Once you get into December, Christmas songs are inescapable. A Humming Heart looks to help you get into the holiday mood, and list down fifteen of the best Christmas songs. (Note: We tried to make this a countdown, but found it too unfair for some of the songs, which were as brilliant as the one preceding and succeeding them in the list!). So in no particular order, here we go!
1. The Christmas Song – Nate King Cole
Born out of an exhausting effort to ‘stay cool by thinking cool’ in midst of a terribly hot summer’s day, this beloved Christmas song was written by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé and brought to the realm of immortality by Nat King Cole in 1946. The original track was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1974.
The opening lyrics were eager attempts to recreate a winter feeling by writing about roasting chestnuts, Jack Frost nipping..Yuletide carols and Eskimos that later became the song musicians of every size and genre from Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra to ‘N Sync and Christina Aguilera would eventually cover. And with good reason.
“Although it’s been said many times
Many ways, Merry Christmas to you.”
Is there a better way?
2. Christmas Time Is Here – The Vince Guaraldi Trio
The advent of Christmas specials on television cannot be considered without noting the contribution of the American jazz group Vince Guaraldi Trio to A Charlie Brown Christmas; originally initiated by Lee Mendelson, a TV producer as the music for a documentary titled A Boy Named Charlie Brown, based on Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts. However, enough interest in the project was not seen till 1965 when the Time cover feature of Peanuts revived interest; the Coca Cola company commissioned A Charlie Brown Christmas in spring 1965 and Vince Guaraldi, who had worked on the music for the original documentary a few years before, returned to resume the project.
The vocal version of the song was performed by the members of the choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael California. The singers were children who were part of late night sessions that were followed by ice cream outings and anguished parents’ complaints. But to this day, the innocence of their years has been preserved in the tracks that together became one of the most popular Christmas albums of all time. Christmas Time is Here, which was written by Mendelson on the back of an envelope when a lyricist couldn’t be found to write for Guaraldi’s instrumental composition, is one of our favourites. The song, like the rest of the album, was accredited with introducing jazz as a music genre to whole new generation. The soft, caressing notes of this song carry an aura of innocent happiness that is reminiscent of winter holidays and stories poured over hot chocolate.
3. All I Want for Christmas Is You – Mariah Carey
Bells chimes, that bass effect and her ridiculously amazing vocal range..one of Mariah Carey’s most loved songs is All I Want for Christmas from her fourth studio album, Merry Christmas.
The reasons why this song is sung and played during the holiday season need not be explained. For one, it’s Mariah Carrey. The song moreover doesn’t belong to the Christmas category alone, it carries the perfect harmony of a holiday classic and a B-E-A-yootiful love song.
The background vocals for the chorus and bridge sections with that tapping bass undertone and her serenading talent are the key ingredients of this song. The song popularity can probably be measured by the three different videos and numerous cover versions that have been made since its release in 1994.
Oxford’s all male a capella group Out of the Blue released the most recent cover of the song as a medley with Santa Claus is coming to Town as a charity download.
Original or cover, All I Want for Christmas is a definite highlight of our holiday soundtrack. What about you?
4. What Christmas Means To Me- Stevie Wonder
Ah, the soul stirring maestro and his clapping beats and foot tapping musings!
One can’t go wrong with this song. If we had to define Christmas, we’d sing this song. There’s carols and snow and ice; with candles burning low and of course, the mistletoe. All these things and more…
The wonder that is Stevie (see what we did there) will find us, Someday at Christmas.
Have you figured out yet what Christmas means to you?
5. Christmas Wishes – Anne Murray
From the You Needed Me singer is this story of fulfilled holiday wishes and infinite love. The song, is a simple and beautiful expression of all that this season stands for; eternal hope, relentless faith and endless love. It has been sung in the gradual swaying rhythm that is typical of the Grammy winner’s soft-rock and country genres.
For the comforting piano and guitar accompaniments to her gentle musical narration and the good feeling it leaves behind, Christmas Wishes will undoubtedly play on the morning of December 25th.
6. Little Drummer Boy – The Harry Simone Chorale
The story of Christmas brought to a poor young boy with nothing to offer to the son of God but his drum..pa rum pum pum pum.
Originally known as the Carol of the Drum, this Little Prince of Christmas songs, was written by classical music teacher and composer, Katherine Kennicott Davis and first recorded in 1955 by the Trapp Family Singers (whose family history gave inspiration to The Sound of Music). In the years that followed, the Harry Simeone Chorale recorded the song as the Little Drummer Boy and the rest is history.
