Top 25 Songs of Christmas

Trey Parker – “Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo” – (1999)

If you haven’t caught on, this week I’m featuring the most juvenile of all the Christmas songs I’ve got. Then don’t come stranger than this, I promise. The Mr. Hankey episode of South Park was actually from the series’ first season and it remains one its most classic and well-known episodes. Trust me, like most of the show, this song is hilarious if you’re 12. Anyway, I promise less toilet humor next week. Christmas songs don’t get weirder than this.

Bob Rivers – “What if Eminem Did Jingle Bells?” – (2002)

We try and feature a few Christmas songs each year, but this year we’re getting a little shtick-y with some comedy songs. Some, like this one, seem awfully dated. I think everyone respects Eminem at least a little bit and that makes this seem a little over the top. But it is pretty well done. The title pretty much says it all, and whoever is singing sounds enough like Eminem to make it realistic.

Celine Dion & Andrea Bocelli – “The Prayer” – (1998)

Here’s a Christmas song that really isn’t a Christmas song. It’s religious – but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily about Christmas – even if it was on Celine Dion’s 1998 Christmas album (it was on a standard non-Holiday Andrea Bocelli album). It was featured in the movie Quest for Camelot and won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar and a Grammy. The vocals here, as you can probably guess, are amazing. Celine re-recorded this with Josh Groban in 2008, but the original is better. It was a minor hit in the U.S. and a slightly bigger one in Canada.

Frank Sinatra – “Jingle Bells” – (1957)

Let’s be honest, “Jingle Bells” is a kids song. But nobody does it better than Frank. I love the “I love those J-I-N-G-L-E bells.” And then Sinatra comes in singing – you can almost hear the scotch in his hand sloshing around as he sings this one. The background vocals are great too. This is one of my favorite Christmas songs. It just came from that perfect time (the 1950s) for music like this. For me, picturing a “traditional” Christmas scene almost always ends up as a snowy 1950s American scene. With a song like this playing in the background.

Leonard Bernstein – “Carol of the Bells” – (1997)

The Carol of the Bells is the coolest instrumental Christmas song there is. It’s based on a traditional Ukrainian folk chant – it’s Eastern European, so that explains why it’s kind of dark and brooding. It’s a very popular Christmas tune and this is one of the more solid (non-re-worked) versions. There are versions with a chorus, and this one lacks it. But it doesn’t matter.

Jimmy Durante – “Frosty the Snowman” – (1969)

Frosty the Snowman is everybody’s favorite snowman. The song was first recorded by Gene Autry in 1950 and became a top ten hit that year. In 1969, there was a famous animated TV special with the same title. The song was re-recorded by the narrator of the TV program – comedian Jimmy Durante (it was his last appearance in film). His gravelly voice is very recognizable and the song also has a backing chorus. To me, this is the definitive version of this holiday classic.

Mannheim Steamroller – “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – (1988)

A Fresh Aire Christmas has sold over 3.5 million copies since it was released in 1988. Mannheim Steamroller – and Chip Davis and Jackson Berkey (the two men behind the band) – is a group mostly known for its New Age take on Christmas classics. They have other albums as well, but Christmas is what they’re known for. Hark! The Heralds Angels Sing is a Christmas standard. The carol dates back to the early 1700s when it was originally written by Charles Wesley. But the music was slow and kind of dark… so 100 years later Felix Mendelssohn wrote a more upbeat version and Mannheim Steamroller have updated it a little more.

Bing Crosby – “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” – (1943)

Here’s a classic. It was written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent and first recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943. It peaked at #3 on the Hot 100 in 1943. What I love about it is the wartime message within the song if you listen to it and think about what it must’ve meant to people in the mid-1940s who were trying to celebrate Christmas while their family members were freezing in Europe on fighting for their lives on some faraway island in the south Pacific. It’s a wonderful song from a time when life was both simpler and more complicated.

Amy Grant – “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” – (1992)

Amy Grant, whose career began in Christian music eventually found herself atop the Adult Contemporary scene in the early-1990s. In 1992, she released this Christmas album, Home for Christmas. Strangely, this song was actually a #1 hit on the very popular Christian Radio-Adult Contemporary chart. It’s an original, written by Grant and songwriter Chris Eaton. This album was massively successful, selling over 2.5 million copies as of December 2012. Oh, and yes, I completely realize how strange it is to follow a Godsmack song with a Christian Christmas hit from Amy Grant. But we’re into Christmas music season at least through Christmas.

