Almost as synonymous with Christmas as the nativity itself, carols have been part of the season of goodwill for centuries. In themselves, these time-honored songs epitomize the very essence of Christmas, so what better way to embrace the forthcoming festivities than with a specially-selected playlist featuring the best Christmas carols of all time?
Listen to the best Christmas carols on Spotify, and scroll down for our list of the best Christmas carols.
The Best Traditional Christmas Carols
Carols can be traced back to Latin hymns in fourth-century Rome, but as a widely accepted form of expression, carol-singing really took off after the Reformation in the 16th Century. The genre then enjoyed a much bigger spike in popularity after Christmas music books were first widely published three centuries later. Indeed, many of the best Christmas carols featured here – among them “The First Nowell,” “Away In A Manger,” and “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” – first appeared in print during the 19th Century.
Boston Pops Orchestra: Sleigh Ride
Leroy Anderson’s jaunty “Sleigh Ride” was composed in 1948 and Boston Pops Orchestra’s delightful instrumental version was recorded the following year for Decca. Mitchell Parish’s original 1950 lyric for the song didn’t specifically mention Christmas, but popular covers by Carpenters, Walter Schumann and Air Supply certainly do, so it’s now a long-established seasonal classic.
Andrea Bocelli And Matteo Bocelli: Fall On Me
Renowned Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli recorded the graceful ‘Fall On Me’ with his son Matteo, and it’s one of many highlights from his 2018 album, Si, which debuted at No.1 in the US and UK. In the UK, Si is the first chart-topping classical album since 1997’s Titanic: Music From The Motion Picture.
Choir Of King’s College, Cambridge: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Like many traditional hymns, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” has a complicated history. Charles Wesley’s original lyric was published in 1739’s Hymns & Sacred Poems, but the popular version we all know and love – which is performed here with passion by the splendid Choir Of King’s College Cambridge – was adapted by German composer Felix Mendelssohn in 1840.
Los Angeles Philharmonic: The Nutcracker Op.71 TH14, No.9: March Of The Snowflakes
Strangely unsuccessful when it premiered in St Petersburg in 1892, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is now one of the illustrious Russian composer’s most acclaimed works. Synonymous with Christmas, it reputedly accounts for around 40 percent of US ballet companies’ ticket revenues on an annual basis.
Choir Of King’s College, Cambridge: Away In A Manger
Youthful by Christmas carol standards, the stirring “Away In A Manger” was first published in the late 19th Century and is widely regarded as one of the most popular English hymns of all time. Northern Irish-born composer William J Kirkpatrick is normally credited as its composer, but the identity of the lyricist is still shrouded in mystery.
Vienna Boys’ Choir: The First Nowell
“The First Nowell” (better known as “The First Noel”) is a carol with Cornish origins. It was first published in 1823’s Carols Ancient And Modern, but the classic version performed with aplomb by Vienna Boys’ Choir is the renowned arrangement credited to English composer John Stainer, first published in 1871’s Carols Old And New.
Katherine Jenkins And Jon Cohen: Silent Night
Delivered here with a dignified elegance by Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins, “Silent Night” was composed by a young Austrian priest, Father Joseph Mohr, and schoolteacher/organist Franz Xaver Gruber, and first performed in their local church in Oberndorf, Austria, on Christmas Eve 1818. Bing Crosby’s timeless 1935 version later moved 30 million copies and remains the third biggest-selling single of all time.
Choir Of King’s College, Cambridge: O Little Town Of Bethlehem
Undoubtedly one of the world’s best Christmas carols, “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” features a lyric by 19th-century Episcopal priest Philip Brooks, who was inspired by a visit to the Holy Land. His Philadelphia church organist Lewis Redner wrote the music the hymn is set to in the US, but in the UK it’s set to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Forest Green.”
