Like it or not, when December rolls around, holiday tunes score our lives. But this merry and bright — and inescapable — soundtrack is divisive: Some songs are nostalgic, catchy and long-awaited, while others are laughable, terrible parts of our Christmastime collective consciousness.
This year, we’ve made a list (and checked it twice) of the best and worst Christmas songs, so read on to find out how your favorite — and most dreaded — earworms stack up.
#20. “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses
The instant success of this 1981 tune from new wave band The Waitresses surprised everyone — including the band. Commissioned by ZE Records for a Christmas compilation album, “Christmas Wrapping” was the last thing the band wanted to deal with in the midst of a difficult tour.
Despite Patty Donahue’s upbeat vocals, songwriter Chris Butler said the song is about his hatred of Christmas. For him, Christmas in New York was “something to cope with.” Regardless of Butler’s intention, Brooklyn hipsters — and hipsters worldwide — latched onto the charming track, which AllMusic later dubbed “one of the best holiday pop tunes ever recorded.”
#19. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” — Brenda Lee & Ingrid Michaelson Versions
Written by Johnny Marks, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” was first recorded in 1958 by Brenda Lee, who was just 13 years old at the time. When the song turned 50 in 2008, Lee’s version surpassed 25 million copies in sales and became the fourth most-downloaded Christmas single.
Part rock and roll, part country, the song embraces genres that weren’t typically associated with holiday hits back in the ’50s. Since its initial success, the tune has been covered by countless artists, from LeAnn Rimes to Ingrid Michaelson. Like its spiritual sibling “Jingle Bell Rock,” this song inspires even the Scrooge-iest among us to dance.
#18. “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-D.M.C.
Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” is probably one of the first — and most beloved — holiday songs in the hip-hop genre. Sampling hits like “Back Door Santa,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Jingle Bells” and “Joy to the World,” the song and its title reference Hollis, Queens, the neighborhood in which the group’s members grew up.
Originally, Run-DMC recorded the song for a 1987 compilation album A Very Special Christmas — a record that featured stars like Bruce Springsteen and Whitney Houston and benefited the Special Olympics. The song’s music video went on to nab Rolling Stone’s Best Video of the Year, beating out Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” which had been directed by Martin Scorsese.
#17. “White Christmas” — Bing Crosby & The Supremes Version
Written by the prolific Irving Berlin, this Academy Award-winning song was most famously sung by Bing Crosby, who didn’t think much of the tune when Berlin first penned it for Holiday Inn (1942). Crosby performed it on a Christmas Day broadcast, just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, and it really struck a chord with audiences.
Crosby’s version spent a whopping 11 weeks on top of the Billboard charts and has sold 50 million copies worldwide. While Crosby’s recording is undoubtedly great, we’d like to shout out The Supremes’ version. Over 500 artists have covered “White Christmas,” but the Motown group perfectly melds the song’s original orchestration with an R&B lilt.
#16. “Silent Night” by Stevie Nicks
The popular Christmas carol was originally composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber and lyricist Joseph Mohr and performed on Christmas Eve at Saint Nicholas parish in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. Since then, “Silent Night” — or “Stille Nacht” — has been recorded by hundreds of artists across dozens of genres.
One of the best-known versions was recorded by — you guessed it! — Bing Crosby in 1935, but if you’re looking for a more mystical, dreamy rendition, we recommend the Stevie Nicks version. Recorded for one of the A Very Special Christmas compilation albums, Nicks’ “Silent Night” is bolstered by her soft, distinctive vocals.
#15. “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl
Written by Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan, “Fairytale of New York” was recorded by the duo’s band, the Pogues, and featured the vocals of singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl. A duet in the style of an Irish folk ballad, the tune is often heralded as one of the best Christmas songs ever written and holds the distinction of being the UK’s most-played Christmas song.
Performed by the likes of Ed Sheeran, Bill Murray and others, there’s no doubt that the ballad resonates with audiences. However, it’s also important to note the song’s controversial lyrics, which include a homophobic slur as well as a slur that’s used to insult sex workers. While most renditions censor these lyrics, the band doesn’t seem particularly remorseful.
#14. “Merry Christmas Baby” by Ike & Tina Turner
This R&B Christmas standard was written by Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore in 1947. Charles Brown, a singer and pianist who was on the original recording with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, noted that the tune was meant to replicate the same success Bing Crosby had with “White Christmas.”
