Bring on the bells: 18 great Christmas songs from the past decade

Bring on the bells: 18 great Christmas songs from the past decade

Clockwise from top: Kelly Clarkson; a stop-motion Sia; Big Freedia; Documentary Now!’s Alex Brightman
Clockwise from top: Kelly Clarkson; a stop-motion Sia; Big Freedia; Documentary Now!’s Alex Brightman
Graphic: Rebecca Fassola

It’s been 26 years since Mariah Carey proved you could still create a Christmas staple—kicking off decades of copycats and wannabes trying to recreate her holiday hit, “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” But while no one has toppled that track in terms of chart performance, these 18 original songs from the past decade are still worth adding to any December playlist.

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2 / 20

Kacey Musgraves, “Christmas Makes Me Cry”

Kacey Musgraves, “Christmas Makes Me Cry”

Kacey Musgraves isn’t just a standard-bearer for women in country music, she’s also a leading advocate for the preservation of midcentury Christmas kitsch—as she made clear in her 2019 holiday special. But Musgraves’ most timeless holiday number isn’t a standard reinterpreted for the new century featuring backup singers in Santa hats. It’s an original composition, gently plucked on an acoustic guitar. Featuring melancholy lyrics about feeling out of step with the season and sung in a delicate, minor-key melody, “Christmas Makes Me Cry”—to put it succinctly—works as advertised. And if the purity of Musgraves’ voice over poignant strings and tinkling bells doesn’t make you want to stare out the nearest window and reminisce as snow blankets the world in white, the midway addition of music’s most lonesome instrument, pedal steel guitar, will. [Katie Rife]

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3 / 20

Los Campesinos!, “A Doe To A Deer” 

Los Campesinos!, “A Doe To A Deer” 

The average Los Campesinos! track has enough bells and strings to qualify as Christmas music, but a lyric sheet full of holiday paraphernalia unlocks something special in the smart-ass sad-bastard narratives of frontman Gareth Campesinos! He pulls boxes and boxes of the stuff down from the attic in “A Doe To A Deer,” a heartsick anthem whose narrator promises to be the angel on your tree, the nose on your snowman, or Santa Claus himself—if only his feelings were reciprocated. This being a Los Campesinos! song, the angel is puking, Santa is stumbling home drunk, and the cherubs are loudmouth football supporters. Yet there’s a soft-glowing halo of poignancy around it all. It’s a blend of the sacred and profane you don’t often get from modern Christmas songs, complete with some fine, tongue-twisting verses (“I’m three sheets to the wind / But the wind is a sleet / and this sheet ain’t one of snow to play beneath”) and a triumphant turnaround that could lift the spirits of even the most snockered St. Nick. [Erik Adams]

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4 / 20

Ariana Grande, “Santa Tell Me”

Ariana Grande, “Santa Tell Me”

There will never be another “All I Want For Christmas Is You” but “Santa Tell Me” makes for a worthy successor. Ariana Grande’s impressive vocal range makes her one of the few pop stars who could come close to the high notes of Mariah Carey’s yuletide staple, but—to its benefit—“Santa Tell Me” isn’t trying to out-belt Mimi. Instead, it finds Grande in her sweet spot: A mid-tempo pop/R&B jam with an effortless cool, backed by the steady jingle of sleigh bells. Thematically, “Santa Tell Me” has more in common with Wham!’s lovelorn perennial, “Last Christmas;” its familiar yet playful lyrics offering up a plea to Kris Kringle himself, wishing for someone who’ll be more than a one-holiday fling. Released as a standalone single in 2014—sandwiched between Grande’s 2013 Christmas Kisses and 2015 Christmas & Chill EPs—the track has only become more ubiquitous with each passing year, asserting itself as a trendy but ageless tune that, thanks to Grande’s ascension to modern diva status, will be around for many holidays to come. [Cameron Scheetz]

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5 / 20

Advance Base, “Christmas In Dearborn”

Advance Base, “Christmas In Dearborn”

Between his work in Casiotone For The Painfully Alone and Advance Base, Chicago songwriter Owen Ashworth offers an abundance of yuletide fare. We even wrote about his holiday music way back in 2014, a year shy of the release of what might be his best (and saddest) Christmas song of them all. “Christmas In Dearborn,” a standout from 2015’s Nephew In The Wild, relies on little more than electric piano, autoharp, and lap steel in its complex and melancholic portrait of a woman’s trip home for the holidays. Childless and alone, with laundry in her lap, she listens politely to her cousins’ tales of “babies and partners” before spending the night poring over old yearbooks, counting “all of your teachers who were younger than you now.” What it amounts to is both cozy and sad—a reflection of how the homes we return to on holidays are both portals into our past lives and reminders of the dreams we once had for the future. [Randall Colburn]

