For whatever reason, the holidays feel extra special this season. Probably because it’s December and we still haven’t taken finals yet (thanks, semesters) and we’re all dying for a taste of home, but, whatever. Let’s just blame Santa, reindeer and holiday magic instead. Seriously, if you haven’t been blasting a Christmas Pandora station since Thanksgiving, we’re a little worried. Why not get into the holiday spirit and check out a few of our favorite Christmas songs?
Though we all have mad love for Justin Bieber’s “Drummer Boy” featuring Busta Rhymes, we’re feeling a little sentimental this holiday season. Whether it’s an old classic or a cheesy standby, we’ve got you covered.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” Judy Garland | Ross Dickerhoof
Sometimes, the holiday season isn’t always as cheerful as we might hope for it to be. Maybe it’s because loved ones are unable to make it into town, maybe money’s a little short, but whatever the case may be, we can all have a “blue Christmas” sometimes. Naturally, we use melancholy Christmas music to cope. But which song to use? “River?” I’d rather not get my Prozac on this Christmas; it probably wouldn’t sit well with the turkey. “Blue Christmas?” Bah, humbug. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas?” Perfect.
Unlike “Blue Christmas,” which I’ve always found to be an incredibly dull mope through Pity Party Land that not even the great Elvis Presley could save (Sorry, man, just telling it like it is), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is just the right mixture of downcast and hopeful.
The swooning strings highlight the somber underpinnings of the lyrics (“Some day soon/We all will be together/If the fates allow”), but there are also flashes of hope for a brighter future alongside those somewhat ominous statements (“From now on/Our troubles will be miles away”). The song knows that times are hard now, but it’ll all turn out okay, right? That’s the best kind of comfort.
Since this song is such a classic standard, everyone and their dog has covered it. Sadly, a lot of the more prominent renditions don’t do it for me: Christina Aguilera’s has too much diva wailing, Zooey Deschanel’s is a bit too mopey and Colbie Callait’s is soul-crushingly blah. Only Frank Sinatra and Sarah McLachlan come close to recreating the magic of Judy Garland’s original, which is easily the best version. Her tender, hopeful tones and robust resolve are what make the song so poignant and full of both sadness and reassurance. It’s my musical comfort food: my song equivalent of macaroni and cheese or homemade chicken noodle soup.
Have yourselves a merry little Christmas (or whatever you celebrate), everyone. And for heaven’s sake, don’t O.D. on the downbeat holiday tunes. It gets to you.
“The Christmas Song,” Nat King Cole | Nikki Lanka
I’m especially picky about Christmas songs and the specific emotions I expect them to reflect. I want to remember learning to plunk out “Joy to the World” on the piano for the first time, or counting every second hand tick from 4 a.m. to late-enough o’clock before catapulting myself onto my parents’ bed, or noticing the tiny smile pulling at my grandpa’s cheek as he watched his grandchildren happily shred yards of wrapping paper from behind his round-framed glasses.
“The Christmas Song” makes me remember. The lyrics are simple. Four stanzas, four lines each. But each phrase elicits emotions so precise to Christmastime – Yuletide carols, turkey and mistletoe, excited children – that no impressive vocabulary is needed.
Nat King Cole playfully reminisces with the gently falling and rising strings behind him, as two cousins whom hadn’t caught up since last December would. No one does it better than him. The delicately ornamented piano ending is the perfect fade-out from the classic Christmas portrait he describes with his mahogany-smooth tones, like viewing a Norman Rockwell painting from behind a lightly frosted glass pane.
In just over three minutes, Cole encapsulates everything the holidays are supposed to do. He transcends generations. He reminds loved ones of their fondness for one another. And he brings about that ache in the area around your heart reserved for a specific, bittersweet longing for past happiness while hoping for the upcoming year to be just as special.
I like to think it will be.
“All I Want for Christmas is You,” Mariah Carey | Holly Coletta
A lot of people just assume that my favorite holiday song is “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.” It’s not. It’s Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Duh.
