The month of December brings with it the inescapable sound of holiday music.
It takes over entire radio stations and shopping mall PA systems, overpowers the din at coffee shops and restaurants, and flits into our ears via the whistles of happy-go-lucky UPS delivery men.
Within that ever-swelling mass of carols and obscure novelty tunes that get tossed into the cultural ether each year, there are certain Christmas pop songs that each of us deems essential.
For some, it’s not Santa time until they hear the Beach Boys California-crooning about the “Little Saint Nick.” For others, something may feel seasonally askew if they don’t engage in at least one round of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” At least I assume that must be the case, because otherwise why do we still hear that song every year?
I, of course, have my own list of must-hears, which is long and very particular to my demographic. (Read: They tend to lean heavily toward pop songs released in the ’80s.)
I managed to cull the many, many songs on my multiple yuletide mixes down to an essential top 10. Here it is, my rundown of holiday music must-listens, which does not contain the weird, or the cynical, or anything ever featured in an episode of “South Park” but does feature the songs I cannot celebrate the season without. Please feel free to share your essential song lists in the comments section.
“Father Christmas” by the Kinks
Is this the greatest rock-and-roll holiday song ever written? Possibly. Also possible? That I learned the truth about Santa Claus from Ray Davies.
“Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses
If you have a holiday party and you don’t play this song, you are doing it wrong. Also: if you use this song to turn your house into a frenetic, seizure-inducing light show (see video below), you are doing it wrong.
“Christmastime is Here” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas”
Everyone loves the music of Vince Guaraldi during the holidays, from your 5-your-old niece to Wes Anderson. This song in particular encapsulates the yuletide melancholy and childlike wonder that, for many, is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
“Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)” by Gene Autry
As a child, I played this record to death. And every time Autry nasally advised me to jump in bed and cover my head because Santa Claus comes tonight, I could not wait to do just that, then wake up in the morning and find a replica of the Donny & Marie TV show set under my Christmas tree. Which is exactly what happened to me in 1976.
“Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues
Shane MacGowan, lead singer of the Pogues, was born on Christmas Day. So perhaps he and his band were destined to record this classic and brilliant holiday song with an assist from Kirsty MacColl. Every year, every time I hear it, it makes my heart swell and ache simultaneously.
“It’s Christmas Time” by Pearl Jam
A holiday single released by the band in 1991, it captures the tug of nostalgia the holidays bring to those of us who now only experience the magic Eddie Vedder mentions via our own children.
“Christmastime” by the Smashing Pumpkins
Another entry from the 1990s, this song showed up on “A Very Special Christmas” compilation and has remained in my regular rotation ever since. Its lush production — All those bells! And flutes! And Billy Corgan singing in angsty, hushed tones! — is simply gorgeous.
“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by U2
I love many versions of this quintessential holiday pop tune, including the signature one by Darlene Love and the emo-y version by Death Cab for Cutie. But the U2 cover that I had on repeat in 1987 is my favorite, mainly because I had it on repeat in 1987 and therefore developed an ever-lasting bond with the sound of Bono yelping, “Baaa-bee, pleeeease come home!” Plus, who can argue with the brilliance of Bono’s vest-and-hat combo in the video below? No one, that’s who.
“Someday at Christmas” by Stevie Wonder
I had known this song since forever, but when I heard it for the first time post-9/11, it was like the lyrics reached my ears for the first time. In light of the events in Newtown, Conn., once again, this song has current, thoroughly heartbreaking meaning.
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band-Aid
I know I’m a cliche of ’80s-ness. I also realize that this song gets played ad nauseam every year, and that the part where Bono says “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you” is super-condescending. But, here’s the thing: Duran Duran was involved in this 1984 charity single that has since become a staple of yuletide altrui-guilt. Therefore, I am obligated to regularly listen to it and support it from now until my dying day. By the way, the making of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” — the documentary that features a wide variety of pop-star mullets, Neil from the Young Ones and Boy George behaving like a diva — is a must-watch, especially if, like me and the Futureheads, you believe Christmas was better in the ’80s.