The Top 15 Indispensable Christmas Songs (plus one)

“Auld Lang Syne” from mandolinist David Grisman’s 1983 release, “David Grisman’s Acoustic Christmas,” came in at No. 3.


(Originally post 12/4/12.  Updated.)

Due to the brisk response I received to my “Top 10 Christmas Shows” post, I decided to tackle a song list.

As a music guy and a Christmas freak, it was impossible for me to narrow it down to 10, so I added five.  (Plus one bonus tune.)

With a few exceptions, these songs have all been recorded probably thousands of times each and would be on many similar lists.  The real debate starts with the choice of artist and version.  For me, it’s about selecting the version I can listen to over and over again, year after year.   It’s also about my childhood memories, which makes it virtually impossible that you and I would create the same list.  (If we did, that would be extremely weird and I would be concerned about you.)

So, in descending order…

15. Sleigh Ride (1958, Johnny Mathis)

To my ears, Johnny Mathis is a real hit-or-miss type of singer.  “Chances Are” and “Misty” are major hits and a lot of other things are major misses.  When it’s bad, it’s real bad, and he sounds suspiciously like Ethel Merman.  However, Johnny’s version of “Sleigh Ride” is a quintessential Christmas song, and he recorded it back when he sounded youthful (because he was young) and his vibrato had not yet gone crazy.  The arrangement and room sound of the orchestra is perfect.  It just sounds like Christmas.  This song always takes me back to my annual six-hour trip home from college at East Carolina University at Christmastime and the fantastic holiday mix tape I would jam out to, singing at the top of my lungs.

14. The Twelve Days of Christmas (1979, John Denver and the Muppets)

Has there ever been a better version recorded of this song??  No way!  Whoever wrote “The Twelve Days” must have been a sadistic son-of-a-gun, because it takes roughly the same amount of time as “American Pie” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” combined to sing it, but in the capable hands of John Denver and the Muppets, it’s sheer entertainment.  One of the great vocal performances in recording history is that of Beaker singing “Mee me me me me” for eight maids a-milking.

13. Santa Claus is Back in Town (1957, Elvis Presley)

If you want some serious blues in your Christmas, don’t choose “Blue Christmas.”  Choose this.  On no other Elvis recording will you find him rocking with the intensity that he does on “Santa Claus is Back in Town.”  I love how the listener is lulled by The Jordanaire’s vocal intro into thinking this will be a smooth, sweet Christmas song, and then… BAM!  The snare and piano start banging and Elvis just goes nuts.  He was never better.

12. Jingle Bell Rock (1957, Bobby Helms)

Another 1957 release is the original Jingle Bell Rock, by Bobby Helms.  Brenda Lee’s version is a very close second to this, and I even like Hall & Oates’ crack at it.  But there’s something rockabilly-cool about Helms’ voice and the sound of the track.  It’s a little less polished than Lee’s, and the song is one of the most infectious on the list.

11. Away in a Manger (1988, Jerry Douglas)

This version will probably be unknown to most of you.  Back in the late ’80s, I somehow came by a copy of MCA Master Series’ Sounds of the Season, an instrumental compilation CD.  It quickly became one of my all-time favorite Christmas CDs because of its incredible diversity.  The hallmark of the album, though, is this touching version of “Away in a Manger” by the greatest dobro player in history — Jerry Douglas.  If you have any emotional tendencies toward music, go ahead and grab a box of Kleenex.  It’s one of the most beautiful things you’ll hear.  I can’t find the exact version from that recording, but this one is very close.  (You’re welcome, by the way.)

10. Go Tell it on the Mountain (2004, James Taylor)

You know I can’t compile a best-of music list without including my man, JT.  As he has done on many other occasions (“You’ve Got a Friend,” “Up on the Roof,” etc.), Taylor takes an established song — in this case, a 19th-century African-American hymn — and infuses it with the smooth, poignant coolness that only JT can deliver.  I remember exactly where I was — the Lowes’ parking lot in Smryna, Tenn. — the first time I heard it.  And that was nine years ago!