From Otis Redding and B.B. King to Bruce Springsteen and Melissa Etheridge, countless artists have recorded versions of this now-classic hit. But one of the most memorable renditions remains a modified, two-minute version recorded by Ike and Tina Turner. After listening, you’ll feel mighty fine too.
#13. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey
Every year, a popular artist tries their hand at a Christmas album that mixes covers with original holiday ditties, but it’s rare that any of these tracks makes a lasting impression. Thanks to her 1994 hit “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” Mariah Carey not only crafted “one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday canon” (The New Yorker), but she’s also been dubbed the “Queen of Christmas.”
While some listeners wait all year for this holiday harbinger to hit the airwaves, others consider it one of the most grating Christmas tunes. Still, what’s undeniable is the song’s success. Selling over 16 million copies worldwide, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” remains the best-selling Christmas single performed by a woman as well as the 12th best-selling single of all time. And Carey? She has allegedly reeled in a whopping $60 million in royalties.
#12. “Last Christmas” by Wham!
Normally, we wouldn’t sing the praises of a duo with an exclamation point in their name, but Wham!’s George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley created a real bop with “Last Christmas.” Written by Michael on a trip home, the song impressed Ridgeley when he first heard it; he even called the experience “a moment of wonder.”
Before it was overtaken by “Fairytale of New York” in 2015, “Last Christmas” was the UK’s most-played Christmas song of the 21st century. As of November 2019, the upbeat song about unrequited love has a whopping 457 million views on the official Wham! YouTube channel.
#11. “Winter Wonderland” by Frank Sinatra
When you hear “Christmas music,” greats like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé, Johnny Mathis and the ever-festive Radiohead probably come to mind. And what do all of these musical acts have in common? Jolly old covers of the holiday standard “Winter Wonderland.”
Written in 1934 by Felix Bernard and lyricist Richard B. Smith, “Winter Wonderland” was inspired by Smith’s snow-laden hometown of Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Thanks to its wintry imagery, the song has become a holiday staple in the Northern Hemisphere — even though there’s nothing explicitly Christmassy about it.
#10. “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” A.K.A. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” Meets “Carol of the Bells” by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra
“Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” is an inspired instrumental medley of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “Shchedryk” — or “Carol of the Bells,” as English-speakers know it. Originally recorded by heavy metal band Savatage, the cinematic tune was re-released and popularized in 1996 by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a Savatage side project.
Inspired by the real-life story of cello player Vedran Smailović, the song tells the story of a man in war-torn Sarajevo, who, instead of taking cover while the city is bombed, goes out into the rubble each night to play Christmas carols. According to Nielsen SoundScan, the epic song is the third best-selling digital holiday single of all time.
#9. “River” by Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell’s “River” is her second-most covered song — after all, what’s not to like about a folksy breakup song set at Christmastime? Allegedly inspired by Mitchell’s two-year relationship with Graham Nash, the song probably wasn’t meant to be a holiday standard — Christmas is just the backdrop — but it ranks high on many listeners’ lists.
From Barry Manilow and James Taylor to Sarah McLachlan and Judy Collins, if you’re a musician whom SiriusXM would feature on its mellow rock station The Bridge, you’ve covered “River.” As fans may recall, Mitchell’s music plays into the plot of the Christmas film Love Actually (2003), but, funnily enough, the featured track is Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”
#8. “Christmas Time Is Here” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio
Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown! We stand by this Peanuts classic. “Christmas Time Is Here” is a light, jazzy tune that Lee Mendelson and Vince Guaraldi wrote for the 1965 special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Even after nearly 60 years, nothing brings friends with different holiday priorities together like this tune.
Although you can’t go wrong with the instrumental version by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, the vocal version, featuring the choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California, is also a great listen. Since its debut, the song has been covered by greats like Chicago and Diana Krall.
#7. “The Little Drummer Boy” by David Bowie & Bing Crosby
Originally dubbed “Carol of the Drum,” this popular Christmas tune was written by composer Katherine Kennicott Davis back in 1940. Its first major recording occurred in 1951 when the Trapp Family Singers put their spin on it (yes, as in the real-life von Trapps who inspired 1959’s The Sound of Music).
Although the Harry Simeone Chorale recording in 1958 may be the now-classic version, the “The Little Drummer Boy” duet by Bing Crosby and David Bowie took the song to new heights. (Come on — the man fell from space. He knows about great heights.) This surprising pairing performed it as part of a medley titled “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” for Crosby’s final holiday TV special.
#6. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” — Bing Crosby & Nat King Cole Versions
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is one of the oldest Christmas carols around, dating back to at least the 16th century. Unsurprisingly, Charles Dickens references this very English carol in his 1843 classic A Christmas Carol.
