There are two kinds of people in this world: Christmas song people and people who hate Christmas songs. Both stances are completely understandable. While the haters are subjected to saccharine tunes about trees and snow and a mythical home-invading elf for a good chunk of the year, holiday music lovers are only permitted a brief window from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day (if you’re pushing it) to listen to their favorite tunes without being social outcasts like those Christmas in July people.
So that the haters can cope a little easier, they should know there’s a whole host of “Christmas” songs that aren’t completely played out, some that are funny, and some that are actually cool. And some are all of that, plus they make you want to raise a glass — or five.
We assembled a bunch of our favorite holiday tracks that are more than grocery store background fodder in the playlist above and recommend you tap play before you start reading about the top picks on this list from FRA’s Matt Smythe and David Maccar. Their 12 favorite Christmas songs include a few that are pretty depressing, some that are underrated classics, and others that are hilariously stupid, just like the rest of the playlist.
No matter what, don’t allow the thousandth repetition of Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime to make you psychotic. Don’t give it that power. Instead, pop in your earbuds and listen along with us.
Canned Heat – ‘Christmas Blues’
What is a jolly holiday without the blues? Boring, that’s what. One of the bands in the original Woodstock line-up, Canned Heat has been playing their style of blues-rock since they formed in 1966.
Heat is known for tunes that get in your head and stay there — but unlike Mariah Carey’s “hits,” this Christmas jam won’t make you want to chug spiked eggnog till you’re legless and trying to tackle the tree. Nope, you’re gonna want to hit play, turn it up, and have a good howl sesh with your kids and dog. Who knows, your batty Nana might even join you. —Matt Smythe
Dropkick Murphys – ‘The Season’s Upon Us’
If your family holidays are less about cozy fireside gatherings with eggnog in hand and more about beer vomit and all-out, full volume, the-neighbors-might-call-the-cops screaming matches followed by sobbing apologies or dramatic storm-outs, then this dysfunctional holiday tune, done as only the Dropkick Murphys could do it, is your anthem.
It’s at once upbeat, sorrowful, and it’s a song you can really swing a glass to. What the hell, it’s Christmas. Embrace the dysfunction of everything – and know you are not alone. —David Maccar
Cheap Trick – ‘I Want You For Christmas’
This one feels like a bit of a cop-out for the boys from Rockford, Illinois, but the original, live version of I Want You To Want Me from Cheap Trick is such an inextricable part of my classic 80’s I-have-a-crush-on-the-hot-cheerleader soundtrack that I’m willing to let it slide — especially since they stuck so close to the original sound with this holiday remake.
Chances are good that when this song comes on during your festivities, you’ll have at least three people join you in playing air guitar when the first notes hit. —MS
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – ‘Christmas All Over Again’
Movies are a big part of the holiday season for much of the VHS generation. When it was cold and school was out until the new year, snowy nights were spent hunkered down in the glow of the TV tube. The first two Home Alone movies got a lot of time spinning in the ol’ VCR back in the early 1990s, and that’s where a lot of people heard this holiday tune from one of the last great rock icons in history.
Tom Petty was a bridge between classic rock and everything that came after, and this is how a lot of people who are about to hit 40 in the next couple of years heard him for the first time. It also happens to be one of the coolest and most non-abrasive Christmas tunes of all time. —DM
Run-DMC – ‘Christmas Is’
Run-DMC is just good shit. No gats, muthafucka’s, or smokin’ trees till you can fly — I mean, there’s still room for all that around the holidays, don’t get me wrong. But this is an early ’90s rap that won’t have you tapping at the skip button when your kids and mother-in-law go wide-eyed at Eazy-E cappin’ Santa in the knees.
The boys from Hollis, Queens, are OG rap kings that don’t have to be G, and this is their other great Christmas track that deserves a listen. —MS
Joe Pesci – ‘If It Doesn’t Snow on Christmas’
I love peppering Christmas mixes with songs that unexpectedly drip with profanity, and nobody does fuck-words quite like Joe Pesci. The Oscar-winning mob movie (and Home Alone) actor has, believe it or not, released three full-length albums to date. He laid the first one down back in 1968!
