50 greatest Christmas songs by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Tis the season. To be honest, though, when we set out to do this list, we weren’t entirely certain it would work.
There is an endless number of holiday tunes out there. But how many good ones come from Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Inductees, which is how we center a list like this? Surprisingly, a lot.
We took what was a “shortlist” of 75 great Christmas songs and got it down to 50. They’re all by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. This is probably the first list we’ve done like this that doesn’t feature The Beatles (as a group), Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones.
50. Roy Orbison – “Pretty Paper”
Written by Willie Nelson, “Pretty Paper” became a hit in the hands of Roy Orbison. The song tells the story of a lonely street vendor selling pencils and paper on the streets. Don’t worry: Orbison’s croon offers beauty amongst the sadness.
49. Whitney Houston – “One Wish (For Christmas)”
Whitney Houston never had her “All I Want For Christmas Is You” moment. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. She has several great versions of holiday standards. In 1994, she covered Freddie Jackson’s “One Wish.” The song didn’t make much noise on the charts. But Houston gives it her all, which is a gift within itself.
48. John Lee Hooker – “Blues for Christmas”
For fans of the blues, there nothing finer on Christmas than John Lee Hooker delivering some old-school blues in holiday form: “Blues for Christmas/I ain’t got a dime.” Who hasn’t been there?
47. The Ventures – “Sleigh Ride”
The idea of surf rock pioneers The Ventures doing a holiday song might seem a bit odd. But the group’s version of “Sleigh Ride” works in all its instrumental guitar glory. Maybe you can snowboard to it.
46. The Jackson 5 – “Give Love on Christmas Day”
The Jackson 5′s Christmas album is one of Motown’s finest holiday achievements. “Give Love on Christmas Day,” in particular is a great reminder of just how amazing Michael Jackson’s voice was at such a young age.
45. Booker T and the MG’s – “Jingle Bells”
An instrumental version of a Christmas classic from one of the greatest bands of all time. What’s not to like? The standouts here are, as always, Steve Cropper’s soulful guitar licks and Booker T. Jones getting down on the Hammond organ.
44. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – “Christmas All Over Again”
Crafting a modern rock and roll Christmas song is no easy task. So, credit to Tom Petty for penning one of the liveliest jams from the “A Very Special Christmas 2” compilation in support of the Special Olympics.
43. Otis Redding – “White Christmas”
Save for the lyrics, Otis Redding’s “White Christmas” doesn’t sound anything like a Christmas song. Instead, he opts to tackle the classic in his usual sexy soul sound. Which is to say, it’s even better than you might have expected.
42. Madonna – “Santa Baby”
Several artists have covered Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby.” But no one quite nails it like Madonna, who turned the track into a hit more than 30 years after the original. Though, Kitt and some other people aren’t fans.
41. The Impressions – “Amen”
Typically thought of us as just a gospel song, “Amen” is indeed a gospel Christmas song: “See the little baby, wrapped in a manger on Christmas morning.” And the definitive version comes from Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions who take it from something simple and turn it into a soul gem.
40. Solomon Burke – “Presents for Christmas”
“This is gonna be a groove for me.” You know Solomon Burke’s Christmas song is going to be something to move to right from the beginning. His towering voice takes care of the rest.
39. Paul McCartney – “Wonderful Christmastime”
Sir Paul’s “Wonderful Christmastime” is the most Eighties holiday song not by Wham! (Not on this list because they’re not in the Rock Hall). Is “Wonderful Christmastime” repetitive? Yes. But McCartney’s sweet synth sounds (he also plays guitar, bass and drums on the track) are pretty infectious.
38. Darlene Love – “All Alone on Christmas”
As you’ll come to find out with this list, Darlene Love is the queen of Christmas songs. It’s something the team behind “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” surely knew when they tapped Love (along with songwriter/producer Steven Van Zandt) for an original anthem to go with the blockbuster film.
37. The Everly Brothers – “Christmas Eve Can Kill You”
It’s not the liveliest Christmas song, but The Everly Brothers’ vivid tune “Christmas Eve Can Kill You” is a fine representation of the blissful songs the rock and roll pioneers delivered during their heyday.
36. Bob Marley & The Wailers – “White Christmas”
It’s probably not all that surprising there aren’t a lot of standout reggae Christmas songs. But if anyone could put one together, it’s Bob Marley. The way he manipulates his voice “White Christmas” is a miracle in itself.
35. The Staple Singers – “Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?”
A Christmas song with a powerful message. The Staple Singers’ “Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?” is a holiday song that feels like it’s about to explode, which it does once Mavis gets going.
34. Stevie Wonder – “Someday at Christmas”
For all the extravagant instrumentation featured in his finest songs, one should never forget Stevie Wonder can sing with the best of ‘em. “Someday at Christmas” puts his beautiful voice on display, proving Wonder is a perfect fit for the holiday season.
