jingle bell bop

35 Musicians Confess Their Favorite Christmas Songs

Annie Lennox loves the Pogues. Santigold loves Otis Redding. Kacey Musgraves loves Kacey Musgraves. Illustration: Carolyn Figel

If there’s a single sound that announces holiday season, it’s the opening twinkle from “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Hearing those familiar ascending notes feels like stepping into a snow globe. Over the years since its 1994 release, Mariah Carey’s juggernaut has become one of the standards that soundtracks supermarket speakers, radio stations, Spotify playlists, and every eggnog-sloshed party worth attending. That’s the agony and ecstasy of yuletide commercialism: Encountering the same Christmas songs over and over can be grating, unless you’re like Carey — “I live Christmas to Christmas,” she wrote in her 2020 memoir.

When you’ve had your fill of Mariah’s classic and other yearly staples, it’s not hard to find less ubiquitous carols. To help, we asked seasoned hitmakers to give us a few words on their favorite holiday tracks. Some chose age-old and feverishly played selections, but many came back with unconventional pop, punk, R&B, and indie-rock alternatives. A few participants responded with their own songs (which, fair enough), but most reached deep under the tree to recommend the likes of Prince, the Carpenters, Cocteau Twins, Kurtis Blow, the Pogues, and even a Monty Python alumnus.


Ballin’ on Xmas,” Jim Jones

When an artist or band makes a Christmas album, I think they reach a whole other level of familiarity. We’re talking about Kenny G levels here. In 2006, Jim Jones from the mighty Diplomats released A Dipset X-Mas, and the song “Ballin’ on Xmas” puts a new spin on Run DMC’s famous “Christmas in Hollis” track. Jim Jones was also joined by the late Stack Bundles, just a year before his passing. I always loved the way that Dipset were aware of their own iconic status and leaned into it just enough. This is perfect.

Kevin Barnes (of Montreal)

I’ll Be Your Santa Baby,” Rufus Thomas

I love this jammer because it’s funky and playful and just a little nasty. I like the erotic twist on “sliding down your chimney” and the idea of being someone’s sexual Santa.

Courtney Barnett

Wonderful Christmastime,” Paul McCartney

I got obsessed with this song last December. I played it every day (followed by McCartney II). It was my first Christmas ever outside of Australia and I spent it in the desert in Joshua Tree. Every morning I woke up early to check if it was snowing. Most days, the birdbath was just frozen, plus some light frost on the ground, but one afternoon we looked out the window and it was snowing. It only lasted ten minutes, but it was so beautiful and the world stood still for a few seconds.

Jon Batiste

Run Rudolph Run,” Chuck Berry

Because he is the greatest rock-and-roll lyricist of all time. And he wrote a song about Rudolph that is better than the original classic!

Betty Who

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the Carpenters

The Carpenters’ Christmas Portrait album is me and my mum’s ultimate holiday record. Top to bottom, the whole things has no skips, so it was hard to pick one (I mean, “Merry Christmas, Darling”?! Karen’s voice!). But “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has the most beautiful musical turnaround on “here we are as in olden days” that tugs at my heartstrings.

Andrew Bird

So Much Wine,” the Handsome Family

There’s a song by the Handsome Family called “So Much Wine” about a relationship unraveling from mental illness and alcoholism on Christmas Day. It’s so beautifully written, it just warms my heart every time I hear it or play it. I’ve covered it on two albums. On Hark! I mashed it up with “Greensleeves.”

Brandi Carlile

River,” Joni Mitchell

There’s something about “River” that perfectly encapsulates the aching beauty and heartbreak of the season. Hearing it was the first time I realized how some people might look at the season from a very different, less joyful perspective. The holidays can bring a lot of people pain, and I think that we look to these kind of heartbreak songs during that time because it’s really important to represent, or to be represented, if that holiday brings back hard memories, or if you have lost someone that you think about in a concentrated way during that time.

Lester Chambers (the Chambers Brothers)

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year,” the Chambers Brothers

I wrote this song years ago with the Chambers Brothers, and Moonalice has reimagined it for the 2022 holiday season. In these crazy times, we all need some magic, cheer, and funky jams to uplift us through the winter. This is definitely the song to bring out the love, peace, and holiday happiness.