The nature of the song, which takes an easy chorale form (to meet Katherine Davis’ intention of producing music for young boys’ and girls’ choirs) as well as the story it shares to convey the underlying message of Christmas is unforgettable in its simplicity of melody and message as well as the innocence of voice and its honest beauty.
The simplest pleasures are often hidden in plain sight and the quiet joy of humming pa rum pum pum pum should not be put to complicated words.
7. Baby It’s Cold Outside – Ricardo Montalbán and Esther Williams
The soirée is long over but the fire is so warm. Yet the day’s end is nigh and there is not much left to do except to whisper a soft goodbye and embrace the bitter cold. I should leave, I must go..
Performed at the end of a convivial evening by the original composer Frank Loesser with his wife Lynn Garland in 1944, the song was first recorded by Ricardo Montalbán and Esther Williams and included in the 1949 film, Neptune’s Daughter. In the years that followed, it became widely popular as numerous artists from Dean Martin, Louis Armstrong and contemporary artist duos such as Norah Jones -Willie Nelson and Idina Menzel -Michael Bublé released their covers which were very well received.
The coquettish prods of the conversing lyrics that engage the ‘wolf’ and the ‘mouse’ (as printed on the original score) in a playful conversation with the former offering reasons to stay and the latter using the weather and people as nominal pretexts and the sly nuances of the melody as well as the vocals, be it Dean Martin’s version with the part of the ‘mouse’ sung by a female chorus or the more recent covers of Dolly Parton and Rod Stewart, the reasons for including this number in our list of all time Christmas favourites could be listed right now…
Oh but it’s cold outside!!!
8. Last Christmas – Wham!
A heartbreak on Christmas. A resolution to move on. And George Michael.
A song that is actually about a failed relationship is the biggest selling single in the UK to not reach number 1 on the charts since its first release in 1984. Like most Christmas favourites, this one too has been covered by many artists from Ashley Tisdale and Jimmy Eat World to Ariana Grande, Coldplay and Crazy Frog.
Not just for the last appearance of a clean shaved George Michael, the song is catchy (to say the least) and will probably be repeated more than once because of the coherent musical accompaniment to Michael’s beautiful voice and the feeling that cannot prevent one from singing (over and over again).
This year, maybe give this song to someone special?
9. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) – John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band
“So this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Another year over
And a new one just begun.”
The post-Beatles avatar of John Lennon, whose peace campaigns and open criticism of the US involvement in the Vietnam War formed the backdrop of this number which was written by John and Yoko and released as a single in 1971 by John and Yoko/Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir.
Only the Imagine singer/ songwriter could invoke feelings of brotherhood and much needed harmony in a holiday song that has long since become a Christmas standard. Initially recorded as a demo with an acoustic guitar in a hotel room in NYC, the memorable instrumental contributions were added first following which Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded the vocals with the final backing vocals given by the Harlem Community Choir on the last day of October 1971. The original sleeve cover was photographed on the same day by the man behind the Abbey Road cover, Iain Macmillan.
If there is any truth in the distinct evolution of the music of the four unforgettable British lads, it can be sampled through this song that provokes in the listener not just an honest Xmas feeling but also the sentiments far too easily associated with Lennon’s other lyrical anthems (such as Imagine).
“And so happy Christmas
For black and for white
For yellow and red ones
Let’s stop all the fight.”
Four decades on, the reasons may be different but the sincere prayer holds, perhaps more than ever before.
10. Do they Know it’s Christmas – Band Aid
The precursor to several charity singles such as ‘We Are The World’ by USA for Africa, the original Band Aid was a supergroup consisting of various eminent British and Irish musicians of the time brought together by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to record their single written in the backdrop of the Ethiopian famine in 1983-85. The song was recorded on 25 November, 1984 in a single day and featured Bono, George Michael, and Phil Colins while David Bowie and Paul McCartney were among those who were invited but couldn’t attend and sent recorded messages that were added on the single’s B side.
In the years that followed, the world witnessed the releases of Band Aid II in 1989, and Band Aid 20 in 2004 with the likes of Chris Martin, Fran Healy, Bono and Paul McCartney to provide funds for famine relief. The latest reincarnation of the 1984 supergroup, Band Aid 30 of 2014 featured Bono (the only artist to have also been a part of the original version), Chris Martin, Sam Smith, One Direction, Ed Sheeran and Dan Smith (of Bastille) among other popular figures to raise awareness and funds for the ongoing Ebola crises in West Africa.
