Some of us prefer our Christmas music on the pensive side, with wistful lyrics about dusky snowfalls and memories. It’s not joy being sought, but permission to wallow in melancholy.
Others relish the frisky sounds of sleigh bells and triumphant cascades of horns that embellish so many holiday classics. The season doesn’t go into effect until they’ve literally rocked around the Christmas tree.
There just might be a Christmas song for all tastes – jolly to melancholy – so corralling them into one list is not only futile, but impossible.
Still, we try.
Our ultimate Christmas guide touches on classic and current artists with rock, country, R&B and straight-up pop thrown in. Maybe you’ll find something to add to your holiday cheer … or prompt a tear.
1. ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,’ Judy Garland
Songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane have said the first version they wrote for Garland’s film “Meet Me In St. Louis” was so sad, she wouldn’t sing it. Good to know that this is the happy version.
2. ‘All I Want for Christmas is You,’ Mariah Carey
It sounded like a classic upon its arrival, and it’s still the most delightful inductee in the hall of modern Christmas songs.
Santa Claus and Mariah Carey perform during a pre-tape performance for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center on Nov. 27, 2012.
3. ‘Last Christmas,’ Wham!
George Michael’s melancholy lyrics as he laments a fizzled romance might initially seem like a downer. But instead, the combination of a satiny melody and his eventual hopefulness keeps us cheering.
4. ‘Tennessee Christmas,’ Amy Grant
The lead track from Grant’s 1983 “A Christmas Album” is not only a musical warm embrace but a beautiful ballad steeped in nostalgia.
5. ‘Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,’ David Bowie and Bing Crosby
Not the most obvious pairing on paper, but the respect between the glam rocker and the standards crooner is palpable and the magic between them is undeniable.
Bowie and Crosby teamed up for an intergenerational performance of this Christmas classic on Crosby’s 1977 Christmas TV special on CBS. Bowie was rumored to have partly taken the gig because his mom was a big Bing Crosby fan.
6. ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),’ Darlene Love
We still miss the nearly three-decade tradition of Love belting out this classic on David Letterman’s late-night show.
7. ‘The Christmas Song,’ Nat King Cole
Perhaps the song is a tad overplayed, but the holiday season doesn’t officially arrive until we hear Cole’s pure, dreamy baritone.
8. ‘Christmas Wrapping,’ The Waitresses
Otherwise best known for their New Wave hit, “I Know What Boys Like,” The Waitresses dropped this dose of awesome storytelling in 1981.
9. ‘Do You Hear What I Hear,’ Whitney Houston
Singer Whitney Houston is seen performing on stage during the 2004 World Music Awards at the Thomas and Mack Center on Sept. 15, 2004 in Las Vegas.
That soaring voice and that impeccable delivery that always sounded effortless equate to a worthy keepsake of Houston’s potency.
10. ‘Wonderful Christmastime,’ Paul McCartney
Filled with a sprightly chorus and a typically melodic bass line, this solo hit recorded during McCartney’s sessions for his “McCartney II” album exemplifies his own consistent cheer.
11. ‘Celebrate Me Home,’ Kenny Loggins
A song for any season, really, with its sentiment of longing to be somewhere familiar.
12. ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,’ Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band
This sinewy rock version was recorded by the band in 1975 at a show in New York and remains a live favorite.
13. ‘Grown-up Christmas List,’ Natalie Cole
Written by David Foster and Linda Thompson-Jenner, the sweet ballad is a vital gut check every holiday season.
14. ‘Same Old Lang Syne,’ Dan Fogelberg
If you don’t melt at Fogelberg’s delicately rendered line, “as I turned to make my way back home, the snow…turned into rain,” then we’re very sorry you are not in possession of a heart.
15. ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,’ The Jackson 5
The darling vocals of Michael Jackson and his brothers and the unfettered glee in the 1970 arrangement are undiminished.
We love The Jackson 5’s version of ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.’
16. ‘Santa Baby,’ Eartha Kitt
Considered controversial in 1953. Let that sink in.
17. ‘Happy X-mas (War is Over),’ John Lennon and Yoko Ono and The Plastic Ono Band
An anti-war song that is devoid of typical holiday sentimentality, the swooping anthem has nonetheless become an annual necessity.
18. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas,’ Band Aid
Oft-maligned now, but there can be no denying the incredible feat Bob Geldof executed to corral some of the U.K.’s finest – from Bono to Bowie, Duran Duran to George Michael – all in the name of charity.
19. ‘Silent Night,’ Kelly Clarkson, Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood
Though usually best appreciated in hushed versions, the glorious vocalizing of this trio captivates.
20. ‘Gloria (Angels We Have Heard on High),’ Michael W. Smith
An underrated maestro whose piano and synthesizer compositions are consistently emotional and triumphant.
21. ‘White Christmas,’ Bing Crosby
The Irving Berlin standard, written for the 1942 film “Holiday Inn,” won an Academy Award for best original song at the 15th annual ceremony.
22. ‘Winter Wonderland,’ Jason Mraz
It might not be the most popular version of the jaunty 1934 song (that honor goes to Perry Como and later, Eurythmics). But Mraz’s unique vocal stylings are the most memorable.
23. ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas,’ John Denver and The Muppets
John Denver and Kermit the Frog laugh during the taping of a Muppet Christmas special in Los Angeles in a Nov. 16, 1979.
The endearing folkie’s vocal quirks are appealing enough, but add in the contributions of Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and Kermit and resistance is futile.
24. ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ Gene Autry
A singalong directed at children, yet who among us hasn’t gotten swept up in that chorus?
25. ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas,’ Josh Groban
Written as a tribute to soldiers overseas who yearn to be with their families at Christmas, the original by Bing Crosby is the standard-bearer. But Groban admirably communicates the song’s deep poignancy.
26. ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,’ Brenda Lee
Recorded when Lee was only 13, the 1958 staple is still a regular on the Billboard charts and peaked at No. 2 in 2020.