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6 / 20

Taylor Swift, “Christmas Tree Farm”

Taylor Swift, “Christmas Tree Farm”

What with her love of cardigans and twinkle lights, it’s safe to assume that this is one of Taylor Swift’s favorite times of year. But even she is a bit fed up in the string-propelled beginning to 2019’s “Christmas Tree Farm” (a flourish that brings to mind similar intros from recordings by Nat King Cole or Karen Carpenter), despairing at the frantic static of the season, like holiday shopping and traffic. To get her back into the spirit, her mind’s eye wanders to the natural wonder of the title setting, which makes sense: What’s more festive than a Christmas tree farm, with no decorations or glitz, just snow and the overwhelming scent of pine? The song quickly shifts into Swift’s typical pop, steered by jingle-bell percussion, with an irrepressible hook as she sings, “Everything is icy and blue / And you would be there too” in an angelic vocal perfect for the season. Between the back-to-back releases of Lover and folklore, “Christmas Tree Farm” seemed to get lost in the prolific Taylor Swift shuffle, but it’s earned a spot in the contemporary Christmas canon. [Gwen Ihnat]

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7 / 20

Andrew Bird, “Christmas In April”

Andrew Bird, “Christmas In April”

In expanding his 2019 EP Hark! to a full-length, holiday-themed album, Andrew Bird ended up penning arguably the only pandemic-based Christmas tune that deserves to endure beyond this miserable year. “Oh, my love, when will you know? / If we can meet under the mistletoe” captures the frustration, loneliness, and longing of our forced isolation in 2020 better than most. But it also transcends any number on a calendar—the lament of someone who just wants the yuletide to be bright and joyful once more, with a loved one in their arms. With its gently loping 3/4 rhythm, Bird’s earnest croon, and its subtly underplayed strings, “Christmas In April” works in the beautiful-but-sad vein of “Christmastime Is Here” and “Fairytale Of New York.” And while the song’s hope that the “autumn winds will blow away all our fear” hasn’t exactly come to pass, the light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel is starting to appear; god knows, it’s easier to appreciate the sweetly tragic nature of a tale of woe when you know the sentiment isn’t here to stay. [Alex McLevy]

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8 / 20

Kelly Clarkson, “Underneath The Tree”

Kelly Clarkson, “Underneath The Tree”

When it comes to holiday-pop perfection, Kelly Clarkson’s jingle jangle gets close to besting “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” evoking the same Wall Of Sound vibe as Carey’s hit. From the opening bells to the saxophone solo bridge ahead of Clarkson’s high note, “Underneath the Tree”—written by the former American Idol and her “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” collaborator Greg Kurstin—screams “Christmas” from beginning to end, as she confesses her loved one’s presence is the only present she needs. It’s a testament to Clarkson’s vocal talent and ageneral cheery nature that most of the songs from her 2013 Christmas album, Wrapped In Red, (as well as her recent Brett Eldredge duet “Under the Mistletoe”) could make this list. [Patrick Gomez]

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9 / 20

Alex Brightman, Reneé Elise Goldsberry, and The Cast Of Co-op, “Holiday Party (I Did A Little Cocaine Tonight)”

Alex Brightman, Reneé Elise Goldsberry, and The Cast Of Co-op, “Holiday Party (I Did A Little Cocaine Tonight)”

Christmas came early and often for sketch comedy in 2019. But before I Think You Should Leave could hilariously drive that sentiment into the ground, Documentary Now! gave us “Original Cast Album: Co-Op.” In the episode’s most direct musical riff on its source material—the D.A. Pennebaker film that documents the cast recording for Stephen Sondheim’s Company—“Co-op” composer Eli Bolin and lyricists John Mulaney and Seth Meyers transpose the motormouthed patter of “(Not) Getting Married Today” to a dire Christmas gathering. Only it’s not cold feet that’s driving Joe (Alex Brightman) to “chirping” and “squawking” in mixed company—it’s the pile of snow he just stepped into. The comedy here is so delicately layered, but so is the song, which Brightman and Renée Elise Goldsberry sing the absolute crap out of between interludes of traditional carols. Such lyrical topics and spirited performances made “Co-op” feel like Christmas even if though it debuted in February; not to be outdone, Bolin and Mulaney (working with Marika Sawyer this time) presented 2019 with one final sketch-comedy new-Christmas-standard 10 months later: The Sack Lunch Bunch’s bouncy “I Saw A White Lady Standing On The Street Just Sobbing (And I Think About It Once A Week).” [Erik Adams]

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10 / 20

Big Freedia, “Make It Jingle”

Big Freedia, “Make It Jingle”

