As soon as Thanksgiving is over, I usually fire up my ever-expanding playlist of Christmas music for the drive to work the next day. I’m not the type to listen to it nonstop until the big day arrives, but I like having it at hand whenever the mood should strike.
“Why not just tune in to a certain radio station that has Christmas music available all the time?” you might ask. Well, in the words of Forrest Gump, “You never know what you’re gonna get.” Too much potential to be subjected to some sonic monstrosity from the likes of Michael Bublé or Josh Groban or [insert ANY country singer here].
So I craft and cultivate my playlist, and guarantee that I don’t have to wade through anything I don’t like just to potentially get to something I do.
If you enjoy Christmas music at all, or have a family party or work get-together in the next few days that might benefit from some pleasant background noise, I suggest you try it. Why leave it up to the fickle whims of some faceless programmer or computer algorithm when you can make your own Ultimate Christmas Playlist?
For my own, I set a few fast and loose rules. I settled on 25 songs because … well, why not? More is too much work for this exercise. And fewer — well, have you noticed how short many Christmas songs are? You need a little lasting power. Beyond that, I decided to limit myself to one song per artist. You could easily put together a solid list consisting solely of the likes of Bing Crosby, Burl Ives, Gene Autry, Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis, but what fun would that be? Furthermore, though I love a great many of the old standards, I also wanted a mixture of (relatively) newer fare.
Oh, and the most important rule — absolutely, positively, inarguably, incontrovertibly, don’t even bother to argue … no versions of “Hallelujah.” No humbuggin’ way.
OK, then. Without further ado (and with apologies to those sure to be incensed at my exclusion of the likes of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen — sorry, not sorry), the 25 songs in my Ultimate Christmas Playlist are …
1. “Feliz Navidad” — José Feliciano
Yeah, it’s monotonous and repetitive (and says the same things over and over again), but it’s undeniably fun and catchy as hell. I don’t know how anyone can listen to it and be in a bad mood.
2. “The Little Drummer Boy” — The Harry Simeone Chorale
The interplay of the women’s and men’s parts, that tight snare drum, the crescendo of drama — it all works.
3. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” — Mariah Carey
She may be an insufferable drama queen to anyone who has to personally deal with her, but for you and me, that can’t diminish the girl-group harmonies and soaring vocals in this bit of pop perfection. Also, I love the movie “Love, Actually.” (And no, I’m not embarrassed.)
4. “Christmas / Sarajevo 12/24 (Instrumental)” — Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Many may not consider rock and roll histrionics appropriate for Christmas music, but this song clearly and emphatically proves how very wrong they are.
5. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” — Bing Crosby
Obviously, there are many versions of this tune, but Crosby’s smooth delivery, backed by an understated choir and subtle instrumentals, makes this one my favorite.
6. “Keep Christmas With You All Through the Year” — Cast, “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street”
The original track from one of my favorite Christmas movies ever remains a sweet and poignant admonition to always maintain the spirit of the season. (Bonus points because my sister-in-law Carrie, an adopted Alaskan Eskimo, convinced my wife in their youth that she was the girl with the solo at the 1:58 mark.)
7. “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” — Darlene Love
I first heard this one in a scene in the movie “Gremlins” and instantly thought, “Wow, what a powerful voice!” That assessment hasn’t changed.
8. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” — Band Aid (1984)
The all-star collaboration fundraiser for African famine relief forever burned into my memory banks the sound of U2’s Bono belting out, “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of yoooooooou!”
9. “Jingle Bell Rock” — Bobby Helms
For some reason, no matter how much we practiced this back at Philo T. Farnsworth Elementary for our annual Christmas assembly, we never got it to sound quite like this. Curious.
10. “Last Christmas” — Wham!
A dose of pure ’80s synthpop could not cure George Michael of a serious case of holiday heartache.
11. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” — Brenda Lee
There’s just something about her sassy delivery and occasional odd inflection (“In the new old-fash-uh-ioned way!”) that does it for me.
12. “Silent Night” — Pentatonix
I listened to a dozen incarnations of this song trying to pick a favorite, ultimately settling on this one for the beautiful gravity lent to the lyrics by the group’s a cappella harmonies.
13. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” — The Ronettes
The 20-something seconds of standard orchestral intro suddenly giving way to Ronnie Spector’s nasally pop yowl catches me off-guard every time, and I love it.
14. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — Kelly Clarkson
Whether you like “American Idol” or not, she’s got a hell of a voice, as she ably demonstrates in belting out that “… the highest bough!” near the end.
15. “Let It Snow!” — Dean Martin
Perhaps the omission of Sinatra can be assuaged a bit by the inclusion of his Rat Pack compadre Dino? Regardless, Martin brings a rakish charm and charisma to the tune.
16. “Carol of the Bells” — Mannheim Steamroller
This one’s straight from my childhood, as my mother had an affinity for Mannheim Steamroller for whatever reason. I’m not the world’s biggest synth fan, but this was a standard-issue holiday track for anyone who lived in the ’80s and ’90s.
17. “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” — Jackson 5
I know some people like Bruce’s version — complete with a naughty-or-nice assessment of the E Street Band and (ugh) sax solo — but young Michael’s high-pitched, high-energy rendition gets the nod from me.
18. “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” — Ramones
The Queens punk legends’ entry is perhaps not standard holiday fare — with a plea for tranquility on the home front — but it belongs nevertheless because … well, because the Ramones are awesome. Duh.
19. “A Holly Jolly Christmas” — Burl Ives
Another old-school entry, notable for the ease with which the earnestness drips off Ives’ tongue.
20. “Thank God It’s Christmas” — Queen
If Christmas music is intended to evoke angelic voices, then it’s only right that Freddie Mercury — indisputably the greatest rock singer of all time — appear with his equally talented bandmates.
21. “Winter Wonderland” — Leona Lewis
The woman has got some pipes. Seriously — this performance is unadulterated joy vocalized.
22. “Christmas in Hollis” — Run DMC
The Queens emcees interpolate “Jingle Bells” into a funky, beat-driven masterpiece that is the best holiday rap of all time. (And yes, of course there was lots of competition.)
23. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” — Johnny Mathis
In an episode of “M*A*S*H,” Col. Potter once opined about a 13-year-old bottle of scotch that “There ain’t enough O’s in ‘smoooooooth’” to do it justice. Same goes for Mathis’ vocals here.
24. “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)” — The Darkness
The 21st-century Brit retro-glam outfit sneaks in a surprisingly tender and sweet message about longing and loneliness underneath layers upon layers of electric guitar bombast.
25. “Oi to the World” — No Doubt
A tale of violent encounters between a punk band and some skinheads isn’t the most traditional holiday fare, but its underlying moral of love and unity fits the season’s spirit in an off-kilter sort of way, and is a fun listen besides thanks to that killer bass line, those horn flourishes, and the usual high energy of the Gwen Stefani-led Orange County ska-poppers.