Q Magazine

Lights On: The Greatest Christmas Songs (Since 1980)

Had enough Andy Williams and Bing Crosby? Here are the greatest Christmas songs of the modern era, from Mariah to Tyler and Fall Out Boy,

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The Waitresses, “Christmas Wrapping” (1981)

Written by Chris Butler after being tasked by ZE Records to pen a Christmas song for an upcoming compilation called A Christmas Record, having to come up with the track was pretty much the last thing he wanted to do, which is borne out by the fact that he literally finished writing the lyrics in the taxi on his way to the studio to record it. As he told The Guardian in 2020, “We gave it our all, then we forgot about it and went back on the road. We were in Rochester, New York, a few months later when I called home and my girlfriend said: ‘You’re all over the radio!’ I thought ‘I Know What Boys Like’ had finally made it. She said: ‘No, no. It’s the Christmas song!’” With its title a play on Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’,” “Christmas Wrapping” never made it into the Billboard Hot 100, but it did hit No. 45 on the UK Singles chart, and more importantly, it remains a perennial holiday favorite worldwide. -- Will Harris

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Three Wise Men a.k.a. XTC, “Thanks for Christmas” (1983)

Although he’s well known now and forever as one of the lead singers and songwriters for XTC, Andy Partridge grew up listening to bubblegum pop performed by studio-created groups and has pointedly said, “I like the idea of anonymous music, and I thought I’d put together a song and then find an act to do it.” In the end, this song ended up being performed by XTC, although they originally wanted to be credited as “The Virgin Marys.” That idea was, perhaps unsurprisingly, shot down by Virgin Records, hence the change in credit to Three Wise Men, but it was at least co-produced by the Good Lord, a.k.a. David Lord, who went on to co-produce XTC’s next album, The Big Express. -- W.H.

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The Pretenders, “2000 Miles” (1984)

Chrissie Hynde once dismissed the lyrics to the song that has become a staple of every Christmas compilation album of the last 39 years as merely “my stupid words”, but given the passion with which she sings those words, one has to assume she was either being disingenuous or had been at the Christmas sherry. Rather, her deceptively simple ditty about missing a loved one over the festive season does not hit a wrong note throughout – either musically or lyrically. Her delivery of the first line alone is breathtaking… and rarely if ever has the lyric “It must be Christmas time” felt so crushingly sad. -- Dominic Utton

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Queen, “Thank God It’s Christmas” (1984)

Written predominantly by Roger Taylor except for the chorus, which was penned by Brian May, this holiday single was only a minor hit in the UK, a fact which May – in an interview with Ultimate Classic Rock – attributed to the absence of something that virtually all songs had by that point. "The funny thing is, it doesn't get that much attention in Britain as a Christmas single, because it doesn't have a video," said May. “Everything’s about video these days, and we never made a video for that song. It’s all in your mind. But I’m very fond of it. I think it’s a very different Christmas song. Freddie [Mercury]...loved it and did a beautiful vocal. I think it's just the most understated vocal, and I love it.” As seen below, the band did eventually have a video constructed for the song, so perhaps it’s time for “Thank God It’s Christmas” to finally get its due. -- W.H.

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Spinal Tap, “Christmas with the Devil” (1984)

Although This Is Spinal Tap is considered one of the greatest mockumentaries of all time, it took quite some time for the film to find its way out of cult status. After its initial release, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer actually took Spinal Tap on tour, and to maintain whatever minor amount of momentum they’d built up by that point, they also released this holiday single, featuring the classic opening lines, “The elves are dressed in leather and the angels are in chains / Christmas with the Devil / The super plums are rancid and the stockings are in flames / Christmas with the Devil.” Instant classic though it was, it was darned near impossible to find the song for many years, but when the band released their “comeback” album, Break Like the Wind, they included the song in the mix, and it’s remained in print ever since. -- W.H.