9. Mele Kalikimaka (1996, Jimmy Buffett)

Yes, yes, I know what you’re going to say:  “How the heck can you pick Jimmy’s version over the great Bing Crosby’s??”  Fair question.  The honest truth is, the two are nearly identical in arrangement, but I just like Buffett’s production a little better.  I especially like the drums and the ukelele.  I think it’s cool that Buffett can pull off the same vibe, along with Andrews Sisters-like background vocals, that Bing did back in the day.  And most of all, I like that little “twinkle” Buffett has in his voice.  It’s exactly his kind of song.

8. O Tannenbaum (1965, Vince Guaraldi Trio)

There’s something about Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack that has made it a classic.  I’ve heard the exact same songs played on piano the same way many times since, and it’s not even close.  Even Guaraldi’s later Charlie Brown work didn’t measure up.  When “O Tannenbaum” kicks into its swing section, Guaraldi absolutely plays out of his mind.  I’m not a big jazz guy, but I can listen to this all day long.  In fact, I have on many occasions!

7. Same Auld Lang Syne (1981, Dan Fogelberg)

This is one of those situations where a song gets connected to a holiday by accident, kind of like how the movie It’s a Wonderful Life is associated with Christmas, but doesn’t really have that much to do with it.  “Same Auld Lang Syne” tells a wistful story of a guy running into an old girlfriend at a grocery store on Christmas Eve.  He mentions Christmas in the second line, and that’s it, but it will forever be thought of in the context of Christmas.  The story, incidentally, is true.  Both Fogelberg and his former girlfriend — a woman named Jill Greulich — had run out to pick up supplies for their respective parents in Peoria, Ill., one Christmas Eve in the mid ’70s.  Out of respect for her marriage, Fogelberg never revealed her identity, nor did Jill until after the singer died in 2007.  Click here to read an article about it.  And oh, by the way — Michael Brecker’s sax solo at the end?  Sick, to use the popular vernacular, and always raises a fat lump in my throat.

6. Jingling Brass (1969, Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass)

“Jingling Brass” is basically just “Jingle Bells” played in a few different keys, but that doesn’t matter.  What matters is, this is the first song of the first Christmas album (not CD, mind you) that my family put on to decorate the tree by each year when I was growing up.  As soon as we got the tree erected in its stand, Dad would shout, “Put on Danny Davis!”  The opening notes of “Jingling Brass” just make me happy.  This is my list, y’know.

5.  There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays  (1954, Perry Como)

Top five.  Now we’re getting serious.  Perry Como, 1960s-’70s TV specials, Christmas sweaters…  That’s what I’m talking about!  This song has it all:  Perry’s incredible voice, bouncy, Percy Faith-style choral singing, and swingin’, finger-snappin’ jazz.  One thing I never understood was why the man who lives in Tennessee was heading to Pennsylvania for pumpkin pie.  I’ll allow that Tennessee produces pumpkin pie just as good or better than Pennsylvania.  I guess the traveler was a native Pennsylvanian and it’s not for me to question.  But I digress…

4. Tender Tennessee Christmas (1983, Amy Grant)

Aside from the “bonus” track, “Tender Tennessee Christmas” is the only “new” Christmas song on my list.  Amy Grant released it back in 1983, when she was 7.  Actually, she was only 23, and co-wrote the song with her then-husband, Gary Chapman.  “Tender…” is one of the only modern Christmas songs I’ve encountered that I would stack up against the biggies of the ’50s and ’60s.  It just sounds, well . . . classic.  I’m also partial to it because since 1990, I’ve been a Tennessee resident, and the song makes me feel good about my pumpkin-pie makin’ state.

3. Auld Lang Syne  (1983, David Grisman)

Here’s another nod to my bluegrass music upbringing.  David Grisman’s “Acoustic Christmas” CD is simply amazing.  The arrangements are mind-boggling, as are the individual performances, and “Auld Lang Syne” is the best.  The only way to listen to this is while driving home on Christmas Eve with the volume set on 11.  You think it’s going to be a slow, tasteful track until Bela Fleck tunes his banjo strings up ala “Earl’s Breakdown” and then it’s off to the races. Classic.  (It’s not available on YouTube, but you can hear 1:30 of it on iTunes.)

2. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (1963, Andy Williams)

No big surprises in my top two.  They are essentially interchangeable.  Andy Williams is my favorite of the crooners, like I mentioned in an earlier post.  The stars aligned perfectly when he recorded “Most Wonderful…”  Other people sound silly covering this song.  It’s only Andy’s.  Don’t even try.  Here’s an awesome live version.

And my No. 1 Indispensable Christmas Song is…

1.  The Christmas Song, of course!  (1961, Nat King Cole)

You’ve got Christmas hymns, you’ve got Christmas gimmick songs, and you’ve got Christmas pop songs.  This 1944 Mel Torme/Bob Wells composition defined the Christmas pop song.  Cole had recorded it a couple of times before, but the 1961 version is, in my view, one of the greatest vocal performances ever put onto vinyl of any genre of music.  Nobody, but nobody, can touch Nat King Cole.  And if this lyric can’t make you happy about Christmas, then even old Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future can’t help you.

*BONUS SONG!*  “My Family Christmas Tree”

OK, I know it’s self-promotion and all, but cut me some slack.  I wrote and recorded “My Family Christmas Tree” 23 years ago, back in ’91.  I hoped to get it cut by some big-time country singer, but much to my surprise, my publisher decided to release it as a single to country radio — with me as the artist!  It went out on a compilation CD, right behind a song by the Bellamy Brothers.  (How cool is that?!)  While I never became rich and famous, I had the distinct pleasure and joy of hearing myself on the radio several times on Christmas Eve, 1992.  In fact, I heard it as I was driving across Ashe County, N.C., on my way to cut my family’s Christmas tree.  Irony, perhaps?  I still occasionally have someone tell me they heard it.  Still waiting for the fat royalty check, though…

“My Family Christmas Tree” (Mark E. Johnson/©1991 by MCA Music Publishing/The Crosswind Corp.)


OK, lay it on me.  What did I egregiously leave off the list?  Use the comment box below!  Merry Christmas!


banner ad

23 Responses to “The Top 15 Indispensable Christmas Songs (plus one)”

  1. Brad Frazier says:

    Great list Mark! Nat’s version of the Christmas song is the best! Also dig the Buffett, have never heard that version before. If you had to pick a number 16, Santa Baby by Eartha Kitt would be on there as well.

  2. Julie says:

    I like “My Family Christmas Tree” nice song

  3. Family Christmas Tree circa 1991 . . . (sigh) Hard to believe. Still sounds good though.

    My Mom is a Christmas professional so she sets her TV on the Hallmark Channel in September and watches every movie she can find. The songs include anything from the 40’s – White Christmas, etc but also Silent Night, O Holy Night and other hymns. Our church had a pipe organ and the choir regularly did the Hallelujah Chorus. I can still feel my head pulsing from the high tenor notes.

    We also had the original 45 of the Chipmunk’s song. Gene Autry and Perry Como were also required listening.

    At some point my son will fire up his turntable and pull out his vinyl collection because, “They just sound better,” according to him. More Christmas-y.

    I always got my fill of Christmas music by recording it in July, so I just go with the flow. To me, happiness is a noisy house full of family – the best music there is.

  4. Mark Johnson says:

    I knew there would be a few I’d forget, and “Christmastime is Here” by the Chipmunks is one. I could’ve easily swapped one of these 15 with Gene Autry’s “Rudolph,” too, although Holly prefers Dean Martin’s slightly inebriated version. By the way, thanks, Dennis, for engineering “My Family Christmas Tree” so skillfully. You always made me sound better than I actually sounded…

  5. The two missing for me are me and my sisters singing Welcome Christmas (while simultaneously re-enacting the Who gate opening for the Grinch) and the two of them over “harmonizing” The First Noel. Two holiday traditions for us. By the way, the little lights aren’t twinkling on one side, Clark, I mean Mark.

  6. Katy Taylor says:

    One of my favs is Steve and Eydie doing “Let It Snow.” I was listening to NPR Monday night and heard Sinatra doing “Christmas Waltz.” How have I lived 52 years and never heard this absolute gem until now? Loved reading your list and realizing we have a few in common! I also love Como’s “No Place Like Home” from 1954. I have the “Blue Christmas” single and always liked the B side better too! Merry Christmas!

