Posterity has an excellent ear for popular music. Setting aside gold records and Grammys, posterity smiles on kings (Elvis) and commoners (Sam Sham and the Pharoahs), with quality its only standard.
But Christmas is posterity’s weak spot. When December comes around, posterity is a sentimental fool, rewarding the good and the bad in equal measure. As a result, classics such as The Drifters’s “White Christmas” are forced to share the Yuletide spotlight with “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” and “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.”
Posterity just isn’t doing its job at Christmas time. That’s where this list come in. What follows are 16 of the coolest and most underplayed Christmas songs ever, songs that deserve at least as much airtime as John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
If you don’t like Christmas music, this list may turn you around. If you already love Christmas music, here are a few gems you may never have heard.
1. “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” – Elvis Presley (1957)
“Santa Claus” isn’t just Elvis’s best Christmas song, it’s one of the most powerful recordings of his career. Released by RCA, “Santa Claus” exhibits all the virile recklessness that characterized Elvis’s earlier work for Sun Records. The track plays like a spontaneous recording, as if Elvis and the band were playing the song for fun, and someone just happened to tape the session.
It’s not a knock against Elvis to say he sometimes overwhelmed his backing groups with the power of his voice and personality. But his best recorded moments came when the band shared the stage. “Little Sister” (1960) is a prime example, but that song has nothing on “Santa Claus.”
Bill Black (bass) and D.J. Fontana (drums) lay down a drunken, swaying rhythm that leaves pianist Dudley Brooks plenty of room to set the song alight, particularly during his manic solo, as Elvis sings with unbridled joy, supreme self-confidence, and devilish intent. It’s truly one of the great songs of the rock n’ roll era, Christmas or otherwise.
If you ever wondered how the young Elvis could have been considered too dangerous for television, the answer can be heard right here.
2. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – Allo Darlin’ (2010)
Yeah, I know. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is sort of creepy. After the female singer opens with, “I really can’t stay,” the male responds with, “Baby, it’s cold outside.” It’s all downhill from there. Polite exit lines from the girl are repeatedly slapped out of the air by a determined young man. Is she shy? Coy? Desperately trying to escape? It’s a bit ambiguous.
Originally recorded in 1949, the song has been covered countless times, and each recording is as disturbing as the one before, with two notable exceptions. The first is a very funny 2016 version by Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski, in which the man offers no resistance to the girl’s decision to leave (“You reserve the right to say no,” he sings). By the midway point of the song, he sounds genuinely confused about why she’s still hanging around.
But it’s a second non-creepy version, by Allo Darlin, that makes this list. Allo Darlin was the name under which Australian-born Elizabeth Morris released a Christmas EP in 2008. In working out her version of the song, Morris solved the problem of the song’s male half by simply ignoring it. Singing the female half of the duet, she leaves the man’s responses out entirely.
The change makes the song come alive. With Morris singing alone, the lyrics no longer indicate a desire to escape. Now they just indicate desire. We hear her stalling for time, trying to find reasons to stay while wishing the night would pass more slowly.
Whether performed out of expedience or genius, Allo Darlin’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” may be the definitive version, as it probably comes closest to expressing the songwriter’s original and innocent (we hope, anyway) intent.
3. “Santa Claus” – The Sonics (1965)
Recorded for the Etiquette EP “Merry Christmas,” “Santa Claus” is quintessential Sonics, showcasing the group’s work at the height of their pre-punk powers. Expressing impatience at Santa’s delayed arrival, hope for what St. Nick might bring (“a cute little honey, and lots of money”), and frustration as it dawns on him that Santa isn’t actually coming, lead singer Gerry Roslie doesn’t soften things up for Christmas, and neither does the band.
The lyrics are original, but garage rock fans will recognize the tune as “Farmer John,” a ’50s R&B song by Don and Dewey that was reworked into a garage rock hit by the Premiers in 1963. Fueled by the engine that drove the Sonics, the song never sounded better, at least not until…
4. “Santa Claus” – Wild Billy Childish and the Musicians of the British Empire (2007)
This loving and raucous cover of the Sonics’ original version begins with a spoken intro in which St. Nick is forced to explain to a bewildered little girl why her Christmas wish to sing “Santa Claus” with the Sonics isn’t going to happen.
Then Santa, the disappointed child, and the Musicians of the British Empire launch headlong into a no-holds-barred assault on “Santa Claus.” It’s one of the happiest and loudest Christmas songs ever recorded, and a great introduction (for the uninitiated) to the incredible catalog of Wild Billy Childish.
5. “Christmas” – Chuck Berry (1970)
The greatest rock and roller of them all, Chuck Berry is best-known, at least in Christmas terms, for “Run, Rudolph, Run.” He also recorded a beautiful rendition of “Merry Christmas, Baby” as well as an original song, “Spending Christmas.” But the Chuck Berry song that makes this list is “Christmas,” from the album “Back Home.”