Daddy Yankee

La Botellita,” traditional

It’s a very popular song that Puerto Ricans always sing at parrandas.

Indigo De Souza

Winter Wonderland,” Bing Crosby

When I was in elementary school, I had a Christmas album on CD that I listened to on my Walkman and I used to wander around with it in the snow. I’ve always loved the melody of this song and the mysterious, deeply strange feeling it gives.

Debbie Gibson

White Christmas,” Bing Crosby

“White Christmas” is one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs, originally performed by Bing Crosby. As a native New Yorker, I always wished for snow as a wide-eyed child when the holidays rolled around. I would also casually do it with my daddy Joe on this song in our living room growing up and actually got to record it with him as a duet on my first-ever holiday album, Winterlicious. If Irving Berlin, as a Jewish American immigrant, could write one of the all-time great Christmas songs, I thought, why not write an original Hanukkah song on this album as well? And … I did!

Robert Glasper

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” traditional

I like this song because I love the melody. It is a little dark, but it’s about Christmas and because of this it’s easy to remake in different ways, as I’ve done.

Emily Haines (Metric)

It’s Such a Lonely Time of Year,” Nancy Sinatra

I love that this song delves into how much the oppressive seasonal cheer sucks if you happen to have a broken heart. Listening to Nancy’s tender croon balances out the happiness frenzy of the holidays.

Fran Healy (Travis)

Fuck Christmas,” Eric Idle

My favorite holiday song is by Eric Idle of Monty Python. It’s called “Fuck Christmas.” Don’t expect chestnuts roasting on open fires or sleigh bells ringing in the snow.

Victoria Legrand (Beach House)

Nuttin’ for Christmas,” Barry Gordon with Art Mooney and His Orchestra

I picked this one because I love how bratty and adorable it is. Also Barry Gordon has done a ton of voice work, including Donatello from the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Annie Lennox

Fairytale of New York,” the Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl

This raucous Irish American ballad sums up visions of drunken fights, shattered dreams, and Christmas dysphoria. Down and out in Tinseltown, where white glistening snow turns to filthy slush. Sad Christmas trees upended in garbage cans. Homeless lost souls comatose in the gutter.
A nativity tale with a really bad ending. The best, most poignant festive song of all time.

Joss Stone

“Fairytale of New York”

It’s my favorite because it reminds me of being at home in a Devon pub on Christmas Eve. Everyone sings along and sways from side to side hugging each other, and that is what Christmas is about.

Ella Mai

Let It Snow,” Frank Sinatra

The weeks of winter leading up to Christmas always feel full of love, full of happiness, and full of warmth, even though it is cold outside. Although Christmas was never a huge celebration in my family, I know as soon as I hear “Let It Snow” that good food and endless smiles are near. Christmastime and the warmth of Frank Sinatra’s voice is a recipe full of love. You can never go wrong!

Darryl “DMC” McDaniels (Run DMC)

Christmas Rappin,’” Kurtis Blow

It’s one of the most creative stories about Christmas ever! It is as visually descriptive and imaginative as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It’s such a great musical track. Not only is it a Christmas classic, the music is used as a breakbeat to rap over year-round! No other music from a Christmas song in history from any genre has that ability! That’s iconic!

Reba McEntire

Away in a Manger,” traditional

“Away in a Manger” is one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time. It’s the first song I ever sang behind a microphone in my first-grade Christmas program at Kiowa Elementary. I like to joke that it was my big break. Once I’d performed onstage, there was no going back! “Away in a Manger” will always hold a special place in my heart, so much so that it’s the opening track on my new album, The Ultimate Christmas Collection.

Amelia Meath (Sylvan Esso)

Christmas Time Is Here,” Vince Guaraldi Trio

My favorite Christmas song is “Christmas Time Is Here,” by Vince Guaraldi Trio, from the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. Usually once December first rolls around, this record is the only thing I play in the house until my loved ones get sick of it. The recording just transmits warmth — perfect for a holiday weep.

Kacey Musgraves

Christmas Makes Me Cry,” Kacey Musgraves

Because no one ever talks about how underneath the glittery nostalgia there can be a deep sadness around the holidays.

Nathy Peluso

I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” Ella Fitzgerald

Christmastime is always quality family time for me, and I enjoy it a lot. We do have a Christmas playlist at home, and I have a lot of songs I love to choose. But if I need to go with one, I would say “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Actually, I love the full album, Ella & Louis Christmas.

