Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

What are you listening to this Christmas?

Shane MacGowan of The Pogues as a younger chap. (Photo: Sydney O’Meara/Getty Images)

Kanye West, “Christmas In Harlem”

We typically use this space to chime in with whatever we currently have on rotation, but it’s that special time of year when we’re forced into social situations with acquaintances and family members with whom we rarely interact, and find ourselves listening to treacly music we wouldn’t normally stomach or be caught dead singing. So I asked the staff to instead answer with what holiday music they find most tolerable. We’ve all got a go-to—that one Christmas song that we actually enjoy, whose wistfulness reminds us of Christmas parties past, that we actively look forward to after Thanksgiving each year. And while I have already written at length about my love of Kanye West’s 2010 yuletide anthem “Christmas In Harlem,” it remains my immediate pick any time I need to put on some Christmas music. It’s got it all: a wistful Hit-Boy beat, a bunch of quotable lines (“Now pour some more eggnog in your drink, mami”), a big sing-along hook. The original and best version of the track, which stretches on for over six minutes and features verses from Pusha T and Cam’Ron, among others, has largely disappeared from the internet, which is a holiday tragedy. (Here’s an ancient stream with DJ tags.) But the four-minute version’s just about the best hip-hop Christmas song ever recorded, and unlike most of the others, you can probably even play it in mixed company. [Clayton Purdom]


The Crystals, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”

Because gun-wielding maniacs produce the best albums, I’d suggest almost anything from A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, a title that time has rendered comically ominous. But it’s great, particularly The Crystals’ version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” After a too-long spoken introduction about Santa and the Milky Way or something, the song kicks in with Spector’s famous wall of sound: horns, xylophone, strings, guitar, and these thundering drums that do these enormous fills. I also love the four-note progression the instruments follow in the verses—capped by the chiming xylophone—unique to this version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Pretty much every other take on it is inferior. [Kyle Ryan]


Darlene Love, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”

Allow me to claim the position of generic tub-thumper by taking what might be the most obvious choice imaginable (and a fellow traveler on Kyle’s aforementioned Phi Spector album). Despite being run into the ground by dint of being the best of all possible holiday-themed musical worlds, Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” never gets old for me. I used to think it was just a matter of nostalgia, having seen her perform it on David Letterman’s show at least a dozen of the almost 30 times she sang the song for him, as part of an annual tradition. But after an experiment in which I played it for a younger relative who had never heard it, and they quickly became addicted, too, I decided it’s just that good. So I’ll play it any time—winter, summer, at a party, while I’m working, during a particularly intense therapy session—and without fail, it will move me. It’s a perfect pairing of artist and song, and the original recording is great, but just about any live performance of it will get you singing along as well. Here, watch a compilation of all her appearances on Letterman over the years, cut together in a glorious montage of “Christmas” joy, and see if you don’t get a warm feeling in your heart. [Alex McLevy]


Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “All I Want For Christmas”

Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “All I Want For Christmas” is the most charming Christmas song. It’s alternately rocking and endearing, with Karen O’s earnest vocals singing about Christmas cheer and giving an elflike inflection to the “fa la la”s. It’s also just over three minutes long, and as someone whose partner has spent an inordinate amount of time working on holiday playlists over the past few years, I’ve heard enough alternate Christmas songs to know that brevity is one of the greatest virtues of them all. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]


Hank Ballard And The Midnighters, Santa Claus Is Coming”

To my ears, unless it’s the aforementioned A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (one of my all-time favorite albums, Christmas or otherwise), holiday tunes don’t get better than the doo-wop and early R&B tracks labels cranked out in the ’50s and early ’60s. In lieu of gracing this list with another iteration of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (though let me just quickly say that everyone needs to hear the incredible gospel shouting of Little David Baughan on the version recorded by The Harmony Grits, a.k.a. The Drifters without Clyde McPhatter, at least once in their life), I’ll go to bat for the slightly differently named “Santa Claus Is Coming” by Hank Ballard And The Midnighters. Ballard is known as one of the earliest rock ’n’ rollers and the original writer-performer of “The Twist,” and he’s in fine form on this self-penned Christmas number that mixes grimy, jumpin’ saxes with high-energy gospel vocals. [Matt Gerardi]


