Christmas music gets a bad rap. Sure, most of it is overproduced, saccharine hogwash that no one in their right mind would listen to if they weren’t sozzled on red wine. But only most of it. A very small selection happens to actually be okay – and an even smaller subsection verges on the very good.
We asked some Smith writers to nominate their favourite Christmas tunes that don’t suck. The resulting playlist should be enough to get you merry without losing your musical edge.
Heidecker and Wood – "Christmas Suite"
Remember classic ’70s duo Heidecker and Wood? Of course you don’t; they didn’t exist until 2011, when comedian Tim Heidecker and long-time musical collaborator Davin Wood formed this part-parody, part-tribute band. This song is a pastiche of every over-earnest smooth rock trope exaggerated to a ridiculous – and catchy – extreme.
Chuck Berry – "Run, Run Rudolph"
Yes, this is just “Johnny Be Good” with reindeers. And yes, we are absolutely fine with that.
Marvin Gaye – "I Want to Come Home for Christmas"
When Marvin Gaye tells you he wants to come home for Christmas, you let him. How else are you going to hear his dulcet voice bang out this classic?
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – "Ain't No Chimneys In The Projects"
Before she left us for funkier pastures, Sharon recorded an entire Christmas album. This track is kind of a bummer, but her Hanukkah song is more upbeat.
Phil Spector and Darlene Love – "Baby Please Come Home"
Spector may be certified insane and is no doubt a bad person (who’d have thought), but that doesn’t detract from the fact that this song, sung by Darlene Love, might just be the best Christmas song ever written.
Run-DMC – "Christmas In Hollis”
This should have been insufferable (and the opening "sketch" certainly is), but when DMC drops the line "Christmastime in Hollis Queens / Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens", you know you just witnessed something beautiful.
The Kinks – "Father Christmas"
A lot of people think the Kinks only had one song. (Some think it was “Lola”, others claim it was “You Really Got Me”.) But the lovable lads from London actually had a whole bunch of songs, and this is definitely one of them.
David Bowie and Bing Crosby – "Little Drummer Boy"
Is this a good song? It’s certainly a funny song, though probably not intentionally so. Either way, it’s got a place in our hearts and Christmas playlists – if only because it's an excuse to listen to Bowie one more time. Or re-watch this weirdly on-point reenactment care of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly.
Mud – "Lonely This Christmas"
We have no idea who Mud were (still are?), and given how close this is veering towards cheese-town, we’re not sure we need to know. But if you close your eyes, you can almost picture Elvis singing this. Which we’re totally fine with.
Randy Newman – "Christmas in Cape Town"
More evidence that the sadder the song, the better the Christmas ditty. This one’s a little on the political side (it’s about apartheid), but that only makes us like it all the more.
Bruce Springsteen – "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town"
Okay, this is a little cheesy. But a) it’s the Boss, and b) it’s worth it for the simple joy of seeing Silvio from The Sopranos refuse to wear a Santa hat.
John Fahey – "Joy to the World"
John Fahey is the greatest modern folk guitarist most people have never heard of. His Christmas album isn’t the zenith of his work (whose is?), but it’s nice – particularly if you’re after something a tripe more traditional.
The Pogues – "Fairytale of New York"
It certainly isn’t merry, but that’s part of what makes this ballad about a couple who've fallen on hard times so special. That and frontman Shane MacGowan’s unique “singing” style.
The Ramones – "Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)"
At their best, the Ramones were a Beach Boys cover band with the musical chops of the Sex Pistols. This song is certainly not the Ramones at their best. But it’s nice to see them give the festive season a good hot go.
Low – "Just Like Christmas"
We have no idea if this is a sad Christmas song or a happy one. It’s probably both? Which must be why we like it so much.
LCD Soundsystem – "Christmas Will Break Your Heart"
Especially if you listen to this song, it turns out.
LCD Soundsystem – "Oh You (Christmas Blue)"
Same band, same downer vibe. Different beat, though.
The Flaming Lips – "Christmas at the Zoo"
The zoo actually seems like a relatively tame place for the Flaming Lips to spend Christmas, when you think about it.
Sufjan Stevens – "Star of Wonder"
Can you imagine how many Christmas sweaters Sufjan probably owns? Anyway, here's just one out of literally dozens of Christmas songs he's penned over the years.
Tim Minchin – "White Wine in the Sun"
Proof that the religious don’t have a monopoly on getting a little sappy – in a good way. No, we’re not crying. That’s just white wine in our eyes.
Iggy Pop – "White Christmas"
Iggy does his best Leonard Cohen impression with this ambling cover.
Cat Power – "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"
Another cover, this time by the ever mopey Chan Marshal. After a few glasses of port, you might even be tempted to sing along.
Christopher Lee – "Little Drummer Boy"
We knew Christopher Lee, aka Saruman, had released a metal album before he passed away. But we had no idea it featured this disputed classic. It doesn’t quite gel, tonally speaking, with the other songs in this playlist, but it’s good to have on hand as a soundtrack for the inevitable family spat.
Contributors: Myke Bartlett, Genevieve Callaghan, Toby Fehily, Chris Harrigan, Ronan MacEwan, Ben McLeay, Jo Walker