Echoing the message of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” the song is a holiday version of Berry’s own “Memphis.”
“If I could only have an hour/of this holiday with you…” the song begins. The lyrics go on to portray a homesick Chuck Berry who will make it home if he can. But if we listen between the lines, we already know he’s not going to show. Sad and joyful by turns, the song is also a musical revelation. Berry’s fluid single-note guitar playing glides effortlessly above the tune, echoing the sentiments of the singer. “Christmas” is one of those rare songs that’s over long before you want it to be.
6. “Twelve Days of Christmas” – The Bird and the Bee (2008)
First, let’s stipulate that the “Twelve Days of Christmas” is an awful song. It’s the “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” of Christmas.
But there is one version of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” you can listen to without losing your mind. This one. Backed by multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin, singer Inara George beautifully weaves her way through all 12 ridiculously repetitive verses (and 364 gifts) with genuine variety in each of the twelve runs.
Said George: “…We changed the song so that every repeat is a completely different progression… by the end of the song we were kind of exhausted. It’s probably the craziest version of this song in existence.”
It’s also the best. Adjusting for the degree of difficulty and the fact that Bird and the Bee stuck the landing, this may be the greatest rescue of a bad Christmas song ever recorded.
7. “Santa Claus” – Sonny Boy Williamson (1960)
Sonny Boy Williamson is looking for his Christmas present, and nothing’s going to stop him. At least I think that’s what this song is about. Then again, maybe “Santa Claus” is about an obscure (at least to us) double-entendre relating to women’s dresser drawers. Who knows? Who cares?
Even if you don’t exactly know what’s going on (I don’t), the song is fun and hilarious. “Santa Claus” ranks alongside Dizzy Gillespie’s “Sunny Side of the Street” and Count Basie’s “Doggin’ Around” as one of the 20th century’s greatest musical expressions of unbridled joy.
8. “Linus and Lucy” – Los Straitjackets (2015)
Los Straitjackets love Christmas. The surf guitar band has produced two fantastic albums of Christmas standards, all played in their streamlined take on the sound the Ventures made famous. So what do you do after you’ve covered Christmas like a December blizzard? You play the Christmas cover that tops them all.
To be fair, “Linus and Lucy” is only a Christmas song because Vince Guaraldi wrote and performed it as part of the soundtrack to the 1965 TV special “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.” But it is a Christmas song.
Recorded live at Nick Lowe’s Quality Holiday review, “Linus and Lucy” virtually leaps out of the speaker. Hearing the song’s familiar tones as a Straitjackets cover is an instant high, delivering both a shock and a thrill. That’s what covers are supposed to do, and with their latest Christmas tune, the Straitjackets deliver again.
9. “Cool Yule” – Donny Burns (1964)
Actor Edd “Kookie” Byrnes scored a hit in 1959 with a novelty record entitled “Yulesville.” The song was a beat-style reading of a familiar holiday poem: “Twas the night before Christmas/and all through the pad/not a hep cat was stirring/ and that’s nowhere, Dad.” The song was cute and harmless, and one of the better entries of the genre of Christmas music that included “I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” and “Christmas, Don’t Be Late.”
It was five years later that Canadian rocker Donny Burns caught lightning in a bottle. He lifted the lyrics of Byrnes’ hit and set them to the sound of a revved up, horns-free variation on the Peter Gunn Theme. The result was “Cool Yule,” a hard-driving thrill ride of a Christmas song. Burns’ reading is smooth, charismatic and menacing; he’s in total control as the band glides under his vocals like an express train.
Clocking in at 1:43, “Cool Yule” is fast, fun, and inspired. It’s also the perfect closer for your holiday mixtape.
10. “Gonna Have a Merry Christmas” – The Nic Nacs (1950)
The Nic Nacs existed for all of one day: November 2, 1950. Consisting of female singer Mickey Champion and the doo-wop ensemble the Robins, the group recorded four songs in its brief tenure. Because the Robins were contracted to the Recorded in Hollywood label and the recordings were made for RPM, a new name for the group was required, and Nic Nacs was apparently the best idea anyone had that day.
It’s not exactly a recipe for Christmas music immortality, but magic happens when it happens, and “Gonna Have a Merry Christmas” is as beautiful an R&B ballad as you’ll hear. The Robins’ Bobby Nunn and Champion trade off lines that chronicle his decision to come home for Christmas and her willingness to take him back.
Their expressions of love, lust, and a willingness to put aside the past are set against an understated musical background so beautifully conceived it’s hard to believe the project was essentially one-quarter of a day-long session. Also listed under the name Mickey Champion, “Gonna Have a Merry Christmas” is a reminder of the emotional power of R&B in the pre-digital age.
