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The Authoritative 2022 Popular Holiday Music Rankings
Sorting out the best — and worst — of our culture's December soundtrack
This project began many years ago with an observation: There’s something masochistic about how eagerly we subject ourselves to utter musical schlock in the name of the holiday season.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Grinch. This year I’ve been playing Christmas music since the day before Thanksgiving — and I’m Jewish! Some tracks in our collective holiday discography are legitimately beautiful, or even outright jams. Even those that aren’t good still bring many people nostalgic joy. Still, much of it is boring, or insincerely cheesy, or just outright crap. Yet we as a culture eat it up indiscriminately, tolerating a torrent of bad music in service of the festive façade that traditional is synonymous with good. To what end? Wouldn’t we all have a happier holiday if we didn’t have to pretend to like Straight No Chaser?
Illustrating this argument required transparent (if subjective) data about how many songs that get regular December airplay actually suck. That process quickly evolved from a mere exercise in classification into a full set of holiday music power rankings. This year’s edition of the list is a few paragraphs down.
What songs are included?
Do not complain to me about your favorite song not being included until you read this section!
There is no way to undertake a comprehensive survey of all winter-holiday-themed music known to man, nor are there clear criteria for what songs would count.1 So I define the space by how I experience it. The following list is comprised of the music I believe I could hear throughout December without seeking it out. This mostly means it’s what I have heard on soft-rock radio stations or in department stores over the last few years, plus some additions that I perceive as part of the modern holiday zeitgeist. You don’t think “Linus and Lucy” is a Christmas song? Not my call. Never heard “Dominick the Donkey”? I hadn’t either before I moved to Philadelphia, but now I have, and I’m the one compiling this list. With the exception of songs that are offensive not just aurally but morally (basically the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” filter), if B101 and Macy’s deem it holiday music, it should have a place in my rankings.
The flipside is that any song that is not part of our contemporary cultural canon is excluded, regardless of its merit. This is a necessary restriction, but it leads to strange juxtapositions, like the Beach Boys’ disorientingly chaotic “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” being ranked, while their gorgeous “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is not. Why local radio stations play the former but never the latter is beyond me — especially when so many better versions of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” are in rotation, while “We Three Kings” is commonly heard only as part of the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan’s medley with “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” — but such judgment is outside the scope of this exercise. Similarly, there are four different version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on this list, and none are Judy Garland’s. The disrespect for the original is the holiday DJs’, not mine.
As you skim through these rankings, you will surely be tempted to tell me that I need to look up your favorite niche holiday song. But in doing so, you are demonstrating why it isn’t on the list: If a prospective listener has to proactively seek out a song in order to hear it, it is not ubiquitous enough for me to include.2
What are the criteria?
It feels reductive to try to explain what makes music good or enjoyable, but the three broad dimensions I consider in judging holiday songs are, in order of importance:
How good the arrangement and performance are
How much I like the song in general
Whether the recording adds something to our collective holiday playlist
There are only a handful of popular recordings that take great holiday songs and make them sound extra special, and they are all towards the top of the list. You’ll probably be able to tell which generic songs I like more than others, but I prefer a quality cover of a mediocre tune to a boring recording of a classic melody. “Let It Snow” is my favorite holiday song in the abstract, but there isn’t a specific version of it that I love. On the other end of the spectrum, Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree” squeezes every last drop of holiday joy out of otherwise forgettable tune.
Rerecording a beloved song can also be a double-edged sword. I take off points for covers that feel like rote replicas of established classics, like LeAnn Rimes’ Brenda Lee impression in her “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” or Hall & Oates’ uninspired clone of Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock.” There are so many good “Sleigh Ride” recordings out there that I am particularly impatient with the substandard ones. And Pentatonix’ “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is at the very bottom of my list (spoiler, sorry) because I know how beautiful the song they butcher is supposed to be.
Now without further ado, in ascending order of quality…
The Full List (#145 through #11)
