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SCENE's annual Christmas Songs that are Actually Good

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I swear to sweet holy living God if I hear Bing Crosby sing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” one more time this year — ONE MORE TIME — I’m going to knock over the panettone display in whatever supermarket I happen to be in.

I hate that song. And yes, sure, fine, OK, I recognize not everyone shares this opinion. I’m told the song helped a whole bunch of World War II soldiers make it through Christmas away from home when Crosby’s version was released back in ’43. For that, I salute it. Thanks for your service, song.

But I’ve hated it for nearly 20 years now, owing to the fact that it hit like a brick the first year I wasn’t able to make it home for Christmas myself. I started crying pretty much instantly. Right there in the Albertsons.

Since then I’ve noticed how omnipresent that stupid song seems to be during years when I’m not in fact going to be home for Christmas. It’s as though the people at Pandora and Spotify (or whoever programs retail and grocery music) know when I’m not going home and choose those years to put it in heavy rotation.

That would be fine if it were a better song. I don’t mind a good wallow-in-self-pity ditty, but it’s got to be good. And “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” just isn’t. It’s a big ol’ Hallmark card of a song. (Its twist-ending, in which the narrator reveals he’ll be home “if only in my dreams” is maudlin and cheap and does not redeem it.) Based solely on merit, I should be able to just dismiss it. But I can’t, because I’m a big soft manbaby whose emotional armor is paper thin and who can be driven to paroxysms of Christmas weeping by the dumbest song in the whole dumb world.

My plea to everyone in charge of music in public spaces this holiday season is this: Don’t play “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in 2020, a year in which so many of us won’t be able to see our families because of this damn pandemic. Living through this is hard enough without the embarrassment of being made to cry in some checkout line by a song that bad.

Now, with that out of the way, we move on to this year’s songs.

I started recommending a batch of Christmas songs every year back in 2013, spurred by a reader’s question about why Christmas music tends to be so bad. At the time I shared that reader’s opinion of the genre. But adding new songs to the list every year has opened my eyes. There’s actually a wealth of good holiday music; you just have to wade through all of the bad stuff. Kind of like with any genre of music.

Here are this year’s additions to the SCENE Christmas Songs that are Actually Good canon. As always, I’ve included recommendations for drink pairings. (You can find the whole eight-year list — minus a few tracks Spotify doesn’t offer — by searching “SCENE Christmas Songs that are Actually Good” on that streaming service.

The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole, 1961

That it took so long for this, the definitive Christmas classic, to appear on this list isn’t an indictment of the song; it’s a recognition that its established credentials needed no further burnishing. “The Christmas Song” as sung by Cole is 3 minutes of hearth and home. It makes me feel better every time I hear it. (It makes me cry, too, of course, but what doesn’t these days?) Anyway, it’s about time this song made the list. It was always going to, and we’ve never needed it more.

Suggested pairing: A snifter of cognac — nothing newer than VSOP, and if you’ve got a bottle of XO that’ll do nicely — which you will sip next to your fireplace. If you live in an apartment, put that fireplace video on and sit next to that. Smoking jacket optional.

Pretty Paper” by Willie Nelson, 1964

I’ve always thought of this as a Roy Orbison song, because his version came first and remains more famous. And, while I love Orbison and think he is among history’s great male vocalists, I never really dug it. It’s a simple, sad story about how the hustle-and-bustle of the season can blind people to the need among us. The Orbison version, with its melodramatic string arrangements and vocal flourishes, doesn’t work. But Willie Nelson, who wrote the song, released it himself a year after Orbison’s take became a hit. And Nelson, whose honey-and-smoke voice has the sort of gravitas that requires no flourishes, did it better.

Suggested pairing: American whiskey. Rye if you’ve got it, but bourbon is fine. And, since this IS Willie Nelson we’re talking about (and the title of the song includes the word “paper”) maybe one of those pre-rolls from the corner weed store.

Everything is One Big Christmas Tree” by The Magnetic Fields, 2010

The Magnetic Fields, or more specifically the band’s driving creative force, Stephin Merritt, can be infuriating. He’s made a career out of (half?) joking concept albums in which he pokes fun at a particular genre by weaving its cliches into songs that turn out to be, well, incredibly good. This one doesn’t turn that trick quite as artfully as, say, Merritt’s “Papa Was a Rodeo,” which is both a great country song and a devastating deconstruction of country songs. But it still works. The couplet “Stop mumbling and cheer up/Put down the book, pick beer up” is about as close as a Merritt lyric gets to straightforward.

Suggested pairing: Beer, obviously.

New Baby for Christmas” by George Jones, 1957

George Jones could be a profound writer of love and, especially, loss (“The Grand Tour,” “A Good Year for the Roses,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and a million others). But that wasn’t his only mode. He was also damn funny and irrepressibly clever. This one falls well short of profundity, but it’s definitely funny and clever: “She kissed me on a hayride, and took me on a sleigh ride, then turned my white Christmas to blue.” Plus it’s got a great old-time country sound with the barroom piano and the steel guitar and all of that.