33. Louis Armstrong – “Cool Yule”
No one made a Christmas song like Louis Armstrong, simply because no one sounds like Louis Armstrong. “Cool Yule” is a jazz romp that Armstrong could have pulled off by himself. But we get the bonus of his amazing Commanders band backing him.
32. Elton John – “Step Into Christmas”
Elton John’s 1973 Christmas song sought to recreate the amazing wall of sound production Phil Spector put on his holiday classics (more on those in a bit). And it does a fine job of it, becoming such a fan-favorite it was later included as a bonus track on John’s “Caribou” album.
31. Marvin Gaye – “I Want to Come Home for Christmas”
Did Marvin Gaye sing anything poorly? That’s a rhetorical question you should know the answer to. Gaye’s voice is stunning on “I Want to Come Home Christmas,” a song whose greatness is hard to ignore, even if it’s not the most uplifting holiday tune. It’s sung from the perspective of a prisoner of war that Gaye recorded during his “What’s Going On” era.
30. Aretha Franklin – “Kissin’ By The Mistletoe”
Need romance on Christmas? Aretha Franklin’s best holiday song (She has a few good ones) will surely put you in the mood.
29. The O’Jays – “Christmas Ain’t Christmas”
The O’Jays are here to remind you what matters at Christmas (and New Year’s). Because the holidays (and life in general) aren’t quite the same without your loved ones.
28. Eagles – “Please Come Home for Christmas”
You might be wondering where Bon Jovi’s version of “Please Come Home for Christmas” falls on this list. It doesn’t. Technically it’s a Jon Bon Jovi solo song. Besides, the Eagles did it better thanks to a perfect vocal performance from Don Henley.
27. Ike and Tina Turner – “Merry Christmas Baby”
Tina Turner was never one to hold back. She gives it her all on Ike and Tina’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” digging into that rock and roll voice that could put anyone (male or female) to shame.
26. Bobby Darin – “Christmas Auld Lang Syne”
Michael Bublé is one of the modern kings of Christmas songs. But if you’re looking for one of the original crooners who could nail the classics, look no further than Bobby Darin. His holiday version of “Auld Lang Syne” is majestic.
25. Darlene Love – “Marshmallow World”
Here she is again. For people obsessed with holiday songs, you could make a case Darlene Love could have beeen inducted into the Rock Hall just for her Christmas work. “Marshmallow World” is an essential track that proves Love could duke it out with Ronnie Spector for being the perfect wall of sound vocalist.
24. Otis Redding – “Merry Christmas Baby”
For as amazing as his voice was, Otis Redding never seemed like a natural fit for a Christmas song. But on this version “Merry Christmas Baby,” his style merges perfectly with the holiday sentiment, even if his powerhouse of a voice towards those sweet sleigh bells.
23. Bruce Springsteen – “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”
Full disclosure: My wife hates Bruce Springsteen’s voice. If I played his version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” this season, she’d probably smash my record player. But this song is so Bruce. He even opens it by talking to the band. If you love Bruce (which I do), this is as good rock and roll Christmas tunes get.
22. Stevie Wonder – “What Christmas Means to Me”
It’s time to get clap-happy. If for some reason (meaning the pandemic), you’re feeling down this year, Stevie Wonder’s signature holiday song is a two-and-a-half-minute cure-all.
21. John Lennon – “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”
As a protest song, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” rates pretty high. But the irony of the song’s message keeps it from near the top of this list. After all, John Lennon was smartly dressing up his political message with a touch of Christmas sweetness with help from the Harlem Community Choir.
20. The Beach Boys – “Little Saint Nick”
The Beach Boys were wise enough to know if they slapped their sweet harmonies on anything, including Christmas songs, the results were going to be pretty amazing. The “Little Saint Nick” endures because of its vivid lyrics and a simple chorus anyone can sing.
19. The Ronettes – “Sleigh Ride”
Phil Spector spared no expense on the holiday “A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records” compilation, which makes it the best Christmas album by a wide margin. Consider The Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride” even comes with animal sounds at the opening. The instrumentation, from some of the best session players of the era, is also stunning. Then Ronnie Spector’s voice kicks in and you’re melting like snow in the palm of her hand.
18. James Brown – “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”
At a time when Christmas songs were, for the most part, considered from a white perspective, James Brown gave Black people a song they could get behind. “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” from his 1968 “A Soulful Christmas” album.
17. Louis Armstrong – “Christmas In New Orleans”
If you’re young and don’t know much about Louis Armstrong, just about any song he ever performed will clue you into his greatness. But “Christmas In New Orleans” is a great place to start at holiday time. It’s a boisterous jazz anthem grounded by Armstrong’s uncanny vocal.
16. Prince – “Another Lonely Christmas”
Yes, Prince had a Christmas song. It’s depressing, over-the-top, sensual and awesome. The theme is Christmas, but once Prince starts singing about being naked in “your father’s pool,” it doesn’t matter what time of year it is.
15. Mahalia Jackson – “Go Tell It on the Mountain”
Let’s be clear: Few songs on this list, if any, can match the overall power of Mahalia Jackson’s version of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” The only reason it isn’t in the top five is that most people think of it as a gospel song rather than a Christmas song. But it qualifies and as such, there’s no denying its greatness.