Like so many other songs on this list, this one has been covered ad nauseum. From the neoclassical synth-pop band Mannheim Steamroller to the cast of Riverdale, there’s a version out there for everyone. However, we recommend sticking with either the Bing Crosby or Nat King Cole versions, both of which have that commanding yet charming vibe about them.
#5. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Johnny Mathis
The only thing more iconic than Johnny Mathis belting out the soundtrack to a Christmas party is that iconic Merry Christmas album cover, which features the pop singer in his most chic ski clothes. Although all of Mathis’ renditions are stellar, his version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is one of his best.
Written by Walter Kent and lyricist Kim Gannon to honor the soldiers overseas who wished to be home for the holidays, this melancholy song was first recorded in 1943 by — surprise, surprise — Bing Crosby, who had another immediate hit on his hands. At the time, Yank, a G.I. magazine, noted that Crosby’s rendition “accomplished more for military morale than anyone else of that era.”
#4. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland
Songwriting duo Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine wrote this beloved song for Judy Garland’s 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis — but this now-classic hit almost ended up in the trash. “[I] couldn’t make [the little madrigal-like tune] work, so I played with it for two or three days and then threw it in the wastebasket,” Martin told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2010.
And that’s why folks write songs in duos: Blaine saved the melody from the trash can. Still, upon hearing the original draft, Garland asked Martin and Blaine to rewrite the song, which she felt was too melancholy. Martin recalled MGM requesting something a bit more upbeat because “it [would be] even sadder if [Garland] smil[ed] through her tears,” hence the perfect end-of-the-evening tune we know today.
#3. “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)” by Nat King Cole
You may know this song by its more recent subtitle “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” but, regardless of what you call it, there’s no denying that this is the song you want to hear late on Christmas Eve, as the fire’s last embers smolder.
Although it was written in 1945 by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé and recorded by the Nat King Cole Trio for the first time in 1946, Cole’s 1961 version is considered the definitive version. Although Cole is most often associated with this Christmas standard, artists like Celine Dion and Stevie Wonder have covered it.
#2. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Darlene Love
In 2010, Rolling Stone magazine dubbed “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” the greatest rock and roll Christmas song, commenting that “nobody can match [Darlene] Love’s emotion and sheer vocal power.” And it’s true: Although greats like U2 and Mariah Carey have covered it, nothing quite compares to Love’s original version.
Written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry and Phil Spector for Spector’s 1963 seasonal compilation album, the tune was first pitched to Love over the phone by the songwriting team. These days, the hit is one of Love’s signature songs. For 29 years, the vocalist performed the song on the Christmas episodes of Late Night with David Letterman (and later, the Late Show with David Letterman).
#1. Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” — Versions by Arthur Fiedler and The Ronettes
Inspired by Leroy Anderson’s time in small New England towns, “Sleigh Ride” was named the most popular piece of Christmas music between 2009–2012 by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), based on radio play. Anderson wrote the instrumental song during a July heatwave in 1946, and Mitchell Parish added lyrics in 1950.
The 1949 orchestral version by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra is great, as is the vocal rendition by Johnny Mathis. But we want to shout out the Ronettes’ version, which adds in the “Ring-a-ling-a-ling, ding-dong-ding” background vocals as well as the horse’s now-iconic whiny clip-clop. Every year, this version charts in Billboard’s Top Ten U.S. Holiday 100 — and for good reason.
And Now For the Worst…
Thanks to all of those memorable, catchy Christmas songs, it’s easy to be swept up in holiday cheer each year. However, there’s also a dark side to holiday music. Have you ever tuned into one of those all-Christmas music radio stations? We’re pretty sure those are one of Dante’s circles of Hell.
And why? Well, there’s a limited number of songs those stations have in their rotation — mostly covers on covers. And some of the tunes range from annoying and poorly written to downright excruciating. Here’s a look at 15 of the worst Christmas songs that you probably won’t be able to avoid.
#15. Almost Any Artist’s Rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”
Sure, this 1944 hit is a holiday classic that won Frank Loesser an Oscar — and it’s one of the few holiday duets out there. But none of those facts make it any more palatable. In fact, the part traditionally sung by a man is downright creepy. For him, bad weather becomes a reason to ignore a woman saying “No, I’d like to go home now.”
Although “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” apologists have passionate arguments against the position that it’s a song about (attempted) date rape — and that changing it up can help recontextualize it — there are still those lines about roofied cocktails and thinly veiled threats about contracting pneumonia. Mostly, we’re just exhausted by the inevitable “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” discourse that crops up every year as if newly formed.