145. Pentatonix — Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
144. John Mellencamp — I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
143. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga — Winter Wonderland
142. Kimberley Locke — We Need A Little Christmas
141. Art Mooney and Barry Gordon — Nuttin' For Christmas
140. U2 — Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
139. Pentatonix — Little Drummer Boy
138. Amy Grant — Sleigh Ride
137. The Royal Guardsmen — Snoopy's Christmas
136. Margo Rey — This Holiday Night
135. Kimberley Locke — Frosty The Snowman
134. fun. — Sleigh Ride
133. Air Supply — Winter Wonderland
132. Straight No Chaser — The 12 Days of Christmas
131. Air Supply — Sleigh Ride
130. Gayla Peevey — I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas
129. Pentatonix — That's Christmas to Me
128. Ed Sheeran and Elton John — Merry Christmas
127. Tom Lehrer — (I'm Spending) Hanukkah In Santa Monica
126. LeAnn Rimes — Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree
125. Kenny Loggins — Celebrate Me Home
124. Lady A — A Holly Jolly Christmas
123. Bob Seger — Little Drummer Boy
122. Lou Monte, Joe Reisman's Orchestra and Chorus — Dominick the Donkey (The Italian Christmas Donkey)
121. Backstreet Boys — Christmas Time
120. Band Aid — Do They Know It's Christmas?
119. LeAnn Rimes and Gavin DeGraw — Celebrate Me Home
118. Trans-Siberian Orchestra — Christmas Canon
117. Amy Grant — Winter Wonderland
116. Pentatonix — Mary, Did You Know?
115. The Beach Boys — Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town
114. Adam Sandler — The Chanukah Song, Part 4
113. Wham! — Last Christmas
112. Eurythmics — Winter Wonderland
111. Ray Conniff — Frosty the Snowman
110. Percy Faith & His Orchestra & Chorus — We Need a Little Christmas
109. Michael Bublé — Holly Jolly Christmas
108. *NSYNC — Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays
107. Taylor Swift — Santa Baby
106. Jon Bon Jovi — Please Come Home For Christmas
105. John Lennon and The Plastic Ono Band — Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
104. Michael Bublé — I'll Be Home for Christmas
103. Eagles — Please Come Home for Christmas
102. Seal — This Christmas
101. Amy Grant — It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
100. Rod Stewart — Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
99. Taylor Swift — Last Christmas
98. Perry Como — (There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays
97. Daryl Hall & John Oates — Jingle Bell Rock
96. Elton John — Step Into Christmas
95. Mannheim Steamroller — Deck the Halls
94. The Jackson 5 — I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
93. Paul McCartney — Wonderful Christmastime
92. Harry Simeone Chorale — The Little Drummer Boy
91. Jimmy Durante — Frosty The Snowman
90. Michael Bublé — The Christmas Song
89. Madonna — Santa Baby
88. Stevie Wonder — Someday At Christmas
87. Kelly Clarkson — Run Run Rudolph
86. Adam Sandler — The Chanukah Song, Part 2
85. Sarah McLachlan — Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
84. Andy Williams — We Need a Little Christmas
83. Perry Como, The Fontane Sisters, Mitchell Ayres & His Orchestra — It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
82. Michael Bublé — All I Want for Christmas Is You
81. Gene Autry — Up On The House Top (Ho Ho Ho)
80. Dean Martin — Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
79. Frank Sinatra — Mistletoe And Holly
78. Carpenters — (There's No Place Like) Home For The Holidays
77. Mary J. Blige — This Christmas
76. The Waitresses — Christmas Wrapping
75. Martina McBride — Silver Bells
74. Carpenters — Merry Christmas Darling
73. Carrie Underwood — O Holy Night
72. Bing Crosby and David Bowie — Peace On Earth / The Little Drummer Boy
71. Michael Bublé — It's Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas
70. The Ronettes — Frosty the Snowman
69. Barenaked Ladies — Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah
68. Johnny Mathis, Percy Faith & His Orchestra — Sleigh Ride
67. Andy Williams — Happy Holiday / The Holiday Season
66. Johnny Mathis — We Need a Little Christmas
65. Andy Williams — It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
64. The Ronettes — I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
63. Josh Groban — Believe
62. The Beach Boys — Little Saint Nick
61. Adam Sandler and The Drei-Dels — The Chanukah Song, Part 3
60. Kelly Clarkson and Ariana Grande — Santa, Can’t You Hear Me
59. Eartha Kitt — Santa Baby
58. Vince Guaraldi Trio — Christmas Time Is Here
57. Nat King Cole — Caroling, Caroling
56. Frank Sinatra — Jingle Bells
55. Carpenters — Sleigh Ride
54. Mariah Carey — Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
53. Johnny Mathis — It's Beginning to Look Like Christmas
52. Gene Autry — Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
51. David Foster — Carol of the Bells
50. Nat King Cole — Deck the Halls
49. Ray Conniff — Ring Christmas Bells
48. Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan — God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen / We Three Kings