Bonnie Raitt

Merry Christmas, Baby,” Charles Brown

Getting to duet with the great R&B legend Charles Brown on his iconic “Merry Christmas Baby” was a high point in my life. And to have it be a part of the wonderful A Very Special Christmas 2 compilation album produced to benefit the Special Olympics makes it even more sweet.


Merry Christmas, Baby,” Otis Redding

I don’t have one favorite Christmas song. Christmas songs are one of my favorite genres, so I could go on forever. But today I’m really feeling “Merry Christmas, Baby,” by Otis Redding, which has long been one of my top picks. First of all, I love any Christmas song with the continuous bells. It’s so simple and yet instantly places you in the magical holiday zone. I think it’s funny that you could slap bells on any song at all and it becomes the Christmas remix. I also like the intro melody in the beginning (one of the main melodic themes) that’s super happy and catchy and almost feels like someone whistling. There’s something about Otis Redding for me right now — I’ve been listening to him a lot. His voice just echoes every emotion I feel at the same time, and yet he sounds so cool and natural and effortless. That tone paired with the punchy horns is captivating on this song. The horns are the backup singers. Then after the song builds a bit, with the horns and music dropping in and out in the second verse, when Santa’s coming down the chimney and he goes, “HA-HA-HA” — whooo! I love it! No one’s like Otis! And the line at the end, “Everything here is beautiful,” I can feel it. It gives me chills.

Nile Rodgers

The Christmas Song,” Nat King Cole

I remember Nat King Cole’s music was played almost continuously in my house from the time I could walk. “The Christmas Song” was a big part of that during the holidays. That continued until my mother passed, some 60-plus years later.

Pat Monahan (Train)

This Christmas,” Donny Hathaway

Donny’s voice is as angelic as Ella’s, and just listening to him sing this literally puts me in the holiday spirit.

Verdine White (Earth, Wind & Fire)

The Christmas Song,” Nat King Cole, and “This Christmas,” Donny Hathaway

“The Christmas Song” from Nat King Cole and “This Christmas” from Donny Hathaway are both great because they come at a great time of the year for families.

Raphael Saadiq

Another Lonely Christmas,” Prince

I love this song. Why? Because I spent many holidays alone on tour, eating Christmas dinner without my family. Not-so-good dinners. “Another Lonely Christmas” resonated with me for those reasons. It’s a great composition and an amazing performance by Prince Rogers Nelson.

Soccer Mommy

Frosty the Snowman,” Cocteau Twins

My favorite holiday song is probably the Cocteau Twins’ version of “Frosty the Snowman.” It’s so fun and whimsical. They give the song this washy, ethereal magic that makes you want to play it on repeat.

Sudan Archives

My Favorite Things,” John Coltrane

I love John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things.” I was introduced to the song through The Sound of Music, but I really fell in love with this remake as a kid. I grew up in a musical household and my mom always loved playing different types of music, especially jazz. This Christmas song is nostalgic and I love the arrangement of the song and instrumentation accompanied by the saxophone and piano. I used to play it on my violin all the time for fun when I was in high school. I loved the way the melody sounded on the violin and experimented with speeding the song up and making it faster. This song will always remind me of Christmas and the warmth of being home with family during the holidays.

Carrie Underwood

The Little Drummer Boy,” Bing Crosby

I love the story of this song so much. It’s not about gifting expensive things, but rather it’s about bringing the gifts that God gave us back to him. I love this song so much that I recorded it with my then-5-year-old son, Isaiah, and I cry happy tears every time I listen to it.

Diane Warren

Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” Elmo & Patsy

“GGROBAR” is loved by everyone except grandmas who get in the way of reindeer!

Tierra Whack

This Christmas,” Chris Brown (from the movie This Christmas)

The movie is awesome. My people smiling is what I love to see!

Sebastián Yatra

I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Michael Bublé

Michael Bublé is a singer I’ve always admired and have had the privilege to work with early in my career. His song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is my favorite Christmas song of all time. I think the song has a really beautiful message about always coming back to family and home no matter what happens. It’s a message that really resonates with me.

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35 Musicians Confess Their Favorite Christmas Songs