This track comes from 1998’s Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You. He kind of talk-sings through the whole album as his character from the oscar-winning My Cousin Vinnie (1992), including this track where he wonders how Santa’s going to get his fat ass around in his sled if it doesn’t snow on Christmas like he’s vamping at the Bada Bing holiday party. Yeah, it’s pretty fuckin’ weird, but it sure is funny. —DM
Tom Waits – ‘Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis’
Man, screw Hallmark. Sometimes the sad songs help bring in the light, and this song — this is about as real as the holidays get.
How many of us put up a curated, happy front from Nov. 25 to Dec. 31? We crow about kids’ holiday concerts, cute pet antics, big feast preparations, visiting family and friends, and ugly sweater parties — when in reality, we’re overwhelmed, feeling alone, and just want to stay in bed. This song is a reminder that “ain’t nothing perfect,” and it’s okay to lean on somebody when it isn’t. And for the lucky among us, it’s also a reminder some folks have problems that make ours look a lot smaller. —MS
The Kinks – ‘Father Christmas’
I dig holiday songs that have a bit about real life in them. If you’ve lived long enough or through enough, the silly season is a mix of happiness and sorrow that skews more toward one or the other depending on the year. This 1977 song from British rock icons, the Kinks, is sung from the perspective of a mall Santa Claus who gets mugged by a bunch of kids, which I think strikes the perfect tone for 2021.
It’s a song about the idealism of youth falling away as you realize how fragile it was, to begin with, and it’s a wry commentary on the commercialization of the holidays and class battles: ideal Christmas subjects since Dickens’ day. It’s also a funny song that’s a little bitter with a classic sound that makes it really tough to say what decade it’s from if you don’t know, but now you do. —DM
Bad Religion — ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’
There is nothing like some anti-establishment punk icons singing about baby Jesus and being saved from Satan’s power to fill a room with comfort and joy. In true punk form, the tune is only 1 minute and 34 seconds long, so it busts in, thrashes the joint, and bounces before your parents know what happened.
Interestingly, even with their name, the band isn’t against religion; they just use it to show how any group that squashes individuality is inherently bad. That being said, Greg Graffin, the band’s lead, loves Christmas –” Oh, hell yeah. That [was] always the best part of the year growing up.” —MS
Spinal Tap – ‘Christmas With The Devil’
Got an aging headbanger in the family? If this comes on the Bluetooth speaker this Christmas Eve, it will have them laughing in their Busch Light, and before it’s over, they’re going to get a little too into it — even if it is a fake band. (I know, I know, that’s sacrilege to some.)
“The elves are dressed in leather / and the angels are in chains / the sugar plums are rancid / and the stockings are in flames.” I mean, that’s goddamn poetry right there. And after the stress of the weeks between holidays, it’s a welcome hair metal release. —DM
Stevie Wonder — ‘Ave Maria’
I can’t make a playlist of Christmas songs and not include the tune that hits me square in the chest and puts a lump in my throat every time I hear it. A young Stevie Wonder recorded this beautiful version of the very (very) old Schubert song, Ave Maria, in 1967.
The combination of the composition’s simplicity and Wonders’ unmistakable voice is powerful. Plus, he even gets his trademark blues harp in there. Man, damn. Turn it up, close your eyes, and just listen. —MS
Zakk Wylde – ‘White Christmas’
Zakk Wylde is the king of electric squeals, but he’s also a tremendous unplugged guitarist, and this rendition of the most Christmasy of Christmas songs, White Christmas, rocks about as much as a version of White Christmas can rock. This track is off the Merry Axemas, Volume 2 compilation album. Wylde also released an amazing acoustic version of The First Noel as a single, and his band, Black Label Society, released the Glorious Christmas Songs That Will Make Your Black Label Heart Feel Good EP back in 2011 featuring incredible soul-soothing electric instrumental versions of I’ll Be Home For Christmas, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Wonderful World.
The best part is, because of Zakk’s random climbs, riffs, and mini solos, nobody can sing along. Nobody. —DM