80 Holiday Songs You Better Have…Or Else

Posted December 23, 2017 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

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“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”
Writer: John Lennon, Yoko Ono
Producer: Phil Spector, John Lennon, Yoko Ono
released as a non-album 7″ single


Not quite up there with “Imagine,” this Phil Spector-produced holiday ballad pierces our hearts for its glowing campaign to bring an end to war in Vietnam (“war is over/if you want it”). Sending it to the moon is the gathering of child voices made up by the Harlem Community Choir. It also was the first post-Beatles holiday song to be released, with George Harrison, Paul McCartney (see list) and Ringo Starr to follow with their own holiday treats.


“Do They Know It’s Christmas”
Writer: Bob Geldof, Midge Ure
Producer: Midge Ure, Trevor Horn
from the album 1999


A star-studded, made mostly of Brit stars including Boy George, George Michael, Sting, U2, Spandau Ballet, Genesis, Duran Duran and Bananarama, came together to do a ‘We Are the World’-type anthem for the holidays in order to deal with the hunger crisis in Africa. The result: an ‘80’s electropop carol climaxing with a chorus singing “feed the world/let them know it’s Christmastime again” repetitively.


“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”
Writer: Edward Pola, George Wyle
Producer: Robert Mersey
from the album Andy Williams Christmas Album


When recorded and dropped on the picture-perfect holiday LP Andy Williams Christmas Album, Columbia focused instead on his cover of “White Christmas” as the lead single. But this cheery jazz-pop original has grown to become one of the greatest holiday songs ever, thanks to a holiday special that bore the same name. Williams made it a tradition to perform it in subsequent holidays, and others followed suit. It’s the most adored version, but Johnny Mathis’s 1986 gleaming cover, polished with a crisp production, is a close second.


“Christmas Ain’t Christmas, New Years Ain’t New Years”
Writer: Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff
Producer: Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, Thom Bell
released as a non-album 7″ single


Before “Back Stabbers” and “Love Train” shot the O’Jays to R&B stardom, the O’Jays poured their heart into a glorious piece of pre-PIR Philly soul assembled by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, with arranger Thom Bell also on board. Despite its long-winding title, the two-minute song has proven to have enduring power and remains a steady annual staple on urban radio.


“Mary, Did You Know?”
Writer: Mark Lowry, Buddy Greene
Producer: Adam Anders, Peer Åström
from the album Cee Lo’s Magic Moment


This CCM ballad, a favorite in the Bill Gaither tradition, has been duplicated on a host of gospel and pop artists, possibly the creamiest being done by Helen Baylor and Kirk Whalum on sax. But the “Forget You” singer Cee Lo Green grabs our attention at the offset of his gospel-tinged pipes. Acapella group Pentatonix may have scored the highest charted version on the Hot 100, but Green’s meaty cover managed to peak at number 11 on the R&B charts.


“What Are You Doing New Years’ Eve?”
Writer: Frank Loesser
Producer: Tom Morgan
released as a non-album 7″ single (B-side), later released on reissue of Yesterday’s Love Songs…


This golden holiday standard has been touched by jazz greats and pop icons, but Nancy Wilson’s gorgeous interpretation, originally the B-side to “That’s What I Want for Christmas” in 1963, is the standard to match. Backed by a sultry orchestra, this Tom Morgan-produced was a major chart success in both 1965 and ’67.


“Baby It’s Cold Outside”
Writer: Frank Loesser
Producer: Sid Feller
from the album Ray Charles and Betty Carter


This call-and-response come-hither duet masterpiece has been circulating since 1944, but this reworking featuring Ray Charles and Betty Carter may be the most authentic fire starter. It’s not exactly Christmas-y, but it’s rightfully cozy and perfect for an eggnog cocktail. Despite having very little connection with the holidays lyrically, it’s been adopted into holiday albums for its wintry imagery and sophisticated jazz layout.


“Back Door Santa”
Writer: Clarence Carter, Marcus Daniel
Producer: Rick Hall
from the album Soul Christmas


Before hitting it big with the ‘80’s Southern classic “Strokin,” the lewd-mouth blues giant had already poured his dirty imagination on “Back Door Santa,” a horn-powered R&B jukebox favorite featuring Rick Hall’s FAME players with a little double-entendre action (“back door” and “come” are open for interpretation) and some cunning sexual banter that puts the real Santa to shame: “Well, I ain’t like the Old Saint Nick/He  don’t come but once a year/I come runnin’ with my presents/Every time you call me dear.” Traces of “Back Door Santa” can also be heard in the Run DMC classic “Christmas in Hollies” (also on this list).


Producer: Mervyn Warren
Writer: George Frideric Handel
from the album Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration


Renowned arranger Mervyn Warren stepped in to do the unthinkable, by transforming the George Handel cantata Messiah into an urban contemporary gospel celebration. The album’s climax, the stunning “Hallelujah,” hit a crescendo when the all-star choir (featuring the likes of Take 6, Patti Austin, Stephanie Mills, Al Jarreau, Andrae Crouch, Chaka Khan, the Hawkins Family, Johnny Mathis and Sounds of Blackness) raises holy hands with Daryl Coley’s soaring ad-libs. It’s still one of the most rewarding benchmarks in gospel Christmas history.


“Christmas Rappin'”
Writer: Denzil Miller, J.B. Moore, Kurtis Walker, Larry Smith, Robert Ford
Producer: J.B. Moore, Robert Ford
released as a 12″ non-album single


Did you know that Kurtis Blow’s very first commercial single was this holiday rap tale? “The Breaks” would come much later, but “Christmas Rappin’,” a joint collaboration with Blow and two Billboard magazine writers, came first and signaled the rise of hip-hop on a planetary scale. Thanks to some witty executive talks led by rising entrepreneur Russell Simmons, it became the first rap song to ever be released on a major label. And it even was certified gold. The gold mine continued when Next sampled the grooves for their R&B No. 1 hit “Too Close.”

NEXT: #30-21

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About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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