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Band Aid, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (1984)

There is so much to unpack as we enter the 40th year of this song. Some list it as the worst Christmas song ever. Some list it as one of the most important Christmas songs ever. Back in 1984, there was apparently never a thought to saying “no” when Bob Geldof pounds on your door, demanding your presence and telling you point blank that your contribution will literally save lives. Co-written by Geldof and Midge Ure, recorded in one day with 37 vocalists, the assembly of talent today boggles the mind, and its no-holds barred ascent to the top of the UK charts is to this day unrivaled as the biggest-selling single in UK history. -- Amy Hughes

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“Weird Al” Yankovic, “Christmas at Ground Zero” (1986)

Included as the closing track on his fourth studio album, Polka Party!, the music for this song is an unabashed love letter to the legendary Phil Spector Christmas album (A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector), but lyrically it’s all about mining the Cold War terror of impending nuclear Armageddon. The title of the song proved controversial 15 years after the fact, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks forever changed people’s automatic association with the phrase “Ground Zero,” but it has not changed the catchiness of the song nor the effectiveness of the music video, which was an MTV holiday staple back when MTV actually played videos on a regular basis. -- W.H.

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Run-DMC, “Christmas in Hollis” (1987)

Many people associate Christmas with consumerist impulses like shopping and indiscriminately handing out gift Starbucks gift cards. But the best part of the holiday is actually doing good deeds and returning home to eat a delicious meal with your family. This Run-DMC track is centered on Christmas Eve happenings in the Hollis section of Queens, where the musicians grew up. In the first verse, Run talks about finding Santa’s wallet on the ground and mailing it back to him instead of keeping the $1 million inside. St. Nick rewards him with a big bag of cash under the tree. The second verse features DMC speaking about the holiday specialties his mother prepared including everything from chicken and collard greens to mac and cheese, rice and eggnog. What's more heartwarming than that? -- Noah Zucker

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U2, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” (1987)

Recently performed at the band's ongoing Las Vegas residency, U2 first performed the song live during the Rattle and Hum tour in November 1987 in Louisiana, shooting a video before the band's concert there that night. The performance was a clear homage to the iconic 1963 Darlene Love rendition, which surprisingly did not find a home on the charts during Christmas season 1963 (mainly due to the US still reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy). With typical panache, dramatic lighting and black-and-white lensing, U2's video was included on the Special Olympics charity compilation album A Very Special Christmas. -- A.H.

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The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, “Fairytale of New York” (1988)

Oh come on, it had to be done. Even before the sad passing of Pogues singer Shane MacGowan on November 30, his poetic hymn to a pair of down-and-out New York lovers remains one of the most affecting songs of any genre, quite apart from Christmas tunes. Will it finally make the UK Christmas No. 1 this year (a spot denied it originally by the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of “Always On My Mind”)? It doesn’t matter. Cynics be damned: MacGowan’s irresistible portrait of love and hope in the gutter soars like no other festive song before or since. Happy Christmas yer arse, pray God it’s our last. -- D.U.

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The Ramones, "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)" (1989)

Take a quick survey of the greatest secular Christmas songs of the past century, and most of them share at least one of the following two qualities: they were composed by Jewish songwriters, and/or they started life as elegiac tunes tinged with sadness, if not outright wallowing in it, before being sanded of their rough edges by hundreds of increasingly chipper renditions. Both of those boxes are checked the Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” Joey Ramone’s instant-classic plea for a moment of fleeting holiday tranquility as a doomed relationship winds its way to an unhappy end. It’s since been covered by the likes of Smashmouth, Lucinda Williams, and (just last week) Sleater-Kinney, but Joey’s original treatment gives the song the world-weary resignation it deserves. -- Andrew Barker

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Frank Sinatra & Cyndi Lauper, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (1992)

The 1933 classic has had dozens of interpretations, but this 1992 rendition (from A Very Special Christmas 2) is nothing short of a digital miracle. To be fair, Ol’ Blue Eyes had a 1947 recording paired up with Lauper’s 1992 vocal. But somehow, the duet come over as natural and sincere. Sinatra was '77 at the time and was not in the best shape, yet he nonetheless handed over the tape, which was second in the series of Christmas-themed releases for the Special Olympics. -- A.H.

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Saint Etienne (featuring Tim Burgess), “I Was Born on Christmas Day” (1993)

In which the loveliest band of the ‘90s teamed up with one of the era’s nicest guys to produce a typically perfect iced-slice of swirling indie pop. Despite the title, this is not a song about the Baby Jesus, but a nod to band member Bob Stanley, who shares His birthday. Peculiarly, he’s not the only one to get a mention, thanks to the lyric “Tim and Sarah went and tied the knot” – which makes me feel a bit sorry for poor old Pete Wiggs, left out in the cold. What’s it all about? Who knows? Who cares? It’s a thing of shameless joy. “Getting groovy after Hallowe’en, mid-November, got back on the scene…” Amen to that Tim and Sarah and Bob (and Pete)! -- D.U.

