The Definitive Top 34 Christmas Songs
The debate has raged for years: what Christmas songs are best? Everyone has opinions, but most opinions are wrong. Casey and Jimmy curated the top 34 Christmas songs for your listening pleasure. This list isn’t a discussion or a debate. This is fact. On that note, let’s begin!
34. Little Saint Nick
An all-time great band writes a great Christmas song. It’s a feat considering none of the Beatles members’ terrible Christmas songs even came close to making this list. The Beach Boys avoid sentiment, focusing on fun by riffing on their own “Little Deuce Coupe.” The chugging sleigh bells and twinkly percussion make this Christmas hot-rod tune irresistible.
Definitive Version: The Beach Boys
33. Jingle Jingle Jingle
This bouncy track, as performed by Stan Francis, clocks in at a whopping 1:17. Featured in the 1964 television movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the track instantly evokes the image of Stan’s claymation Santa clumsily cavorting around Rudolph’s austere cave dwelling. A saccharine song that ends as quickly as it begins, “Jingle Jingle Jingle” is not a masterpiece by any means, but rather a fun ditty aided by its nostalgic connection to the beloved TV classic. It even has that 60s sound, where you can tell humanity still hasn’t figured out how to properly record woodwind instruments, imbuing it with extra sentimental charm.
Definitive Version: Stan Francis
32. O Tannebaum
Ok, when you start delving into the lyrics, this song gets pretty ridiculous. The image of German townsfolk fervently worshipping an evergreen tree is a bit absurd, but the simple melody has become a stalwart Christmas tune. While many performances tend towards the stuffy and unduly stately, one only has to look as far as Vince Guaraldi to see it reimagined as (arguably) the best piece of Christmas jazz ever written.
Definitive Version: Vince Guaraldi Trio
31. Celebrate Me Home
Talk about versatility! Kenny “Danger Zone” Loggins brings us a heartwarming ballad that is a refreshing respite from the crooners’ near-monopoly on Christmas songs. Is the song one minute too long? Sure. Is it only tangentially related to Christmas? Also sure. But it’s successful in stirring holiday-adjacent emotions and features an effective hook/piano solo section that helps it squeak into our rankings.
Definitive Version: Kenny Loggins
30. Happy Holiday/The Holiday Season
“Happy Holiday” is written by arguably the greatest contributor to the American songbook, Irving Berlin, who you’ll hear much more from on this list. Surprisingly, though, the best part of this mashup is “The Holiday Season” by Kay Thompson, who has a fascinating and impressive Wikipedia page (she created Eloise!). “Happy Holiday” is from Berlin’s Holiday Inn and actually occurs at a New Year’s Eve party in the play. The chorus anchors the mashup, but the playful lyric in “The Holiday Season” is what makes this song a classic. It’s the holiday season / So whoop-de-doo and dickery-dock / Don’t forget to hang up your sock…” I don’t know what the hell whoop-de-do and dickery-dock means, but those words are delightful every time, highlighting the silliness of the season by making sure you hang up your sock. Andy Williams, Thompson’s protégé and secret lover, popularized the song and remains the only version that is low-key sexy when he says “coming down the chimney down.”
Definitive Version: Andy Williams
29. Last Christmas
This song is so 80s and so Wham!, which is the worst and best thing about it. George Michael wrote, performed, produced, and played every instrument on the track, impressive considering the production is so memorable. The boppy synths, drum machine, and of course, jingle bells, pair perfectly with the heartbroken, breathy performance. The music video features pastel colors, longing looks, and a ski resort, compounding the pure 80s vibe that is “Last Christmas.”
Definitive Version: Wham!
28. Please Come Home For Christmas
The Eagles’ 1978 rendition of Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas” is the definitive and most successful version of the tune. Charting within the top 20, Don Henley’s lead vocals power this wistful rock ballad that features a perfectly executed minimalist guitar solo.
Definitive Version: Eagles
27. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
This triple time “pop” hit is the perfect song to kick off the Christmas season. With its roll call of seasonal activities, it sets the stage for a joyous holiday season spent with family and friends. While Andy Williams’ song serves as a perfect “establishing shot” to the holidays, it lacks the depth, emotional punch, or infectious hooks to propel it higher on our list.