Adam Sandler feat. Rob Schneider & The Drei-Dells – “The Chanukah Song Part III” – (2002)

Chanukah was early this year, so here – in our first post for December 2013 – is the final (or at least, the most recent) version of Adam Sandler’s Chanukah Songs. Adam Sandler performed it live on the opening of an SNL episode near the end of 2002 with Rob Schneider singing a verse and the children’s choir The Drei-Dells providing background vocals. It’s the normal run-down of Jewish (or part-Jewish) celebrities, the best of them being “Tom Arnold converted to Judaism, but you guys can have him back.”

Percy Faith & His Orchestra & Chorus – “We Need a Little Christmas” – (1966)

“We Need a Little Christmas” is a song that was written for the Broadway musical Mame. It was first recorded by Angela Lansbury, the star of the original Broadway production. But, honestly, her voice is so grating that her version of the song is nearly unlistenable. It’s way to show-tune-y. This is a fairly popular rendition with a simple choral arrangement instead of one booming female voice. Likely, this is the one that’s been playing on the radio since Thanksgiving.

Bruce Springsteen – “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” – (1985)

This awesome live version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” was released by The Boss in 1985. It’s one of my favorite tunes by him. The song was originally written in 1934 by John Frederick Coots & Haven Gillespie and first performed on Eddie Cantor’s radio show. It was an overnight success and has been recorded by everyone under the sun ever since. This is the best version – with that blaring sax and Bruce’s raspy lyrics. All the best Christmas songs have saxophone solos, it seems. This is good stuff.

Chuck Berry – “Run Rudolph Run” – (1958)

Well if it’s a rockin’ Christmas you want, look no further than one of the masters of rock-n-roll, Chuck Berry and his most famous Christmas tune. It has been covered a billion times – as have all Christmas songs by this point, but it was a solid hit for Berry in 1958 – charting at #69 on the Hot 100. It appeared in the U.K. in 1963 and went to #36. It found a second life in movies, having appeared in Home Alone, among others. And, without the lyrics, you wouldn’t be able to tell this is a Christmas song – but you would definitely know it is Chuck Berry.

Vaughn Monroe & His Orchestra – “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” – (1946)

Well this is one of the best-selling songs of all time. It was written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne in 1945 – in July. In California. On one of the hottest days ever recorded. Vaughn Monroe recorded it later that year and it became a smash hit in 1946 – in fact, hitting #1. Strangely, even though this is always played during Christmas and is widely regarded as a Christmas song, it never mentions Christmas. It’s our association of snow and Christmas that makes it a “Christmas song.” Many people have recorded this song, but this was the first – and remains the definitive version.

Joni Mitchell – “River” – (1971)

From the beginning piano notes that are reminiscent of “Jingle Bells” to the first line of the song that talks about Christmas and cutting Christmas trees. I don’t think Joni Mitchell set out to write a Christmas song – but that’s more or less what this is. She’d call it a folk song about a relationship falling apart during winter. This is one of her most famous songs and one of her most covered. The song is simple and nice. A swell Christmas tune, although not your standard fare.

Kenny G – “Winter Wonderland” – (1994)

Kenny G’s “Winter Wonderland” – as with most of Kenny G’s Christmas music – evokes sounds of New York to me. I guess it’s because I grew up watching Christmas movies that take place in New York City and depending on the decade in which they were released, featured a saxophone-laden Christmas-themed score. It’s soft, sit-by-the-fire type Christmas music. This is from Miracles: The Holiday Album, the best-selling holiday album since 1991 and perhaps of all time – it’s gone platinum 8x.

Adam Sandler – “The Chanukah Song, Part II” – (1999)

While the original “Chanukah Song” has kind of become a Christmas music classic, Part II doesn’t receive quite as much airplay (at least, not anymore). I don’t think anyone saw it coming – but, as you can hear in its first live performance – everyone knows some of the reused lyrics. It’s the list of people that has changed. There’s some fun to be had, like when he references himself as Happy Gilmore and that O.J. Simpson is “still not a Jew.”