New Orleans fixture Big Freedia is a party on legs, so it’s only fitting that any Christmas tune that the rapper creates matches her energy. Her 2018 yuletide banger “Make It Jingle” doesn’t necessarily forgo the bells and warmth of a classic carol, but it does something that most hesitate to do: It celebrates the very relatable, unbridled joys of material pleasures. Sure, a lot of us may not quite identify with Freedia’s ability to buy “a new Porsche and a matching Benz,” but the reality is that for some of us, togetherness and relentless cheer aren’t exactly consistent elements of the holiday season. With the help of a little New Orleans bounce, Freedia advocates for a moment of total indulgence, whether that means getting ourselves the fancy jacket that we’ve wanted all year or simply shaking our ass and having a good time. It’s the ideal holiday jam for those of us who aren’t huge fans of Christmas songs, a necessary reminder to take just a moment to think about (and take care of) ourselves. [Shannon Miller]

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11 / 20

Magnetic Fields, “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree”

Magnetic Fields, “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree”

It’s hard to listen to The Magnetic Fields’ “Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree” and not imagine the bygone holiday special from which it was surely plucked. The good-humored cut—a standout from 2010’s Realism—would sound right at home in the mouths of round, stop-motion revelers, each hoisting steins as snow falls around their ears. “Stop mumbling and cheer up,” Stephin Merritt sings against buoyant strums and strings. “Put down the book, pick beer up!” It’s supremely silly (just wait for the all-German interlude) and the only excuse you’ll need to smother your worries in song, snow, and foam come Christmas Day. [Randall Colburn]

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12 / 20

Jonas Brothers, “Like It’s Christmas”

Jonas Brothers, “Like It’s Christmas”

You have to hand it to the Jonas Brothers: For all their teenybopper appeal, they are scarily talented at pulling infectious earworm hooks right out of thin air. Their 2019 release “Like It’s Christmas” is no exception. First aided with mostly handclaps and snaps, the song paints an ideal December setting (“The snow on the ground / The love in the air / The sleigh bells are ringing”) before revealing that the real secret to the season is the besotted love story behind it, able to paint that perfect picture any time of year. The song builds to include the brothers’ harmonies and a horn section, but the sweet smitten center runs through it all like a peppermint ribbon. It’s enough to make you want to throw a Christmas in July in December party, and proclaim your affection for Jonas Brothers as a grown-ass adult. The Jonases released a more poignant, 2020-appropriate Christmas ballad this year, “I Need You Christmas,” but we still haven’t worn out last year’s bop. [Gwen Ihnat]

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13 / 20

Marika Hackman, “Driving Under Stars”

Marika Hackman, “Driving Under Stars”

For an artist so committed to pushing the boundaries of her sound and exploring the dark and complicated aspects of the human psyche in her lyrics, there’s something wonderfully earnest about Marika Hackman’s “Driving Under Stars,” a song that pays tribute to the simple joy of driving back home for the holidays with your significant other in tow. Of course, it wouldn’t be Hackman without a small swipe at the festive seasonal accouterments—the towns she passes through on her way home are “all dressed up in stupid lights”—but the sweetly straightforward nature of the song’s sentiment makes it ideal for yuletide. With brightly strummed guitars and a genteel acoustic tenor, the music is the aural equivalent of a warm blanket and a crackling fire. By the end, she’s even thrown in a couple “fa la la”s for good measure, the better to emphasize the holiday cheer emanating from the narrator as she races through the ice and cold to get home in time for Christmas. [Alex McLevy]

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14 / 20

Sufjan Stevens, “Christmas Unicorn.”

Sufjan Stevens, “Christmas Unicorn.”

Sufjan Stevens has more Christmas songs than some artists have songs period, and while many are covers of seasonal chestnuts, he’s also knocked out plenty of originals good enough to merit inclusion on any indie kid’s yuletide sampler. (“Sister Winter” is as fine a Christmas Carol adaptation as any official one put on screen or stage.) Among the sonic stocking stuffers Stevens has offered this past decade, the highlight is “Christmas Unicorn.” The closing track of his five-disc Silver & Gold, this 12-plus-minute epic of ambivalence finds Sufjan paying playful tribute to those with the merry spirit, even as he notes the pagan roots of the holiday and pokes fun at its rampant commercialism. (“I’m hysterically American / I have a credit card on my wrist,” goes one line.) Eventually, the cheeky verbiage gives way to a marathon singalong and twinkly electronic grandeur, Stevens brokering a truce between his inner Grinch and Santa before slipping in an unexpected but not unwelcome Christmas-carol rendition of “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” It’s a song as excessive—and, to the right listener, as irresistible—as the annual parade of revelry and spending it honors. [A.A. Dowd]

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15 / 20

Dr. Dog, “Christmas Party”

Dr. Dog, “Christmas Party”