Suggested pairing: White lightnin’, the homemade hooch Jones famously championed in his first big hit back in 1959. (Take care though, he’d be the first to warn you about the stuff’s more deleterious effects.)

Ghostface X-Mas” by Ghostface Killah, 2008

I had to check, but I’m pretty sure this is the first entry by a Wu Tang Clan member. And of course it’s Ghostface Killah, whose knack for lyrical specificity allows him to evoke fully formed images of holidays past: “I see snowmen, snowflakes, cinnamon cakes. Sisters and brothers sliding down garbage can covers. Snowball fights, eggnog splashed with Hennessey. Bet Christmas is Christmas from New York to Tennessee.” It’s a holiday scrapbook set to a killer beat.

Suggested pairing: Eggnog splashed with Hennessey, I guess, though you’d be forgiven for subbing in a little E&J and saving the good stuff for the snifter you’re going to enjoy by the fire when you listen to Nat King Cole.

Linus and Lucy” by Los Straitjackets, 2015

It is a known fact that Christmas is the perfect time for Mexican-influenced surfabilly-garage instrumentals. Well, OK, sure, fine, that’s not actually a KNOWN fact. But it is an indisputable one. And it’s known to everyone who’s listened to either “The Quality Holiday Revue,” the 2015 album from the Los Straitjackets and Nick Lowe tour of the same name, or to “Los Straitjackets Complete Christmas Songbook,” which includes 27 Christmas tracks. “Linus and Lucy,” which Straitjackets guitar god Danny “Daddy O Grande” Amis correctly pointed out opens with a riff that sounds a lot like “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks, is on both albums. It’s the best version of the song, and I say that as someone who really likes all the Vince Guaraldi “Peanuts” music.

Suggested pairing: A mezcal Old-Fashioned (not to be confused with old-fashioned mescaline, though that too would be perfectly fitting).

Black Christmas” by Poly Styrene, 2010

If you stopped following Poly Styrene after X-Ray Spex broke up (the first time), I should tell you that this track does not have the same cinder-block-through-a-window style as, say, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” It’s more of a relaxed reggae-influenced number, which harkens back to Styrene’s pre-Spex beginnings. Recorded and released the year before she died of cancer, “Black Christmas” can fool you into thinking it’s a poppy, upbeat song. It’s not. It was inspired by a serial killer dressed as Santa. It mentions the U.S. recession of the era. And it’s basically just about how Christmas can be depressing. The line “Christmas cards always make me feel alone” serves as its statement of principles. (In other words, it’s a much better sad Christmas song than “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”)

Suggested pairing: I’m going to go with London dry gin here, because Styrene grew up in Brixton. A martini seems a bit posh, but maybe a gin rickey or a good ol’ G&T. Whatever it is, smash the glass against a wall in your house when you’re done.

Christmas in Prison” by John Prine, 1973

We lost a good one in April when COVID killed John Prine. The inimitable critic Robert Christgau put it this way in his review of Prine’s 1973 album “Sweet Revenge”: “It’s the odd actions of everyday detail ... that heighten the reality of his songs, and his elementary insight that social circumstances do actually affect individual American lives that distinguishes him politically from his fellow workers. That’s why when he finally writes his music-biz takeoff it’s a beaut; that’s why ‘Christmas in Prison’ deserves to be carved on a wooden turkey.” I’ll add only that the best songwriters, for me, tend to be the ones who can be funny and sad at the same time, and John Prine had that quality.

Suggested pairing: Vodka and ginger ale with a cigarette that’s nine miles long, as Prine longed for in his 2018 song “When I Get to Heaven.”

“So Much Wine” by The Handsome Family, 2000

This song is beautiful and dark, like most Handsome Family songs. That its action, featuring a drunken breakdown troublingly far from rock bottom, is set on Christmas Day only heightens that beauty and darkness. The refrain, “There’s only so much wine you can drink in one life, and it will never be enough to save you from the bottom of your glass,” is a pretty succinct description of addiction. I’ll be damned, though, if I don’t really feel for both characters in this one.

Suggested pairing: A cup of black coffee and a big glass of ice water.

“New Year’s Eve” by Tom Waits, 2011

This is classic Waits. It’s like a Raymond Carver story or an early Jim Jarmusch movie. Every line seems imbued with meaning and, while you can feel and understand that meaning, you’d be hard-pressed to put it into words short of, “Just listen to the song, man.” It’s a poignant character-driven piece with just the right details (“It was 4 in the morning, and what sounded like fireworks turned out to be just what it was”). That it takes place on New Year’s Eve serves its themes of rebirth and allows it to organically incorporate a couple of quotes from “Auld Lang Syne.” There are plenty of Tom Waits songs that are best enjoyed while drunkenly singing along arm-in-arm with friends, but this one might be the best of them.

Suggested pairing: Champagne. Well, this is Waits we’re talking about. So, uh ... how about Ripple? Do they still make Ripple?

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