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East 17, “Stay Another Day” (1994)

The Walthamstow bad boys’ biggest hit was not supposed to be a Christmas song at all, but rather a ballad about the suicide of songwriter Tony Mortimer’s brother – but after a bright spark in the studio had the idea of adding pealing bells to the outro, it spent five weeks at No. 1 in the British charts, and even kept the Mariah Carey festive juggernaut from the top spot. And quite right too: Mortimer’s touching lyrics and subtle piano and strings arrangement, combined with singer Brian Harvey’s no-frills delivery, make for a lovely – and surprisingly emotional – listen that even the ridiculous parkas they’re wearing in the video can’t diminish. -- D.U.

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Mariah Carey, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (1994)

One of the strange pleasures of getting older is watching as the music you grew up on is rediscovered and radically recontextualized by younger generations. But it’s been particularly startling to witness the emergence of a whole generation who seem to regard Mariah Carey as a Christmas icon first, and a pop singer second. You can’t really blame them: it’s hard to think of a single song from the past 30 years that has ensconced itself in the Yuletide canon as firmly as Carey’s 1994 rave-up, which topped the singles charts in both the US and UK a quarter century after release, and was added to the Library of Congress’ registry of historically significant recordings just earlier this year. Indeed, there’s probably no surer passport to longterm pop immortality than recording a Christmas staple—just ask Brenda Lee, or the Estate of Bing Crosby—and Carey has thus far staked the clearest claim to such immortality among anyone from her era, or after. -- A.B.

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South Park, “The Lonely Jew on Christmas” / “Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo” (1997)

It’s no secret that Jewish songwriters were responsible for many of the most iconic Christmas carols, but that doesn’t do much to alleviate the alienation many non-Christians feel during the holiday season. These tracks were included in a very musical Christmas episode from season one of South Park. It shows how the town’s token Jew Kyle Brovlofski struggles with his identity during the holiday season. To help him cope, a festive turd named Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo emerges from the sewer to spread holiday cheer (and presumably cholera). The relentlessly positive piece of Santa-themed bodily waste has his own theme song. Kyle floats the track as a possibility for South Park Elementary’s new secular holiday celebration, which was prompted by his mother Sheila’s complaints about the traditional Christmas performance. Her behavior leads Eric Cartman to perform “Kyle’s Mom’s a B--ch,” which quickly became another South Park classic. -- N.Z.

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Cap’n Jazz, “Winter Wonderland” (1998)

Nobody can handle the cold quite like a Midwesterner. As the arguable progenitors of the Midwest emo genre, Cap’n Jazz was perfectly qualified to cover this Christmas classic. The recording centered on glassy, blown out keys and sloppy group vocals isn’t exactly a pleasurable listen, but it does genuinely sound like a large family caroling as a way to pass time between the courses of their Christmas meal. The track (and the rest of Cap’n Jazz’s work, for that matter) serves as a reminder to emo musicians that the genre doesn’t have to take itself so seriously all the time. Nobody likes a buzzkill – especially on Christmas. -- N.Z.

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Badly Drawn Boy, “Donna and Blitzen” (2002)

Nobody does heart-on-sleeve emotion like Damon Gough, and this gem, hidden at the end of the soundtrack for About a Boy, is pure unashamed loveliness from surely the most underrated British songwriter of the last 25 years. Rolling piano chords, staccato strings and booming percussion drive the melody along and the whole thing builds and builds, with Gough’s voice simultaneously vulnerable and powerful and wholly, nakedly, sincere. It makes me want to leap for joy and it makes me want to cry all at the same time and it is hands down the greatest love song written about two reindeers you will ever hear, guaranteed. -- D.U.

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The Darkness, “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)” (2003)

Released as a standalone single after the band’s hugely popular debut LP, Permission to Land, and then later added to expanded editions of the album, this tune was unabashedly released with an eye toward achieving a Christmas #1, and while it failed to make it to the top, having been kept off by Gary Jules’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” the band still considered it a victory to have effectively gotten two dirty bits of British slang – “bellend” and “ring piece” – into regular radio airplay without getting banned for their trouble. -- W.H.

