Music plays an important role in any holiday get-together. The right song can put guests in an even more festive mood, make spirits bright, and conjure up warms memories of holidays past.
It is safe to say that none of the songs listed below are the right song.
No, the baker’s dozen of musical monstrosities below are quite easily the worst possible holiday tunes you could play at your next festive gathering. Hearing just one of these songs would be enough to turn even the stoutest men and women of good cheer into hard-hearted grinches. Listening to all 13 songs in succession? It’s beginning to look a lot like madness.
And every song listed below is available for download from Apple’s iTunes Stores. That means for less than $20, you could get started on building the world’s foremost collection of demented holiday music, the auditory equivalent of Aunt Gertie’s inedible fruitcake. I list them here as a warning to others—a sort of no-fly zone for holiday merriment which you should avoid the way Santa shuns naughty kids. Or, if you’re the kind of person who likes to pipe audio throughout the house for your seasonal gatherings, these songs will help clear out the room quickly, should your guests linger.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
If you watched John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John ride off into the sunset at the end of Grease and thought “I hope those two are headed to a recording studio to make an album of Christmas tunes together,” I have some delightful news for you. If you did not, then the news I have for you is quite chilling. Yes, the two have come out with a holiday record, and it takes just the first track to realize that this later collaboration is closer on the spectrum to the duo’s lackluster 1983 rom-com Two of a Kind than it is to Grease.
That first song is “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” a dubious choice to begin with, as the song is little more than a tribute to romantic assignations turned sinister. (“Say! What’s in this drink?” one of the lyrics demands. Everlasting regret, more than likely.) Newton-John and Travolta turn the song on its head, with her assuming the role of the remorseless sexual predator and him her quivering prey. Ratcheting up the ick factor by roughly a billion percentage points is the fact that Mr. Travolta speak-sings his part in a tremulous whisper, guaranteeing that this song will be on the playlist at every cartoon supervillain’s holiday get-together.
Perhaps no act in musical history embraced the concept of “dance with the one that brung you” quite like The Royal Guardsmen. The group enjoyed some success in 1966 with the novelty song “Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron,” in which Charlie Brown’s dog wages battle against Manfred von Richthofen. So when it came time to whip out a holiday tune, The Royal Guardsmen came up with “Snoopy’s Christmas,” in which Charlie Brown’s dog wages battle against Manfred von Richthofen and Christmas figures into the proceedings somehow. The Red Baron would return in The Royal Guardsmen’s 1967 follow-up “The Return of the Red Baron,” but be dropped from the band’s 2006 effort “Snoopy vs. Osama,” in which the beloved comic strip dog squares off against the decidedly-less beloved leader of Al-Qaeda.
A mitigating factor: “Snoopy’s Christmas” did inspire The Kustard Kings to mash that song up with the 1980s charity staple “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” giving the world the completely sensational Do They Know It’s (Snoopy’s) Christmas?” So at least there’s that. Oh, and speaking of that other song…
Do They Know It’s Christmas?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for charity. (The song originally came about as a way to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia.) I don’t mind that there have been at least two subsequent re-recordings of this song, since a new generation of British pop stars should get their own chance to trod where giants like Boy George and Duran Duran have stood before beginning their own slow fade into obscurity. I don’t suppose I can even blame Bob Geldof and company for the fact that this song is played on continuous loop in shopping malls and on all-holiday-music-all-the-time radio stations throughout the month of December.
It’s the lyrics, though. Oh man, the lyrics. The lyrics of Do They Know It’s Christmas?” are as deep as a rain puddle, as trenchant as a beauty pageant contestant’s answer on how to bring about world peace. To try and deconstruct lyrics such as “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas”—hardly surprising, since a not insignificant part of the continent is in the Southern Hemisphere where it is, in point of fact, summertime—is to come face to face with mind-bending insanity. Perhaps we should best move on.
Though I would suggest that Bono would be 72 percent less insufferable these days if someone back in 1984 hadn’t let him get away with his phrasing on “Tonight, thank God, it’s them instead of you.”
I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas
At some point during this holiday season—perhaps as you are reading this very article—someone will post a YouTube clip of the nauseating earworm “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas on your Facebook timeline. I don’t want to tell you how to live your life, but you should probably unfriend that person before they strike again.
O Holy Night
Recently, scientists concluded what most of us suspected for years: There are only 37 people in the United States capable of singing “O Holy Night,” a lovely-yet-challenging Christmas tune. As you might suspect, many of these 37 people have allowed this specialized skill set to give them a bit of a swelled head. As such, many recordings of “O Holy Night” are not really about capturing the quiet contemplation of the Nativity so much as they are about celebrating the singer’s ability to trill, scoop, and belt out the lyrics with the sort of bombast that a Broadway showman would find over-the-top.
Mariah Carey’s recording of “O Holy Night” is a particularly jarring example of this phenomenon. “Oh, peace on earth and goodwill toward man is all right, I suppose,” Ms. Carey seems to be saying as her voice slides into yet another higher register. “But I think we can agree that the true miracle is my five-octave range.”
Oh, are you not familiar with “Cat Carol?” Allow me to summarize the plotline of this song: Unfeeling pet owners leave a cat outside in the driving snow. The cat comes across a mouse, also freezing in the blizzard, and curls up to protect its new mouse friend from the elements. When Santa arrives, he discovers—as his reindeer sob—that the cat has died in the snow, but that the mouse lived. “I’m sorry mouse, but your friend has died/there’s nothing more we can do,” is an actual lyric sung by Santa, who then digs a grave for the cat in the sky, so that the mouse can look up and see his savior twinkling in the heavens.
