Christmas songs have been more popular than ever in 2020. Since the calendar hit December 1, the Christmas anthems have been climbing up the UK charts, and they’re already dominating the Top 10. It’s understandable: given the year we’ve all had, a little merriness and festive cheer is exactly what we need to boost our spirits.
There’s also the fact that, for many of us, the frequency that we hear our festive favourites will have diminished given the absence of Christmas parties and endless days spent traipsing around the shops looking for the perfect gift. Of course, you’re still going to need some music to listen to while you do your Christmas shopping online, though.
When it comes to making your own festive playlist, you’ll probably want a perfect blend of tried-and-tested festive favourites – Wham!, Mariah, The Pogues and Kirsty, East 17, Slade – and slightly less familiar yuletide tunes. This list has both in droves, so put on your Santa hat and feel those Christmas vibes.
Count down our 50 favourite Christmas songs
Photograph: stop the cavalry
50. ‘Stop the Cavalry’ – Jona Lewie
Yes, it’s all Salvation Army brass band and tubular bells, but this peppy pop hit was penned as an anti-war anthem in the ’80s, Lewie living in fear of a nuclear fallout. It never made the Christmas number one spot (held back by John Lennon at no. 1 and no. 2), but it holds fresh relevance in 2020. ‘Wish I was at home for Christmas’, sings Lewie, expressing the forlorn longing of a soldier in the trenches hoping for family times round the table.
49. ‘Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)’ – The Ramones
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.
48. ‘It Doesn't Often Snow at Christmas’ – Pet Shop Boys
Originally released as a fanclub-only single in 1997, Tennant and Lowe's Christmas offering is a sweetly sardonic dance banger which name-checks Bing Crosby and 'this year's festive number one'. It captures the mix of ambivalence and warmth that Christmas can somehow conjure up pretty perfectly.
47. ‘Santa’s Got A Bag Of Soul’ – Soul-Saints Orchestra
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?
If the idea of a modern-day Christmas song makes you recoil in horror, then you clearly haven't heard Leona Lewis' take on child-like pre-Christmas excitement. It's got everything a good festive fave should have: too many bells, a yearning twinge directed at a distant lover on their way home for Christmas Day and vocal acrobatics that you're bound to recreate after too many bubbles on the big day.
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.
The 1950 classic gets an early-’90s ethereal keyboard treatment courtesy of Scottish dreamers the Cocteau Twins. Singer Elizabeth Fraser could have plumbed the aching sadness of snowman existence but instead her vocals are all shimmering colours and dancing forest fairies. When the overlapping harmonies come in around 1:36 you know that this Christmas is going to be pretty magical.
Ross's rendition of Macca's festive favourite is definitely a Supreme cover version – drenched in strings and sleigh bells, it sounds a little more wholesome and old-timey than the original, especially when you factor in her still-magical Soprano. It's one to roast chestnuts to, for sure.
42. ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ – Harry Belafonte
Trivia fans take note: this is the only song ever to hit Christmas Number One twice, for two totally different artists. ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ was recorded first by American calypso star Harry Belafonte in 1956. His slow-and-steady, ultra-classy arrangement was a massive hit and it still delivers the Christmas magic nearly 60 years later. You’ll have to wait and see whether Boney M’s 1978 disco version can do the same.
41. ‘Christmas in Harlem’ – Kanye West featuring Cam’ron, Jim Jones, Vado, Cyhi Da Prynce & Pusha T
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 braggadocious charm, this is a head-bobbing holiday treat.
Ariana Grande is no stranger to Christmas songs. While her surprisingly horny festive EP ‘Christmas and Chill’ is definitely worth a listen, it’s this wintry R&B bop about seeking reassurance from Santa Clause over a potential romance that’s her best entry into the Christmas canon. It’s got all the festive musical accoutrements that you could want and it’s all tied together by Grande’s sweet, breathy vocals, which soar over that final chorus like Santa in his sleigh.
39. ‘What Christmas Means to Me’ – Stevie Wonder
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.
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.
Bells! Glockenspiel! Triangle! The sound of a man beating his chest! This upbeat instrumental (based on Prokofiev’s ‘Troika’) gives those lesser-used orchestra instruments the ultimate Christmas present by pushing them front-of-stage. It’s a fast-paced big band huzzah that’s just the thing to stir everyone out of their post-Christmas lunch lethargy.
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.
If you needed any more proof that the ’70s were a weird, weird time, consider this: one of the decade’s most popular and enduring Christmas hits is a prog-folk version of a JS Bach setting of a carol dating back to the fourteenth century. Sometimes the old tunes are the best.
It sounds like a take on the classic ‘it’s Christmas, I miss you’ theme, but Chrissie Hynde’s frosty ballad gets much sadder when you know it was written for the band’s guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who had died the previous year. Honeyman-Scott’s replacement Robbie McIntosh pays tribute with some gorgeous arpeggios: the closest a guitar gets to the sound of snowfall.
Sure, Kelly Clarkson’s foray into festive music is kind of a shameless attempt to write a new ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’, but it gets away with it. Why? Partly because the songwriting offers just the right blend of schmaltz and Spector-style sass, but also because Clarkson’s superb vocal performance radiates a sincerity that’s completely infectious. Oh, and her high note towards the end is a moment.
32. ‘Put a Little Love in Your Heart’ – Al Green and Annie Lennox
Three greats touched this spectacularly cheesy song: Al Green, Annie Lennox and Bill Murray. Listening to this soulful cover from the ‘Scrooged’ soundtrack is like watching a great feelgood movie or eating a real buttery mince pie. Yeah, go on, put a little love in there.
31. ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ – Wizzard
You could just listen to this perfect slice of pure ’70s pop, from the tongue-in-cheek ‘ker-ching’ of a ringing till to the fade-out of a children’s choir and twinkling bells. You could do that. Or take the plunge into the strange acid trip of Wizzard live and witness Roy Wood’s haunted eyes set in a face dripping with snowy glitter. Scary Christmas.
30. ‘Dear Santa (Bring Me a Man This Christmas)’ – Weather Girls
It’s not just drizzle that gets The Weather Girls going. From the same album as ‘It’s Raining Men’ (and pulling all the same moves with a festive twist), ‘Dear Santa’ is a seasonal stormer that represents the grooviest Christmas list ever written. Bonus points for the ’fa-la-la-la-la’ backing vocals.
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.
Despite the fact it’s recorded by one of the greatest jazz musicians ever to walk the planet, this Crimbo song keeps a surprisingly low profile when the Xmas tunes are rolled out. It didn’t make too much of a splash for Louis, either, but you know what? It’s him having fun, as shown by the jolly, cheeky lyrics and jumpy trumpet lines that fuel the song. And when it comes down to it, Christmas should be fun. Good on you, Louis, let’s hope that Santa does indeed slip that pleasantly pleasant present under your door, as requested.
Think you had a bad Christmas last year when you burned the turkey? Spare a thought for Joni Mitchell, who’s heartbroken and wants to escape the Xmas merriment all around her. From the ‘Jingle Bells’-drenched-in-melancholy piano opening, it’s clear this isn’t going to be a jolly ride, but it’s still beautiful and delicate. By the end, all you’ll want to do is skate away with Joni (her oft-repeated cry throughout the song) and help mend her broken heart. Perhaps that’s why it’s one of her most covered songs, having been recorded by over 500 people.
26. ‘The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth’ – Bing Crosby and David Bowie
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.
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.
A bit like the ‘Frasier’ theme tune, it’s impossible to listen to this version of ‘O Tannenbaum’ (from the soundtrack to ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’) without doing the classic jazz lean-and-nod. Basically, press play and you’re suddenly cooler. This could be a good one to change up the vibe from Christmas lazing to some Christmas loving.
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.
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.
20. ‘Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto’ – James Brown
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.
Certainly the most well-known Christmas hip hop tunes and one of the best, too, Run DMC’s witty Crimbo tale is the story of Run finding Santa’s bill-stuffed wallet in the park on Christmas Eve. ’But I'd never steal from Santa, cause that ain’t right,’ says Run, in a fine show of festive spirit. It all makes for an ultimately catchy number that provides you with a bit of bounce if you’re feeling flat after too much Slade and Macca, or just too many mince pies.
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.
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.
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.
Ronnie Spector’s distinctive and sensual vocals could easily melt any Christmas snow. On this highlight from the classic Phil Spector Christmas album, she purrs about getting cosy under a blanket on a sleigh ride while her fellow Ronettes ‘ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ding-dong-ding’ in the background. Spector’s arrangement may be full of trilling bells and clip-clopping hooves, but the melody’s irrepressible warmth hints at the fact that this song was composed (by light orchestral maestro Leroy Anderson) during a July heatwave.
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.
10. ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ – John Lennon & Yoko Ono
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.
9. ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ – Brenda Lee
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.
Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s 1984 reaction to the Ethiopian famine, with contributions from Phil Collins, Sting, 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.
If you love new wave bands like Blondie and Talking Heads, this is surely the Christmas song for you. It begins cynically with singer Patty Donahue declaring ‘I think I’ll miss this one this year’, before an unexpected romance blossoms in the closing stages and warms her jaded cockles. As festive tunes go, this one’s as dry and delicious as champagne paid for by your boss.
6. ‘Fairytale of New York’ – The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl
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.
The power of Christmas nostalgia itself is greater than 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).
4. ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ – Darlene Love
Is this the most moving Christmas tune of all time? Probably – the combination of Darlene Love’s impeccable pleading vocal, Phil Spector’s gloriously tinselly production and Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry’s magical songwriting could make anyone, even the biggest Scrooge, melt like a snowman under a hairdryer. It’s just an absolutely perfect Christmas song.
A ballad of doomed romance, ‘Last Christmas’ 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.
2. ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ – Mariah Carey
If there’s one good thing to come out of 2020 it’s that, after 26 years, Mariah Carey’s Christmas classic has finally made it to Number One on the UK charts. Narrowly beating Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ (which, incidentally, has also never made it to Number One), it’s a feat that feels deserved – especially since this absolute festive belter has re-entered the Top 40 every year since 2007. It’s a song that has helped earn Carey the moniker of the ‘Queen of Christmas’ (soz Mrs Claus), something she seems to take very seriously with numerous Christmas tours and television specials, the latest of which made its way to Apple TV+. Looks like after all these years, the people of the UK have finally said to Mariah: ‘All we want for Christmas is you.’
East 17’s all-time Christmas classic wasn’t supposed to be a Christmas song at all. As the Walthamstow group’s songwriting member Tony Mortimer told us recently, it’s actually an incredibly sad song inspired by his brother’s suicide. That raw emotion seems to seep into the group’s gorgeously sombre four-part harmonies and even the inevitable Christmas song sleigh bells, producing a peerless exercise in festive melancholy.