Yes, of course, music is subjective. And the way you experience Christmas is deeply personal: maybe you go all out, with a giant tree and Hallmark movies and hot chocolate and literal carolling; maybe you don’t actually celebrate Christmas but enjoy the odd Christmas tune now and then.
But when it comes to Christmas songs, there are certain universal truths. Whether you’re curating a playlist at a very hip party or suffering through forced repetitive cheer at a retail job where you don’t have the option of stabbing your own ears, there are some songs that are just more pleasant to hear than others.
The worst Christmas songs, in our very humble opinion, are uncritical celebrations, while many of the best include some of the melancholy of the holiday. Any time of year that tells you you’re supposed to be joyful and filled with love is bound to dredge up some resistance from people whose lives feel less than ideal — which, let’s be honest, is most of us.
Without further ado, here are some of the best Christmas pop songs that exist.
Mariah Carey, “All I Want for Christmas is You”
Dolly Parton, “Hard Candy Christmas”
This year’s Dolly-sance is way overdue, in our opinion. She’s an incredible songwriter, and this one taps into the beautiful melancholy that can come with the holidays.
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, “Just Another Christmas Song”
Works as a crowd-pleaser if you play it in the background of your Christmas party, or as a comment on the over-saturated holiday music market if you listen to the lyrics. Win-win.
Carly Rae Jepsen, “It’s Not Christmas Till Somebody Cries”
This is a great listen during the pandemic because it will make you glad you’re not seeing your family. Every other year, it’s a relatable and much-needed tonic to dysfunctional families celebrating Christmas the world over.
Band-Aid, “Do They Know It’s Christmas”
This song is both catchy as hell and incredibly, ludicrously dated in its well-meaning but ridiculously colonialist sentiment. Yes, Sting says of Africa that “the only water flowing Is the bitter sting of tears,” and Bono really adds on that “the only bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.” How does a song from 1984 feel so much more dated than all the holiday standards from the ’40s?
But yes, that chorus is so good that we have to file this under our Problematic Faves.
Tegan and Sara, “Make You Mine This Season”
The opening line: “Somebody broke your heart under a Christmas tree.” You’re already hooked, right?
The Canadian duo’s shimmery, upbeat song, written for the lesbian Christmas rom-com “Happiest Season,” is catchy, fun, and one of very few holiday songs written from an openly queer perspective. It’s hard not to love.
Kacey Musgraves, “Christmas Makes Me Cry”
Put this one on repeat if you’re just not feeling the Christmas spirit this year.
Wham!, “Last Christmas”
Apparently “Whamaggedon” is a thing this year? As in, people are deliberately not listening to “Last Christmas,” one of the greatest and saddest Christmas songs that exists? Watch this video and just try not to get seduced by those really excellent sweaters.
Eartha Kitt, “Santa Baby”
Yes, consumerism is inseparable from Christmas, and this song embraces that in a charmingly campy way.
Ariana Grande, “Santa Tell Me”
Like “Santa Baby,” this sort of takes the “Santa is my boyfriend” angle, but like “Santa Baby,” it’s also an undeniable banger.
Otis Redding, “Merry Christmas Baby”
In this song, Otis Redding is experiencing the best kind of Christmas: he’s in a happy relationship, and he just received a diamond ring (!) along with “all those [other] lovely things.” We should all be so lucky.
Dragonette, “Merry Xmas (Says Your Text Message)”
A very different kind of Christmas greeting, this is the perfect holiday song for when you’re no longer mourning the end of a relationship, but moving on to the much more satisfying stage of realizing the person you were so upset over was actually kind of a dick and you’re better off without them.
Mariah Carey, Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson, “Oh Santa!”
Three incredible singers at the top of their game teaming up to ask Santa to “come and make you mine this Christmas.” We’ll take it.
Britney Spears, “My Only Wish (This Year)”
“My Only Wish” hits that Christmas sweet spot of slightly corny but irresistibly catchy, with a twinge of sadness for good measure.
