It’s that time of the year again. The time of the year when traditions are carried out faithfully and decorations are mounted precisely where they were a year ago. If you look close, you might even see contrasting dust layers form a sort of farmer’s tan where holiday spirit has offset natural progressions. The holiday season is like a snow-globe in that way, where unrelenting joy is self-contained and unalterable. So too is the music that we hear every single year, from the day after Thanksgiving until New Year’s. Only during Christmas will we sing along with hymnals that come straight from the Bible, yet never attend a church service. Here are the top ten songs that never go unplayed during the holidays. (You might even say they are played religiously, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.)
10. “The Hanukkah Song” by Adam Sandler
Because no other song exists for the Jewish holiday (aside from the “Dradel Song,” but who has stepped up to give that song any cultural relevance?), Adam Sandler’s parody song is taken semi-seriously as a contribution to the holiday line-up. In it, Sandler proceeds to list famous Jews (who aren’t necessarily actually Jewish) and make the religion seem cool. In updated renditions, Sandler might add a few more relevant celebrity names, but in essence the song hasn’t changed since it was first performed on Saturday Night Live.
9. “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” by Bruce Springsteen
Only the Boss can sing a tongue-in-cheek ode to the Fat Man in Red and mean it. He often performs this song live during the holidays, sometimes outfitting the E Street Band with Santa hats, and even though he didn’t pen the tune (that would be John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie), he now owns it, so to speak, as it is his rendition that gets annual airplay.
8. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee
Back when “rock n’ roll” was a relatively new concept, it seemed like the freshest thing you could sing about; think how many songs from the late-fifties-early-sixties contained some variation of the verb “rock” in their titles/lyrics, which is off-putting to place in the same genre as what we define as “rock” these days. Nonetheless Lee’s hit proved that the excitement of rock n’ roll surely carried on through the holiday season. For younger generations who think of music via iPods and not wooden family room radios, this song usually comes with the image of Macaulay Culkin in that scene from Home Alone where he throws a fake party using cardboard cutouts as shadow puppets.
7. “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms
Another song devoted simultaneously to both the spirit of “rock n’ roll” and that of the holiday season, this song is still featured prominently on radio stations that go right back to playing Nirvana and Coldplay as soon as that big ball drops. In the late fifties however (1957 to be exact), this song captured the aesthetic of the time, with vocal harmony backdrops, jingle-jangling guitars, and a wall of sound Phil Spector would be proud of.
6. “Let It Snow” by Dean Martin
This song has been sung many times over, but Dean Martin’s version has to be the definitive, and certainly finds itself a repeat offender as an invader of the public consciousness. Dean’s warm and silky voice is like a cup of cocoa, drank indelibly before that “delightful fire” he mentions in the tune. And there’s nothing like that cloistering big band we only wish could populate the top of the pop charts once more.
5. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Andy Williams
This song distinctly calls to mind the mall at Christmastime. Mostly because it is always played at the mall at Christmastime. Williams’ voice is a spectacle of plastic gleefulness unto itself, the likes of which could only be found elsewhere at a K B Toys (where you might even find this song playing as well, perhaps performed instead by the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus).
4. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”
Besides great music on the holidays, there are also great movies (and landfills worth of terrible ones). But the one animated movie character we all reacquaint ourselves at Christmas, aside from Rudolph and Frosty, is the Grinch. So when this song gets played on the radio time and again, it stands alone fine, but serves moreso to call to mind that 30-minute redemption epic that we could never possibly outgrow (even if we did grow three sizes that day). Often thought to be performed by Boris Karloff, the narrator, it was actually sung by the similarly deep-voiced Thurl Ravenscroft (and written by Dr. Seuss, words, and Albert Hague, music).
3. “O Holy Night” by Perry Como
This song transcends its Christian context as a powerful piece of music that finds new ways to burrow into your heart with each interpretation (that is sans contemporary pop renditions). When Bing Crosby sings it, his deep booming voice commands you, while Nat King Cole’s gently comforting voice adds an element of safety and assurance. But it is Perry Como’s version, his cooing, sincere-sounding sentimentality, that adds a lugubrious quality. Whatever version you hear, the epic climax, striking like a beam of golden light from the heavens, effectively brings you to your knees, and not just because the lyrics explicitly dictate such.
2. “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole
Also knows as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” Cole recorded the song four different times (twice in 1946, once in 1953, and again in 1961), but the version we all pay attention to is the latter, an orchestrally-embellished piece of timeless nostalgia. When you hear that soaring string section in the beginning, there’s no mistaking it. If ever a song evoked the very words being sung, a “roasting fire” and “turkey and mistletoe” helping to “make the season bright,” it is this electric blanket of a number, the perfect accompaniment to being happily trapped in a blizzard.
1. “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby
Perhaps the most referenced song in the holiday season, especially when it comes to weather forecasts, is this song written by Irving Berlin as sung by the bellowing Bing Crosby. It has, in fact, sold 50 million copies worldwide, the best-selling single of all time according to the Guinness Book of World Records. It popularity, it transcends the very holiday on which it only finds itself played. Perhaps, in retrospect, a better name for the song might’ve been “Green Christmas.”
Check out our YouTube Christmas Song playlist!