One of the great delights of my life is finding and enjoying wide varieties of lyric and melody. However, in the midst of my unquenchable hunt of the latest and great music on the market there comes a moment for an annual and welcome interruption. It’s a pause, a rest, a moment of serious thought and consideration. Put away the normal pursuit and consumption of music, industry news, artist commentary, critical reviews, etc.
At least, …for now.
It’s the morning after Thanksgiving. The family bundles up – scarves and mittens in hand. We fuel up at a local eatery. We head out on our way to seek that imperfect “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree. The family rejoices as we spot the halo-like glow beaming off the perfectly imperfect tree ahead in the distance. We rush to capture it before others might beat us to it. We found it! The Speich family Christmas tree!
As we mount the tree atop the Jeep and begin our journey back home one tradition returns. Thanksgiving is over. It’s Christmas time! And, with that, it is officially Christmas music season! We get 30 days to redirect our musical affections toward Christmas songs that directly or indirectly honor and adore Emmanuel Jesus. Yes!
What is it about Christmas music that accelerates you into the Christmas spirit? Afterall, there are only about a dozen songs that are original. Most Christmas music is a variation, cover, or rendition of a handful of songs. That’s okay. I still get excited about this annual musical pause, sort of a musical “Selah.”
Selah is thought to come from the Hebrew word salah, “to pause.” From salah comes the belief that Selah is a musical notation signifying a rest to the singers and/or instrumentalists who performed the psalms. If this is true, then each time selah appears in a psalm, the musicians paused, perhaps to take a breath or to sing a cappella or let the instruments play alone. Perhaps they were pausing to praise the One about whom the song was speaking, perhaps even lifting their hands in worship. This theory would encompass all these meanings—“praise,” “lift up,” and “pause.” Christmas music inspires the listener to pause and praise God for His mercy, power, sustaining grace, and sufficiency. Ultimately, Christmas music inspires us to praise Him for sending His son Jesus. When we enjoy music this holiday season, we should pause to carefully weigh the meaning of what we have just heard, lifting up our hearts in praise to God.
Through the years, I have found my favorites. We all have our favorites…to be sure. And, I’m certain that we all don’t agree. I decided it’s time to compile my “go-to” list of all-time christmas songs.
How did I compile this list? As you can imagine, this is a difficult task. Narrowing down the list was painful. There is such an abundance of amazing recordings. There are many genres that can, and do, fall into the “holiday music” sector. And, I suppose many of you will have your own favorites and think mine are crazy. Plus, I think a person’s music taste is allowed to evolve over time. Some of us may have even dipped into years of the ridiculous…a sort of lapse away from reasonable thinking. Can you say, Wham! Last Christmas,” or Cheetah Girls “Cheetah-licious Christmas“? Each season of life brings new favorites. I tried to avoid including brand new releases. The true “best” need to marinate and endure the test of time. They also need to have wide appeal. There are so many songs I like that lean toward obscure – even bizarre (Mistletoe Mambo). I’ve excluded those selections.
Nevertheless, here we go, my top eleven, in no particular order…
Top Eleven Christmas Songs
Be sure to click on the song name to sample the song on YouTube.
Josh Garrels – Hosanna
On his 2016 holiday album, The Light Came Down, Garrels marries both for a wide sonic expanse for both original and classic Christmas songs. “Gloria” is Light’s spirited centerpiece, bolstered by choirs and brass, destined to become a crowd favorite. Classics like “O Holy Night” and “Silent Night” are given new life through Garrels’ thoughtful, beautiful arrangements. Let’s face it, The Light Came Down is awesome. But, the winning cut off this album is “Hosanna.” The piece forces you to honor Jesus – making him the focus of our affection. Be sure you turn the volume up high and prepare to worship.
Michael Bublé – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
“Your voice is like chocolate,” said one. “This song makes me happy,” said another. The song is too “poppy.” Maybe. So what? No one can deny the pipes on Mr. Buble. He is in the Sinatra league of the best crooners of all time. From the 2011 release of Christmas, this is a must have in your holiday collection and this song takes the blue ribbon, or green & red ribbon, as it were.
Vince Guaraldi Trio – Christmas Time is Here
Selecting a single song from this album was tough. All are fantastic. I love “Tannebaum.” However, the winner goes to “Christmas Time is Here.” This song has two versions. The instrumental version is superior. The vocal version leans too cartoonish. One of the most groundbreaking things about the first peanuts TV special is Vince Caroli‘s dazzling score. The San Francisco pianist was a key part of the west coast cool jazz scene, and his grace for piano trio arrangements sound as hip today as they did in 1965. Throughout the album, Guaraldi captures the mixed emotions at the heart of Charles Schultz’s characters.
