Which Christmas song is the best of them all? USA TODAY editors debate
For a certain kind of music listener, the year is actually split into five seasons: spring, summer, fall, Christmas music winter, and post-Christmas music winter.
We’re smack-dab in the middle of that fourth season right now, where seasonal music has taken over radio stations, shopping malls and street corners, and will remain ubiquitous until the final hours of Dec. 25.
So, of all the many Christmas songs listeners are regaled with – or tortured by, if you’re one of the Grinches who can’t stand carols of holiday cheer – which is the best? Some of the USA TODAY editors choose their favorite seasonal selections, featuring two pop classics and two more traditional carols, and make the case for why they’re the be-all, end-all Christmas classic.
“All I Want For Christmas Is You,” Mariah Carey
Carey’s 1994 hit has proven to be the singular soundtrack of Christmas and the one everyone thinks of when a single bell is jingled. The jazzy, poppy song about monogamous love climbed to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and is easily the No.1 holiday standard) this week with more than 28 million U.S. streams. Numbers aside, Carey’s perfect vocals are in just the right range for non-singers to hilariously attempt, the instrumentation is just reminiscent enough of classics “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and “White Christmas” to sound festive, and the lyrics perfectly speak to the gushy spirit of the season. The song is also great for misleading a guy who’s crushing on you, “Love Actually” style. – Carly Mallenbaum, digital editor
“O Come All Ye Faithful”
For me, a musical theater and choir nerd who hasn’t had time for musical theater or choir since college, the best Christmas carols are the ones where you sound the best singing them. For me, that’s “O Come All Ye Faithful,” which falls perfectly in my register and is extremely fun to belt out while doing dishes. I also have the bonus of knowing the Latin verse, which really impresses people at Christmas parties. – Kelly Lawler, TV critic
“Last Christmas,” Wham!
It would never be mistaken for George Michael’s finest or most nuanced vocal performance. In fact, his glorious voice is nearly swallowed by the era’s chugging synthesizers. But the relentlessly cheery beat of Wham!’s “Last Christmas” plays perfectly off the heartsick lyrics about loss, a dichotomy that sums up what anyone who both loves and loathes the holiday season knows: Christmas is complicated. That it’s accompanied by quite possibly the most ‘80s music video ever, complete with tragic haircuts and one callously regifted rhinestone brooch – in which Andrew Ridgeley gets the girl – is just extra goodness. And if you need more reason to listen to it on repeat (as if you actually have a choice): Generous George, who died 32 years later on Christmas Day, donated the song’s royalties to Ethiopian famine relief. – Kim Willis, senior entertainment editor
“O Holy Night”
As a general hater of Christmas music, I’m of the opinion that holiday songs need to go big or go home. That’s why, of all the music I’m subjected to during the winter season, the only song that I’ll tolerate – the song that I’ll let play through if it comes on the radio and, if I’m in a certain mood, even sing along to – is “O Holy Night,” which began as a 19th-century carol and has grown into the most ridiculous and melodramatic Christmas anthem of them all. Every version of the song is golden, and the more overblown the performance is, the better, with the sheer dopamine hit that comes with hearing some Josh Groban type shout-sing “Faaaaaall on your kneeeeees” providing me enough sustaining energy to power through the rest of the holiday season. I absolutely can not get enough of “O Holy Night,” a song that transcends its status as a Christmas song to endure as one of the silliest epics of modern music. Plus, the purposely-bad version of the song that exists on the Internet is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. – Maeve McDermott, music writer/digital editor
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Frank Sinatra
Every year when my parents would load up our CD player with Christmas albums, there was something about Frank Sinatra’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that always stood out from the other songs. It’s a warm classic that makes you feel content to curl up in front of the fireplace with hot chocolate, surrounded by piles of wrapping paper that you don’t feel like cleaning up just yet. And while there are plenty of versions of the song out there, none of them can compare to the crooning voice of Ol’ Blue Eyes. – Jenny Cohen, digital editor
“Christmas Don’t Be Late,” by Kacey Musgraves
The best thing about Christmas is childlike anticipation – first as a kid, waiting to tear into a paper-wrapped gift under the tree, then, as you get older, the thrill of a loved one opening that perfectly chosen present. That’s why “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” covered by Kacey Musgraves, is the best Christmas song. That’s right, the Alvin and the Chipmunks song. Musgraves’ clear voice and some added instrumentation (fiddles! upright bass!) take the song from its original childish and slightly corny version to a charming delight. There are many Christmas classics covered by contemporary musicians who made a song their own – Mariah Carey and Michael Buble’s respective Christmas albums certainly have their place in the canon of modern Christmas go-to songs. But I maintain that no other song contains the whimsy and wonder of the spirit of the holiday quite like this one. – Sarah Day Owen, interim lifestyle editor
Darlene Love, ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’
Way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I spent my college winter breaks working at record stores. After being inundated with pretty much every Christmas record ever recorded for four weeks straight, my litmus test for a good holiday song became simple: Could I still stand to hear it by Dec. 25? And can I listen to it today without triggering an episode of retail PTSD?
I can assure you, the list of songs that pass the Christmas torture test is short but distinguished. At the top of the list this 1963 classic from Darlene Love in which she worries the upcoming holiday won’t be as memorable without her someone special. Love, a backup singer, wasn’t even supposed to record it (it was meant for Ronnie Spector), which sort of makes her the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer of Christmas music. But she made the song all hers (though U2’s 1987 version is a close second). There’s a reason David Letterman brought Love back every year to sing it and “The View” continued the tradition after he retired: it’s not like Christmas at all without her. – Jayme Deerwester, digital editor
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