47. Johnny Mathis — It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
46. Céline Dion — O Holy Night
45. Alvin & The Chipmunks — The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)
44. Elvis Presley — Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)
43. Andy Williams — Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
42. Mariah Carey — Hark! The Herald Angels Sing / Gloria (In Excelsis Deo)
41. Gene Autry — Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)
40. Bing Crosby — It's Beginning To Look Like Christmas
39. Vince Guaraldi Trio — Skating
38. Chuck Berry — Run Rudolph Run
37. Johnny Mathis, Percy Faith & His Orchestra — Winter Wonderland
36. Kelly Clarkson — Blue Christmas
35. Bing Crosby — White Christmas
34. Bobby Helms — Jingle Bell Rock
33. Burl Ives — A Holly Jolly Christmas
32. Frank Sinatra — Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town
31. Percy Faith & His Orchestra & Chorus — Joy to the World
30. Faith Hill — Where Are You Christmas
29. Burl Ives — Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
28. José Feliciano — Feliz Navidad
27. Run-DMC — Christmas In Hollis
26. Nat King Cole — The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)
25. Josh Groban and Faith Hill — The First Noël
24. Elvis Presley — Blue Christmas
23. Dean Martin — Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
22. Bing Crosby — Do You Hear What I Hear?
21. Vince Vance & The Valiants — All I Want for Christmas Is You
20. Michael Bublé — Let It Snow!
19. Adam Sandler — The Chanukah Song
18. Frank Sinatra — Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
17. Whitney Houston — Do You Hear What I Hear?
16. Frank Sinatra — Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
15. Carpenters — Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
14. The Ronettes — Sleigh Ride
13. Bruce Springsteen — Merry Christmas Baby
12. Mariah Carey — All I Want for Christmas Is You
11. Trans-Siberian Orchestra — Christmas Eve / Sarajevo
The Top 10
No. 10: Brenda Lee — Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
If I had to specify a genre for what I consider quintessential holiday music, it would be the rockabilly classics of the mid-20th century. Johnny Marks didn’t invent the style when he wrote “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” — or even the basic melody, which is virtually identical to that of the earlier “Jingle Bell Rock” (and Marks’ own subsequent “A Holly Jolly Christmas”). But with a little help from Boots Randolph on saxophone, Brenda Lee’s version perfects the form of “the new old-fashioned way.”
No. 9: Vince Guaraldi Trio — O Tannenbaum
Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is the official soundtrack of frosting holiday cookies. “O Tannenbaum” is neither the most-famous nor (spoiler) the best song on the album, but it wordlessly captures the joy and wonder of being a kid around the holiday season.
No. 8: Josh Groban — O Holy Night
The bar is high for holiday ballads. The Christmas catalogue is full of soaring melodies sung by the most-admired vocalists of their generations. And among this constellation of caroling crooners, no star shines as brightly as Josh Groban’s.
No. 7: Thurl Ravenscroft — You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch
The original diss track! Yes, there’s a nostalgic aspect to this that transcends the song itself. But the the booming bass of Thurl Ravencroft's voice and the evocative poetry of Dr. Seuss’ lyrics will grow your heart by three sizes each time you hear it.
No. 6: Kelly Clarkson — Underneath the Tree
In the hands of a lesser performer, “Underneath the Tree” might be both boring and unbearably cheesy. Luckily it’s sung by the incomparable Kelly Clarkson, backed by an energetic band, and joyfully arranged to feature both baritone saxophone and bells solos. It’s the greatest holiday pop banger of my generation.
No. 5: Leroy Anderson — Sleigh Ride
Leroy Anderson didn’t need any lyrics for the original and best version of his masterpiece. I will try to show the same restraint by letting his music speak for itself.
No. 4: James Taylor — Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Elegant and almost haunting in its simplicity, and with just the right amount of schmaltz, James Taylor does justice to Judy Garland’s legacy with a beautiful cover worthy of hanging from the highest bough.
No. 3: Greg Lake — I Believe in Father Christmas
Bombastic, cynical, self-important, overproduced: These are not the typical ingredients for a great holiday song. Yet Greg Lake’s anthem of holiday disillusionment soars where others stumble — looking at you, John Lennon and Band Aid — by fully committing to the bit with a 100-piece orchestra and some creative license from Prokofiev.
No. 2: Vince Guaraldi Trio — Linus and Lucy
On principle, I don’t believe “Linus and Lucy” is a holiday song. It’s not about Christmas, or even winter; it appears on A Charlie Brown Christmas (both the album and the television special), but was neither written nor originally released in a Yuletide context. The same logic that says “Linus and Lucy” is a Christmas song would say that “Singin’ in the Rain” is too, because it’s heard in Die Hard. But the error is in us listeners’ favor, as it’s one of the greatest themes in TV history, and it always makes me smile when it comes on the radio.
No. 1: Bruce Springsteen — Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
When I worked on prior years’ versions of this list, I put pressure on myself not to rate this song too high. I thought people would roll their eyes at my putting Bruce as the star on my Christmas-song tree, and that the rest of my list would be more credible if I showed that I was willing to put other artists above him. But the truth is that the E Street Band’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” is the Platonic ideal of a holiday song: At once respectful of the original and distinctly Springsteen, thoughtfully arranged and cheesily delivered. It’s four-and-a-half minutes of straight-up fun, the way the Christmas season should be. I hope Clarence got his new saxophone.
You can hear these rankings here in the form of a Spotify playlist where every song is a little worse than the one before it. (I don’t recommend listening to this all the way through.)
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For as much as people like to argue whether e.g. Die Hard is a Christmas movie, I think there is even more fertile ground to debate when it comes to categorizing holiday music. The lyrics of “Jingle Bells” make no reference to the holidays. Why is “Winter Wonderland” considered a Yuletide carol when it is no more about Christmas than “Surfin’ Safari” is about the Fourth of July?
But please send it to me anyway! I’ll still enjoy it even if I don’t rank it.