Jars of Clay – Wonderful Christmastime
Yes, we are all familiar with Paul McCartney’s version of this song. I do like that version, but the raspy, almost pubescent vocals of Dan Haseltine are so endearing. From the Christmas Songs CD came out in 2007 and I immediately loved it. I haven’t always loved everything Jars of Clay has done, but this album is really different from your standard Christmas CD. They have put a “Jars” twist on the music, and then some. The whole album has a haunting, ethereal quality to it and puts me in a very specific mood as soon as the first few seconds play. Almost all of the songs are either originals or lesser-known Christmas songs. Standout tracks: “Wonderful Christmastime” (a cover of Paul McCartney’s classic song that is actually better than the original), ” Love Came Down at Christmas,” “Evergreen” (a haunting instrumental), and an interesting cover of the classic “Christmastime is Here.” Be sure to check out the live video version of this song here as they performed at the Gospel Music Channel’s Christmas at Union Station.
George Winston – Thanksgiving
Not all great Christmas recordings are by the old crooners. On the 1981 album December, Pianist George Winston captures the stillness of snowy nights with soulful chords and chilled-out melodies. The cut that quickly presses me into the Christmas mood is “Thanksgiving.” I offer one caution, save yourself some money, don’t go see him live. He is dreadful as a live performer. He is brilliant pianist, but has no stage presence whatsoever. In a similar genre, I give honorable mention to the album Majesty and Wonder by Phil Keaggy recorded back in 1999 with the London Festival Orchestra featuring Keaggy’s incredible guitar artistry.
Amy Grant – Breath of Heaven
Amy’s second Christmas album, Home for Christmas, came out around 1992 and somehow sounds incredibly timeless even today. What makes this album so good are the song choices and the arrangements, which are at times sort of orchestral, and other times stripped down. Standout tracks: “Breath of Heaven,” “Grown Up Christmas List,” “The Night Before Christmas,” ” Emmanuel, God with Us.” The last song, an acoustic/celtic arrangement of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” is also fantastic. Most surprising are Grant’s two contributions (cowritten with Chris Eaton and Robert Marshal, respectively,) “Breath of Heaven/Mary’s Song” and the powerful and humbling “Emmanuel, God with Us.” Exquisitely produced and arranged, Home for Christmas is a highly rewarding mainstream Christmas masterpiece without flaw or pretense.
Michael W. Smith – Christmastime
Backed by the American Boy Choir, this song is magical. Christmastime, the 1998 holiday album release, Michael W. Smith plays more the role of a classic orchestral arranger in a movie soundtrack than Christian pop artist. The release’s finest moments come in more contemporary style with the Chris Rice-penned “Welcome to Our World,” Smitty’s title track, and the Phil Keaggy-enriched instrumental duet “O Christmas Tree.”
Leon Redbone & Zooey Deschanel– Baby It’s Cold Outside
This is probably one of the most painfully overdone holiday remakes of all time. However, Zooey Deschanel is great in this version. The song becomes a classic with the accompaniment of the gravelly baritone, neo-vaudeville crooner Leon Redbone. If you’ve seen the movie Elf you can’t help but giggle when Buddy (Will Farrell) surprises Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) while in the employee shower. The song has a close second place with Dean Martin and Martina McBride appearing on the album White Christmas (1998). Any list that doesn’t have Dean Martin on it is an incomplete list.
Nat “King” Cole – The Christmas Song
If Christmas were a country, “The Christmas Song” would be the national anthem. When his crooning lays out the song’s vivid yuletide imagery, the hardest heart will feel a sentimental twinge. The Magic of Christmas is a 1960 album by Nat King Cole, arranged and conducted by Ralph Carmichael. This was Cole’s only full album of Christmas songs, although he had recorded several holiday singles earlier in his career. One of these, “The Christmas Song”, written by Mel Torme and originally recorded in 1946, was re-recorded for the 1961 album The Nat King Cole Story. In 1963, The Magic of Christmas was reissued under the title The Christmas Song.
Justin Bieber – Under the Mistletoe
Keep in mind, I live in a household of all females. Cut me some slack. At the peak of his success as one of the top teen pop stars, Justin Bieber released a Christmas album titled “Under the Mistletoe.” It debuted at #1 on the album chart and became a smash hit. The song peaked at #2 on the adult contemporary chart, and in a rare occurrence for Christmas music, climbed into the top 40 at mainstream pop radio. Think what you want about J-Biebs, this song is catchy and fun. I have only one thing to say to you…”shotty with you.”
Pentatonix– Little Drummer Boy
The a cappella vocal group Pentatonix released their version of the classic Christmas tune “Little Drummer Boy” in 2013 and it become a smash hit. It is safe to say that Pentatonix can sound good on anything they sing. This is one of the best versions of the Christmas classic “Little Drummer Boy” that I have heard. Their beat-box backed harmonies blend fluidly making this cover true artform. “That’s Christmas to Me” is also a solid contender.
Dawn breaks on day 26 of December…pack up the holiday CD’s, the Spotify playlists, and the iTunes curations…it’s time to resume our musical journey. Good night Christmas music. We’ll see you again next year.