Bryn Terfel, Orchestra Of The Welsh National Opera: In The Bleak Midwinter
Based upon a poem by 19th-century English poet Christina Rossetti, “In The Bleak Midwinter” was first set to music in 1906 by The Planets composer Gustav Holst. This tale of Christ’s first and second coming is one of the world’s most stirring hymns and is delivered here with a suitable potency by Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.
Choir Of King’s College, Cambridge: Ding Dong Merrily On High
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, who were founded in the 15th century, is undoubtedly one of the world’s best known choral groups – and their festive concerts have become internationally famous. One of the carols on which they excel is “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” which originated as a French dance tune. The lyrics, which include the stirring Latin line “Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis,” were written by English composer George Ratcliffe Woodward. It’s a gorgeous traditional carol.
Gabrieli, Paul McCreesh: Messiah HWV 56/Pt.2: Hallelujah
Rather like The Nutcracker, Handel’s Messiah reputedly received a modest reception when it premiered in Dublin in 1742, and then again in London the following year. It soon gained in stature, however, and in the 21st Century, this legendary oratorio is one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in the Western world.
The Best Modern Christmas Carols
As you can see in the list above, some beloved Christmas carols have been around for centuries. Since the dawn of popular music, however, Christmas has also been a major subject of fascination for songwriters. As time goes on, it seems clear that we are building a repertoire of modern Christmas carols. Songs that will stand the test of time, songs that will continue to shape the holiday season for folks around the world. Below is just a few of those songs.
Bobby Helms: Jingle Bell Rock
“Jingle Bell Rock” was composed by two middle-aged men: a public relations professional called Joseph Carleton Beal and an advertising executive called James Ross Boothe. When country music singer Bobby Helms was first offered the chance to sing their festive song, he was initially dubious about the idea of mixing rock’n’roll and Christmas. But he was quickly won over, and his single, issued by Decca in October 1957, was soon regarded as one of the best modern Christmas carols ever, with Hank Garland’s electric guitar driving the rockabilly sound of the song. “’Jingle Bell Rock’ has made itself a part of Christmas,” Helms said. “It lifts people up.” And if you’ve ever wondered about the lines, “Giddy-up jingle horse, pick up your feet,” they refer to a decorated reindeer!
Wham!: Last Christmas
“Last Christmas” was recorded in August 1984, at London’s Advision studios, when 21-year-old George Michael, the driving force behind pop band Wham!, wrote, produced, performed and painstakingly played every single instrument on the track, even jangling the sleigh bells. The simple upbeat backing melody, with deft chord changes, was secondary to the heart-wrenching lyrics about lost love (sung by Michael and Andrew Ridgeley) and the combination proved to have an irresistible appeal. “Last Christmas” – which had an iconic video, filmed at a ski resort in Switzerland and featuring backing singers Pepsi and Shirlie – has been reissued 17 times and sold more than two million copies. This modern Christmas classic has been streamed more than 700 million times.
José Feliciano: Feliz Navidad
José Feliciano, who was born in Puerto Rico, was in New York in August 1970, making a festive album and feeling deeply homesick. His producer Rick Jarrard suggested that he pen “a new Christmas song for the album.” Feliciano began reminiscing about his childhood in Lares and moments later the heartfelt “Feliz Navidad” was born, using the traditional Spanish Christmas greeting “Feliz Navidad, próspero año y felicidad” (“Merry Christmas, a prosperous year and happiness”) as the basis for the song, partly performed in English. In one sentimental moment Feliciano, who was born blind as a result of congenital glaucoma, created one of the best modern Christmas carols in the world, one later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Ariana Grande & Liz Gillies: Santa Baby
Although “Santa Baby”, a tongue-in-cheek song about a woman who asks Santa Claus for lavish gifts such as a yacht and decorations from Tiffany’s, is most associated with Eartha Kitt, and her wonderful 1963 version with Henri René and his Orchestra, it was given a joyful modern makeover in 2013 by Ariana Grande and Liz Gillies, who’d become friends when working together on the television show Victorious. The cheeky song was written by Joan Javits and Philip Springer.
