Imogen Heap: This song obviously hints at Christmas time but I hadn’t really considered it a Christmas song until Kelly Clarkson (whose version is also great) put it on her Christmas album “Wrapped in Red.” This song captures the not always great things about family and the holidays, but it’s all right because it’s “just for now.” I love nearly everything Imogen does once she found her sound. She’s amazing. (And I hope to talk more about this song later this week.)
All I Want For Christmas, by The Puppini Sisters: The Puppini Sisters do really fun swing versions of pop songs (their Heart of Glass cover is one of my favorites), and this cover of Mariah Carey’s classic is no exception. I never cared for the Carey version (she’s not my favorite), but this one is danceable with a classic 1940s Andrew Sisters flair.
Song for a Winter’s Night, by Sarah McLachlan: This song is so beautiful, and achingly sad in its sound, yet warm and comforting, enveloping you in its fullness. It’s a musical return to McLachlan’s original sound, a la Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (her greatest album, IMHO), with its gorgeous melody, full-bodied harmony, and ethereal sound with a hint of drum in the background. Gorgeous.
Christmas Day in the Morning, by Clara Oman: I decided to include this more to give the singer-songwriter some love. I met Clara on a cruise my family took a couple years ago. She was Norwegian Gem’s piano player for the week, at least, and she is such a kind, lovely, beautiful woman with an amazing talent for piano, arranging, and singing. This gorgeous arrangement, which references other popular Christmas carols, showcases her talent perfectly. (She also does incredible arrangements of a few Imogen Heap songs, like this one.)
Last Man at the Party, by Jethro Tull: I love Jethro Tull, one of the greatest and most unique classic rock bands in history, and this album was hard to find. I admit I should listen to it more. I got it for Christmas a couple of years ago and only listened to it once, and then sort of forgot I had it (I’m not one to listen to Christmas music during the rest of the year). But it’s worth listening to year round because it’s so unique. It’s inimitable Tull, with its boundless energy, infectious rhythms, and exciting folk-medieval sound and breathy jazz flute arrangements (insert obligatory Ron Burgundy reference here). They experiment with rhythms and clearly have lots of fun, turning We Three Kings into We Five Kings (in 5/4 time), for example. The whole album is great, and this song is a terrific example of their original, danceable (if challenging) story-songs.
(Everybody’s Waitin’ for) The Man with the Bag, by Kay Starr: I found this song years ago when I was looking for danceable holiday music I could use in my tap class. It’s a great classic swing, and she’s got an awesome voice. It’s just a fun song, one that I had never heard before, which is always refreshing. (Jessie J has a pretty classic cover of it too.)
River, by Joni Mitchell: This song is a little depressing, but it’s so beautiful, and Joni Mitchell is quite an incredible songwriter. Plus, and this is silly, but they mention it in one of my favorite romcoms, You’ve Got Mail, so that makes me smile. Sarah McLachlan’s cover of the song is also gorgeous.
Happy Xmas (War is Over), by John & Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band: Since I started with a classic, I thought I’d finish with one too. I’m not as big a Beatles fan as most, and in fact I don’t love Lennon’s “Imagine” (too sad or something), but this song melts my cold heart. It also has the simplest, yet most important message we could possibly share, any time of the year: War is over, if you want it.
Polly Anderson’s Christmas Party, by Stuart McLean: This is technically not a song, but a story, and I love it. It’s also on the “Christmas Songs” album of Canadian artists, so there’s at least a couple of location-specific jokes that I don’t get, but the rest of it is brilliantly funny and very relatable. Check it out.
So what do you think, readers? Did I leave anything out? Are there any listed here that you’re not familiar with, or that you also love? What are your favorite holiday or Christmas songs?