This seasonal playlist is for anyone who just can’t bear another round of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” or “Feliz Navidad” or (horrors) “The Chipmunk Song” or even Nat King Cole’s genuinely lovely “The Christmas Song”. It’s not entirely made up of obscurities—in the age of satellite radio and ever-expansive piped-in music to shop to, such tunes as Elton’s “Step Into Christmas”, Eurythmics’ gloriously synthetic “Winter Wonderland”, Saint Etienne’s ‘90s Eurodance “I Was Born On Christmas Day” and The Three Wise Men’s “Thanks For Christmas” (actually XTC in disguise, and surely now their second most-played song after “Dear God”) get much more airplay than they did when they first came out, thanks to your local J. Crew, Whole Foods or Anthropologie.
Instead, this is a selection of personal favorites I keep in rotation every December that some but not all listeners will know. Naturally, there’s a few beloved songs from my childhood like John Denver and The Muppet’s definitive version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (Beeker’s verse sums up everything weird and great about Jim Henson) and of course a track from the Best Christmas Album of All Time. However, many of the older recordings here are 21st century discoveries for me, with multiple cuts from a nifty jazz compilation, Jingle Bell Swing, including Duke Ellington’s wry rendition of Tchaikovsky and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’ insane take on “Deck The Halls”; jazz also surfaces in Art Carney’s (!) be-bop version of “’Twas The Night Before Christmas” and Billie Holiday warbling a song that has nothing specific to do with the holidays but fits anyway.
Plenty of stuff from this century, too. In addition to Pink Martini’s take on a beloved standard (“Do You Hear What I Hear”), you’ll find new original songs that fit right in with all the perennials: the ease and warmth of Rufus Wainwright’s “Spotlight On Christmas”, Aimee Mann’s Bachelor No. 2 worthy “Calling On Mary”, Sufjan Stevens’ epic, shimmering “Star Of Wonder”, Calexico’s new-for-2020 majestic New Year’s anthem “Hear The Bells” and Tracey Thorn’s gorgeous ballad “Joy”.
Also, don’t forget those one-offs by artists you would never expect to delve into holiday music such as Kate Bush, Erasure, John Cale and best of all, The Staple Singers, whose supremely funky “Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas” never fails to lift my spirits.
Go here to listen to some of my favorite holiday songs – it is meant to be played on shuffle.
- Aimee Mann, “Calling On Mary”
- Art Carney, “’Twas The Night Before Christmas”
- Billie Holiday, “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm”
- Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters, “Mele Kalikimaka”
- Calexico, “Hear The Bells”
- Claudine Longet, ““I Don’t Intend To Spend Christmas Without You”
- Duke Ellington, “Sugar Rum Cherry”
- Eartha Kitt, “Santa Baby”
- Elton John, “Step Into Christmas”
- Erasure, “She Won’t Be Home”
- Eurythmics, “Winter Wonderland”
- Frank Sinatra, “Mistletoe and Holly”
- John Cale, “A Child’s Christmas In Wales”
- John Denver and the Muppets, “The Twelve Days Of Christmas”
- Kate Bush, “December Will Be Magic Again”*
- Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie”
- Louis Armstrong & The Commanders, “Cool Yule”
- Louis Prima, “Shake Hands With Santa Claus”
- Peggy Lee, “I Like A Sleighride (Jingle Bells)”
- Pink Martini, “Do You Hear What I Hear”
- Rufus Wainwright, “Spotlight On Christmas”
- Saint Etienne, “I Was Born On Christmas Day”
- The Staple Singers, “Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas”
- Sufjan Stevens, “Star Of Wonder”
- Teo Macero and His Orchestra, “Deck The Halls”
- Tex Beneke and The Glenn Miller Orchestra, “Snowfall”
- The Three Wise Men, “Thanks For Christmas”*
- Tony Bennett, “My Favourite Things”
- Tracey Thorn, “Joy”
- Vince Guaraldi Trio, “Christmas Is Coming”
*not available on Spotify in the US at this writing, so here they are below!