For being written off as devil’s music in its misspent youth, rock ‘n’ roll sure has contributed its share of Christmas standards to the yuletide canon.
Elvis Presley was just getting started when he released the definitive version of a song made popular by Ernest Tubbs, “Blue Christmas.” And the great Chuck Berry followed suit just one year later, 1958, with his classic rendition of “Run Rudolph Run.”
Here’s a look a few of the best Christmas records the rock ‘n’ roll era has produced, from Brenda Lee rockin’ around the Christmas tree to Mariah Carey capturing the spirit of Phil Spector’s most enduring holiday recordings on “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
Elvis Presley, ‘Blue Christmas’ (1957)
This is Elvis doing Christmas his way, setting the scene with a stutter of “I’ll ha-ha-have a-ha Blue Christmas without you.” There’s nothing especially merry about this particular Christmas, either, as a broken-hearted Elvis sulks about the one that got away and references Bing Crosby’s yuletide classic with a sigh of “You’ll be doing all right with your Christmas of white, but I’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas.” Released in 1957, it’s slower and sadder than Ernest Tubb’s 1950 original (on which there’s no hint of that opening stutter).
Chuck Berry, ‘Run Rudolph Run’ (1958)
If the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll’s pre-Dylan era seems a little off his game here, that’s because he didn’t write it. But Chuck Berry definitely does his best to make it sound like something he’d have written, setting the stage with a riff I’m pretty sure could pass for “Carol” — making this a Christmas “Carol,” if you will.
Brenda Lee, ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ (1958)
The most Elvis-y Christmas song of rock and roll’s first decade was not, as it turns out, done by Elvis, but by Brenda Lee. A laid-back rockabilly gem with lead guitar that’s pretty much exactly what Elvis guitarist Scotty Moore would play, it even boasts an Elvis-worthy stutter on the line about “mistletoe hung where you can see every couple tries to stop.” Of course, the sax break places this one closer to a Coasters song, but either way, the end result is timeless.
The Ronettes, ‘Frosty the Snowman’ (1963)
Phil Spector finds girl-group nirvana in “Frosty the Snowman” with this joyous Wall of Sound production led by Ronnie Spector’s streetwise sass. Hal Blaine’s drum fills are truly inspired and the ending is pure Spector magic — the Spector Bruce Springsteen was trying his best to echo on “The River” (and Elvis Costello on “Oliver’s Army”), all the Rankin-Bass melted away like so much talking snowman.
Darlene Love, ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ (1963)
“They’re singing ‘Deck the Halls’ but it’s not like Christmas at all” in this broken-hearted yuletide plea, another standout from the greatest Christmas album ever, “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.” The Wall of Sound has rarely sounded more majestic, but it all comes down to Darlene Love, the most soulful instrument in Spector’s arsenal.
The Beach Boys, ‘The Man With All the Toys’ (1964)
The Beach Boys’ finest hour as a post-Phil Spector Christmas institution, it eases you in with a big wall of breathtaking harmonies. But the song itself is more upbeat than that as they tell of a man who stumbles across Santa’s workshop late one night. “And he saw through the window a sight. A big man in a chair and little tiny men everywhere.” The harmonies are gorgeous on that “big man in a chair” part but what really seals the deal is the overpowering backing vocals going “bop” the second beat of every measure on the chorus.
The Beach Boys, ‘Little Saint Nick’ (1964)
Yes, another Beach Boys song. In this one, they bring you the tale of “a real famous cat all dressed up in red” who “spends the whole year working out on his sled.” As it turns out, the sled is the Little Saint Nick. In a stroke of true genius, they manage to work it around their classic car-song formula, most specifically recent hit “Little Deuce Coupe” (although the groove is closer to Dion’s “The Wanderer”). “Just a little bobsled, we call it Saint Nick. But she’ll walk a toboggan with a four-speed stick. She’s candy apple red with a ski for a wheel. And when Santa hits the gas, man, just watch her peel.”
The Sonics, ‘Don’t Believe in Christmas’ (1965)
The kings of the ’60s garage are flat-out begging for a stocking full of coal and a Chuck Berry lawsuit for stealing “Too Much Monkey Business” here. But “Don’t Believe in Christmas” is a classic blast of anti-social yuletide rock, with Gerry Roslie as the kid who didn’t get a thing for Christmas: “Stayed up late at night. To see Santa Claus, right. Sure thing, don’t you know. Fat boy didn’t show.” Maybe it’s because he knows you call him fat boy. Before the song is through, he advances his theory on why Rudolph’s nose is red and complains about learning that mistletoe doesn’t work with a slap in the face.
