Editor’s note – I’m a doofus and forgot to post this until Christmas Day 2021. Better late than never, right? -R
Christmas is just a few days away, and whether you like it or not, we’ve been inundated with Christmas music since mid-November. And as the same old playlist has been dug up again this year, it’s plainer than ever that not all Christmas songs are created equal. Often, it’s even down to the specific version: one artist’s rendition might transport you to the very host of angels that announced the Baby Jesus’ birth, while another’s might sound more like someone let the stable animals get into a recording booth.
But who has the time to sift through the muck to find the gold? Well…I do. So heat up some cocoa, turn on the Christmas lights and fake fireplace, and let me help you navigate through the perilous ice bergs of awful Christmas cheese to the North Pole itself.
The Good: Starflyer 59 – Christmastime Is Here
There’s something comforting about A Charlie Brown Christmas—for many people, it might as well be part of Christmas Eve Mass. Much of that feel-good nostalgia is thanks to the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s fantastic soundtrack. The gem of that soundtrack is “Christmastime Is Here,” a jazz ballad that feels like ice skating and fireplaces. Starflyer 59 manages to recreate the nostalgic mood with retro drum machines, vocoders, warped synthesizers, and a recreation of the child choir that lent their strained voices to the original recording.
The Bad: Project 86 – Christmastime Is Here
If Starflyer 59’s charming version of this track is an encapsulation of Christmas nostalgia, then Project 86’s creeping industrial ballad brings is decidedly not. From the ghoulish whispers that accompany the main melody to the heavy nu-metal riffs that separate the verses to the uncomfortable rearranging of the familiar melody, this is more Krampus than Santa Claus. Project 86 described their Christmas album with the tagline “Christmas jams not for the faint of heart.” Indeed.
The Good: Leigh Nash – Last Christmas
Christmas is one of the few reminders we have as a culture that Wham! exists. And I’ll go on the record here that I am a big fan of the original. However. Leigh Nash somehow makes it even better. The Sixpence None the Richer frontwoman gives it an urgent Americana dustup that trades the ironic cheeriness of the original for a truly heartbreaking arrangement that emphasizes the tragedy always hiding in the lyrics.
The Bad: Bing Crosby – Rudolph the Red Noise Reindeer
This is way more old school than the rest of the list, but I have to bring this up. Who decided to let a super annoying kid sing the part of Rudolph? Why didn’t they record another take when Bing, while calling out the names of the reindeer, cried out, “On Prancer and Blitzen, on Something”? How drunk was Bing when he recorded this? And just how drunk was the producer that decided to keep it on the record? Bing might be a Christmas staple, but this is no “White Christmas.”
The Good: Joey Ramone – Christmas (Baby Please Came Home)
Darlene Love’s classic is already one of the best Christmas songs out there, but what happens when you let a punk icon (the punk icon maybe?) give it his spin? The Ramones’ trademark sound was essentially girl group pop songs with loud distortion anyway, so this just sounds right.
The Bad: Jon Bon Jovi – Fairytale of New York
Sometimes the difference between a good arrangement and a bad one is a line so thin it’s imperceptible. But Jon Bon Jovi is nowhere near that line. He attempts to capture the drunken Irish punk sneer that made the original song such a classic and pole vaults so far over it he might as well land in Finland.
The Good: David Bazan – God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
There’s a bittersweet melancholy to this carol, and who knows more about bittersweet melancholy than David Bazan? The Pedro the Lion frontman does more than just offer his own arrangement: he writes some of his own verses, juxtaposing his parents’ Christmas traditions against his own alcoholism and waning faith. Tidings of comfort and joy indeed.
The Bad: Twisted Sister – O Come All Ye Faithful
The worst thing about this song is how close it came to being great. This track is literally just “We’re Not Gonna Take It” with Dee Snider singing the carol over it. And that idea is actually so great. Where it goes off the rails is that Dee clearly has no idea how the song actually goes, jumping between verses out of order and leading the band into the chorus at random. It takes what could have been an all-time Christmas great and throws it onto the Yule log.
The Good: Project 86 – It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
The Alt Metal Behemoths didn’t totally strike out on their Christmas album. There is a sort of irony in juxtaposing moods that turns out delicious when it works, and it works here. Everything that made “Christmastime Is Here” a dud works well here. The heavy metal flourishes help accent the dramatic flair of the original carol.
The Bad: FM Static – Christmas Shoes
I’ve never been a big fan of FM Static’s brand of saccharine pop punk anyway, but that’s not why this song is included. No, that’s because “Christmas Shoes” is absolutely the worst Christmas song to ever exist. It is impossible to create an arrangement of this song that actually works, but FM Static doesn’t do the song any favors either. Not that it deserves any.
The Good: Sufjan Stevens – O Come O Come Emmanuel
In the hyper-ironic days of the mid-2000s, Sufjan Stevens’ squeaky clean sincerity was practically rebellious. And with that in mind, his series of Christmas releases, delivered without any sort of embarrassment or self-consciousness, felt as punk rock as London is Calling. His arrangement of this haunting carol shines a spotlight to the tension of advent, magnifying the brokenness of this world and the hope of restoration ever on the horizon.
The Bad: Weezer – O Holy Night
Hear me out: it’s not that Weezer doing Christmas carols is a bad idea. There are plenty of good tracks on their Christmas album (I’m particularly fond of their rendition of “O Come Let Us Adore Him”). But there’s something about their geeky slacker rock that doesn’t jive with what is probably the most emotional Christmas carol in the canon. This isn’t the sort of song one plays without reverence (Sufjan gets away with it for the earnest exuberance that fills informs his version), but here Weezer is, trying their best to sound like they don’t care.
The Good: Dustin Kensrue – O Holy Night
Speaking of reverence…Kensrue’s earnest, warts-and-all spirituality has been a foundational part of Thrice for almost thirty years. And when he sings this hymn, you can hear his voice carrying the full weight of every word. This version is subdued, with no accompaniment beyond an arpeggiated guitar and a single harmony. And somehow, it beats all of the orchestra-backed versions with one hand tied behind its back.
The Bad: Justin Bieber – All I Want For Christmas Is You (ft. Mariah Carey)
Full disclosure: I am on team Mariah. The original version of this song is a certified anti-commercialism banger wrapped up in a glossy tribute to 60s girls groups and Phil Spector. This cover, however, is the absolute pinnacle of low effort, money grubbing hucksterism. I’d call it a karaoke track, except Mariah’s vocal track is still here for most of the song. It’s literally a remix of the original track, but they couldn’t be bothered to deleted the original vocal track from it. This is the sonic equivalent of a lump of coal in the stocking.
So there you have it: some of the best songs to throw on your holiday party playlist to keep your guests feeling festive, and the ones to put on when they’ve overstayed their welcome.
Of course, the holiday music market is absolutely massive, and there’s no way I could have covered everything in one article. Drop your picks for best or worst Christmas cover in the comments!