Christmas music is everywhere. Pity the poor retail worker whose annual overexposure to “Grandma Got Run Over By Reindeer” begins the day after Halloween.
It’s big business: Billboard estimates that sales and streaming of holiday music are worth $177 million a year in the U.S. The biggest earners are perennial chestnuts. Mariah Carey, Brenda Lee, and Burl Ives have all been in the Top 10 of the Hot 100 this month.
This annotated playlist surveys the best new holiday music. Older seasonal songs are included only if they were reissued in some form this year.
All are available on Spotify, and are on the playlist below, along with bonus cuts. A local note: Philadelphia band Dr. Dog has a four-song EP of off-kilter jingle bell tunes called Oh My Christmas Tree Volume 2. That’s available only on Bandcamp.
Mariah Carey, “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” Mariah Carey’s eternal hit has deservedly stood the test of time. The not-too-sugary confection updates the Phil Spector Wall of Sound holiday production style and overcomes yearning with determined cheerfulness. It’s on Carey’s new Merry Christmas Deluxe Edition, and topped the Billboard charts for the first time this month — 25 years after its release.
Jonas Brothers, “Like It’s Christmas.” Bubbly and bouncy, the reunited family band couldn’t let their comeback year go by without a holiday song. Every day is “Like It’s Christmas” when you’re selling out arenas all year long.
Taylor Swift, “Christmas Tree Farm.” Taylor Swift is entangled in a legal dispute over ownership of her master recordings. Here, she escapes to the innocent days of growing up on a Christmas tree farm in Reading, Pa.: “My winter nights are taken up by static, stress and holiday shopping traffic / But I close my eyes and I’m somewhere else, just like magic.”
Kacey Musgraves, “Glittery.” Kitsch-loving country-pop star Musgraves is a budding rival to Carey as Christmas queen. She released a full-length A Very Kacey Christmas in 2016. This is the one new song on her The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show on Amazon.
Molly Burch, “Hard Candy Christmas.” The Austin, Texas, indie torch singer has a fine, mellowed-out new collection called The Molly Burch Christmas album. This Dolly Parton-associated song was written by Carol Hall for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Phoebe Bridgers feat. Fiona Apple & Matt Berninger, “7 O’Clock News / Silent Night.” Bridgers’ annual Christmas song is a cover of the 1966 Simon & Garfunkel release that paired the 19th century Austrian carol with the voice of a newscaster. Bridgers harmonizes with Apple, and Berninger reads the bad news, reminding us the real world is out there waiting after the holiday break.
John Legend & Kelly Clarkson, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Frank Loesser’s would-be cute and coy romantic pas de deux is a social pariah in the #MeToo era, thanks to that “Say, what’s in this drink?” lyric. Dutifully woke U. of Penn grad Legend’s new lyrics, written with Natasha Rothwell, nimbly maintain the playful tone without spoiling the mood. From the deluxe version of 2018’s A Legendary Christmas.
Aretha Franklin, “O Tannenbaum.” The late Queen of Soul soars on her spectacular version of this ode to a fir tree, singing in English and German. From Wynton Marsalis’ top-notch Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s Big Band Holidays II.
The McCrary Sisters, “O Holy Night.” The Nashville gospel sibling quartet’s powerhouse take on Adolphe Adam’s 1847 adaptation of the French poem, “Minuit, Chrétiens.” From the excellent A Very McCrary Christmas.
Bing Crosby & David Bowie, “Peace on Earth / Little Drummer Boy.” Bing at Christmas pairs the “White Christmas” crooner with newly recorded tracks by the London Symphony Orchestra. Sounds cheesy, but it’s done tastefully. This wonderful weirdness is from a 1977 Crosby TV special.
The Flaming Lips, “Sing It Now, Sing it Somehow.” Rejoice! There’s a 2019 album of high-quality new Hanukkah songs. The Wayne Coyne-led Oklahoma psychedelic rockers are Hanukkah+ highlights, but there are also Yo La Tengo and Loudon Wainwright tunes and a Haim cover of Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will.”
Los Lobos, “Donda Esta Santa Claus?” Cesar Rosas sings this cover of the 1958 hit by 12-year-old Augie Rios, on the Chicano rockers’ mostly Spanish language Llego Navidad!
Jeff Goldblum & the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, “Winter Wonderland.” The piano-playing actor’s jazz band is a serious enterprise. He has a blast with the seasonal standard, whose lyrics were written by Richard Bernhard Smith while being treated for tuberculosis in a Scranton sanitarium in 1934.
Idina Menzel and Ariana Grande, “A Hand For Mrs. Claus.” Feminist swing, with a special guest, from Broadway star Menzel, written by Frozen songwriters Bobby and Kristen Lopez. From Menzel’s Christmas: A Season of Love.
Dram, “Litmas.” The rapper-singer born Shelley Marshaun Massenburg Smith turns in a charming Christmas jam, breaking it down to essentials: “When your tree gets lit up, I get happy.”
William Tyler, “Jesus Christ.” Nashville guitarist’s lovely instrumental cover of beloved power pop band Big Star is on You Wish, a Merge Records Christmas compilation with contributions from Tracyanne & Danny, Hiss Golden Messenger, and more.
Letters To Cleo, “Father Christmas.” 1990s Boston band still rocking out does a bang-up job on the Kinks’ humbuggy classic, from their new OK Christmas EP.
Rob Halford, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.” If the carolers in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol sounded half as fierce as Halford, Ebenezer Scrooge would have been the frightened one. From the ex-Judas Priest singer’s Celestial.
The Regrettes feat. Dylan Minnette, “Holiday-ish.” A pop-punk Christmas from teenage rock star Lydia Night of the Regrettes, employing boyfriend and 13 Reasons Why actor Minnette for counterpoint.
Tara Thompson, “Christmas Eve.” It’s a trailer park Christmas in one of many clever cuts on Kentucky singer Thompson’s Hillbilly Christmas. If her honey ever makes it home, she’s got a six-pack of Coors Light waiting.
JD McPherson, “Holly Carol, Candy and Joy.” Rockabilly throwback JD McPherson put out a terrific full-length Christmas album called Socks last year. This is one of two new songs that maintain the high standard.
Keith Urban, “I’ll Be Your Santa.” “The weather man says it’s not gonna snow this year,” country star Keith Urban complains on his suave, well-crafted, first-ever Christmas song. Of course it’s not, Keith: You’re from Australia!
Keb’ Mo, “Santa Claus Blues.” The bluesman born Kevin Moore hopes that St. Nick will be as nice to his baby as she has been to him. From his easygoing collection Moonlight, Mistletoe & You.
Puss N Boots, “Christmas All Over Again.” A sweet and soulful promise to take care of oneself from the trio of Norah Jones, Sasha Dobson, and Catherine Popper. From the five-song EP Dear Santa..., which also aims to start a dance craze called “Christmas Butt.”
Amos Lee, “Holiday Song.” Philadelphia singer-songwriter delivers a beautifully understated plea for peace and understanding, vowing to “do what little I can do.” From A Dualtone Christmas, with choice cuts from label mates Kathleen Edwards and Mt. Joy.
Jimi Hendrix, “Auld Lang Syne.” Ringing out the decade with the guitar great at midnight on Dec. 31, 1969. From the new Hendrix box set, Songs For Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts.