As Noddy Holder once screeched dementedly: it’s Christmas! That means mince pies, marathon TV-watching sessions and, yes, Christmas songs. Although you might have heard some of the anthems below so many times before that you’ll want to want to perforate your eardrums with a candy cane – don’t! You'll regret it later, and many festive pop songs are great works of art.
If you really, properly listen to our countdown of the Top 50 festive tunes, you might just find your heart filling up with Christmas joy. Feel free to pilfer our playlist for your Christmas shindig too: it should break the ice. And that’s snow joke (sorry).
Did we miss out your festive favourite? Let us know in the comments box below or tweet us at @TimeOutMusic.
Written by Rachel Aroesti, Jonny Ensall, Danielle Goldstein, Sophie Harris, Oliver Keens, James Manning and Tom Slater.
Slade – 'Merry Xmas Everybody'
Noddy Holder and his troupe of platform-wearers continue to blight our television screens each December with their frightening fashion sense. There’s a reason for that, of course. It’s the joyful simplicity of 1973’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, which is guaranteed to inject that euphoric, slightly drunken, Christmas-love vibe into the festive season.
Gruff Rhys – 'Post Apocalypse Christmas'
Believe it or not, this is the most upbeat number on Gruff Rhys’s ‘Atheist Xmas’ EP – and all the better for it. The jaunty bass line and glam guitar solo serve as perfect foils to the song’s less-than-jovial content, allowing Rhys to attack cheesy Christmas sentiment with a smile rather than a sneer.
Vince Guaraldi Trio – 'Christmas Time is Here'
The world first fell in love with this jazzy, choral ditty in 1965 when it featured in the Peanuts TV special ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’. As well as being the perfect soundtrack to a small boy’s incurable miserablism, it’s also pretty darn lovely with friends, family and a glass of wine on Christmas night.
The Ramones – 'Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)'
Joey Ramone’s plea to his lover to put their scrapping aside for the holidays is undoubtedly the punk Christmas anthem. Beneath its acquiescent lyrics, mind, is a typically fiery Ramones riff that’s more likely to fuel high tensions rather than ease them around a warring Christmas dinner table.
Soul-Saints Orchestra – 'Santa’s Got A Bag Of Soul'
This funky-as-you-like number might sound like rare groove from ’60s America, but is actually the product of mid-’90s German band The Poets of Rhythm, playing under a different name. Who cares about the provenance, however, when the beats are this big?
Shonen Knife – 'Space Christmas'
This track from everyone’s favourite all-gal, Japanese punk-pop band may not make one jot of sense, but it’s positively dripping in youthful Christmas cheer. Anxiously awaiting the arrival of Santa, who apparently travels by ‘bison sleigh’, the girls hope for a spaceship so they can fly to Pluto and eat ice cream. Makes dry turkey and lumpy gravy round Auntie Jeane’s look rather unexciting, doesn’t it?
The Flaming Lips – 'Christmas at the Zoo'
With this typically oddball festive Flaming Lips track, Wayne Coyne seems to mount a Band Aid-like soapbox. Difference is, where Geldof had his charitable gaze placed firmly on humans, Wayne wants to know if zoo animals know it’s Christmas time. Unfortunately, when he goes to let them out, they’re unhappy but too sheepish to escape. Never mind, Wayne – at least you got a fun song out of it.
Greg Lake – 'I Believe in Father Christmas'
This is Christmas cynicism at its most tuneful. Intended as a denouncement of the increasing commercialisation of the festive season, Greg Lake inadvertently crafted a folk-prog Christmas classic. Ironically, it’s now one of the go-to songs for cash-cow Christmas compilations.
Aidan Moffat – 'Plastic Mistletoe'
This downbeat ballad bemoaning phony Christmases and festive abandonment appears on a 2011 Ep by Arab Strap alumnus Aiden Moffat. Don’t let the whinging put you off: Moffat’s lovely Scottish drawl and twanging guitar will soothe you after the trials of late-night shopping on Oxford Street.
Ryuichi Sakamoto – 'Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence'
The theme from the 1983 Japanese WWII film of the same name (in which Sakamoto starred alongside David Bowie and Tom Conti), was the beginning of the electro-pioneer’s incredibly successful career as a film-score composer. What’s that you say – World War II’s not very Christmassy? Who cares when the music’s this warm and nostalgic?
Kanye West – 'Christmas in Harlem'
This GOOD Music Christmas posse track serves up just about everything you’d expect from Kanye and Ko. Ye raps about unwrapping (removing the knickers from) his Christmas present, Jim Jones proposes we party till dawn and Big Sean says… well, not much at all. But with a slick soul-sampling beat from Hit Boy and bags of braggadocios' charm, this is a head-bobbing holiday treat.
Stevie Wonder – 'What Christmas Means to Me'
If you can’t be bothered to listen and find out, it turns out that singing carols, decorating the tree and, of course, being with his baby is what Christmas means to Stevie. Give it a listen anyway, though, because with that irresistible Motown swing and a harmonica solo thrown in this is (ahem) a cracker.
Bob Dylan – 'Must Be Santa'
The 2009 release of Bob Dylan’s festive charity album, ‘Christmas In The Heart’, was somewhat puzzling – but the song and accompanying video for ‘It Must Be Santa’ proved that it was all just good fun for a good cause. A rip-roaring, bellows-pumping, call and response number, it’s made all the more entertaining for hearing such gleeful lyrics sung in that trademark 40-a-day snarl.
Eartha Kitt – 'Santa Baby'
Leaving generations confused as to what exactly a 'sable' is (it's a fur coat, in case you're still wondering), Eartha sweetly serenades Santa in this 1953 comic Christmas classic.
Low – Just Like Christmas
Crammed full of sleigh bells and lyrically sparse it may be, but somehow indie rockers Low managed to do the unthinkable in 1999: create a genuinely cool Christmas song. 'Just Like Christmas' is a wistful, lo-fi, modern Christmas anthem.
Best Coast and Wavves – 'Got Something For You'
This collaboration between surf poppers Best Coast and Wavves explains an important lesson about the power delayed gratification. Yes, like that John Lewis kid, you're desperate to give your presents as much as you are receive them, but if you hold out until Christmas morning that tin of Quality Street will taste all the sweeter. Channelling the jangly loved-up folk pop of Sonny and Cher, this song has a certain cutesy, coupley charm that’s difficult to resist.
Paul McCartney – 'Wonderful Christmas Time'
Good old Macca. Whereas Lennon could be relied upon to make impressive political statements (when he wasn't laying about in bed all day), McCartney is the master of the charmingly naïve pop opus. This little ditty isn't going to shake up your festive paradigm, but it won't half stick in your head.
Bing Crosby and David Bowie – 'The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth'
This surreal encounter on Bing Crosby’s 42nd Christmas Special between The Thin White Duke and the good ol’ boy of American family TV has become the stuff of legend. After Dave mistakes Bing for a butler and Bing jibes at Bowie’s music taste, they launch into a medley of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘Peace On Earth’. The results are... astounding.
The Sonics – 'Don’t Believe in Christmas'
’60s garage rockers The Sonics have a festive temper tantrum, the cause of which is a serious lack of gifts. Indignant and self-righteous, this one is for all those who revert back to their childish ways come December 25th.
Casiotone For The Painfully Alone – 'Cold White Christmas'
The subject of this ballad is a young graduate who decides to go and make it on her own, only to find herself in a dead-end job and a mouldy flat. But with too much pride to face her family, she ends up spending Christmas alone, counting bed bugs. Like ‘Fairytale of New York’, this is Christmas music at its most poignant from the Californian synth balladeer.
Bobby Helms – 'Jingle Bell Rock'
Following its release in 1957, this rockabilly ditty topped the Christmas charts five years in a row, making it a veritable holiday classic even by the early ’60s. Today it retains a towering presence in the Christmas canon, as synonymous with the holiday as tinsel and paper crowns.
The Beach Boys – 'Little Saint Nick'
Complete with the BBs’ trademark harmonies and inoffensive, boyish charm, this is a Christmas song for all ages to enjoy. Why not decorate the tree in matching jumpers, like the Wilsons on the cover of their classic Christmas album?
Frightened Rabbit – 'It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop'
Nobody does haggard resilience quite like the Scots. On this heartstring-puller, Frabbits’ Scott Hutchison comments wryly on how all the fighting stops at Christmas time, only to recommence afterwards. Still, the high-spirited singalong ‘woahs’ of the chorus suggest there’s hope for love in January and beyond. A modern classic.
TLC – 'Sleigh Ride'
A million miles away from the cutesy jive of The Ronettes original, TLC’s 1993 cover is a sexy R&B slow jam. Along with their typically sultry harmonies, it has one of Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes’s most fun-filled raps. Something to enjoy on Christmas Eve by the fire, with a glass of wine and your boo.
Bob Seger – 'Sock It to Me Santa'
Even the shoutiest old rockers give it up for St Nick. A legend of Detroit’s rock scene, Bob Seger penned this rough ’n’ ready beauty in 1966. In part a tribute to Santa, it also shows love for another slightly portly and extravagantly-dressed man, James Brown (Seger knowingly incorporates JB’s classic ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’ in the chorus).
Sufjan Stevens – 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel'
No one does Christmas quite like our Sufjan. Not content with releasing a 42-track ‘Songs For Christmas’ album in 1996, this year he put out ‘Silver & Gold’ – a whopping 101-song collection celebrating Jesus’s birthday. Picking a favourite out of his festive back catalogue is tough, but we rate ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ – a reworking of the traditional favourite on ‘Songs For Christmas’ – as our favourite track. Sparse and haunting, but also uplifting, it’s a beautiful little call to rejoice.
Elton John – 'Step Into Christmas'
A tribute to Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’, according to Elton and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, ‘Step Into Christmas’ has proved to have at least some of the staying power of the super-producer: it’s been covered by both The Wedding Present and The Puppini Sisters.
Chuck Berry – 'Run Rudolph Run'
Recorded at the height of his powers, Chuck Berry rolls out his characteristic frenzied twelve-bar blues in reverence of everyone’s favourite reindeer. Despite not even managing to break the top fifty when it was first released, it has become an enduring holiday favourite and spawned plenty of covers.
The Ronettes – 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus'
A kid catches mum playing away with jolly old St Nick in this rather strange girl group number off the legendary Phil Spector-produced Christmas compilation, ‘A Christmas Gift For You’ (of which more later…). The more you think about it, the more inappropriate the set-up is: it seems to be more about serious marital problems than Christmas cheer. Nevertheless it remains a Christmas classic, and has been covered by everyone from The Jacksons to Amy Winehouse.
Destiny’s Child – '8 Days of Christmas'
With an injection of sass and unabashed materialism, Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle turned a cosy old holiday favourite into a bumping R&B Christmas carol for our times. A fine achievement.
Julian Casablancas – 'I Wish it Was Christmas Today'
Who knew The Strokes’ front man was such a big kid when it came to Christmas? So much so in fact that he – like many impatient young ‘uns – can’t even bear to wait for the 25th to roll around. This is a garage rock anthem about wishing it was Christmas Day, already.
James Brown – 'Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto'
The godfather of funk gives Father Christmas his marching orders, insisting he head straight to the ghetto and ‘tell ‘em James Brown sent ya’. It may raise a smile, there’s something serious at the heart of this all-horns-blazing tune: JB wants the kids on the wrong side of the tracks to enjoy the sort of Christmas he never did.
Elvis Presley – 'Blue Christmas'
The King adds some characteristic swagger to this cover of the 1948 country original. Spawning plenty of tributes of its own, Presley sealed the deal for ‘Blue Christmas’ – it’s now a festive staple.
Run-DMC – 'Christmas in Hollis'
In this hip hop Christmas classic, Run raps about finding Santa’s wallet while DMC lets us in on the traditional festivities in Hollis, Queens. Pop it on during the Christmas Day wind-down when you too feel like ‘coolin’ and chillin’ just like a snowman’.
Ike and Tina Turner – 'Merry Christmas Baby'
Tina howls and growls her way through Christmas, R&B style, and tops it all off with a spirited freestyle nod to ‘Jingle Bells’.
Tom Waits – 'Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis'
We should always take time during the festive season to think of those less fortunate, and they don’t get much more unfortunate than the subject of this growled piano ballad. It may lower the mood at Christmas lunch, but come on – it’s Tom Waits, he doesn’t do jolly.
Jackson 5 – 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town'
There are versions of this song by everyone from Bieber to Bublé, but Michael and the gang’s effort is the grooviest and the most fun. And since the song is mainly used as a bargaining tool by parents, it does make sense to have kids on the mic.
Chris Rea – Driving Home for Christmas
This loungey number about being stuck in Christmas traffic from husky-voiced housewives’ favourite Chris Rea has had surprisingly lasting appeal. Not only has it charted twice in the UK (reaching 53 in 1988 and 33 in 2007) but it even cracked Norway’s Top Three a few years ago. Clearly people of all generations and nationalities are able to enjoy this harmless slice of Christmas cheese.
Dean Martin – 'Baby, It’s Cold Outside'
Rat Pack star Martin recorded this version in 1959, fifteen years after it was originally sung by Frank Loesser and his wife at the end of a party – as a gentle suggestion that their guests should probably get going. The lyrics have caused some controversy (does the female companion really want to stay or is she being held against her will?) and this version offers little enlightenment, but by replacing the female part with a choir Dean gets himself out of some potentially hot water.
Brenda Lee – 'Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree'
Being Jewish, songwriter Johnny Marks didn’t celebrate Christmas, but in the ’40s and ’50s he wrote some of the greatest Christmas songs of all time. Among them are ‘Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer’, ‘I Heard The Bells of Christmas Day’, and this – an easy-on-the-ear rock ’n’ roll tune sung by a 13-year-old Brenda Lee, which really needs no introduction.
Slow Club – 'Christmas TV'
It’s a lesser-known festive favourite, but this ballad of December love is the definitive indie Christmas track. Slow Club’s boy/girl vocals tell a story of lovers desperately holding on to a moment of Christmas togetherness before they’re separated by life. It’s pretty and heartwrenching – and gives meaning to the phrase ‘Christmas twee’.
Band Aid – 'Do They Know It’s Christmas?'
Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s 1984 reaction to the Ethiopian famine, with contributions from Phil Collins, Sting, Bowie, Macca and Bono, was a publicity machine of epic proportions. It worked: ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ stayed at the top spot for five weeks, and was the biggest UK chart success of the decade. Put that all aside, and it’s also just a great (and surprisingly unconventional) pop song.
Kurtis Blow – 'Christmas Rappin’'
At the beginning of this somewhat unlikely 1979 Christmas smash, you can hear the moment at which hip hop arrived. Interrupting a starchy recital of ’A Visit from St Nicholas’, Kurtis Blow launches into his own inner city yarn about Santa showing up to a Harlem Christmas party, producing a Yuletide classic – and rap’s first major label hit.
The Waitresses – 'Christmas Wrapping'
As we get older Christmas begins to feel like little more than an inconvenience, but this bouncy new wave gem reminds us to resist the impulse to scream ‘bah, humbug’ and simply go with it. It may be the end of a tiring year, you may even be facing the possibility of a Christmas dinner for one, but, one way or another, the festive spirit will see you through. And if this song’s stomping disco rhythm section doesn’t pep you up, nothing will.
John Lennon & Yoko Ono – 'Happy Xmas (War Is Over)'
Euphoric and scathing, as hopeful as it is resigned, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s definitive festive peace-on-earth song has transcended its original anti-Vietnam War purpose to become a Christmas stalwart.
Bing Crosby – 'White Christmas'
It can be easy to forget the true meaning of Christmas. But, when you’re nogged out of your mind this year, try and picture a stable, with animals, shepherds, Santa, Cliff Richard. Look, here’s Jimmy Stewart from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, Twiggy from the M&S adverts and, er… Mr Blobby. The truth is the power of Christmas nostalgia itself is greater than the real memories. Hence, all of us can hark back with Bing on this Irving Berlin-penned ’40s number to a white Christmas just like the ones we used to know, even if our true past is full of crushing disappointments (December 25, 1993 – no Hornby train set). It’s a feeling that is tenuous and transient, yes, but also entirely wonderful.
Darlene Love – 'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)'
This song is cursed. It entered the world in 1963 (as part of ‘A Christmas Gift for You’) the same day that President Kennedy left it, and was withdrawn soon after. Years later, its producer Phil Spector was convicted of murder. Still feeling festive? Despite the horrific associations, it’s impossible to keep your cockles cool once this galloping soulful sleigh ride gets going. In typical Spector style, ‘Christmas’ is the sound of a huge group of people singing and playing their hearts out in one take. It radiates fellowship, community and togetherness and still manages to shine brighter than the star of Bethlehem.
The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl – 'Fairytale of New York'
Yes, you will hear it on repeat in the shops. Yes, the band are scraping the barrel a bit putting on an entire annual Christmas show, mainly for the purpose of playing this song live. But when was the last time you properly listened to Kirsty MacColl and The Pogues’ epic Big Apple-set fable? Shut your eyes and give it a go, and if you aren’t a nervous wreck by the fade-out, your heart (like that jumper from your nan) is two sizes too small. ‘Fairytale…’ is a perfect four-minute narrative of hope, despair and heartbreak – and, despite the profanity, it ends with love. It’s high time it finally made it to Christmas Number One.
Wham! – 'Last Christmas'
There are so many winning elements to Wham!’s 1984 smash that its status as a solid gold Christmas staple – covered by such diverse talents as Taylor Swift, Coldplay and Crazy Frog – is forever guaranteed. A ballad of doomed romance, it features sleighbells and synths, plus some truly memorable knitwear in the video. But what really sets ‘Last Christmas’ apart is George Michael’s heart-on-sleeve delivery: his genuine heartbreak horror (‘My God! I thought you were someone to rely on’) and wistful, sexy whispers. The words ‘Merry Christmas’ never sounded so sultry. And that’s what makes this song so very special (special).
Mariah Carey – 'All I Want For Christmas Is You'
It’s not the best-selling Christmas anthem (that’s Bing at number five) and heck, it didn’t even make it to Number One in the UK, but Mariah tops our list of the greatest ever festive songs for one good reason – it’s catchier than a Christmas cold. Originally released in 1994, this selfless plea to be with a loved one has everything: sleigh bells, pop hooks, the right balance of schmaltz and soul, and uplifting vibes strong enough to launch a jump-jet.
Sure, Wham! know their way around a chart-topper, but who wants to think about being jilted by an ex in the holidays? Darlene Love’s classic at number four shares a similar sentiment, but her bluesy howl can’t replicate the gaiety of Mariah’s falsetto. Nor can The Pogues’ rasping Shane MacGowan for that matter. The acid test of a great Christmas song is whether you get bored of it, and this one, we’re sure, is for life.