‘Tis nearly the season to be jolly – and it wouldn’t be Christmas without a few festive hits playing.
From traditional carols, old world classics and pop smashes, we've rounded up our favourite tracks below: the songs which we believe every playlist should include. So sit back, pour that mulled wine and enjoy.
Wham! - Last Christmas
This undisputed festive banger manages to be simultaneously bombastic and bittersweet. George Michael sounds sincere enough pining for a lost love – although, frankly, it's all rather confusing. Who wouldn't recognise their ex after just 12 months? Just how intense can a one-day affair be, anyway? And is Michael upset, bitter or gloating ("Now I've found a real love, you'll never fool me again") – or all that and more? These are all questions that might pop up if you're listening closely to the 25 minute remix, or watching the suitably confusing video, but for the rest of us, it's simply a joyous slice of Eighties pop goodness: slapping drums, icicle synths and sleigh bells galore. Plus, it did a bit of Christmas good: Wham! donated the song's royalties to aid efforts helping relieve the Ethiopian famine.
The Pogues - Fairytale of New York
The great Kirsty MacColl lends her beautiful vocals to this 1988 classic. Her lilting voice is a sweet counterpoint to Shane MacGowan’s gruff barks, and it's fun to hear the pair playfully insult each other – through all the jibes in the song, there’s clearly real affection between them.
The verses might be near incomprehensible at times, and the song might have spawned some of the worst cover versions you’re ever likely to hear (Ed Sheeran, we’re looking at you), but Fairytale of New York stands as one of the greatest Christmas songs ever. Merry Christmas to all the scumbags and maggots.
Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song
From that first sliding chord, sounding like a sled setting off down the hill, Nat King Cole’s Christmas Song is a postcard-perfect Christmas set to music. Well, almost: the song’s writers, Bob Wells and Mel Tormé, wrote the song during the blazing hot summer of 1945, in an optimistic effort to keep cool by thinking of everything wintery. It worked. Cole has a voice as warm and woozy as mulled wine, while the strings flutter between the lyrics like snowfall. There are none more Christmassy.
Mariah Carey - All I Want for Christmas Is You
It’s hard to deny that the opening bars of Mariah Carey’s jingle-bell laden banger are some of the most evocative in the world. They are now synonymous with Christmas, and two of its defining emotions: indignity and disappointment. Firstly, it’s always played at the end of the night, basically the DJ’s very own safe word to indicate he wants to go home because everyone around him is crying, snogging or shouting the words with an anti-social amount of conviction. Secondly, Mariah’s cost-cutting request sounds nice but is a recipe for disaster when it comes to present buying for your loved one. “But you said all you wanted for Christmas was me,” is just not going to cut it when Christmas morning comes and the tree is barren as the North Pole.
Shakin’ Stevens - Merry Christmas Everyone
To borrow a phrase from Mr Shakin’ himself, this sprightly ode to Yuletide really is ‘lovely stuff’. Despite being written in the mid-Eighties, it’s a cheerful vision of the festive season, bordering on the utopian. Everything’s going right – snow is falling, children are playing, people are dancing, and there’s love and understanding between everyone. This might all seem at odds with thoughts of Christmas lunch with your racist nan, but for 4 minutes and 35 incessant seconds, Shakin’ lets us dream of a different world.
Jose Feliciano - Feliz Navidad
It’s barely more than 20 words and basically just two different choruses on repeat for three minutes, but Feliz Navidad is an absolute delight. Released by Jose Feliciano in 1970, it’s been a perennial hit in the US and Canada ever since release, and still charts in the Billboard Hot 100 even now. In the UK, it’s less known, and criminally so — it’s an absolute belter. Winningly simple and with all the warmth and good cheer that a Christmas song needs, it’s perfect for an eggnog-fuelled singalong (half of it is in Spanish, but you’ll work it out soon enough). Prospero año y felicidad, one and all.
Darlene Love - Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)
Christmas heartache finds its match here in a Sixties pop starlet with powerhouse pipes: no one belts out yuletide melancholy like Darlene Love. Her cries for her lost/distanced/unrequited love on Christmas Day grow more heart-wrenching at every refrain and make for – I can confirm – an excellent karaoke choice after a few drinks at the Christmas party. The associations with Phil Spector are less than festive (Christmas isn’t cancelled, but he well and truly is), yet it’s hard to deny that the producer’s A Christmas Gift For You album – a surprisingly superb showcase for his ‘Wall of Sound’ – is a fairly groundbreaking piece of work.
Ariana Grande - Santa Tell Me
Cast your mind to 2014, before Ariana Grande became the pop phenomenon we know today. For many, she was just another kids' TV star trying to make a go of it in the music industry, and it would have been easy to dismiss Santa Tell Me as a cynical Christmas cash-in. As it turned out, it became one of the most irresistible festive pop songs of the 2010s, and showed Grande as a class act. It featured playful vocals and the sort of romance that elevates good Christmas songs to great ones.
Chris Rea - Driving Home for Christmas
Evocative, charming and full of love, Driving Home For Christmas manages to articulate an experience familiar to millions of us, turning the most mundane activity into something truly heart-warming. Never has motorway gridlock sounded quite so moving, as Rea’s gravelly baritone narrates a lonely driver’s journey, “top to toe in tailbacks” with “red lights all around” and only thoughts of his loved ones for company. Some tasteful guitar work, lush strings and the obligatory sleigh bells add to the swells of seasonal sentimentality, helping elevate this Christmas cracker to classic status. Not a hit on first release – it didn't even make the top 40 back in 1988 – it's since become a well-loved favourite, and rightly so.
Bert Jansch - In the Bleak Midwinter
It’s the best carol by a snow-covered country mile, and Bert Jansch’s gorgeous version, with its fluttering acoustic guitar and heavenly choir, is a great addition to the playlist. Originally a poem by Christina Rossetti, the words contemplate gift giving with little means. Ultimately then, this is a song that teaches a valuable lesson about self-worth: wherever you are in your life, and whatever your situation, never feel like you’ve nothing to offer people – because, even though it’s a little mawkish, you can always give your heart. Don't take it back, though, or you'll end up in Last Christmas territory…
Slade - Merry Christmas Everybody
Forget emotive choirs and orderly hymns for a moment: for most of us, the Christmas season is a whirlwind of mulled wine-fuelled mania. Few things could sum this up better than Noddy Holder’s near-hysterical, screeching shouts on this high-octane Christmas track. Add in some playful references to Santa being a bit of a boozer – "Do the fairies keep him sober for a day?" – and some accurate observations about your granny ("Does your granny always tell you that the old songs are the best?/Then she's up and rock 'n' rolling with the rest"), and you have a song that everyone can relate to almost as easily as they can sing along to it. It’s as gregarious as Christmas should be.