Judy Garland: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine penned the classic song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for Judy Garland’s 1944 movie, Meet Me in St. Louis. The song, which has subsequently been recorded by stars such as Bob Dylan and James Taylor, began life as Martin’s melodic attempt to emulate a classic carol. “It started as a little madrigal-like tune,” said Martin. At first, Garland, star of The Wizard of Oz, thought the lyrics were too sad, but the film’s producers insisted the audience would love it and told the songwriters to write sentimental words the young actress could sing “smiling through her tears.”
Mariah Carey: All I Want for Christmas Is You
Mariah Carey was already a superstar when she released her first holiday album, Merry Christmas, in 1994. The dazzling lead single, co-written by Carey and Brazilian-born songwriter Walter Afanasieff, was released a few weeks before Christmas Day. “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” a memorable slice of modern music that incorporates pop, R&B, gospel and “wall of sound” vocals, became an instant hit and a song which embedded itself in the collective unconscious in the subsequent years. It has been streamed close to a billion times, and Carey has released duet versions with Justin Bieber.
Amy Grant: It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year
In 1963 George Wyle, the vocal director of The Andy Williams Christmas Show, worked with Edward Pola on a special song for the star of the television show. Williams had a massive hit with what he called “a big standard and one of the top Christmas songs of all time.” In 1992, Amy Grant, then 32 and a singer who had started off in contemporary Christian music, cut a gorgeously lush version for her Christmas album. Grant’s version of “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year” features the strings of The London Studio Orchestra, conducted by Ronn Huff.
John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir: Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Former Beatle John Lennon sometimes said that he and Yoko Ono were inspired to write “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” because he was “sick of ‘White Christmas’.” The more pressing reason was that the pair wanted to write a protest song against the Vietnam War. Lennon and wife Ono composed it using an acoustic guitar while staying in a New York hotel room. The result, Lennon claimed, would get across a political message using “a little honey.” The ensuing single, recorded with the Harlem Community Choir, was released in the US in 1971 and in the UK the following year, where it reached No. 4 in the charts. This classic, subsequently recorded by Carly Simon, Mavis Staples, and Sheryl Crow, is a stirring reminder that the season of Christmas is supposed to be the season of peace.
Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song
In June 1946, silky singer Nat King Cole became the first recording artist to sing the great festive lyrics about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” in what many regard as the definitive version. “The Christmas Song,” often subtitled “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” was co-written by famous crooner Mel Tormé and Bob Wells on a scorching summer’s day. Tormé’s youngest son, James – a jazz singer – said his father and Wells took it first to a publishing house who turned down the song. “They then drove over to Nat King Cole, who was exploding in popularity at the time,” said Tormé, Jr. “They played it and he asked them to play it again. ‘Stop everything, that’s my song,’ he said.” Cole’s hit version isn’t just one of his best songs, it’s now part of the fabric of modern Christmas itself.
Brenda Lee: Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
Brenda Lee’s memorably catchy hit “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” written by Johnny Marks, has sold more than 25 million copies and been downloaded more than one million times since it was issued by Decca in 1958. Lee’s version features some sizzling saxophone playing by Boots Randolph and some scintillating drumming from veteran session man Buddy Harman, who played with everyone from Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. Lee’s vocals are what makes this song so special, however. It’s remarkable that these lasting vocals were recorded when she was just 13.
Burl Ives: Holly Jolly Christmas
“A Holly Jolly Christmas” was also written by the late Johnny Marks, a former Bronze Star-winning soldier who went on to become a songwriter. He was one of the best writers of modern Christmas carols. As well as “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” Marks wrote “Run, Rudolph, Run” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Burl Ives, an accomplished actor whose girth and beard made him look like Santa, actually recorded two versions of “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” It is the slower one, released in October 1965, that proved to be so successful. The single was produced by Milt Gabler and arranged by Owen Bradley, who also conducted the orchestra at Brooklyn Studios.