Definitive Version: Andy Williams
26. Frosty the Snowman
The Rankin and Bass Christmas specials are basically the Avengers of Christmas: popular, beloved, and clearly exploiting their audience for as much cash as humanly possible. In the wake of the success of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (the song first, then the special) Gene Autry originated another story driven record about a Christmas myth. Frosty is clearly reactionary to Rudolph, making it less novel, but the subsequent specials, witty lyric, and ubiquity of the character make this a must for the season. Having characters like Frosty and Rudolph-- who are still corporately owned-- is great for business, and low key in the spirit of a holiday defined by commercial interest.
Definitive Version: Gene Autry or Jimmy Durante
Best Version: The Ronettes
25. Santa Baby
Santa is a sugar daddy. This is canon. This is the sexiest Christmas song by a mile and it’s-- I repeat-- about Santa being a SUGAR DADDY. Enough said.
Definitive Version: Eartha Kitt
24. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
A little-known Christmas fact is the sheer amount of star power behind Darlene Love’s 1963 track. Co-written and produced by the legendary Phil Spector and featuring Cher on backing vocals (and Sonny on percussion), it’s surprising this song didn’t gain more traction upon its initial release. Mariah Carey released a serviceable cover on her 1994 album. Unfortunately, it’s a little sterile. One of the saddest stories in the Christmas music canon may be that a better quality version of Darlene Love’s original doesn’t exist.
Definitive Version: Darlene Love
Honorable Mention: Mariah Carey
23. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Rudolph the song is inextricibaly linked to the character, created for a 1939 booklet by Robert Lewis May. His brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, adapted the story into a song in 1949, which was then adapted into the best Rankin and Bass Christmas special in 1964. They only had the rights to the song and crafted an iconic masterpiece, which is honestly the only reason this song is on our list. As a song, “Rudolph” is a touch stiff, but still feels grand, and it popularized the most iconic Christmas character behind Santa, more than justifying his place guiding the sleigh.
Definitive Version: Burl Ives
22. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Some of my favorite Christmas songs capture a feeling of a moment at the holidays. It’s snowy outside, but you’re in with your partner enjoying the warmth of a fire. It’s so classic it feels like a ski resort postcard. This song doesn’t even mention Christmas, so in the southern hemisphere they could listen to it in July, but it’s a delight in a holiday rotation.
Definitive Version: Dean Martin
21. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
Johnny Marks (of Rudolph songwriting fame) also penned this Brenda Lee classic. This 1958 hit seems to be the song of choice for office party movie scenes. Coming in at a brisk 2:06, its bouncy rhythm, slick guitar accompaniment, and boisterous sax solo are part of its charm, cementing it as a Christmas classic.
Definitive Version: Brenda Lee
20. Winter Wonderland
Very much like “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”, “Winter Wonderland” isn’t specifically a holiday song, opting to capture a vibe instead. Through specificity in lyric, “Wonderland” is stronger in every way. It imagines a couple strolling through a wintry paradise when they stumble upon a snowman. They pretend the snowman is a pastor, then tell him they can marry them. It’s weird, it’s adorable, it’s a classic.
Definitive Version: Ella Fitzgerald
Honorable Mention: Bing Crosby
19. A Holly Jolly Christmas
“A Holly Jolly Christmas” is a perennial chart-topper on ASCAP’s list of most performed holiday songs. For 2018, it nabbed the #3 spot. Many remember Ives as “Sam the Snowman” in the Rudolph TV movie, but his robust voice imbues “A Holly Jolly Christmas” with the iconic character that millions have come to know and love.
Definitive Version: Burl Ives
18. Feliz Navidad
With just two phrases and a catchy melody, “Feliz Navidad” buries itself in your head by the end of the first verse. Jose Feliciano’s 1970 tune compels you to sing along, no matter what language you speak. The song didn’t catch on until the 90s, but now ASCAP recognizes it as one of the top 25 most played and recorded Christmas songs worldwide.
Definitive Version: Jose Feliciano
17. Sleigh Ride
Originally an instrumental piece composed by Leroy Anderson in 1948, lyrics were added two years later. Regardless, Anderson’s instrumental composition is the definitive version, and having an instrumental song be a classic is an impressive feat. The cheery, upbeat song gives an energetic infusion to a holiday genre that too often tends to the overly slow and sentimental, capturing the feeling of joy that is often synonymous with the holidays.
Definitive Version: Leroy Anderson
Honorable Mentions: Air Supply, The Ronettes
16. Silver Bells
Luckily, writers Ray Evans and Jay Livingston scrapped the original title for this song, opting for “Silver Bells” rather than the more absurd title of “Tinkle Bells.” The song was written for the 1951 film that no modern audience watched, The Lemon Drop Kid. Bing Crosby released a version in 1950 that became the standard, supplanting the rendition by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. “Silver Bells” may be the song that best captures the idea of Christmas in the city, and is a song that’s inexplicably nostalgic despite describing a scene that many of its audience have never truly experienced (although I’m sure the same could be said for many of the crooner-era songs).