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Fall Out Boy, “Yule Shoot Your Eye Out” (2009)

This may be the best acoustic track of Fall Out Boy’s career. The first few notes trick the listener into thinking it will be a “Jingle Bells” cover, but Patrick Stump quashes that illusion when he jumps headfirst into the bouncy pop punk banger. Pete Wentz’s lyrics artfully fuse Christmas cheer with concerningly vivid allusions to his frequent relationship woes. The band is known for its cinematic references, and this track is no exception. The title is a punny take on the iconic line from 1983’s A Christmas Carol. This track was originally released all the way back in 2003, before Fall Out Boy was a household name. It came out on a compilation LP called A Santa Cause: It's a Punk Rock Christmas. Proceeds from the album were donated to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. -- N.Z.

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Best Witches, “Merry Fxcking Christmas” (2013)

Not everybody likes Christmas. That fact is very evident in this track from the Chicago emo band Best Witches. It's a funny song, but there are also some deep, sad truths about the holiday season if you dig a little bit below the surface. The overlapping dialogue in the comedy skits punctuating the track demonstrate how overwhelming some people find large family gatherings or shopping for presents in a crowded department store. They also show the intense expectations some people have for holiday cheer in others. Not everybody is happy in the middle of December. It’s a cold, dark and hectic time of the year, a point that’s driven home by this track’s pained tongue-in-cheek refrains. -- N.Z.

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Nick Lowe, “Christmas at the Airport” (2013)

Almost certainly the least well-known inclusion on our list, this Lowe original made its debut on his holiday LP, Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family, an album that he originally didn’t want to make when it was suggested to him by his label, Yep Roc Records. Upon further contemplation, however, he changed his tune. “Instead of just knocking out the same 12 songs that everyone always seems to do," he told NPR in 2013, "I thought, 'Well, with a little bit of work, I could make it a little bit different.'" Although the whole album turned out rather swell, this is arguably the best of the bunch, and it’s certainly the most relatable to those of us who have little choice but to travel for the holidays. -- W.H.

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Kacey Musgraves, “A Willie Nice Christmas (featuring Willie Nelson and Trigger)” (2016)

With two TV Christmas specials to her name (and one delightfully kitsch holiday LP that takes up permanent residence on my household’s stereo every December), Musgraves has recently emerged as Mariah Carey’s only real competition for the Queen of Christmas crown. But she still makes a little bit of room for her more mischievous instincts amid the festivities with this ode to two of her longtime passions: weed and Willie Nelson. From crediting Nelson’s guitar as a special guest to attempting to rhyme “Feliz Navidad” with “Happy Hannukah,” the track has loopy Christmas bake-off charm to spare. -- A.B.

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Amy Poehler, Kristin Wiig, Maya Rudolph, “Santa’s My Boyfriend” (2006)

OK, this is not an official Christmas song. However, the women of Saturday Night Live sang this innuendo-laden ditty as the cold open for the December 16, 2006 episode, and while it’s played for laughs — “When everybody else is putting up their stockings, he’s taking mine down!” — the trio do an admirable job of being sincere and oh-so-innocent with their perfectly-timed comedic delivery. -- A.H.

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Tyler, the Creator, "Lights On (featuring Santigold and Ryan Beatty") (2018)

While the founding father of Odd Future certainly had the voice to tackle Thurl Ravenscroft's 1966 classic, "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," there were still a few raised eyebrows when the controversy-stoking Tyler, the Creator was tapped to contribute songs to 2018's remake, Dr. Seuss' The Grinch. But not only did Tyler keep the proceedings thoroughly PG-rated, he even showed an unexpected affection for the textures of December department store Muzak with this Santigold-starring ballad, which could easily slip onto a playlist with Manhattan Transfer without causing any alarm. -- A.B.

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Carly Rae Jepsen, “It’s Not Christmas Till Somebody Cries” (2022)

It's a testament to the type of following Jepsen has cultivated over the years that the initial fan response to this 2022 one-off was one of surprise, if not disappointment. Many of the singer's fans naturally expected a Jepsen song with that title to be a fully-fledged submersion in Yuletide misery, rather than an upbeat trifle about family awkwardness in which grandpa eats someone's special gummies, dinner is ruined by political arguments, and the kids learn the truth about Santa Claus. But even pop's foremost poet of heartbreak deserves to have a little fun now and again. It's Christmas: lighten up. -- A.B.


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