Popular Christmas Songs, Ranked
Like it or not, when December rolls around, holiday tunes score our lives. But this merry and bright — and inescapable — soundtrack is divisive: Some songs are nostalgic, catchy and long-awaited, while others are laughable, terrible parts of our Christmastime collective consciousness.
This year, we’ve made a list (and checked it twice) of Christmas’ best and worst songs, so read on to find out how your favorite — and most dreaded — earworms stack up.
#20. “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses
The instant success of this 1981 tune from new wave band The Waitresses surprised everyone — including the band. Commissioned by ZE Records for a Christmas compilation album, "Christmas Wrapping" was the last thing the band wanted to deal with in the midst of a difficult tour.
#19. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” — Brenda Lee & Ingrid Michaelson Versions
Written by Johnny Marks, "Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree" was first recorded in 1958 by Brenda Lee, who was just 13 years old at the time. When the song turned 50 in 2008, Lee’s version surpassed 25 million copies in sales and became the fourth most-downloaded Christmas single.
#18. “Christmas in Hollis” by Run-D.M.C.
Run-DMC’s "Christmas in Hollis" is probably one of the first — and most beloved — holiday songs in the hip-hop genre. Sampling hits like "Back Door Santa," "Frosty the Snowman," "Jingle Bells" and "Joy to the World," the song and its title reference Hollis, Queens, the neighborhood in which the group’s members grew up.
#17. “White Christmas” — Bing Crosby & The Supremes Versions
Written by the prolific Irving Berlin, this Academy Award-winning song was most famously sung by Bing Crosby, who didn’t think much of the tune when Berlin first penned it for Holiday Inn (1942). Crosby performed it on a Christmas Day broadcast, just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, and it really struck a chord with audiences.
#16. “Silent Night” by Stevie Nicks
The popular Christmas carol was originally composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber and lyricist Joseph Mohr and performed on Christmas Eve at Saint Nicholas parish in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. Since then, "Silent Night" — or "Stille Nacht" — has been recorded by hundreds of artists across dozens of genres.
#15. “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues feat. Kirsty MacColl
Written by Jem Finer and Shane MacGowan, "Fairytale of New York" was recorded by the duo’s band, the Pogues, and featured the vocals of singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl. A duet in the style of an Irish folk ballad, the tune is often heralded as one of the best Christmas songs ever written and holds the distinction of being the UK’s most-played Christmas song.
#14. “Merry Christmas Baby” by Ike & Tina Turner
This R&B Christmas standard was written by Lou Baxter and Johnny Moore in 1947. Charles Brown, a singer and pianist who was on the original recording with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, noted that the tune was meant to replicate the same success Bing Crosby had with "White Christmas."
#13. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey
Every year, a popular artist tries their hand at a Christmas album that mixes covers with original holiday ditties, but it’s rare that any of these tracks makes a lasting impression. Thanks to her 1994 hit "All I Want for Christmas Is You," Mariah Carey not only crafted "one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday canon" (The New Yorker), but she’s also been dubbed the "Queen of Christmas."
#12. “Last Christmas” by Wham!
Normally, we wouldn’t sing the praises of a duo with an exclamation point in their name, but Wham!’s George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley created a real bop with "Last Christmas." Written by Michael on a trip home, the song wow’d Ridgeley when he first heard it; he even called the experience "a moment of wonder."
#11. “Winter Wonderland” by Frank Sinatra
When you hear "Christmas music," greats like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé, Johnny Mathis and the ever-festive Radiohead probably come to mind. And what do all of these musical acts have in common? Jolly old covers of the holiday standard "Winter Wonderland."
#10. “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” A.K.A. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” Meets “Carol of the Bells” by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra
"Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)" is an inspired instrumental medley of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" and "Shchedryk" — or "Carol of the Bells," as English-speakers know it. Originally recorded by heavy metal band Savatage, the cinematic tune was re-released and popularized in 1996 by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a Savatage side project.
#9. “River” by Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell’s "River" is her second-most covered song — after all, what’s not to like about a folksy breakup song set at Christmastime? Allegedly inspired by Mitchell’s two-year relationship with Graham Nash, the song probably wasn’t meant to be a holiday standard — Christmas is just the backdrop — but it ranks high on many listeners’ lists.
#8. “Christmas Time Is Here” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio
Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown! We stand by this Peanuts classic. "Christmas Time Is Here" is a light, jazzy tune that Lee Mendelson and Vince Guaraldi wrote for the 1965 special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Even after nearly 60 years, nothing brings friends with different holiday priorities together like this tune.
#7. “The Little Drummer Boy” by David Bowie & Bing Crosby
Originally dubbed "Carol of the Drum," this popular Christmas tune was written by composer Katherine Kennicott Davis back in 1940. Its first major recording occurred in 1951 when the Trapp Family Singers put their spin on it (yes, as in the real-life von Trapps who inspired 1959’s The Sound of Music).
#6. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” — Bing Crosby & Nat King Cole Versions
"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is one of the oldest Christmas carols around, dating back to at least the 16th century. Unsurprisingly, Charles Dickens references this very English carol in his 1843 classic A Christmas Carol.
#5. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Johnny Mathis
The only thing more iconic than Johnny Mathis belting out the soundtrack to a Christmas party is that iconic Merry Christmas album cover, which features the pop singer in his most chic ski clothes. Although all of Mathis’ renditions are stellar, his version of "I’ll Be Home for Christmas" is one of his best.
#4. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland
Songwriting duo Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine wrote this beloved song for Judy Garland’s 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis — but this now-classic hit almost ended up in the trash. "[I] couldn't make [the little madrigal-like tune] work, so I played with it for two or three days and then threw it in the wastebasket," Martin told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2010.
