Slate music: Christmas songs and holiday playlists for Slate Plus members.

These Are the Best Holiday Songs, According to Slate

These Are the Best Holiday Songs, According to Slate

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Dec. 21 2015 10:00 AM
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Holiday tracks for the season, exclusively for Slate Plus members.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Photos by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images, Franklin D. Roosevelt/Wikimedia Commons, and Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Lee Daniel's The Butler.
Kanye, Bing, and Mariah.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Photos by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images, Franklin D. Roosevelt/Wikimedia Commons, and Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Lee Daniel's The Butler.

As membership grows, we’re reprinting some of Slate Plus’s greatest hits. This article was originally published on December 17, 2014.

Christmas songs are a timeless—and ubiquitous—holiday tradition. You play them during your December commute, at holiday parties, and while you’re decorating the tree. And, in most places nowadays, you start hearing them as early as Halloween. Some have peculiar grammar, some are modern updates to old-time classics, some are hidden gems, and others are downright racist.

But it’s a safe bet they all hold some significance for many this time of year. Below, via Spotify, are Slate’s favorite Christmas songs—and what they mean to us. Happy holidays!

Mariah Carey, “All I Want for Christmas Is You”
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The only truly canonical song added to the Christmas rotation in the last three decades. It is also the only Christmas song that’s just as great to hear in July. —Willa Paskin, TV critic

Elmo & Patsy, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”
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Gotta love a song in which a man universally beloved by small children is guilty of killing a member of the group most likely to give good presents: the grandparents. —Ava Lubell, assistant

“Ave Maria (Schubert)”
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This song gets me every single time. I literally tear up when I hear it. I love it mostly because it’s a beautiful song, but partly because it makes me think of The West Wing, and anything that reminds me of The West Wing is a good thing. —Ayana Morali, executive producer

Lou Rawls, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”
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This was the Christmas song of my childhood, and it took me years to find it in the Internet era. (I didn’t know who sang it! I just knew what it sounded like.) It is swingy and zingy and great. —Dan Kois, culture editor

Squirrel Nut Zippers, “I’m Coming Home for Christmas”
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If it is remembered at all, the North Carolina band Squirrel Nut Zippers is remembered as a punch line to our culture’s brief swing fad. But the group’s Christmas album is delightful, and it includes covers of several classics plus some should-be-classic original compositions, like this one. —Kois

Wham!, “Last Christmas”
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George Michael creepily, yet sexily, whispering Happy Christmas at the 1:30 mark is one of the holiday’s most decadent pleasures. —Amanda Hess, staff writer

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
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It makes me feel calm, not jangled (which, by late December, is life-giving). —Betsy Woodruff, staff writer

Los Campesinos!, “When Christmas Comes”
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The Welsh indie band Los Campesinos!, known for shout-along poppy songs featuring lyrics of emo teen angst, has released a Christmas album this year just in time to face our dysfunctional families for the holidays. I’m not a huge fan of traditional Christmas carols, so this catchy song, which tells a bittersweet tale of a depressing past year and the hope for the holiday ahead, is refreshing, yet seasonally appropriate.  —Abby McIntyre, copy editor

Lady Gaga ft. Space Cowboy, “Christmas Tree”
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I don’t have to justify myself.  —Bryan Lowder, assistant editor

Sufjan Stevens, “The Midnight Clear”
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If you don’t like Sufjan Stevens, you probably won’t like this song. Otherwise, I defy you to resist its earnest lyrics, melancholy verses, and jubilant, slightly off-kilter chorus. I listened to this on repeat last Christmas and will probably do the same this year. —L.V. Anderson, assistant editor

Joni Mitchell, “River”
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Confession: I first heard this song when Robert Downey Jr. sang it on Ally McBeal in 2000. At the time, I had no idea it was a Joni Mitchell song, although I was enchanted by it. I soon discovered the original, which is a Christmas song for people who hate Christmas—but it’s also a Christmas song for people who love Christmas but sometimes still get sad in December. —Anderson

Nowell Sing We Clear, “Come and I Will Sing You”
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I’ve written about my love for Nowell Sing We Clear in Slate, and I urge everyone to go out and devour all the group’s carols. Here’s a catchy countdown song, which takes the same format as “The Twelve Days of Christmas” but is otherwise unfamiliar—its enigmatic verses will startle you out of your holiday complacency. —Anderson