The Temptations: Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer
Christmas radio stations throughout the US in 1949 were constantly playing Gene Autry’s version of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which the man known as “the Singing Cowboy” took to No. 1 in the American charts. Although the song was massively profitable for Marks, he reportedly dismissed it as “one of the worst songs ever written.” Nevertheless, in 1970 the song proved successful again for Detroit vocal group The Temptations, when they recorded it for Berry Gordy’s Motown label as the opening track on their festive album The Temptations Christmas Card. After a jokey introduction by “your singing Santa Eddie Kendricks,” The Temptations transformed the traditional song into a rollicking Yuletide treat.
Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters: Jingle Bells
“Jingle Bells” was written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857 and started out as a song called “One Horse Open Sleigh,” a slightly racy romance song about an unchaperoned ride. The Christmas lyrics were added over the years and by the time Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters – backed by Vic Schoen and His Orchestra – had a hit with their war-time version for Decca, the merry refrain, “jingle bells, jingle all the way/Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh,” had become among the most well-known lyrics in popular music. “Jingle Bells” is now one of the best modern Christmas carols, recorded in all sorts of styles, by artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles.
The Pogues: Fairytale of New York
Professor Ian Russell, an expert on Christmas carols, believes that some traditional carols sprang out of drinking songs that were created as part of community entertainment. One of the most famously irreverent modern Christmas drinking songs is “Fairytale of New York,” written by Shane MacGowan (born on Christmas Day), lead singer of The Pogues, and banjo player Jem Finer (the song opens with the lines, “it was Christmas Eve babe/In the drunk tank.”) The song got its name from a 1973 novel called A Fairytale of New York by James Patrick Donleavy, about the Irish experience in America in the early 1950s. The politically incorrect lyrics of the 1987 hit are now sometimes censored by radio stations. There is no denying, though, that the powerful lyrics – allied to fine vocals from the sadly missed Kirsty MacColl – make it something special and enduring. “I could have been someone” wails MacGowan, before MacColl answers: “Well, so could anyone.” That’s enough to summon anyone’s Ghost of Christmas Past.
Bing Crosby: White Christmas
Bing Crosby’s original version of “White Christmas,” recorded in the early 1940s for Decca, is not the one we usually hear today. Crosby made an almost identical version in 1947 because the original master tape had worn out, as the single had been constantly re-pressed to meet with demand. The song, written by Irving Berlin, is one of the biggest-selling singles of all time. “White Christmas” received its first public broadcast on Christmas Eve 1941, during Bing Crosby’s radio show. This was just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which is possibly why it became such an important song to American servicemen overseas. It spoke to them – and those they left behind – of safer, saner times. Considering that Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” (which, incidentally, took only 18 minutes to record) is definitive, it is remarkable just how many people have tried their best to cover it. This modern Christmas carol has been done by Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, U2, and Diana Krall.
Nat King Cole: Frosty the Snowman
Some of the best Christmas songs capture the magical element of Christmas and none more so than “Frosty the Snowman,” a song written by Jack Rollins and Steve Nelson that recounts the fictional tale of Frosty, a snowman who is brought to life by an enchanted silk hat which a group of children find and place on his head. The song, first recorded by Gene Autry and the Cass County Boys in 1950, was a hit later that year for Nat King Cole and Capitol Records. Cole’s splendid version, which featured Pete Rugalo and His Orchestra and vocal backing from a group called The Singing Pussycats, captures the whimsical charm of the song.
Elvis Presley: Blue Christmas
“Blue Christmas,” a lovelorn holiday song written by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson, was first recorded by a forgotten Texas country singer called Doye O’Dell in 1948 – but became a globally famous song nine years later when Elvis Presley recorded it, backed by guitarist Scotty Moore and the singing quartet The Jordanaires. Their version is musically complicated: they sang many of the notes in tricky septimal minor thirds to achieve the “blue notes” they wanted to accompany the maudlin lyrics. Presley famously re-recorded “Blue Christmas” in 1968 during his “comeback” concerts, with Moore on guitar again.
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