“Snoopy’s Christmas” – The Royal Guardsmen
In December 1914, ceasefires commenced spontaneously across the Western front. The horrors of industrial warfare had worn the soldiers down and they desired something resembling peace for Christmas, particularly the Germans who held the holiday dear. In December 1967, the Royal Guardsmen, the British band that wrote songs about Snoopy’s aerial duels with the Bloody Red Baron wrote about what would’ve happened if Snoopy and Baron von Richtoffen had been there. Sure, it’s cheesy as hell, but that’s kind of what endears it to me. It gets right to the soul of Christmas by portraying a dinner between two martial rivals in a war with no heroes.
“Merry Christmas, Baby” – Otis Redding
A wonderfully upbeat, jaunty and jangly song, Otis Redding’s “Merry Christmas, Baby” may be lyrically vapid, but the musicianship is impeccable. The organ riff and guitar licks are unforgettable, while the horns punctuate the verses with exceptional efficacy and the vocals are, obviously, stunning. The breakdown in the middle of the song to declare that “Santa came down the chimney” is startlingly effective at keeping the otherwise monotonous song engaging. Shout out to the Bruce Springsteen cover that appears on A Very Special Christmas, a compilation of A-list rock stars’ Christmas songs, which features the Big Man’s sax with exceptional power.
“It Feels Like Christmas” – A Muppet Christmas Carol
It was surprisingly hard to narrow it down to one Muppet song. In addition to the other brilliant songs in A Muppet Christmas Carol, like Michael Cane’s “Thankful Heart,” Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem did fantastic covers of “Run Rudolph, Run” by Chuck Berry and “’Zat You, Santa Claus?” by Louis Armstrong on different Christmas compilations made by Disney. But, ultimately, there’s only one song that feels like it’s the right mix of cheery and peaceful that captures Christmas, and that’s this song sung by The Ghost of Christmas Present. The arrangement is beautiful, the lyrics summarize all the best aspects of Christmas, and the variety of voices singing it make it surprisingly effective to inspire the camaraderie of the season. “It is the summer of the soul in December” has been a stand out lyric for me since I was a kid.
“Merry Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” – Joey Ramone
I can’t claim to be terribly familiar with this 1960s Phil Spector song in it’s original incarnation, but I am very familiar with this outtake from Joey Ramone’s posthumously released solo album, given a legitimate release on the 2002 EP Christmas Spirit… in my House. The arrangement is powerful in what it doesn’t do as much as it does. Joey lets the notes ring for a good long while and it works. Much more pop than anything The Ramones ever did, this song is clearly a labor of love for Joey in a way much of his more famous works aren’t.
“Merry Christmas, Again” – Chris Farren
It was hard to pick just one Chris Farren song for this list. Farren wrote the single greatest original Christmas album (by which I mean the only original Christmas album to not have a single bad song on it) in 2014 and titled it Like A Gift From God or Whatever. With cameos from Sean Bonnette of AJJ, Jeff Rosenstock of Bomb The Music Industry, and Laura Stevenson of :Laura Stevenson and the Cans, Like A Gift is a masterpiece of an album and it’s about Christmas, too. Although “Happier New Year” and “Not Ready For Christmas” are probably more emotionally powerful, I went with “Merry Christmas Again” because it captures the perennial excitement of Christmas and acknowledges the difficulties of the other 11 months of the year.
For this one I’m gonna link to the Bandcamp so you can buy it!
“Santa” – Lightin’ Hopkins
Most of the songs on this list are happy, upbeat anthems. Not “Santa.” Even by Lightnin’s minimal standards, this song is bare bones, and it’s not messing around. It’s a deep blues with some painful imagery. Santa begging on the street, children going unfed, it’s rough. But if you pay attention to the progression of events, it’s ultimately a hopeful and inspiring song.
“Christmas Must Be Tonight” – The Band or Blue Rodeo
Despite not being Christian, my favorite Christmas song is in fact one about the birth of Christ. Originally released on Islands in 1978, The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” was a very good if rather subdued holiday song, featuring fantastic synth work by Garth Hudson and a sweet vocal performance by Rick Danko. Another faster, guitar heavy version was released as a bonus track on a later release of Northern Lights Southern Cross, but the version I’m going to link to here is by the contemporary Americana group Blue Rodeo, who I think sound more like The Band on this song than The Band did on either of their recordings of it. The mandolin, the organ work, the vocal style, it’s all straight from their playbook, moreso than when they recorded it.
Check out all these songs and the 46 runners up in Lizi’s Christmas Spotify playlist.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.