Definitive Version: Bing Crosby
15. Baby It’s Cold Outside
Well, this one’s loaded. I love this song, and there are much better defenses of it elsewhere, so all I’ll say is: they both want to fuck. This is coy, dated, 40s banter that might not work with a modern lens, but it’s very charming if you see it in black and white. The song won an Oscar for it’s breakout in Neptune’s Daughter and was a staple for composer Frank Loesser and his wife, Lynn Garland at parties. It’s the best Christmas duet, and is charming… unless it’s creepy.
Definitive Version: Margaret Whiting, Johnny Mercer
14. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
Of all the character-driven Christmas songs, this is the best. Not because the story is better than “Frosty” or “Rudolph,” not because the lyric is wittier, not because Santa is the greatest Christmas character (though he is), but because it’s proven to be the most malleable for great artists. The 1934 song was reinvented by Phil Spector for the Crystals in the 60s, which then inspired the incredible Jackson 5 and Bruce Springsteen versions. Rock on, Santa!
Definitive Versions: Bruce Springsteen, The Jackson 5
13. Home for the Holidays
Between Sinatra, Crosby, and Martin, Perry Como is often the forgotten crooner, but he has a handful of successful holiday songs to his name. “Home for the Holidays” is a fun ditty that combines a slower start with an uptempo middle section. It encapsulates the trials and tribulations of traveling home during the holiday season, deftly combining the longing for a favorite holiday dish along with exasperated remarks at the state of traffic.
Definitive Versions: Perry Como
12. It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
Perry Como is back again. Like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” this track is a great kickoff to the season. It captures the expectant buzz in the air as decorations go up and features a catchy tongue-twister verse of the Christmas wishes of various children. And in typical Como fashion, we get the relatable joke line of, “And mom and dad can hardly wait for school to start again.”
Definitive Version: Perry Como
11. The First Noel
I love a religious Christmas song that can support a choir. Tight harmonies make a great version of this song, so it also translates well to pop acts like *NSYNC or Penatonix. Though the verses are pretty, it’s missing a bridge like “O Holy Night,” making it a bit more repetitive and dropping this classic lower on the list.
Definitive Version: None, really, but also: Frank Sinatra
10. Jingle Bell Rock
Bobby Helms’ rock and roll Christmas hit is a bop that’s hard to hate. Hank Garland’s opening guitar riff is an iconic entrance to a timeless classic. The lyrics aren’t particularly impactful, and the arrangement isn’t superbly inspired, but the whole thing works. And at just a touch above 2 minutes, it doesn’t last long enough to get grating.
Definitive Version: Bobby Helms
Honorable Mention: Hall & Oates
9. I’ll Be Home for Christmas
This is a beautiful, heartbreaking song. The song was originally written in 1943 by lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent to honor soldiers longing to return home from the war. The touching heartbreak comes in the last line, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”
Definitive Version: Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby
8. O Holy Night
“O Holy Night” is, in my opinion, one of the best Christmas compositions in existence. The issue is that this is a song that’s hard to execute perfectly. There is no definitive best version, as even the most talented performers struggle to be firing on all cylinders in all phases. This affects its stock in our standings. However, this song does have it all: a beautiful, soft opening/verses, a powerful chorus over a meaty minor drop, and a big note at the end. This song needs a performer that can belt the final note while still demonstrating the restraint to let the verses’ beautiful simplicity cut through. If someone can nail it, watch out.
Definitive Version: None
7. What Christmas Means To Me
This song SLAPS. Stevie Wonder at the top of his game delivers an upbeat, head-bobbing, toe-tapping 2 and a half minutes of pure joy. Written by George Gordy (the brother of renowned record producer Berry Gordy) this song is indicative of the best qualities of the Motown musical tradition. While this song usually doesn’t leap to mind as a top Christmas song, once they hear it, most people can’t help but say, “Oh yeah, I love this song!”
