The advent of the winter season brings with it the annual deluge of Christmas music. As early as Thanksgiving, radio stations and Spotify playlists are awash with merriment and jingle bells. Even the classic rock radio station doles out Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” while the local jazz and classical stations opt for the works of Nat King Cole and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
With dozens of covers and interpretations of these classic standards, it can be inundating to sift through the reams of lazily recorded Christmas cash grabs and pick out the best versions. So for all your party hosting needs, here are some lesser-known and reliable holiday staples to line your playlists.
Frank Sinatra — “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1957)
Few things offer as much comfort as Sinatra’s velvet-lined baritone voice. Exuding nostalgia with each word, Sinatra evokes the fairy-tale Christmas, replete with a decorated tree, gingerbread cookies, and crackling fireplace, with the same level of detail as a realist painter.
Frank Sinatra — Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Lyrics) — YouTube
The Ronettes — “Sleigh Ride” (1963)
While Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of this Christmas standard is no slouch either, it’s The Ronettes’ up-tempo arrangement, brimming with backup singers, basslines, keyboards, and everything else Phil Spector could muster into the mix that will have your party guests jiving along.
The Ronettes — Sleigh Ride (Official Audio) — YouTube
Jackson 5 — “Someday at Christmas” (1970)
Who said all Christmas songs sound alike? The Jackson 5’s soulful R&B record is a welcome departure from the typical pop arrangements that make up much of the genre. Jermaine carries the bassline, while the Motown group’s supple vocals liven the party.
Jackson 5 — Someday at Christmas — YouTube
Otis Redding — “Merry Christmas Baby” (1968)
In similar fashion to the Jackson 5, Otis Redding reworks “Merry Christmas Baby” into a medley of soul and jazz, replacing sleigh bells and chimes with electric guitar and bass. Redding’s band opens with a cyclic groove on the horns and a buttery-smooth bassline that extends through the whole song, driving the beat. Redding delivers one of his most confident and blistering performances, blending his ability to comfortably howl at the peak of his vocal range (as on “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”) with his immutable gospel influences.
Otis Redding — Merry Christmas Baby (Official Audio) — YouTube
Joni Mitchell — “River” (1971)
No holiday playlist is complete without Mitchell’s ode to sorrow. On “River,” Mitchell appropriates the universal “Jingle Bells” chords to create something far more beautiful. Eschewing the traditional holiday record template, Mitchell pens an elegy to feeling lonely while surrounded by merriment. The terse arrangement (nothing but Mitchell and her piano) accentuates her lyrics. Meanwhile, Mitchell’s shrewd songwriting ensures that despite its minimalism, her music never dulls; it captivates you and makes you feel her sorrow.
Joni Mitchell - River (Official Audio) - YouTube
George Harrison — “Ding Dong, Ding Dong” (1974)
Everyone already knows John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s respective Christmas hits. So instead, I’ll proffer a lesser-known holiday record from an ex-Beatle for your playlist; nobody likes a predictable DJ. Harrison wrote much of the singalong tune by culling together engravings he found in his 19th-century Oxfordshire home. A catchy riff, paired with such great lyrics as, “Yesterday, today was tomorrow. And tomorrow, today will be yesterday,” make this a holiday playlist essential. The song’s expansive production hearkens back to Harrison’s work with Phil Spector on All Things Must Pass.
George Harrison — Ding Dong, Ding Dong — YouTube
The Pogues — “Fairytale Of New York” (1987)
It just isn’t Christmas without The Pogues. This classic duet between Shane MacGowan and Kristy MacColl is a masterpiece in storytelling in song. Slurred piano chords accentuate MacGowan’s rumination as he sings about his bygone years: “I could have been someone.” MacColl remarks, "Well, so could have anyone.” The pair blend their voices in the chorus, singing in unison, “The boys of the NYPD choir, still singing Galway Bay; And the bells are ringing out for Christmas day.”
The Pogues — Fairytale Of New York (Official Video) — YouTube
Marah — “New York is a Christmas Kind of Town” (2005)
Marah’s 2005 foray into holiday music weaves together Broadway show tunes with rock ’n’ roll, crafting a grooving cadence that pulsates underneath a hooky riff on the brass. “New York is a Christmas Kind of Town” is an underrated Christmas-music gem that sounds contemporary while maintaining a classic feel.
Marah — New York Is A Christmas Kind of Town — YouTube
Taylor Swift — “Last Christmas” (2007)
George Michael’s original Christmas pop hit, despite its great hook, suffers from the worst of '80s production cliches: blinding synthesizers and lifeless reverb galore. Swift’s cover strips away the perfunctory noise, leaving just a guitar and drums, with her vocals driving the mix.
Taylor Swift — Last Christmas (Lyrics) — YouTube
Harry Khachatrian (@Harry1T6) is a computer engineer in Toronto. He is also a writer and editor, focusing on music, culture, and technology.