Ten best!: Christmas Songs

by Keith Barber

ten best! Ten Best Christmas Songs

“The Christmas Song”

It could be argued that “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” is the most memorable verse of any Christmas tune ever written. Composed in 1944 by Mel Torm’ and Bob Wells, “The Christmas Song” is the most performed holiday song of all time, according to Broadcast Music Incorporated. Nat King Cole’s 1961 recording of the tune with a full orchestra remains the definitive version, and is a staple of radio airplay this time of year. Every Christmas party ideally begins and ends with the honey-like baritone of Cole wishing all of us a Merry Christmas.

“Blue Christmas”

No Christmas music playlist would be complete without an offering from “The King.” Elvis’ rendition of the 1948 Ernest Tubb tune is widely considered of the greatest rock-and-roll Christmas songs evah. “Blue Christmas” has been covered countless times by artists as diverse as Celine Dion and Billy Idol, but it is Elvis’ signature style that propels the song into the stratosphere. Christmas music enthusiasts should accept no substitutes with this holiday tune.

“Little Saint Nick”

This Christmas favorite, written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love of the Beach Boys, reached No. 3 on the Christmas charts in 1964. A fanciful take on the Beach Boys’ 1963 hit “Little Deuce Coupe,” the song has been covered multiple times and even used in a Coca-Cola holiday commercial featuring animated polar bears that stumble on a festive penguin gathering. There are two kinds of Christmas songs — ones that put you in a quiet, reflective mood and ones that instantaneously put you in the holiday spirit as you bounce up and down while listening in your car. “Little Saint Nick” falls into the latter category.

“Christmastime is Here”

The vocal version of this song comes off the fantastic soundtrack for the animated 1965 CBS special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, this song opens the animated special with a slow, melancholy melody that underscores Charlie Brown’s general disappointment with the holiday season. As Charlie Brown and friends skate on a frozen lake, the jazz piano stylings of Guaraldi create a peaceful holiday landscape. Each time this song is played over the airwaves, it takes Generation X’ers back to a simpler time when watching A Charlie Brown Christmas was an annual family tradition.

“Happy Christmas (War is Over)”

In 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono rented billboards in 11 cities around the world that read, “War is Over! (If You Want It).” A protest against the war in Vietnam, “Happy Christmas (War is Over),” recorded by Lennon in 1971, took its lyrics directly from the famous billboards. With the help of producer Phil Spector, Lennon and Ono recorded the song with the Harlem Community Choir singing in the background. Although the song was a protest against the Vietnam War, it has enjoyed particular resonance since the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003. This Christmas, with the US and Iraq having finalized an agreement to have all troops out of the country by 2011, “Happy Christmas” has a more celebratory connotation.

“Sleigh Ride”

Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra recorded the most famous version of this holiday classic in 1949. Composed by Leroy Anderson, “Sleigh Ride” ranks in the Top 10 of Christmas songs performed around the world. The NC Symphony traditionally saves this piece for its encore performance during its annual Holiday Pops concert series. Last December, I attended the symphony’s Christmas concert at Kenan Auditorium on the campus of UNC Wilmington. At the conclusion of the program, the audience rose to its feet and applauded for a good three or four minutes until the orchestra hit the first note of “Sleigh Ride.” The symphony’s pitch-perfect rendition garnered it another standing ovation.


Josh Groban and the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance of “Noel,” from Groban’s 2007 holiday album, is the latest definitive version of this Christmas classic. According to Nielsen Soundscan, the album sold over 3.6 million copies in 11 weeks, making it the bestselling album of 2007.

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”

Fans of legendary Hollywood director Frank Capra would probably say their favorite version of this Christmas classic is performed by the cast of It’s a Wonderful Life (screening this week at the Carolina Theatre; see BeThere, opposite page). After falling into despair, George Bailey, played by the marvelous Jimmy Stewart, realizes he really does have a wonderful life in the film’s climactic scene. Little ZuZu points out the copy of Tom Sawyer that mysteriously appears, and after George reads the inscription by Clarence, his guardian angel, the song’s significance resonates with the audience.

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

The brainchild of Bob Geldof, the recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” served as a fundraiser for famine relief in Ethiopia in 1984. The song features vocals by a who’s who of ’80s pop music including Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Paul Young, Culture Club, George Michael, Kool and the Gang, Sting, Bono, Phil Collins, Jody

Watley, Bananarama and some of Geldof’s bandmates from the Boomtown Rats. The original version was produced by Midge Ure, and released by Band Aid on Nov. 29, 1984.

“Canon in D major (Christmas Canon)”

This is a sentimental favorite of mine. “Canon in D major” by Johann Pachelbel is the opening music of the 1980 film Ordinary People. This haunting, beautiful melody can be interpreted as joyous or sad, and director Robert Redford’s selection of this composition for the film was masterful. Originally composed in 1680, the instrumental piece is known for its chord progression, and is often played at weddings. In 1998, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra added holiday lyrics and updated Pachelbel’s timeless masterpiece.