#14. “Must Be Santa” by Bob Dylan
Written in 1960, this call-and-response ditty was based off a German drinking song — and that explains a lot. But what it doesn’t quite explain is why Nobel Prize and Grammy winner Bob Dylan decided a jaunty, accordion-filled polka take was what this tune needed.
The New York Daily News was just as perplexed as we are when this song debuted, noting “It’s sort of unclear if Dylan…was aiming to celebrate the holiday, or gently poke fun at the music’s Norman Rockwell-esque simplicity.” It’s frenzied and cringeworthy and, if it comes on your radio, it’s going to make that eggnog look super appealing.
13. “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney & Wings
In the opening strains of this painful tune, Paul McCartney sings, “We’re here tonight, and that’s enough,” but you know what? It’s actually not enough, Sir. McCartney is often hailed as one of the greatest songwriters of all time, but this absolute snooze-fest proves they can’t all be hits.
Just change the station — or else you’ll be subjected a rousing chorus of “Ding dong, ding dong” again and again and again. Although tedious and repetitive, “Wonderful Christmastime” is (unfathomably) popular, and royalties garner McCartney an estimated $400,000 each year. That means “Wonderful Christmastime” has earned well over $15 million. Maybe it is enough…
#12. “12 Days of Christmas” — & Its Endless Parodies
The only acceptable version of this song is the delightful rendition by John Denver and the Muppets, because it’s charming and well characterized throughout and just plain fun. However, this song is otherwise tedious — and just so long. Not to mention, every TV show and movie and artist thinks we need another parody of it.
Spoiler alert: We don’t. And the parodies started early on, most notably with comedian Fay McKay’s “12 Daze of Christmas,” which finds her getting more and more inebriated as she downs 11 Bloody Marys. Long story short, one goose a-laying is too much — we don’t need six. And we feel the same way about the endless renditions of this Christmas standard.
#11. “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” by Various Artists
This novelty Christmas song was penned by Donald Yetter Garnder, a music teacher at a public school in New York. When Gardner asked his second graders what they wanted for Christmas, he noticed that most of the kids were missing at least one front tooth. (How observant.) And then he wrote this ditty in 30 minutes. And it really shows.
To be fair, Gardner was surprised by the song’s lasting power and popularity too. “I was amazed at the way that silly little song was picked up by the whole country,” he said. And same. We don’t quite get it either. To make matters worse, many have tried to cover it — from Nat King Cole to Elmo — and all have failed to inspire.
#10. “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” by Alvin & the Chipmunks
Written by Ross Bagdasarian Sr. under his infamous David Seville stage name, “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” took the country by storm in 1958. Seville and his cartoon band won a jaw-dropping three Grammy Awards for the tune, including Best Children’s Recording.
And yes — this song is certainly amusing for the little ones. But it’s also just so overplayed, so grating. Allegedly, the single sold 4.5 million copies in just seven weeks, making it the “Let It Go” of its era. Even today it’s inescapable: Nielsen SoundScan estimated that it is the third all-time best-selling holiday single. Alright, you chipmunks.
#9. “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” by Gayla Peevey
Okay, we really can’t begrudge poor 10-year-old Gayla Peevey for winning big with this holiday hit. In it, she sings about wanting a hippo pal instead of a toy for Christmas. It shows ambition: She could’ve asked for a dog or a horse, but she really went for it.
And that ambition paid off, helping her nab an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Nonetheless, this 1953 novelty song is truly irritating. Not even Captain & Tennille could save it. (Though we aren’t sure why they thought they could in the first place.) Anyway, just look at that hippo: He doesn’t seem excited to be involved either.
#8. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” by Elmo & Patsy Trigg Shropshire
Nothing says “Happy Holidays!” like violence against women and grandma getting lit off of eggnog. Or that’s what the writers behind this 1979 novelty-song-turned-holiday-horror-film thought when they conceived a tune about a poor woman stumbling out into a blizzard only to be clobbered by Santa’s sleigh.
Upsettingly, this disturbing hit-and-run by one Santa Claus goes uninvestigated. And, according to the song, poor grandma goes relatively unmissed. Sure, the family wears all black, but they’re also more curious about what to do with grandma’s unopened presents. To make matters worse, the narrator is so eager to victim-blame his grandma for wanting to go outside and grab her meds. Cheers!