Vince Guaraldi, ‘Christmas Time is Here’ (1965)
The children’s choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California, may be rhyming “Christmas Time is Here” with “happiness and cheer,” but the prevailing mood of Vince Guaraldi’s yuletide treasure is somewhere between bittersweet and melancholy. It sounds like staring out the window at the gently falling snow that caused the cancellation of the flight that was supposed to bring your loved one home for Christmas.
Royal Guardsmen, ‘Snoopy’s Christmas’ (1967)
The third in a series of Snoopy-based singles for these Florida garage-rock heroes, “Snoopy’s Christmas” set the stage for yet another epic battle between the cartoon flying ace and his arch-nemesis, the Red Baron, with “‘Twas, the night before Christmas and 40 below when Snoopy went up in search of his foe.” But after several joyful choruses of “Christmas bells, those Christmas bells ring out from the land, asking peace of all the world and good will to man,” the Baron has a change of heart and, rather than killing the dog (or “putting him to sleep,” as pet owners would say), he tells him “Merry Christmas, my friend.”
Otis Redding, ‘Merry Christmas, Baby’ (1968)
Charles Brown, Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen all did well-known versions of this song, but no one made it sound more soulful — or more poignant — than the legendary Otis Redding, who’d been dead a year before this single hit the streets. It sounds just like an Otis Redding single, from the horn charts to the raw emotion in his vocals as he tells her, “Merry Christmas, baby, you sure did treat me nice.”
Jose Feliciano, ‘Feliz Navidad’ (1970)
Feliciano brought nothing but joy to the world with this seasonal favorite, a song he himself has described as the first-ever bilingual Christmas song. Its charms are undeniable, from the Spanish verses to the singalong chorus of “I want to wish you a merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart.” According to ASCAP, it’s one of the top 25 Christmas songs most played and recorded around the world.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono, ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ (1971)
In which former Beatle John Lennon and Yoko Ono use Christmas to promote their anti-war agenda. Baby Jesus would be proud. But no one gets off easy here. “And so this is Christmas and what have you done?,” John demands as the wall of guitars does its best imitation of waltzing in heaven. Then, Yoko has her say and when the chorus comes around again, John’s words are underscored by the kids of the Harlem Community Choir singing “War is over if you want it.” A beautiful thought for a beautiful day that should be more concerned with waging peace than commerce.
Prince, ‘Another Lonely Christmas’ (1984)
Prince sets the tone for this heartbreaking holiday classic, a hidden gem tucked away on the flipside of the “Purple Rain” hit “I Would Die 4 U,” with “Last night I spent another lonely Christmas/ Darling, darling, you should’ve been there.” We’re midway through an increasingly tortured performance before we learn that she’s not there because she “died on the 25th day of December.”
Bruce Springsteen, ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’ (1975)
Sure, the arrangement is Spector’s, but it’s Springsteen’s Christmas spirit that makes this version so contagious. Captured live and loopy in his prime, Springsteen eases you in with a rap that sets the scene on his beloved Jersey Shore: “It’s all cold down along the beach, the winds whipping down the Boardwalk.” Then, he does some interacting with his bandmates, checking with Clarence to see if he’s been rehearsing real hard so Santa will bring him a saxophone. And only then does Springsteen sing, turning in a performance that feels like every word was filtered through a grin.
The Kinks, ‘Father Christmas’ (1977)
It eases in all sweet and seasonal — with sleigh bells, even. Then, the slashing power chords kick in and from the time Ray Davies starts to sing, it’s clear that this will be a Christmas record like no other: “When I was small, I believed in Santa Claus, though I knew it was my dad.” As the story progresses, he’s standing outside a department store, dressed as Father Christmas, when a gang of kids attack, knocking his reindeer to the ground and shouting “Father Christmas, give us some money. Don’t mess around with those silly toys. We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over. We want your bread so don’t make us annoyed.” Sure, it’s dark, but his heart is in the right place, encouraging listeners to think about the poor kids driven to a life of crime: “Have yourself a merry, merry Christmas, Have yourself a good time. But remember the kids who got nothin’ while you’re drinkin’ down your wine.” His brother’s solo, by the way, is genius.