Kenny G – “Auld Lang Syne (Millennium Mix)” – (1999)

Why is Kenny G always barefoot on his album covers? Put some shoes on, it’s weird. Bizarrely, this album charted in the top five on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. This version of the song was a top ten hit in the U.S. at the end of 1999. It features sound clips – a walk through the history of the 20th century. It made everybody nostalgic, and since everyone thought the world was about to end, I guess that was a good thing. The song is less about Kenny G, really, and more about the sound clips which are pretty interesting. It’s like a first-hand version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Plus, “Auld Lang Syne” is the New Year’s song for whatever reason (it’s got something to do with Scotland).

U2 – “New Year’s Day” – (1983)

I was trying to come up with songs about the New Year and, well, this one had the holiday’s name in its title so I figured it would work. War was U2’s third album and, in all honesty, the first one with any songs of note (I almost said, “The first one that mattered” but didn’t want to be attacked by Bono and called a simpleton for “not understanding” their early work). Anyway, this was the lead single and it brought the band commercial success. Of course, the lyrics have to be about a plight somewhere in this world (in this case, Poland). The bassline is pretty groovy and it works well as a rock song – not so much as a New Year’s song, other than the title.

Vince Guaraldi – “Linus and Lucy” – (1964)

This isn’t technically a Christmas song but the only airplay it gets is every year around Christmastime. It’s famous for this because it appeared in the television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas and also on that soundtrack, in 1965. It’s a well-known piece of music and every time I hear it I picture Schroeder sitting at a mini-piano playing it while all the Peanuts characters dance around him. Some people think that this is the “Peanuts theme” but that’s not really true either, even though it did appear in most of the TV specials. Technically or not, in my mind, this is the song when it comes to Peanuts.

John Mellencamp – “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” – (1987)

This is easily the best version of this song. Mellencamp really takes a 1950s Christmas standard (kinda) and rocks it. This was another radio-friendly Christmas hit from the first charity album A Very Special Christmas (there are a series of them) that benefitted the Special Olympics. The other big hit from this was Bruce Springsteen’s “Merry Christmas Baby.”

This song has a very country-rock feel to it. It’s like a hillbilly orchestra going on in the background. Someone is clearly playing the cow-bell and I’m pretty sure that’s a banjo… in a Christmas song? Very cool.

Judy Garland – “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – (1944)

It seems like there were a bunch of great, classic Christmas songs recorded in the 1940s – and there were. This song originally appeared in the film Meet Me in St. Louis, sung by Judy Garland. Frank Sinatra did another popular version later on. Mel Torme’s version appeared in Home Alone and is also very popular. Just another one of those 20th Century Christmas tunes.

Nat King Cole Trio – “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)” – (1946)

I have the sneaking suspicion that the video I linked to above is seasonal… but maybe not. Maybe Nat King Cole didn’t get a YouTube account until August of 2011. Who knows. This is one of the most beloved Christmas songs of all time. The title isn’t terribly original but the song itself is pure class. Most people refer to it by its opening line “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” It’s been covered by just about everyone – Cole recorded it first, although it was written by Mel Torme, who later recorded it himself. According to BMI, this is the most performed Christmas song. Not hard to see why.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra – “Wizards in Winter” – (2004)

This is a rockin’ Christmas song by the people who know how to rock Christmas better than anyone else. It was released toward the end of 2004, but in 2005 it took on a life of its own. A guy in Ohio put up 16,000 Christmas lights in his yard and synchronized them to this song. Then he broadcast the song on a low-frequency radio from his house so anyone driving by could listen to it and watch the show. It caught on online and was eventually used in a Miller commercial. In fact, the “Official” video for this song (from Atlantic Records) is the video of that guy’s house. TSO really grabbed some new fans because of it.

Adam Sandler – “The Chanukah Song” – (1994)

Yeah, Chanukah is a Jewish holiday but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a great Christmas song. There have been sequels (we’ll get to them individually) but this is the original and the best. “Guess who eats together at the Carnegie Deli, Bowser from Sha-Na-Na and Arthur Fonzarelli.” That’s a lyric. When played on the radio the words “marijuana-icah” is often removed for whatever stupid reason. “O.J. Simpsons: not a Jew.” Not sure when Chanukah starts, but Happy Chanukah anyway!

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