Liner Notes: 10 Christmas songs to get your holiday playlist started
Stars and Stripes November 17, 2023
It’s Christmastime. Or, well, kind of.
Next week is Thanksgiving, which forever and always reminds us that for those of us in North America, The Holidays are here (an aside: How is it that “The Holidays” are always Christmas and Thanksgiving? Why couldn’t “The Holidays” be Memorial Day and Cinco De Mayo? They’re closer in proximity, but I digress). Anyway, this time of year means only one thing in Music Land: Get ready to hear “All I Want For Christmas Is You” any and everywhere that has two speakers and working electricity.
Still, Christmas doesn’t have to be reserved for only Mariah Carey and her merry band of believers. Contrary to what all the scrooges out there might want to say, good Christmas music does exist. In fact, it exists so much that I thought I’d share 10 of my favorite holiday songs, if only to jumpstart that Christmas playlist of yours that you put off making until after the leftover turkey has vacated the refrigerator for good.
These are in no particular order, of course – because even Santa doesn’t pick favorites (even though we all know, ole Rudy seems to be his most beloved reindeer, but that’s neither here nor there). If anything, here’s hoping you check out a song or two and it helps you get in the feels about the time of year where feels seem to be on high alert. So, enjoy. And adjust your Amazon wish list accordingly.
Fats Domino: ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’
It’s so simple, it’s charming. Plus, you can’t put together a list of your favorite Christmas songs and leave Fats off the thing, if only because it’s Fats Domino! Is the production cheesy? Sure. Does it truly highlight the genius of the piano icon? Not really. But does it make you smile at the thought of watching the guy’s fingers run up and down the black and white keys while singing “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams?” You bet. And sometimes, smiling can cure even the harshest holiday cold.
Joss Stone: ‘What Christmas Means To Me’
The song has been covered to death, and you might even say this isn’t the best version out there (here’s looking at you, Stevie Wonder), but Stone’s version from last year’s “Merry Christmas, Love” is both faithful and fun. Plus, she doesn’t lose an inch of the track’s soul all the while funking things up in the most expected-but-imperative ways. God bless her for keeping this song alive in the 2020s.
Zebrahead: ‘Deck The Halls (I Hate Christmas)‘
What’s that you say? A SoCal blend of hard rock and hip-hop from more than 20 years ago? A band that is barely a footnote in the pantheon of all the pop-metal that came out of the West Coast in the late ‘90s? A song with a hook that endearingly proclaims “I Hate Christmas” before launching into a second-half verse that is rapped with a hip-hop flow that changes midway through it? You got it. Listen, laugh and love.
Norah Jones: ‘Christmas Calling (Jolly Jones)‘
I’m still not sure why Jones’ excellent 2021 “I Dream Of Christmas” has never received the love it deserves, but if you’re looking for a hidden treasure, this is it. “Christmas Calling (Jolly Jones)” is the perfect leadoff track, complete with a brooding atmosphere and one of the best subtle grooves Brian Blade has ever laid down on a record. It was so good, she rereleased the set last year. There’s no excuse not to check it out.
Bill Nighy: ‘Christmas Is All Around’
Because “Love Actually” needs to be represented somehow, 20 years after its release, and there was no way we were going to go with That Other Song from the movie. Nighy’s Billy Mack is three stockings worth of fun and his performance of this silly, little ditty made for the film is worth noting – and celebrating – all these years later.
R. Alex Anderson: ‘Mele Kalikimaka’
Speaking of movies, you would be forgiven if you most associate this song with the classic “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” scene, but even if you’ve never even seen that movie, chances are you’ve heard this somewhere. A breezy, soft way to celebrate the holidays, this can warm up the cold months if only due to the presence of the ukulele. I’ve heard that some people hate this, and it’s to those people, I say … huh?
Gregory Porter: ‘Christmas Wish’
The title track to the jazz singer’s brand new Christmas album is one of the best songs he’s ever written. Soulful and heartfelt, it recalls his “Liquid Spirit” days by creating a festive tone that invites listeners into what sounds like the most communal moment at a can’t-miss Christmas party. He’s said the track is a tribute to his mom and I’ll be damned if this isn’t enough to make her one of the proudest ladies to ever bring someone into this cruel world.
Train: ‘Shake Up Christmas’
All right. Giggle all you want. If there was any credibility this list had, it’s now gone with the inclusion of this song, but the thing is such a plain, radio-ready pop tune that I can’t help but pull it out each year around this time to smile. It’s got all the things you hate about Train songs: Goofiness, cheesiness, and yes, some cringey moments. But the line about grandma? Gets me every time.
Darlene Love: ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)‘
One of those fancy late-night TV hosts ought to bring Darlene Love back once a year to sing this like David Letterman did for those few decades. Some say it’s played out; to that, I say, “Quit being a Grinch and keep your Grinchy thoughts to yourself!” And to all a good night.
John Lennon: ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)‘
The best Christmas pop song of all time if you ask me. It’s sad yet hopeful, catchy yet complex. The true sign of a great song is its ability to never diminish its power, no matter who covers it in whatever genre they choose. This track fits those criteria. John Lennon was a master at his craft and never was he more complete than what he accomplished with this hauntingly gorgeous tribute to reflection, peace, and, of course, The Holidays.