The Pretenders, “2000 Miles”
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The most plaintive song about holiday loneliness since 1943’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Just try not to feel Chrissie Hynde’s pain as she sings, “In these frozen and silent nights, sometimes in a dream you appear.” —Seth Stevenson, contributor

The Waitresses, “Christmas Wrapping”
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Combining all the cheesiness of Christmas music with all the cheesiness of new wave music, the Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” is also super-catchy and well-produced. Like all truly great Christmas songs, it addresses both the joy and melancholy of the season. —Chris Wade, video producer

Part of this pick can probably be attributed to a family tradition in which my cousins and I all yell the line “Oh DAMN, guess what I forgot!” in unison. But it’s also extremely catchy and a favorite of Lorelai Gilmore’s as well. What’s not to love? —Ellie Skrzat, photo intern

Because there should be a band called the Waitresses. Because the first two words are immediately contradicted by the next four words. Because it mistakes wrapping for just saying moderately rhyming things all crammed together in one line. And because the video makes no pretense at lip-synching. Also, the bass is great. —Mike Pesca, host of The Gist

Evil Wiener, “All Around the World (Ho Ho Happy Birthday Jesus Christ)”
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A song about Santa flying around the world wishing Jesus a happy birthday that devolves into a reinterpretation of Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” ... what could be better? —Wade

The Grateful Dead, “Stagger Lee”
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What says Christmas like a cold-blooded homicide? Artists from Woody Guthrie to Lloyd Price have recounted the tale of Stagger Lee, who shot poor Billy DeLyon after losing his Stetson hat to him in a dice game. To my knowledge, only the Grateful Dead’s arrangement, with lyrics by Robert Hunter, places the action on “Xmas Eve,” 1940. (Dave Van Ronk says it happened “one September.”) But I’m an unreconstructed Dead Head, so I’ve always thought of the song as an unlikely holiday ballad, with an appropriately cheery ending appended to the Dead’s version, in which Billy’s wife Delia avenges her husband’s death by shooting Stagger Lee right in the chestnuts. —John Swansburg, deputy editor 

Ron Sexsmith, “Maybe This Christmas”
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It was on The OC’s Christmas mix CD, which makes it a classic to me. —Heather Schwedel, copy editor

“O Holy Night”
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The most metal Christmas carol—“fall on your knees!”—is also the most beautiful. Like “Silent Night” and “We Three Kings,” “O Holy Night” should be banned from radio and Spotify, reappearing only on Christmas Eve, an annual clarion call. —Ryan Vogt, copy editor

“Greensleeves”
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I’ve always loved the plaintive seasonal melody “Greensleeves” and will one day create a playlist consisting solely of different “Greensleeves” arrangements. For instance, here’s the Weavers with a traditional instrumental take; the full and gorgeous King’s Singers a cappella version; a pared-down folk translation; and, of course, John Coltrane’s sultry, jazzy interpretation. May your sleeves be ever-green this holiday! —Katy Waldman, words correspondent    

Sufjan Stevens, “Lo How A Rose E’er Blooming”
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I love the 16th-century German hymn “Lo! How A Rose E’er Blooming,” which my extended family sings in harmony every year at our annual get-together. In its slow cadence, the song walks a line between languid mellowness and heartbreaking longing. Sufjan Stevens does two versions—an instrumental track and a vocal one. I like the xylophone tones in the vocal version, which seem to make vague reference to a sleigh on snow. Maybe I’ll bring a string of bells to this year’s gathering and see if I can start a new tradition. —Rebecca Onion, The Vault editor

The Ronettes, “Sleigh Ride”
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There are a million versions of this Leroy Anderson classic, from Ella Fitzgerald’s cool swing to Johnny Mathis’ bouncy pop. But this one, with Ronnie Spector’s honey-drenched voice riding high over Phil Spector’s shimmering, propulsive production, will blow your stockings clean off the mantle. —Will Oremus, senior technology writer

Nick Lowe, “Christmas at the Airport”
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I sing this song to myself all the time. I first heard it last year, and it brought back so many memories of traveling on Christmas and all the holidays. One year we even ended up getting a small fruitcake from the airline staff flying overseas on Christmas. —Natalie Matthews-Ramo, Web and interactive designer