Big Star, ‘Jesus Christ’ (1978)
I’ve never seen this on a Christmas compilation (unless you count that dB’s Christmas record), but I don’t know why. The melody’s sweeter than Santa-shaped chocolate, the vocals are soulful and joyous, and — get this — the lyrics are actually about the birth of Jesus. Alex Chilton sets the stage with “Angels from the realms of glory, stars shone bright above, Royal David city was bathed in light of love.” Then, the chorus hits and cuts right to the chase. “Jesus Christ was born today. Jesus Christ was born.” And is that really tympani? I think that’s tympani. How Christmas can you get?
Paul McCartney, ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ (1979)
This song is unfairly maligned when it should be embraced for what it is — a sappy synth-pop trifle that captures the Capraesque charm of the season while pushing the musical envelope without abandoning the simple pleasures of a well-placed hook. You’d think that people would have had enough of silly Christmas songs? I look around me and I see it isn’t so.
Kurtis Blow, ‘Christmas Rappin” (1979)
Before Run-D.M.C. gave us “Christmas in Hollis,” Kurtis Blow was busy making Christmas safe for hip-hop, dismissing a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” as “played-out” and instructing the DJ to hit it to kick off this seasonal treasure. “Don’t you give me all that jive about things you wrote before I’s alive / ‘Cause this ain’t 1823/ Ain’t even 1970.” This was Blow’s first single, followed by “The Breaks.”
The Waitresses, ‘Christmas Wrapping’ (1981)
This New Wave Christmas single rocks the mic like Debbie Harry on the “Rapture” tip with an impossibly elastic bass line, punch-drunk horns slurring the chorus hook and a singer who’s blowing off Christmas this year. “Bah, humbug!” she begins, then reconsiders. “No, that’s too strong ’cause it is my favorite holiday.”
The Pretenders, ‘2000 Miles’ (1983)
This one fades in with the chime of a dreamy guitar part. Then, Chrissie Hynde steps to the microphone and sighs, “He’s gone; 2,000 miles is very far.” Snow is falling down, it’s getting colder day by day and she’s pinning her hopes on the love she misses being back by Christmastime. We never do find out if he gets back in time, but judging from the melancholy beauty of it all, I’m thinking no.
Band Aid, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ (1984)
What could be more unassailable than a star-studded charity record aimed at feeding starving children? Especially one where the music is actually good? Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats and Midge Ure of Ultravox put it together, rounding up a cast of dozens (David Bowie, Bono, Boy George, Sting, Bananarama — you know, everyone that really, truly mattered). As Christmas standards go, it’s kind of grim and at times patronizing, but it’s pretty clear they meant well. Best verse: “There’s a world outside your window and it’s a world of dread and fear where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears. And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.” Now, pass the stuffing, love.
Wham!, ‘Last Christmas’ (1984)
It’s kind of weird how much this sounds like something Hall & Oates, the other big pop-music duo of the ’80s, might have written — especially that keyboard part with which they set the tone. But that hasn’t hurt the enduring appeal of a George Michael classic the Guardian would go on to proclaim “a high watermark of mid-80s British synthpop songcraft, before slick technology killed sincerity a bit.” Originally held at bay by “Do They Know it’s Christmas?,” it topped the U.K. charts on New Year’s Day of 2021 more than 36 after its release.
Ramones, ‘Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)’ (1987)
A punk-rock yuletide classic, complete with an opening riff that sounds more like the Sex Pistols channeling Eddie Cochran than the more typical buzzsaw approach the Ramones seemed to favor. It’s Christmas in Queens and poor Joey Ramone is just trying to find himself a little peace on earth. He can’t find Santa, can’t find Rudolph, can’t find Blitzen and his girl can’t find it in her heart to set aside their differences, despite his pleas of “Christmas ain’t the time for breakin’ each other’s hearts.”
Run-D.M.C., ‘Christmas in Hollis’ (1987)
It eases in with jingle bells. And that’s about as far as traditional goes on this one as Run-D.M.C. rock the mic with a horn-driven rap about that time one Christmas Eve when they stumbled across a man with a beard and a bag full of goodies on Hollis Avenue in Queens. The man ends up dropping his wallet and when Run picks it up, there’s not only a license inside that “cold said Santa Claus” but a million dollars cash. He runs straight home to mail it back but finds a note under the Christmas tree from Santa Claus saying the money’s for him. That’s sweet, right?
Pogues, ‘Fairytale of New York’ (1987)
This single topped the Irish charts and is routinely voted greatest Christmas single ever in the U.K. But chances are, you’ll think twice about throwing it on when your family gets together for the holidays, unless they don’t mind cursing. Shane McGowan eases you in with a slur of “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank,” dreaming of “a better time when all our dreams come true.” But soon, he and Kirsty MacColl, sitting in as his true love, are hurling insults at each other, ending with MacColl’s best line: “Happy Christmas your arse; I pray God it’s our last.”