Low, “Just Like Christmas”

A few years ago, our own Josh Modell described Low’s Christmas as “the religious album even heathens can love.” I’ll go one further and say it’s the Christmas album even those with a natural dislike of holiday music (say, ingrained over years of retail work in a drugstore that blared the same 50 Christmas songs over the in-store PA on a loop for two straight months) might find tolerable, maybe even enjoyable. That’s not just for Low’s typically hushed, haunting take on standards like “Silent Night,” “Little Drummer Boy,” or “Blue Christmas,” though those all certainly have their immersive, I-just-popped-an-extra-Xanax-to-hang-with-the-in-laws charms. No, every year I ring in the season by putting on the sleigh bells-driven opener “Just Like Christmas” while we decorate. It’s a reliable blast of wintry cheer that evokes trundling through snowbanks to drink hot toddies at holiday parties. The fact that the lyrics are actually describing what sounds like a kinda crappy trip in Scandinavia makes it even better. [Sean O’Neal]


Blink-182, “ I Won’t Be Home For Christmas”

While there are plenty of punk rock Christmas and holiday covers (I’d start with Bad Religion’s 2013 effort Christmas Songs), there’s a surprising dearth of really good, rattle-off-the-top-of-your-dome holiday punk originals. Of these, the most prominent are the Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight),” The Pogues’ “Fairytale Of New York,” and The Vandals’ “Oi! To The World” (which itself was made all the more prominent by a subsequent No Doubt cover). All three are great songs in their own right, but if I’m being honest, the tune that’s jumping to the top of any holiday playlist I’m putting together, after the aforementioned “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” is Blink-182’s “I Won’t Be Home For Christmas.” Yes, it’s juvenile, filled with cartoonish violence and sophomoric prison sex humor, but it also captured the band at its effortlessly energetic, palm-muted peak, post-Dude Ranch, pre-Enema Of The State. Not to mention the message therein, that the holidays tend to be a time when you abandon your chosen family to spend far too much time with the one you’re merely related to through blood. In Blink’s own words, “It’s time to be nice to the people you can’t stand all year.” [Leonardo Adrian Garcia]


The Pogues, “Fairytale Of New York”

The Pogues’ “Fairytale Of New York” certainly lacks a more traditional Christmas vibe: Its most memorable lines consist of an angry couple—sung by Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl—belting each other with insults. But since its release in 1987, the song has cemented its place as a stone-cold holiday classic, perfect for those of us who have a difficult time with more standard holiday fare, but who want to get into the spirit just the same. In an entirely unscientific Twitter poll taken just this year, it even won the “World Cup Of Christmas Songs.” (That should look great on the shelf next to its “World’s Greatest Boss” medal.) What’s made the song endure is its sweeping, gorgeous cantankerousness. “It was Christmas Eve, babe / In the drunk tank,” begins MacGowan, ever the wise drunk. He and MacColl are full of hope for a few verses, in love with each other and the romantic notion and promise of New York. By the end, they may have reconciled (or perhaps just sobered up) in time for the bells to ring out for Christmas Day. [Josh Modell]


Slade, “Merry Xmas Everybody” 

Glam band Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” shows up in the U.K.’s The Office Christmas special and brings to mind the one holiday season I spent over there. I was a bingo parlor hostess in Brighton, England the year after I graduated from college, and the strangeness of being away from my family for the first time ever at the holidays was tempered by everyone else’s mania about what the Christmas No. 1 was going to be, my popularity based on my accent and new fondness for Pimm’s, mince pie, and plum pudding. Also, hanging out at the pub on Boxing Day, where I likely heard this catchy, spirited Christmas single a bazillion times, and it just doesn’t get old. Instead, just like those Office folk, I want to get up and scream the chorus, right before falling into a bowl of eggnog. [Gwen Ihnat]


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