Let us set aside the fact that all the great holiday tunes—“Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “The Carol of the Bells”—feature a stirring death sequence. I can say, as a cat owner of two decades, that the entire premise of this song is a laughable fraud. In reality, Santa would find the cat wearing the mouse’s skin as a hat after downing the rest of as sort of Christmas Eve amuse-bouche. In this version, the reindeer would probably still cry, though.
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
When I ask you what words you associate with the holiday season, you would probably not respond with “betrayal,” “loss of innocence,” and “cuckoldry.” But then again, you are likely a normal person. The same cannot be said for the folks who penned “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” In this jaunty tune, a precocious tyke sneaks downstairs on Christmas Eve only to find Mom in a compromising position with an understandably jolly St. Nick. One might think this would traumatize the little urchin; one would think wrong, given lyrics like “What a laugh it would have been/If Daddy had only seen/Mommy kissing Santa Claus last night.”
Look, father! Your entire marriage is a crumbling sham! Hilarious!
I would suggest there’s not a singer on earth with enough musical talent and charms to rescue this particular ditty from the dumpster. If you’re looking for particularly appalling covers of this tune, may I suggest The Jackson 5’s version in which Michael pleads in vain for his four brothers to believe his fantastical tale of yuletide infidelity. Also of note is Jessica Simpson’s version in which the erstwhile Mrs. Lachey confuses volume with quality.
I Wanna Be Santa Claus
Regardless of how you feel about The Beatles, even the group’s most ardent fan would have to concede that the Fab Four has a dodgy track record with Christmas tunes. “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is all right, so far as these things go, except for the fact that John Lennon’s recording is clearly the worst version. (This is what happens when you delegate the supply of backing vocals to Yoko Ono.) If “Wonderful Christmastime” isn’t one of the worst holiday songs ever written, it is most certainly one of the laziest, with music and lyrics that sound as if they were dashed off by someone on their way to the studio after they suddenly remembered they were supposed to be recording something that day.
But no, as with many of the items on the Worst side of The Beatles’s ledger, the honor here goes to Ringo, who gave the world the cloying, inconsequential “I Wanna Be Santa Claus.” If the job change means The Beatles have to line up a new drummer, I’m sure we’d be willing to make that trade.
It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year/Last Christmas
Phrasing is an oft-overlooked part of a song’s overall success. It doesn’t matter how strong the music and lyrics are—strike the wrong emotional note with your voice, and you may as well be blowing raspberries into the microphone. As evidence, I submit Martina Sorbara’s take on the otherwise innocuous “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of Year.” Oh, there may be parties for hosting and marshmallows for roasting, but it’s clear from Sorbara’s dreary phrasing that she’s struggling to find anything so wonderful about it. The heavy, weary sigh she utters halfway through the song also suggests this is a detached, ironic reading of the song that’s so popular with the hipsters these days. Yes, it is a shame that Congress passed that law a few years back requiring singers to record holiday songs against their will.
Ashley Tisdale—a person who I realized existed just moments ago—has the exact opposite problem with her cover version of “Last Christmas.” Fans of the unremarkable original from Wham will know that it is a song about holiday heartbreak—about a lovelorn sap who finds that his or her gift of affection has been thoughtlessly spurned. Someone failed to brief Ashley Tisdale, who cheerfully chirps out lyrics like “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart/But the very next day, you gave it away,” as if she’s happy that at least the heart is headed to a good home in some sort of romantic Yankee Swap.
The Angel at Top of My Tree
There is a class of holiday music so devoid of authenticity or human emotion that it sounds as if it’s been assembled by a focus group tasked with coming up with bland tunes aimed at appealing to the widest cross-section of the song-downloading public. Somewhere, in a windowless conference room at Amalgamated Chrismunnakah Industries, the Committee for the Promotion of Yuletide Jollification, Music Division is carefully ticking down a list of pre-approved holiday tropes for inclusion in a song that will offend (and inspire) precisely nobody. Presents? Check. Mistletoe? Check. Non-denominational accoutrements of holiday merriment? Check and mate, chairman.
We single out Kenny Chesney’s offering The Angel at The Top of My Tree not because this New Country iteration is any better or any worse than the Hip-Hop, Adult-Oriented Rock, or Dubstep versions of this song that doubtlessly exist, but because of Mr. Chesney’s unsavory name-checking of “White Christmas.”
We’ll make a little candy
Then a little later on
We’ll make a little love
To that old Bing Crosby song
You know, Ken, you keep Christmas in your way—and next time, maybe keep that to yourself.
I’ve been alive 40 years now. I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve talked to a lot of people. I’ve listened to what they have to tell me. And you know what I’ve never heard anyone say? “‘Santa Baby’ is an outstanding song, and I’m so glad whenever I hear it played.”
There is a reason for that: “Santa Baby” is dreadful, not just a bad holiday song, but a bad song period. The song glorifies materialism to the point where the lyricist could have saved everyone time just by writing the words “Gimme, gimme, gimme” over and over again. Adding insult to injury is that every singer who decides to take a crack at this song—a diverse roster of chanteuses ranging from American Idol rejects to muppets to Macy Gay—tries to channel their inner Betty Boop by baby-talking their way through this hateful anthem.
Picking the absolute worst version of “Santa Baby” would be like picking the absolute worst terminal illness. So I put the question out to Twitter, and the masses, speaking as one, came back with a single unified answer: Madonna. I mean, it’s the perfect response, really. If Madonna didn’t exist, we’d have to invent her just so that she could record the definitively terrible version of “Santa Baby.”
Might I have missed a wintertime tune you hold in particular contempt? It’s possible, but after 13 of these musical nightmares, I’m physically and emotionally spent. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to spend the time between now and New Year’s listening to Guster’s “Carol of the Meows” on continuous loop to purge out the last echoes of John Travolta’s speak-singing.