Top Ten Holiday Songs

Can you believe that Christmas is just over a month away? Where did the year go?!?! What makes time fly even faster is the fact that between unseasonably cold temperatures and endless snowfall near the Great Lakes, the calendar has seemingly flipped directly from October to December!

I don’t mean to bypass Thanksgiving by writing that; I am working on a Turkey Day-themed post for sometime next week. It is merely that everywhere I turn, it feels like Christmas. Even the radio is filled with holiday carols. As such, I have decided to embrace the season’s early arrival.

Last year I blogged about my top ten favorite holiday movies. (I even threw in one about Thanksgiving for good measure!) For this year, I toyed with writing a post entitled “Another Top Ten Holiday Movies,” but ultimately decided to share my taste in holiday music with you instead. Here are a few of my seasonal favorites – festive and somber, spiritual and secular, English and otherwise. I selected their best renditions (remakes mostly suck) and put their YouTube links below. I make no promises that the links are ad-free; you have been warned.

Top Ten Holiday Songs (with YouTube links):

  1. “Feliz Navidad” by José Feliciano (1970): My declaration of “Feliz Navidad” as my favorite holiday song has nothing to do with the two years I spent living in Mexico. This is just a fun, positive song wishing its listeners “Merry Christmas, a prosperous New Year, and best wishes.” (“Feliz Navidad, prospero año y felicidad.”) A wonderful message in any language. Side note: I saw the Puerto Rican-born Feliciano perform in Santa Ana, California in 2007. It was a great show, and Mr. Feliciano even performed a couple of timely numbers about bringing home our troops from Iraq. Prior to watching him perform, I had no idea that he was blind! Not that it matters. Here is his defining Navidad/Christmas anthem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PM70hBp2Fjk
  2. “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” by Nat “King” Cole (1961): Most holiday songs have been remade so many times that it is sometimes hard to choose a favorite version.If there was ever one undeniable, no-other-version-matters recording, however, it would be Nat “King” Cole’s 1961 rendition of the 1944 Bob Wells/Mel Tormé classic “The Christmas Song” (often with the chorus “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” subtitled in parentheses). The string-and-piano opening notes are instantly recognizable, as is “King” Cole’s husky voice. And the message is timeless: Merry Christmas, kids young and old. Someone with the handle “LadyMyrddin” posted this nostalgic video of Nat’s unforgettable classic here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IirR7z_024Q
  3. “Merry Christmas Darling” by The Carpenters (1978): Is there a better holiday album than Christmas Portrait by The Carpenters? I challenge you to name one. The 1970’s brother-and-sister duo reinvented several seasonal classics on this 21-song album, a copy of which my parents still own on glorious vinyl. Song interpretations include the festive “Silver Bells” and the somber “Ave Maria.” The best song, however, is an original tune: the touching, bittersweet “Merry Christmas Darling.” Karen Carpenter may have suffered from an eating disorder that ultimately took her life, but she sure could belt out a tune for someone as thin as she was. She will always be missed. Lea Michele’s well-intended “Glee” cover doesn’t come close, not by a country mile. Give the 1978 Carpenters standard a listen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kelu2FOVQos
  4. “O Magnum Mysterium” by Morten Lauridsen (1994): This haunting Latin choral piece derived from a monastic liturgical chant. It was put into mixed choral form by a number of composers. The version that has become a frequent selection in university chamber choirs such as my own was arranged by the great Morten Lauridsen. The words “O magnum mysterium” mean, literally, “Oh, great mystery.” Full translation of the traditional monastic chant is as follows: “Oh great mystery/and wonderful sacrament/that animals should see the new-born Lord/lying in a manger!/Blessed is the Virgin whose womb/was worthy to bear/Christ the Lord./Alleluia!” Here is a version from 1998 by the University of Utah Singers that still sends shivers up my spine. Turn your speakers up loud for this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqCtbR8PktU