A jangling ode to holiday festivities past, present, and future, Dr. Dog’s “Christmas Party” extends a warm invite to merrymakers everywhere. The Philadelphia-based band has long taken inspiration from their pop-rock forebears of the early ’60s, and this opening track to their 2013 EP, Oh My Christmas Tree, fits snuggly within the catalogue, putting just the right amount of seasonal spin on their nostalgic, lo-fi sound. The song kicks things off with a raucous climbing harmony of “ho ho ho”s (a la “Twist And Shout”) before launching into a series of verses that name-check holiday symbols of all shapes and sizes, beckoning them to join in on the revelry. Among Dr. Dog’s spirited invitees are, “All ye sugarplum dancers / All ye eggnog enhancers / All ye tinsel-tossing, cookie-cutting, ribbon-tying types.” By the time “Christmas Party” lets its bluesy guitar rip for an extended solo—adorned by a toy train whistle and lively percussion fit for a Little Drummer Boy—you’ll be ready to leave your troubles out of sight and join in on the Christmas conga line. [Cameron Scheetz]

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16 / 20

Sia, “Candy Cane Lane”

Sia, “Candy Cane Lane”

It’s not surprising that Sia co-wrote this bouncy 2017 track with Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree” partner Greg Kurstin. Both tracks go heavy on the sleigh bells and bell chimes while evoking the feel of the Christmas classics of decades past. “Candy Cane Lane” is pure peppermint cotton candy in a pop song, the ’50s/’60s vibe complete with a simple premise (let’s get bundled up and walk down the street and look at Christmas decorations) and repetitive chorus (“Red and yellow and pink and green / Orange and purple and blue / Christmas is waiting for you / Christmas is waiting for you”). Sia gets extra points for evoking the era of TV dinners on plastic-covered couches with the stop-motion music video directed by her longtime collaborator Lior Molcho. Who doesn’t want to see a red-and-green wigged Sia visit the universe as the vintage Rankin-Bass specials? [Patrick Gomez]

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17 / 20

Parenthetical Girls, “Christmas Mourning”

Parenthetical Girls, “Christmas Mourning”

Good Christian Men Rejoice it’s Parenthetical Girls album cover
Good Christian Men Rejoice it’s Parenthetical Girls album cover

Parenthetical Girls, the now-defunct art-pop project of songwriter Zac Pennington, specialized in sumptuous, hypersexual melodrama, but dig into the band’s robust catalog of Christmas music and you’ll find something altogether more sentimental. “Hazy memories / lost in reveries / of half a life away,” Pennington sings on “Christmas Mourning,” a doe-eyed ballad about our worthy, if futile, efforts to recapture the magic of Christmases past. It’s a song that succeeds as much in concept as it does structure: Pennington’s tender vocals dreamily skate over icy plinks of piano and fluttering woodwinds that conjure up the holiday hits of yore, but his lyrics still acknowledge that “it’s not the same / winter’s masquerade.” Traditions persevere, but spirits change. It’s sad, but beautiful in its way. [Randall Colburn]

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18 / 20

Nikki Lane, “FaLaLaLaLove Ya”

Nikki Lane, “FaLaLaLaLove Ya”

“Deck The Halls” is all fine and dandy for glee clubs and carolers in fancy Victorian dress, but all those “Fa la la”s get mighty tiresome on record. Match those ancient vocables to pedal steel and cascades of complementarily spiced and sugared voices, however, and you’ve got the winning hook of Nikki Lane’s “FaLaLaLaLove Ya.” The First Lady Of Outlaw Country’s contribution to New West’s 2014 compilation An Americana Christmas offers a counterpoint to Brenda Lee marking the 25th as another lonely day—this is romance in first bloom, escalating amid the snowfall and heating up beneath the mistletoe. It’s all so swoon-worthy, it even makes the here-we-come-a-caroling spirit of its sing-along outro work. FaLaLaLaLovely. [Erik Adams]

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19 / 20

The Futureheads, “Christmas Was Better In The 80s”

The Futureheads, “Christmas Was Better In The 80s”

If you want your holiday playlist to go out on a celebratory note, it’d be hard to beat The Futureheads’ yuletide offering. In the grand tradition of “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” “Christmas Was Better In The 80s” pulls the old bait-and-switch, setting up a slow, ballad-like opening, only to pull the rug out from under the listener and launch into a rousing rocker. Unlike Mariah Carey’s shimmery-sweet number, however, The Futureheads deliver a stomping, distorted slice of garage-rock goodness that is so British that it may as well simultaneously down a spot of tea while muttering how it’s a bloody good holiday, innit. The group gets in all the essentials—some “hallelujah”s here, some pealing bells there—while still managing to sound like a bar band closing out last call with an anthemic retro barnburner, something both parents and kids can crank up while decorating the cookies. Who says Christmas can’t kick a little ass? People too boring to ever spike the eggnog, that’s who. [Alex McLevy]

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20 / 20