14. The Jackson 5 – “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”
There isn’t too much that separates The Jackson 5′s version of “Santana Claus Is Coming Town” from others. Well, except for a young Michael Jackson’s voice. From the moment he beams out the chorus, you’re hooked.
13. The Kinks – “Father Christmas”
With “Father Christmas,” The Kinks delivered one of the great rock and roll holiday anthems of all time. It also shows how the band served as the ultimate precursor to punk music. But “Father Christmas” should come with a spoiler alert. Don’t play it for your children who still believe in Santa. Well, maybe don’t play it for children anyway since it mentions beating up Father Christmas if he doesn’t hand over money rather than toys.
12. Marvin Gaye – “Purple Snowflakes”
The origins of “Purple Snowflakes” is interesting. It was originally in 1964 as a psychedelic holiday song whose arrangement was truly ahead of its time in terms of holiday songs. But the Christmas version was put on the backburner and instead released as “Pretty Little Baby.” But Gaye’s amazing holiday song would finally see the light of day in 1992 and has since been a favorite cover choice of R&B singers.
11. The Temptations – “Silent Night”
The definitive version of “Silent Night?” The Temptations’ version of this holiday classic certainly has competition. But the vocals on the group’s 1970 version (from “The Temptations Christmas Card”) are hard to beat. And you certainly won’t find any version with a falsetto like that of Eddie Kendricks.
10. Elvis Presley – “Blue Christmas”
“Blue Christmas” dates back to the late 1940s when Doye O’Dell first recorded it. But the song provides yet more proof that a song could truly take off once Elvis Presley got his hands on hit. The King’s version of “Blue Christmas” is done in the country genre, but it’s pure Elvis in the way he merges his charisma with a fantastic vocal performance.
9. Run-DMC – “Christmas in Hollis”
This shouldn’t have worked. At least, not as well as it did. With all its turntable scratching, horns and old-school rap shouting, “Christmas in Hollis” is undeniable as a modern holiday classic. In retrospect, you can kind of see why. Most holiday songs have the same vibe. But nothing knocks quite like this.
8. Ramones – “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)”
Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” begins like an Elvis Costello song (In fact, the entire thing kind of sounds like an Elvis Costello song) and then jumps into the raucous guitar sound that has given punks their holiday anthem. For a more purist version, find Joey Ramone’s original demo version, which is a wonder in itself.
7. Brenda Lee – “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”
Brenda Lee is quite the accomplished rock and roll pioneer, having been inducted into the Rock and Roll, Country Music and Rockabilly Halls of Fame. And while she had a ton of hits over multiple decades, younger audiences may only know her for “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” which is fine since it’s one of the most beloved holiday songs of all time and probably will be until the end of time. It’s the definition of the bop.
6. The Pretenders – “2000 Miles”
The Pretenders amazing jangle-pop song “2000 Miles” mentions Christmas and became a hit in the UK in December 1983. But it’s not about two lovers who are far apart on the holidays, as some people may think. The song was actually written by Chrissie Hynde for the band’s original guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who died the previous year.
5. The Drifters – “White Christmas”
Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” may be the best-selling single of all time. But it’s hard not to argue The Drifters outdid him. The soulful vocal arrangement on the group’s version is the gold standard for R&B holiday songs. Heck, even Macaulay Culkin dug it in “Home Alone.”
4. Nat King Cole – “The Christmas Song”
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” Few lyrics make you know the Christmas season has arrived more than the opening ones from “The Christmas Song.” And with that comes that glorious string arrangement and Nat “King” Cole’s voice. It’s as traditional as popular Christmas songs get. But it’s utterly timeless in its beauty.
3. Joni Mitchell – “River”
“River” isn’t just one of the greatest Christmas songs of all time. It’s one of the finest folk tunes put to record. Joni Mitchell’s composition is among the best of her career and remains one of her most covered songs. Poor Graham Nash, whose breakup with Mitchell inspired the song. He has to hear this thing every December. That’s the price you pay for dating one of the greatest songwriters of all time.
2. Chuck Berry – “Run Rudolph Run”
This is a list centered on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So, of course, the Godfather of Rock and Roll is going to make an appearance. “Run Rudolph Run” was no reinvention for Chuck Berry, who modeled the song around his biggest hit “Johnny B. Goode” and the infectious guitar sound that birthed modern rock and roll. Oh and that brief guitar solo…the best you will ever hear on a holiday song.
Darlene Love – “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”
Out of all the artists who have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Darlene Love is the only one whose signature song is undoubtedly a Christmas song. That’s not because she doesn’t have other great tunes. It’s because “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is just that good. It’s also hard to find covers that even come close to Love’s Phil Spector-produced track (Sorry, Mariah Carey) because Love never stopped singing it. She performed it a staggering 28 times on David Letterman’s talk show and it still pops up in popular culture to this day.