The Ramones, “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)”
Another excellent entry in the category of Christmas songs with parenthetical titles, this one is a good reminder to put aside petty squabbles in the name of holiday unity. (We can’t guarantee that it will work when it comes to conversations with your racist uncle, though.)
Darlene Love, “All Alone On Christmas”
This is one of those songs that combines a cheerful tune and banging sax solo with lyrics about loneliness and isolation, existing in an interesting and very Christmas-y space between happy and sad. And as you can tell from the video, it was heavily featured in “Home Alone 2,” which, minus the Donald Trump cameo, is an excellent movie.
The Waitresses, “Christmas Wrapping”
For every Christmas skeptic who secretly hopes the Hallmark movie will come true in the end.
The Ronettes, “Sleigh Ride”
No one better than a girl group to do this peppy, high-energy song justice.
Willie Nelson, “Pretty Paper”
Willie Nelson could be the narrator of a sad Wes Anderson movie that we would definitely watch.
Sam Smith, “The Lighthouse Keeper”
This might not be a song that makes it onto the Christmas party playlist, but it’s what you listen to on repeat as you make your way home in the cold.
“The Lighthouse Keeper,” with its minimal instrumentation, is the musical equivalent of feeling like you’re freezing down to your bones, barely able to feel your toes as you wait for the night bus on a snowy, windy night, but knowing there’s a crackling fire ready to greet you once you get home.
Darlene Love, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”
Another great showing from Darlene Love, the only person on this list to appear twice. Again, she hits it out of the park with a cheerful-sounding song that’s actually all about being sad and alone. (The U2 cover of this song isn’t bad, either.)
Justin Bieber, “Mistletoe”
It doesn’t matter what any of the haters say: this song is good.
’N Sync, “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays”
Yes, both the song and the video featuring Gary Coleman recruiting ’N Sync to fill in for Santa when he gets sick (?) are hopelessly corny. But you can’t not enjoy this song — it’s just not possible.
Boyz II Men ft. Brian McKnight, “Let It Snow”
Second only to Wham! in the Christmas sweater category.
Shonen Knife, “Sweet Christmas”
Despite the song’s name, this song by all-girl Japanese band Shonen Knife is a refreshing balm to the treacly song offerings you’ll hear everywhere else.
The Raveonettes. “The Christmas Song”
As any good millenial knows, this was the opening song on “The O.C.”’s Christmukkah album. It somehow evokes feelings of both sophistication and cosiness, like you’re sipping hot tea in a good friend’s beautiful, minimalist house on a freezing winter night.
Run-DMC, “Christmas in Hollis”
Run-DMC didn’t initially want to make a Christmas song, as they were against the overt commercialization, but eventually agreed to do this song for a charity album. The result is somehow wholesome without being cloying.
The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl, “Fairytale of New York”
Okay, so two alcoholics in a toxic relationship might not sound like Christmas song material. But the rising chorus and palpable, aching sadness makes this Celtic ’80s version of “Marriage Story” meets “Sid and Nancy” work.
Sufjan Stevens, “It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!”
“Even if your life’s been bad, there’s presents to be had” is a pretty universal sentiment.
Chuck Berry, “Run Rudolph Run”
Yes, your dad probably loves this song. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t slap!
Jackson 5, “Up on the Housetop”
Incredibly charming, if you can ignore the dread that comes from hearing a young Michael Jackson wish for “love and peace for everyone,” knowing how his life progressed after child stardom.
Bruce Springsteen, “Santa Claus is Coming To Town”
Do other versions of this song even count anymore?
Elton John, “Step Into Christmas”
How is this song not more of a staple? It literally starts with “Welcome to my Christmas song,” which you have to admit is an excellent beginning to a song.
Stevie Wonder, “Some Day at Christmas”
This song manages to imagine a better future and touch on social issues without resorting to stereotypes. Take note, “Do They Know It’s Christmas!”
Elvis, “Blue Christmas”
If you’re having a hard time this holiday season, know that even The King has been there, too.
Julian Casablancas, “I Wish It Was Christmas Today”
Would you believe this catchy, slickly-produced song started out as an “SNL” bit?
DMX, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
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