  5. “The Story of Snoopy’s Christmas” by The Royal Guardsmen (1967): Merry Snoopy’s Christmas was a delightful curiosity from 1967 and is something of a cult classic today. Nine songs were recorded by the decidedly Beatles-esque pop group The Royal Guardsmen (fun fact: they actually hailed from Florida). A few songs stand alone, but the album generally follows the Christmastime pursuit of the evil Red Baron by Snoopy the WWI Flying Ace on his doghouse/airplane, the Sopwith Camel. Billboard magazine named this tune, also known as “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” the #1 “Best Bet” for audience appeal when played by radio stations around the holidays. I couldn’t agree more. Here it is for your enjoyment, featuring timeless Peanuts animation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jlf—13Q0g
  6. “Rock of Ages – Ma’oz Tzur” by Marc Cohn (1998): I don’t fully understand this song’s lyrics, and nor can I decipher every note sung by Marc Cohn, but it is a little-known guitar-and-vocal gem that I was first introduced to upon receiving a holiday music CD from a vendor that I once worked with during my ad agency days. I always knew that this particular “Rock of Ages” wasn’t a Def Leppard tune, but rather a Hanukkah song of some sort. Further research revealed that it specifically originated from the Jewish liturgical poem “Ma’oz Tzur,” written in Hebrew and celebrating deliverance from  four ancient enemies straight out of the Bible – Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Haman, and Antiochus. According to Wikipedia, the rock of the title is the former Hasmonean stronghold of Beth-zur. Check out American folk singer Cohn’s take on Old Testament history for yourself here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSX-ZyaYFbM
  7. “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” by Gayla Peevey (1953): Just ten years old when this song was recorded, little Gayla Peevey became an overnight sensation (albeit something of a one-hit wonder, despite recording several singles under the name Jamie Horton) after belting out this delightful ditty with surprising gusto. What could possibly go wrong with having a hippopotamus as a pet? Nothing, the Ponca City, Oklahoma native argues. Hippos are vegetarians, so she doesn’t have to worry about being eaten – and “there’s lots of room for him in our two-car garage!” Here it is for your listening pleasure: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9RBZz730ibU
  8. “Mele Kalikimaka” by Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters (1950): It seems that for the masses, it just isn’t Christmas without snow. For just as many, however, December is cold, and they yearn for Christmas in a tropical paradise. I spent Thanksgiving 2005 in Honolulu and I can attest: it is quite nice (to make an understatement). The decorations are as spectacular in Hawaii as they are anywhere on the mainland, plus you have a warm sea breeze to boot! Bing Crosby, who sang “Mele Kalikimaka” – “Merry Christmas” in Hawaiian – definitely knew what he was talking about. See Hawaiian scenery, coconut bra-clad hula girls, and Hawaiian holiday images while listening to Bing croon by clicking here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEvGKUXW0iI
  9. “Christmas Lights” by Scala & Kolacny Brothers (2012): I only recently discovered this song when I was downloading the all-female choir’s cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” which if you haven’t heard you should download posthaste. I clicked on the link to “Christmas Lights” and heard a beautiful, tear-jerking ode to spending the holidays in relationship strife. I loved it instantly, then Googled the Coldplay original, which I had also never heard. Alas, Coldplay’s version is just okay, but as is frequently becoming the case, the Scala & Kolacny choir brought their own inventive take to the material. I would rank this song even higher, except I am unsure at this date how it will withstand the test of time. Give it a listen yourself here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymHujMYUkHQ
  10. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Andy Williams (1963): Simply put, there is no better holiday song for putting you in the holiday spirit than this seminal ditty. Trumpets blare ten glorious notes to open the song, and I immediately flashback to childhoods spent ice skating, building snowmen, window shopping on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and sipping hot chocolate. There is also no better version than this one. This video shows a house in Arizona with Christmas lights seemingly timed to the music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2urlriwjcg

Thanks for reading my top ten list. Did I omit any classics in your opinion? Give a shout out below to some of your favorites!

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food, history, and women, all while weathering the culture shock. Life's journey has since brought him to rural Tennessee, perhaps the biggest culture shock of them all. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, and travel in general.

6 thoughts on “Top Ten Holiday Songs”

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