    • Mark Johnson says:

      Thanks for the awesome comment, Katy! A side-story about “Blue Christmas”: Back in the early 1990s, I found myself in a recording studio with The Jordanaires. I was just there with a friend to hang out and they happened to be in there recording. To my amazement, they started talking about doing “Blue Christmas” with Elvis, and said there was a lady (don’t remember her name) singing with them. The producer, they said, made the lady sing that distinctive “whoo whoo WHOO whoo whoo” part, and she absolutely hated it — thought it sounded ridiculous! Of course, that became the signature of the song! Pretty cool, eh?

      • Mark Johnson says:

        The lady’s name is Millie Kirkham, and she appears to still be alive and singing in her 80s! (She’s got a Wikipedia page.)

        • Ann Weaver says:

          Enjoyed your song and all these comments, too. Jeff’s sweet little Cassie loves music and dancing to Blue Christmas and White Christmas. Silent Night soothes her. Guess she inherited the Johnson love of music. Maybe she will also inherit the talent!

          • Mark Johnson says:

            Thanks for the comment, Ann. Cassie will surely inherit all kinds of amazing talents from those two. Hopefully, she’ll always love Christmas music as much as her Unka Mark!

      • Katy Taylor says:

        That’s a great story!

  7. Jim Buck says:

    It’s not Christmas until I’ve heard B. Ives….Have a Holly Jolly Christmas…..should be yours also………”Holly!”

  8. Mark says:

    My own personal all-time favorite performance of any Christmas song. Noted composer Lee Holdridge, who arranged and conducted this, told me most tenors would look at the score and go “Ah!” in distress. Domingo looked it over and went, “Ahhhhhhhh….” with pleasure.

  9. Angela says:

    Indispensable? This one!

    My island girl thought Santa turned into magic dust to fly in under the door then melded back into himself (gifts intact) once inside. …This song still stays in my head throughout the season.

    Love your Christmas song. I remember you playing that on St. Croix. Beautiful!

  10. Lance Hardin says:

    Great list, no complaints here. I already had 7 of these (including the “Track #25” bonus song!) on my Christmas playlist – and just added Grisman’s Auld Lang Syne, great suggestion – and you’re right, Bela really kicks.

    Glad to see your tastes still run to Buffett and JT – although his best song is still “Steamroller” – but that’s a conversation for another day 🙂

    If we’re talking classics, it’s hard not to include “Merry Christmas, Darling” by the Carpenters (no one will ever touch their version):

    If we talking newer stuff, last year Nick Lowe (yeah, the “Cruel to be Kind” guy – now a crooner!) put out a great cover of “Old Toy Trains”:

    But my favorite newer song is the Brian Setzer redition of “Angels We Have Heard on High” – this is about as far from Andy Williams as you can get, but sometimes you need a Christmas song that you can “turn up to 11”:

    Great to see you on the web – hope you haven’t totally retired the guitar!

    • Mark Johnson says:

      Lance! Wow, it’s great to “hear” your voice! Thanks for the comment and suggestions. I’m gonna go check them out. Oddly enough, “Merry Christmas, Darling” always reminds me of Jimmy Parks. He was always gaga over Karen Carpenter, I think…

      • Lance Hardin says:

        Too funny. Jimmy came over to my house my first Christmas as a newlywed – 23 years ago – and was aghast that I didn’t have any Christmas CD’s. He marched me down to the nearest record store and made me purchase Amy Grant, Mannheim Steamroller, and (best of all) Vince Guaraldi – and I still have them all.

        Merry Christmas to you and your family!

    • Tony Lance says:

      I’m with Lance. “Merry Christmas Darling” is a classic in my book. Easily one of my top three Christmas songs. It captures the melancholy that many of us experience when we’re separated from someone we love at the very season when togetherness is celebrated. The Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait, an album which is chock full of lush holiday tunes—as well as more than a few nods toward It’s a Spike Jones Christmas (1956) by Spike Jones and the City Slickers—is also a holiday standard as far as I’m concerned.

  11. Marty says:

    Great list of songs…it could be endless with all the great Christmas music that’s out there….here’s one I really like…it just has a feel good vibe and reminds me of the magic of this time of year….

Let me hear from you!