#7. “Here Comes Santa Claus” by Gene Autry
In 1946, the idea for this genius song struck Gene Autry after he rode his horse in the Santa Claus Lane Parade (now known as the Hollywood Christmas Parade). Angelenos chanted “Here comes Santa Claus” as the parade neared and, well, that’s evidently where Autry’s creativity ran out.
In the original recording, he calls Santa “Santy Claus,” and that’s enough to make our skin crawl, to be honest. Still, this top-10 hit has somehow survived the decades. Perhaps its most egregious sin is inspiring Hilary Duff’s “Santa Claus Lane,” a throwaway original song that featured in the also unquestionably terrible The Santa Clause 2 (2002).
#6. “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)” by John Denver
Vice calls this next one “all kinds of upsetting,” and that’s an incredibly accurate assessment. Who would’ve thought that John Denver, the singer-songwriter behind “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” could write something so brutal. In the song, a young kid pleads with his alcoholic father — on Christmas.
It doesn’t get more distressing than that. The father passes out under the Christmas tree one year, leaving the kid’s mom in tears — something our narrator hopes won’t become a holiday tradition. Again, if you want John Denver doing Christmas, stick with his and the Muppets’ rendition of “12 Days of Christmas.”
#5. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by The Jackson 5
Although the original recording was made by 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd in 1952, the most famous version of the song is probably The Jackson 5’s rendition. It’s upbeat, it’s silly, it’s a potentially scarring moment for the child narrator of the song? I mean, he sees his mom making out with Santa. That’ll really rattle a kid.
Sure, we — the wise adult listeners — know this is all a bit “wink, wink.” It’s heavily implied that the man in the Santa get-up is the kid’s father. Nonetheless, the kid doesn’t know that and, at the end of the ditty, he’s eager to see how his father will react to mom getting frisky with Santa. None of it is all that amusing. Stick with the group’s rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” instead.
#4. “Santa Baby” by Madonna
While Eartha Kitt’s original 1953 recording is fire, it still doesn’t quite make up for the uncomfortable lyrics here. But Madonna’s rendition, recorded for A Very Special Christmas, takes uncomfortable to a whole new level. For some reason, the pop star thought it would be a great idea to sing her best Betty Boop voice.
Well, maybe that’s generous. It’s Betty Boop-meets-a-baby. Like the Rugrats‘ Chuckie Finster. And the infantilizing voice makes Madonna’s pleas to ol’ “Santa Baby” just… nope. This one is sure to get under your skin like no other. Our advice? Hurry up the chimney and out of the room if this one comes on.
#3. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid
Where do we even begin with this one? Although for many it’s a holiday staple, we just can’t stand by this condescending, stereotype-riddled song. Written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure as a reaction to the devastating famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, this tune was recorded in a single day by Band Aid — a “supergroup” consisting of British and Irish stars like Bono and Sting.
Yes, the song cast a light on the famine — and became the fastest-selling single in UK chart history at the time, selling one million copies in its first week. However, it’s a real mess. African activists took to Twitter to call out the fact that the song generalizes the entire continent, saying its colonial western-centric viewpoint has done more harm than good. Couldn’t agree more.
#2. “Dominick the Donkey” by Lou Monte
If you’ve ever wanted to listen to a tale about a donkey delivering Brooklyn-made presents to all of the expectant children in Italy, then this one is for you! If you’ve never wished for a song to immortalize a Christmas donkey, you’re not alone and, like us, probably find “Dominick the Donkey” a tad grating.
Dominick is a commendable steed: It’s no reindeer games for him on Christmas Eve. In fact, he’s so serious about what he does that the song charted at #14 on Billboard’s “Bubbling under the Hot 100” list in 1960. (Yes, that was a thing.) But the alleged charm of an Italian folk song can’t make up for this earworm’s constant “hee-haw, hee-haw” refrain.
#1. “The Christmas Shoes” by NewSong
“I want her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight,” says the child protagonist of this beyond-manipulative holiday tune. For those unfamiliar with the song’s narrative, it’s about a young boy who wants to buy some shoes for his terminally ill mother, but, like most kids, he’s short on cash.
Spoiler Alert: The song’s adult narrator coughs up the money for the shoes, because, you know, that’s the true meaning of Christmas and all. But that doesn’t mean anyone enjoys listening to it. Internet critic Nostalgia Chick noted that the worst part of the whole thing is the suggestion that “God killed that woman because you didn’t get the meaning of Christmas.” In short, we agree with comedian Patton Oswalt on this one — it’s a “sick evening prayer.”