#3. “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)” by Nat King Cole
You may know this song by its more recent subtitle "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," but, regardless of what you call it, there’s no denying that this is the song you want to hear late on Christmas Eve, as the fire’s last embers smolder.
#2. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Darlene Love
In 2010, Rolling Stone magazine dubbed "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" the greatest rock and roll Christmas song, commenting that "nobody can match [Darlene] Love’s emotion and sheer vocal power." And it’s true: Although greats like U2 and Mariah Carey have covered it, nothing quite compares to Love’s original version.
#1. Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” — Versions by Arthur Fiedler and The Ronettes
Inspired by Leroy Anderson’s time in small New England towns, "Sleigh Ride" was named the most popular piece of Christmas music between 2009–2012 by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), based on radio play. Anderson wrote the instrumental song during a July heatwave in 1946, and Mitchell Parish added lyrics in 1950.
And Now For the Worst…
Thanks to all of those memorable, catchy Christmas songs, it’s easy to be swept up in holiday cheer each year. However, there’s also a dark side to holiday music. Have you ever tuned into one of those all-Christmas music radio stations? We’re pretty sure those are one of Dante’s circles of Hell.
#15. Almost Any Artist’s Rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”
Sure, this 1944 hit is a holiday classic that won Frank Loesser an Oscar — and it’s one of the few holiday duets out there. But none of those facts make it any more palatable. In fact, the part traditionally sung by a man is downright creepy. For him, bad weather becomes a reason to ignore a woman saying "No, I’d like to go home now."
#14. “Must Be Santa” by Bob Dylan
Written in 1960, this call-and-response ditty was based off a German drinking song — and that explains a lot. But what it doesn’t quite explain is why Nobel Prize and Grammy winner Bob Dylan decided a jaunty, accordion-filled polka take was what this tune needed.
13. “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney & Wings
In the opening strains of this painful tune, Paul McCartney sings, "We’re here tonight, and that's enough," but you know what? It’s actually not enough, Sir. McCartney is often hailed as one of the greatest songwriters of all time, but this absolute snooze-fest proves they can’t all be hits.
#12. “12 Days of Christmas” — & Its Endless Parodies
The only acceptable version of this song is the delightful rendition by John Denver and the Muppets, because it’s charming and well characterized throughout and just plain fun. However, this song is otherwise tedious — and just so long. Not to mention, every TV show and movie and artist thinks we need another parody of it.
#11. “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” by Various Artists
This novelty Christmas song was penned by Donald Yetter Garnder, a music teacher at a public school in New York. When Gardner asked his second graders what they wanted for Christmas, he noticed that most of the kids were missing at least one front tooth. (How observant.) And then he wrote this ditty in 30 minutes. And it really shows.
#10. “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” by Alvin & the Chipmunks
Written by Ross Bagdasarian Sr. under his infamous David Seville stage name, "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)" took the country by storm in 1958. Seville and his cartoon band won a jaw-dropping three Grammy Awards for the tune, including Best Children’s Recording.
#9. “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” by Gayla Peevey
Okay, we really can’t begrudge poor 10-year-old Gayla Peevey for winning big with this holiday hit. In it, she sings about wanting a hippo pal instead of a toy for Christmas. It shows ambition: She could’ve asked for a dog or a horse, but she really went for it.
#8. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” by Elmo & Patsy Trigg Shropshire
Nothing says "Happy Holidays!" like violence against women and grandma getting lit off of eggnog. Or that’s what the writers behind this 1979 novelty-song-turned-holiday-horror-film thought when they conceived a tune about a poor woman stumbling out into a blizzard only to be clobbered by Santa’s sleigh.
#7. “Here Comes Santa Claus” by Gene Autry
In 1946, the idea for this genius song struck Gene Autry after he rode his horse in the Santa Claus Lane Parade (now known as the Hollywood Christmas Parade). Angelenos chanted "Here comes Santa Claus" as the parade neared and, well, that’s evidently where Autry’s creativity ran out.
#6. “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)” by John Denver
Vice calls this next one "all kinds of upsetting," and that’s an incredibly accurate assessment. Who would’ve thought that John Denver, the singer-songwriter behind "Take Me Home, Country Roads," could write something so brutal. In the song, a young kid pleads with his alcoholic father — on Christmas.
#5. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by The Jackson 5
Although the original recording was made by 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd in 1952, the most famous version of the song is probably The Jackson 5’s rendition. It’s upbeat, it’s silly, it’s a potentially scarring moment for the child narrator of the song? I mean, he sees his mom making out with Santa. That’ll really rattle a kid.
#4. “Santa Baby” by Madonna
While Eartha Kitt’s original 1953 recording is fire, it still doesn’t quite make up for the uncomfortable lyrics here. But Madonna’s rendition, recorded for A Very Special Christmas, takes uncomfortable to a whole new level. For some reason, the pop star thought it would be a great idea to sing her best Betty Boop voice.
#3. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid
Where do we even begin with this one? Although for many it’s a holiday staple, we just can’t stand by this condescending, stereotype-riddled song. Written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure as a reaction to the devastating famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, this tune was recorded in a single day by Band Aid — a "supergroup" consisting of British and Irish stars like Bono and Sting.
#2. “Dominick the Donkey” by Lou Monte
If you’ve ever wanted to listen to a tale about a donkey delivering Brooklyn-made presents to all of the expectant children in Italy, then this one is for you! If you’ve never wished for a song to immortalize a Christmas donkey, you’re not alone and, like us, probably find "Dominick the Donkey" a tad grating.
#1. “The Christmas Shoes” by NewSong
"I want her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight" says the child protagonist of this beyond-manipulative holiday tune. For those unfamiliar with the song’s narrative, it’s about a young boy who wants to buy some shoes for his terminally ill mother, but, like most kids, he’s short on cash.