There has been much criticism of the quality of the song that follows the pattern of a verse and a bridge allowing different lines to be sung by various voices and a chorus that brings together the diverse ensemble. Yet the effort has been appreciated and lauded for its noble intentions. It may not be the Christmas classic that one hums along while decorating trees and decking the halls with holly, but one encounter with any version of the song is bound to leave a mark and strike a chord somewhere that resonates with the real meaning of Christmas.
11. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! – Vaughn Monroe
No holiday season playlist can be rightfully complete without this one brilliant song that actually makes no reference to Christmas at all. Nevertheless, whether you’ve just finished watching Die Hard and the credits are rolling up (in which case, you could consider a marathon of ten hours well spent) or you are simply in a mood to enjoy some holiday classics that the radio won’t play for some reason (if only telepathy links were as strong as the One D fandom), you could let yourself be swayed by Vaughn Monroe or the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Idina Menzel and yes, Michael Bublé, all of whom brought to life the Christmas beloved track composed by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn.
There is indeed a whole bucket list of things to do and checklists to appease but as long as you can enjoy these holidays, let is snow, let it snow, let it snow!!
12. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Frank Sinatra
This is the background score to play as the mind paints a picture of a room with a view, a fireplace at the far end of an essentially warm aura with an elated tree and gifts waiting to be opened as the aroma from the kitchen carries the message of an eager evening and cars pull up in the driveway as joyous greetings and laughter reign the day. ‘Tis Christmas, mustn’t it be merry?
Wonder what would have happened if Judy Garland had not first introduced the melody to the world in her 1944 film, Meet Me in St. Louis. The believers may hold that fates meant for this song to be immortalized by Frank Sinatra and scores of others. With the delicate yet magnificent allure of Sinatra’s baritone giving breath to this unforgettable song, it is only rational to give this one a listen, right about now.
13. White Christmas – Bing Crosby
A dose of nostalgia that has an everlasting after effect.
Written by Irving Berlin and sung by Bing Crosby, the song featured in the film Holiday Inn starring the latter. The release of the song during the second World War meant strong resonance with soldiers and their families as the reminiscence of Christmas from a time gone by became a holiday special that is as popular today as it was when it first released in 1942. The song featured in another Bing Crosby film of the same name.
Though the original Berlin composition has a verse that is often excluded from most covers, A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records,sung by Darlene Love’s is among the countable few that include the often dropped opening verse:
“The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth,—
And I am longing to be up North—”
White Christmas, has been, and will remain a holiday favourite simply because it gives to the listener the quintessential Christmas feeling sprinkled with a hint of fond love for the yesterdays, a dream for the days yet to come and a wish for every Christmas and every living day.
14. Jingle Bell Rock – Bobby Helms
No, we’re not thinking of Mean Girls. Or maybe we are. But can anyone be blamed for rocking around the Christmas tree to this merry little tune??
Lindsay Lohan may have brought a different meaning to the song which became a modern carol for every Christmas since its first release by Bobby Helms in 1957. Though there are a number of covers such as those done by Arcade Fire, Hilary Duff and most recently The Vamps, the original track with its easy head-bobbing, foot-tapping beats is still played during every Xmas season and will probably be on the ultimate holiday playlist for a long time to come.
15. Fairytale of New York – The Pogues
Often termed the best Christmas song of all time, this half-empty perspective of a song was sung by the Pogues with their singer Shane MacGowan giving the male lead vocals and Kirsty MacColl featuring as the female vocalist in the song. It was written by Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan and released in November, 1987.
Probably because it reflects upon the harsh realities of life, the typical Irish folk-style ballad follows the imagination of MacGowan’s character who listens to his fellow cellmate sing a passage from an Irish Ballad and dreams of a dialogue with the song’s female character as they bicker about wasted freedoms and lost years to drug abuse and addiction on Christmas eve in a New York reminiscent of the city at the time.
This one’s a keeper primarily because it makes no attempt to sugarcoat Christmas or draw a curtain over the problems of one’s daily discourse. It actually does quite the opposite with its extremely bitter use of Irish lyrics and a quality to the song that provokes both an uneasiness and an acceptance of life, as different people know it. Yet the song stays on long after the final notes have faded to memory and will probably be hummed in different bars and late night sing-a-longs for many Christmas Eves to come.
Now that it’s here, our list of Christmas favourites, go ahead and have yourself a musically merry Christmas!