Tom Petty, ‘Christmas All Over Again’ (1992)
Tom Petty in Traveling Wilburys mode salutes the season with a wistful Spector-esque production in what could be Petty’s most infectious moment of the ’90s. He’s never sounded more like his Wilburys buddy George Harrison than he does on the verses here, sighing his way through a line about long-distance relatives he rarely sees before cracking a smile with “Yeah, I kinda missed ’em. I just don’t want to kiss ’em.”
Mariah Carey, ‘All I Want For Christmas is You’ (1994)
This modern yuletide standard is the biggest-selling Christmas record of Mariah Carey’s generation and the first holiday song to be certified diamond for U.S. sales of no fewer than 10 million copies. Not bad for a song that reportedly took Carey and collaborator Walter Afanasieff all of 15 minutes to write. And by “write,” I mean channel the essence of Phil Spector’s Christmas album, which certainly adds to the timeless-on-impact appeal of the recording, from the sleigh bells to Carey’s yearning vocal.
Flaming Lips, ‘Christmas at the Zoo’ (1995)
Imagine Phil Spector on acid producing the Beatles at their psychedelic peak. Now imagine Wayne Coyne as their singer, devising a plan to “free the animals all locked up at the zoo” because it didn’t snow on Christmas eve. Sound logical? Of course not. It’s the Flaming Lips.
Eels, ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas’ (1998)
Mark Oliver Everett of Eels is surprisingly upbeat on this spirited yuletide stomp, reassuring himself and anyone who hears it that “everything’s gonna be cool this Christmas.” It’s not without its melancholy undercurrents — allowing that “as days go by the more we need friends and the harder they are to find” — but the prevailing mood is festive, including a shout of “Baby Jesus, born to rock” going into the solo.
Long Blondes, ‘Christmas is Canceled’ (2007)
This song takes the spirit and chords of the girl-group smash “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and rewrites it as a great lost Blondie single. The singer’s ex-boyfriend is looking to patch things up, having let himself in while she was late-night shopping with the key he’s yet to return, “skillfully avoiding things that happened here a year ago.” It turns out his new girlfriend’s tossed him out, as often happens in these girl-group classics, but she’s unimpressed at best. “You know what you did wrong,” she tells him. “And Christmas is canceled this year.”
Raveonettes, ‘Come On Santa’ (2008)
It’s like they’re sleepwalking through snowdrifts with a xylophone in tow, as bassist Sharin Foo begs Santa for snow and some love (“the greatest gift of all”) to help her make it through the night. And Sune Rose Wagner underscores her heartache with the saddest lead guitar break of the season.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ‘All I Want For Christmas’ (2008)
A Polar Express-style train wreck on the key change only adding to its homespun charms, this bittersweet ballad makes the most of a vulnerable Karen O vocal. “All I want for Christmas this year,” she pouts, “is to warm you up with kisses and cheer.” And then, when it comes time to bring in the chorus of fa-la-la-la-las, she references “Walk on the Wild Side” with “And all the elves say…”
Sufjan Stevens, ‘Christmas in the Room’ (2008)
The man has recorded a truly ridiculous number of Christmas songs since 2001. I lost track at 100. But this may be the best. And if it’s not, it’s certainly the most romantic. Consider the opening verse: “No travel plans, no shopping malls / No candy canes or Santa Claus / For as the day of rest draws near / It’s just the two of us this year / No silver bells or mistletoe / We’ll kiss and watch our TV shows.” He does not mention whether they’ll be watching Christmas episodes of TV shows, but Christmas is more about spending the day with the person you love in this song. Or as Stevens puts it in that final verse: “No gifts to give, they’re all right here / Inside our hearts the glorious cheer / And in the house we see a light / That comes from what we know inside.”
Kanye West, ‘Christmas in Harlem’ (2010)
Only Kanye West would be this dirty and this corny on the same track, easily the most intriguing Christmas single of 2010. And it sounds great, like the songs on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” with a familiar dose of old-school Christmas soul to underscore the winter mix of warm nostalgia and the quest for Christmas flesh. Somehow, Kanye pulls it off, grinning his way through such Kanye-esque come-ons as, “Now pour some more eggnog in your drink, mami” and “You’ve been a bad girl/Give Santa three kisses/Gave her the hot chocolate/She said, ‘It’s de-ricious.'”