11. “Merry Christmas, Baby” – Southern Culture on the Skids (1995)
Originally performed by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers in 1947, “Merry Christmas, Baby” has been the subject of incredible covers by Chuck Berry, Frankie Ervin, Mari Jones, Kenny Burrell, the Soulful Strings, Ike and Tina Turner, and the Bellrays. Any of these versions could have made this list, but it was Southern Culture on the Skids that made the final cut.
The band took on “Merry Christmas, Baby” the same year they recorded the landmark “Dirt Track Date” album, and the song could easily have fit in among the record’s 14 tracks. Detaching the original from its R&B roots, the band ups the tempo and transforms the song into something more akin to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Suzie Q” than a 1940s ballad. In the process, Southern Culture on the Skids provides more evidence (if any were needed) that “Merry Christmas, Baby” is one of the most enduring and versatile Christmas songs ever written.
12. “Just Like Christmas” – Low (1999)
Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas is You” is said to be the last original song to become a Christmas standard. Here’s a bet that Duluth, Minnesota’s Low are well on their way to wresting that distinction from Carey.
A release from Low’s “Christmas” EP, “Just Like Christmas” is played at a driving, insistent pace, and the mood set by Mimi Parker’s haunting vocals is somber throughout. The song’s spare lyrics offer only the barest information about a trip from Stockholm to Oslo, yet Parker’s simple tale contains everything necessary for a Christmas fable about being young and free. If it doesn’t exactly qualify as a sad song about happy times, “Just Like Christmas” is at the very least a sober, clear-eyed look at a golden moment.
13. “Christmas in Jail” – The Youngsters (1956)
The doo-wop group The Youngsters never scored a major hit during their brief career (1955-57), but this holiday tune is one for the ages.
Released on Empire Records as the flipside of the long-forgotten “Dreamy Eyes,” “Christmas in Jail” is as much fun as a song about a personal disaster can be. Written from the point of view of a man who “had a little too much to drink” and is “spending New Year’s Eve in the clink,” the group tells its tale without soaking the listener in Puritan reproach.
Still waiting (six decades later) to be used as a soundtrack by the Ad Council, the Youngsters’ Christmas classic is a public service announcement from a simpler time, an age in which we could confront (and forgive) our mistakes while determining to do better tomorrow (“Ain’t gonna drink and drive no more”).
14. “The Christmas Song” – Sergio Mendes (1968)
Have you ever tried to fit a square peg into a round hole, only to discover it works out fine? Neither have I. But maybe I’m not as cool as Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, who somehow managed to reshape Mel Torme’s Christmas standard to fit their unique take on bossa nova.
Recorded for the A&M Christmas compilation “Something Festive,” “The Christmas Song” is a little jarring upon first listen, but the shock of hearing this classic ballad transformed into bossa nova soon passes as the song soars to the same magical heights as the band’s takes on pop standards “Night and Day” and “Going Out of My Head.” “The Christmas Song” is a delightful journey back to the cool, clean side of the 60s.
Fans of bossa nova Christmas music (a select group, to be sure) should also look up the incredible “God Rest Ye” (2010) by Donna Lewis and Artie Traum.
15. “Lonesome Christmas (Part 1)” – Lowell Fulson (1950)
Lowell Fulson won’t be home for Christmas, but if he’s feeling bad about his situation, it doesn’t show. “Lonesome Christmas” is a gentle celebration of the Christmas that Fulson will be missing. Pianist Glen Brown and alto saxophonist Earl Brown nearly steal the show as they weave their way in and around Fulson’s vocals in inspired fashion while the rhythm section sways gently beneath it all.
At a mere 2:10, “Lonesome Christmas” is perfection, containing neither a single wasted note nor a throwaway line.
16. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – The Cadillacs (1957)
It’s just one man’s opinion, but “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” isn’t a very happy song (nor was it a very happy Christmas special, for that matter). A young reindeer with an unusual appearance is treated horribly until his tormentors realize the very quality they shunned in him has utility for their materialistic end. The fact that Rudolph is forgiving enough to guide Santa’s sleigh doesn’t change the fact that just about everyone at the North Pole has been acting like a jerk.
Over the years, I’ve grown to resent this song, at least until hearing the Cadillacs’ version. This change of heart comes mostly because when you’re listening to the Cadillacs sing “Rudolph,” it’s hard to resent anything.
Some songs appeal to small children. Some songs offer great musicianship. And others defy you to stay in your chair while they’re playing. “Rudolph” is all these and more. From the hand-clapped rhythms and spot-on saxophone solo to Rudolph’s understated response (“all righty…”) to Santa’s apology and request, this is the ultimate family Christmas party song.
If you’re planning a holiday mixtape, this is the place to start. And the place for me to end. Merry Christmas!