Definitive Version: Stevie Wonder
6. This Christmas
Phil Upchurch said “This Christmas” was "absolutely the premiere holiday song written by an African American." Phil Upchurch played with B.B. King, Dizzy Gillespie, Muddy Waters, Natalie Cole, and Michael Jackson, so I think he knows what he’s talking about. This article is a great read about the creation of “This Christmas” and its importance as an anthem for black America, a storyline that often gets overlooked when discussing the song (or just goes unknown by white mainstream audiences). The song’s lyrics, structure, rhythm, melodies, harmonies, etc. are all sound, and its added cultural significance make it a well-deserved contender at the top of our list.
Definitive Version: Donny Hathaway
5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
This song inexplicably makes me cry every time I hear it. The original song by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) is sung by Judy Garland in the most heart-wrenching moment of the film. Garland longs for a simpler time before the events of the film, singing “Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow / Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” When Frank Sinatra recorded the song in 1957 for his album A Jolly Christmas, he asked Martin to “jolly it up a bit.” The line was changed to “hang a shining star upon the brightest bough,” but the sad longing feeling remains. Throw this classic on at the end of the night, sing quietly with your family, and shed a single tear.
Definitive Version: Frank Sinatra
Honorable Mention: Judy Garland
4. All I Want For Christmas Is You
Twinkling percussion evokes a music box, then big bells chime as Mariah Carey’s exceptional voice cuts through the room. You know the song. You’ve heard it a million times. You’re about to hear one of the greatest recordings ever. In 1994, at the peak of her career, Mariah Carey did the unthinkable: made a Christmas album. At the time, Christmas albums were reserved for older acts looking to make a buck past their prime. A self-described “festive person” Carey decided to go for Christmas and was adamant to have a few originals on the album. Her and her writing partner, Walter Afanasieff, wrote a simple song that harkens back to the Phil Spector Christmas songs of the 50s. It is exceptionally formulaic, and there lies its beauty. The song has perfect the pop formula and is a banger for folks of any age. It’s lyric that celebrates trading the commercial ties of Christmas for time with a loved one perfectly captures the spirit of the season. It’s the most recent edition to the Christmas canon, and it was perfect from its first record.
Definitive Version: Mariah Carey
3. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
“The Christmas Song” is a masterclass in lyric and tone. The specificity of the images in the lyric evoke a perfect holiday, though I’m not even sure what a chestnut is. Like many great Christmas songs, Bob Wells and Mel Tomé wrote it to escape a blistering hot summer by “thinking cool.” It’s more than a cold song, though. The last verse offers a simple phrases, “for kids from one to ninety-two… Merry Christmas to you.” What a perfect ending to a perfect song that perfectly encapsulates a perfect Christmas.
Definitive Version: Nat King Cole
2. Silent Night
The origin of this famous carol sounds like it was ripped right out of a Hallmark movie. It’s Christmas Eve, 1818 in Obendorf, Austria. Unfortunately, the organ at St. Nicholas Church (yes, St. Nick church) is broken. Pastor Mohr goes to church organist Franz Gruber and says, “I have this poem, but no music to go with it. Christmas Eve service is in but a few hours, and with the organ broken, there’ll be no music! Do you think you could set this poem to guitar accompaniment?” Of course, the parishioners didn’t miss the organ after hearing Mohr and Gruber’s fire, new, organ-less carol. The rest is history. Perhaps the most famous non-secular song ever written, “Silent Night” perfectly captures the quiet splendor of Christ’s birth. “Silent Night” has been recorded countless times (with Bing Crosby’s rendition being the third best-selling single of all time). It’s a song that’s hard to get wrong, as the composition is so strong that the song’s tone and sense of awe comes through in pop or instrumental renditions. A song that’s perfect for closing out a night, the carol never fails to imbue listeners with the sense that all is calm, all is bright.
Definitive Version: None
Honorable Mentions: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, The Carpenters
1. White Christmas
Quick, what’s the best selling single of all time? The answer may surprise you: “White Christmas” as performed by Bing Crosby. And the second place song isn’t even close. With only seven unique lines and a wistful melody, the song penned by Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin is the undoubted king of Christmas. “White Christmas” debuted only weeks after the Pearl Harbor attacks and harkened back to simpler times, “just like the ones I used to know.” The narrator isn’t longing for a Christmas full of snow, but rather, to be back home with the ones he loves, a sentiment perfectly encapsulated in Bing’s performance of the song in the 1954 film, White Christmas. Some accounts claim that Berlin told his secretary, “I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it's the best song anybody ever wrote." While “White Christmas” may not be the best song ever written, it takes its rightful place as best Christmas song on our list.
Definitive Version: Bing Crosby (1947 re-recording)
Honorable Mention: The Drifters