Mariah is pop diva royalty, so it’s only natural for her to have created the catchiest Christmas song of all time. Seriously, it is impossible to hate “All I Want for Christmas is You.” It has all the usual traits of glorious holiday magic: a slow-burn start with sleigh bells in the background; angelic perfect human voice declaring she doesn’t need material things like presents and Christmas trees; the perfect blend of R&B, pop and a doo-wop-ish layered chorus; a video of Mariah frolicking around all smiley and Christmas-y.
It works in part because it’s not one of those boring church songs that pop stars tried to make catchy (hey-o, “O, Holy Night” and “Silent Night”). Everyone wants to sing along and then pretend like they can hit the same notes as Mariah, including tons of other celebs. Their mediocre covers (cough, “Glee,” cough) should be super annoying, but they’re only mildly annoying because at least those half-assed attempts serve to remind us how awesome and irreplaceable Mariah’s version is.
“All I Want for Christmas” makes me want to snap my fingers, which is really saying something because I get hand cramps easily. It’s sort of disgustingly upbeat, but by the time it starts playing on the radio (and, trust me, it will play on the radio. Like, all the time.) everyone’s in a disgustingly upbeat mood anyway.
If “All I Want for Christmas is You” doesn’t make you at least consider tapping your feet or nodding your head, then you might be an android.
“Christmas Unicorn,” Sufjan Stevens | Isaac Noland
Sufjan Stevens is a veritable Christmas music factory. Scattered throughout his 10 (yes, 10) volumes of seasonal music are wildly catchy original songs such as “Christmas Unicorn.”
But this ain’t the regular “Jingle Bells” deal. The holiday season has become many things for many people. The massive expansion of the season combined with an emphasis on materialism has increasingly alienated people from the holiday for decades. Thanksgiving is now just a Black Friday in a world where Christmas is practically cannibalizing other holidays.
“Christmas Unicorn” is a brilliant title that draws parallels between the mythical creature and society’s vision of the holiday. The song opens with Sufjan taking on the persona of the “Christmas Unicorn” and listing off what Christmas actually is or has been, with lines such as “I’m a pagan heresy, I’m a tragical Catholic shrine” and “I’m a mystical apostasy.” I think the best one though is “I’m hysterically American.”
Sound like a bit of a downer? It’s not, because Sufjan is too smart. It’s a tongue-in-cheek reality check that help a listeners organize the conglomeration of ritual that is Christmas, and then embrace the whole weird mess. Because in the end, it’s still Christmas and that’s generally pretty cool.
Did I mention at about eight minutes in, the song turns into an homage to “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division? Well it does, and it’s perfectly fitting and more than a little awesome.
So remember, kids, as Sufjan says, “I’m the Christmas Unicorn. You’re the Christmas Unicorn, too. It’s alright, I love you.”
“Christmas Shoes,” New Song | Christian Law
There are so many Christmas songs that evoke the joy and optimism of the holiday spirit, bringing to mind snowy days spent with family wrapped up in blankets, warmth, love and spiked eggnog. But as anybody who has been alive for more than a year can attest to, this doesn’t make Christmas the hap-hap-happiest day of all for everybody. For every song spreading the love and gushing about how wonderful family is, there are two or three about breaking up, people dying, or general insanity that makes Christmas just a little less fun.
Enter “The Christmas Shoes,” a song that is content to roll around in its misery as long as it brings us with it. And you know what? It’s absolutely beautiful. For those who haven’t had their holidays ruined by this song, “The Christmas Shoes” tells the story of a poor, young boy buying shoes for his dying mother. When he doesn’t have enough money, the man behind him takes pity on the situation and pays for them. It’s simple, yet touching and evocative of the true meaning of Christmas.
The performance isn’t as memorable as the lyrics, but what makes this the best Christmas song ever is the fact that it makes listeners sing along to the most depressing lines ever sang in a holiday song. For example, here’s a small example: “Could you hurry sir?/Daddy says there’s not much time/You see, she’s been sick for quite a while/And I know these shoes will make her smile.” Yup, that song your family sings on the way to get a tree is about a young boy’s mother dying on Christmas Eve while he spends the rest of the family’s money on one last gift for her.
Of course, it could also be about a very tiny pathological liar who gets off on people buying him shoes. Whichever version makes your holiday burn brighter, bubs. Merry Christmas!
What’s your favorite Christmas song? Let us know by leaving us a comment or tweeting us @SpeakeasyMag!