Kid Creole and the Coconuts, “Christmas on Riverside Drive”
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I spent most of 2009 looking for work instead of having it, and I was very eager for that year to end. Happily, right around the holidays I got a job, and shortly thereafter, my friend DJRC released a wonderful holiday mix that included this fun and danceable tune. What a relief. The song makes any gray winter day delightful, no matter your employment situation, and whether you’re on the Upper West Side or the West Coast. —Seth Maxon, nights and weekends home page editor 

“Auld Lang Syne”
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This may be because New Year’s is my favorite holiday, but I’ve always been particularly fond of “Auld Lang Syne,” whose gorgeous melody strikes me as both plaintive and hopeful, like New Year’s itself sometimes. In an episode of Fresh Air last year, musician Mark Mulcahy eloquently said that the song’s lyrics reflect on the value of remembering old times, and that’s kind of a difficult, profound question. He also delivered a spare, beautiful rendition of the tune. —Maxon

Big Star, “Jesus Christ”
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I gather there’s some debate among fans about whether this song is semi-sarcastic or entirely sincere. It sounds earnest to me. And I love the mix of jangly guitars and church-choir-appropriate lyrics: “Lo they did rejoice/ Fine and pure of voice/ And the wrong shall fail/ And the right prevail.” If only. —David Haglund, senior editor

Harry Connick Jr., “(It Must’ve Been Ol’) Santa Claus”
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Before you have kids, you think the Santa years are going spool out in front of you forever. But then you go from blocks and trains to “T for Teen” video games in the blink of an eye. The questions become more pointed, the ruses more elaborate, and pretty soon everyone is in on it but the youngest. We’re rapidly approaching that point in our household. So I’m a sucker for any song that proclaims that Santa is real. Because I kinda wish he were. —Rachael Larimore, senior editor

Marvin Gaye, “I Want to Come Home for Christmas”
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It’s a depressing song, lyrically—sung from the point of view of a prisoner of war while the Vietnam War was still in full swing—but the layered harmonies are so beautiful. And personally, I think some of the best Christmas songs are also tinged with a sense of melancholy and sadness. This one is also timeless—there will always, unfortunately, be people who are unable to be near the ones they love at the holidays. —Aisha Harris, staff writer

Irving Berlin, “White Christmas”
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The O.G. Christmas pop song, Irving Berlin’s three-minute masterpiece has never been beat. The legend of its rise is as heartbreaking as the song: It snuck by at first without notice, but when U.S. soldiers left home for World War II, Americans couldn’t shake their longing for Christmases “just like [they] used to know.” We’ve never shaken it: Bing Crosby’s version entered the charts again and again year after year, and it still holds Guinness’ record for the best-selling record of all time. Just like I’ve never had a Christmas like when I was younger, we’ve never had another Christmas song like this one. —Forrest Wickman, staff writer

Dreaming of a snowy, white Christmas? So was Bing Crosby, while the sun was shining and the grass was green. Regardless of whether you get one, Bing’s soothing rendition of this song is enough to make all your Christmases merry and bright. —Alison Griswold, staff writer

Kanye West, “Christmas in Harlem”
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One of pop’s other great composers, Kanye West, quietly released this song in 2010, as a victory lap after conquering the music world with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and his GOOD Friday series. West’s take on the holiday is not as family-friendly as “White Christmas,” but it is about family. It aches with the same nostalgia, too, and the maximalist arrangement—produced by Hit-Boy—is just as lush. —Wickman

Vince Guaraldi Trio, “Linus and Lucy”
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No Christmas party is complete without a touch of Vince Guaraldi, and especially this unmistakable track. It’s festive, irrepressibly energetic, and a jazzy antidote to all the other schmaltz on the radio this time of year. —Griswold

John Williams, “Somewhere in My Memory”
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If you’re a ’90s kid like me, then Home Alone is not only one of your favorite Christmas films, it also soundtracked every Christmas season of your childhood. And, for me, it still does. John Williams’ score was released the year I was born, 1990, and 24 years later I can’t truly get into the Christmas spirit until I’ve had a Home Alone marathon—just the first two—and played its theme song on repeat. —Dee Lockett, editorial assistant

TLC, “Sleigh Ride”
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I still couldn’t tell you how the hell TLC ended up on the Home Alone 2 soundtrack, but all I know is this song was 2-year-old Dee’s jam. I mean, it doesn’t get much better than Left Eye rapping, “Santa’s tryin’ to mack in his Cadillac.” —Lockett

And one last bonus: Below is the playlist from Slate’s New York office holiday party.