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Rocking Around the Christmas Tree
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Rocking Around the Christmas Tree

The Dispatch staff (and friends) share their favorite underrated Christmas songs and why they deserve your attention.

With Thanksgiving now behind us, it’s now open season for Christmas music. (Kudos to those of you who waited; for those who couldn’t and have been jamming out to Christmas songs for the last month: No judgement, we understand.) As such, the Dispatch staff has been discussing some of our favorite underrated Christmas songs; the sort of music you may not think of right away to include in your Christmas party playlist but that deserves a spot and songs that you might be familiar with but deserve more love. Here are some of the ones we came up with:

Here’s a free tip for you: If you’re at a party that is kind of lame, take over the aux cord and turn on some late 90s/early 2000s music and people will immediately jump to the dance floor. The party will liven up and the people will thank you on your way out the door. 

You may be thinking this rule doesn’t apply to holiday parties, but that’s where you’d be wrong. My pick for most underappreciated Christmas song is “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” by *NSYNC. Whenever this song comes on, everyone in the room just instinctually starts to dance a little bit and lets out an audible “I forgot about this song! It’s so great!” 

Plus, the title itself covers all of the bases as far as making sure everyone can celebrate, regardless of what holiday they celebrate. So, if you find yourself at an ugly Christmas sweater party with not great vibes, throw on this jam and let the good times roll. You can thank me later. — Ryan Brown

Let’s start with a caveat: The best Christmas songs are hymns. “Hark the Herald Angel Sings?” Fantastic. “Silent Night?” Deeply moving. While not technically hymns, I group the music of Handel’s Messiah in this category as well, and for the month of December, Handel’s Christmas oratorio serves as, I kid you not, my workout playlist. “For Unto Us a Child is Born” just really fills you with energy. This is the best sort of Christmas music for one very simple reason: They’re about Christ, the reason, as they say, for the season. But, as they’re already assured their place in the Christmas canon, and this is an underrated Christmas song symposium, I’m here today to talk about a very different kind of song, the greatest secular pop Christmas song ever written. I am referring, of course, to “Last Christmas” by Wham!

There is, perhaps, no holiday more conducive to reflection than Christmas. It marks the end of another year and it evokes memories not just of the past year but of every past year. Childhood Christmases, time spent with friends and family, moments both positive and negative that we can recall, but no longer experience. It’s this bittersweetness that “Last Christmas” captures so well; it’s a synthpop “Auld Lang Syne,” with a true sense of nostalgia where fondness for the past mixes with a sad recognition that we can never relive those days. 

Who hasn’t had a friend they’ve lost touch with, an ex, a beloved family member who passed away; someone you cared deeply for and isn’t part of your life any longer but you still wish was? Who doesn’t find themselves pining for a happier time? At its heart, this is what “Last Christmas” explores as George Michael waxes poetic to the smooth 1980s synth beat with a jingle bell seasonal twist. 

But “Last Christmas” isn’t just about nostalgia for the past: The lyrics also express a desire to move forward, with Michael resolving to give his heart to someone new. The past can always be revisited, but one can never let it define one’s future; a message that we should all recall as the Christmas season turns our thoughts to the closing of another chapter in our lives. — Alec Dent

Is it me, or are a lot of Christmas songs about failed relationships? Too many, perhaps. Elvis Presley is in a major funk over the one who got away in “Blue Christmas.” In “Christmas on TV,” Chris Isaak wonders how his ex and her new love are doing “in our old house, with his new car.” Wham’s “Last Christmas” is a fairly upbeat lament from a jilted lover, but still a lament. Not exactly the most wonderful time of the year. Which is why “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses is such a welcome holiday tune. It’s got all the quirkiness and bounciness you’d expect from an early ‘80s New Wave band, mixing drums and brass instruments with synth pop and a killer bass line. Not to mention a happy ending.

The lyrics tell the story of a young woman who just wants to take a break from the holidays after a busy year—so busy that she could never quite connect with that cute guy she’d met at a ski shop early in the year. Luckily, she realizes that just as the “world’s smallest turkey” is ready to come out of the oven, she forgot an item that takes her out to “the only all-night grocery,” where (spoiler alert) fate—and the cute guy—await. Christmas is a holiday that unquestionably brings out a wide range of emotions. Reflection and melancholy are understandable. But when you’re trying to slog through a pile of gifts that needs wrapped or trying to find a parking spot at the mall or stressing about whether the cards will get into the mail on time, it’s nice to have something a little more upbeat and full of hope. “Doing Christmas right this time” indeed. — Rachael Larimore

Readers might recognize this as the song Kevin McAllister is listening to when the plane takes off for New York in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. But it’s so much more. 

Scrooge-ish cultural commentators often criticize Christmas music as cloying, repetitive, or cheesy. While I personally do not hate John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over),”or his fellow former Beatles member Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” I can understand how someone would come to that conclusion. They rely heavily on sentimentality and musical gimmicks like children’s choirs to tug at the heartstrings. 

“Christmas All Over Again” does what those two ex-Beatles’ songs don’t: It rocks. It sounds decidedly like a Tom Petty song, that happens to be about the Christmas season, rather than a gimmick put together by an Expendables-style lineup of early 80s pop stars. From the opening snare drum roll, the instrumentation is clean and simple power pop, as one should expect from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. 

Similarly, the lyrics mostly steer clear of sentimentality. Instead, they carry a mildly cynical message—musing on the mixed emotions related to seeing relatives with which one might have less-than-stellar relations, and a tongue-in-cheek line about “Mom get[ting] her shopping done.” Nonetheless, the driving rhythm of the song prevents these little digs from leaving a sour taste in the air, and keeps the mood of the song upbeat. 

The tune uses schmaltz responsibly, holding off until the coda as Petty describes his Christmas wish list. This part of the song holds a special place in my heart, as when I was in eighth grade, I also asked my parents for a new guitar and a Chuck Berry songbook. There’s a time and place for schmaltz—indeed, Christmas might be the time—but if you’re looking for something to turn the dial down from a 10 to a 6, “Christmas All Over Again” is the ticket. — Alex Muresianu

Coldplay—the greatest band of the 21st century—may not have a Christmas album, but they do have one Christmas song. And like everything else Coldplay has put out, it’s just delightful.

“Christmas Lights”—released in December 2010—opens with five uncertain keystrokes on a muted piano, performed almost as if Chris Martin is asking the listener permission to begin playing. But the prelude soon gives way to a more confident melody—one far more soothing than the lyrics layered on top of it.

“Christmas night, another fight / Tears we cried, a flood.

Got all kinds of poison in / Of poison in my blood.

I took my feet / To Oxford Street / Trying to right a wrong.

Just walk away / Those windows say / But I can’t believe she’s gone.”

This isn’t “Jingle Bell Rock” or “Let It Snow,” songs that exist in a world where any non-joyous emotion is snuffed out by the calendar turning to December. No, Coldplay meets listeners where they are, understanding that the holidays alone can’t wipe away one’s troubles. Often, the heightened expectations of wintry bliss serve only to exacerbate them.

“When you’re still waiting for the snow to fall / Doesn’t really feel like Christmas at all.”

But music, like life, is about contrasts. Just as a strawberry tastes sweeter when it’s chasing something bitter, a glimmer of hope resonates more with the man who has despaired.

And as “Christmas Lights” slows to a halt before swapping out its 4/4 time signature for a more upbeat 6/8, listeners realize the song’s protagonist didn’t just find one glimmer of hope on the city streets that cold, December night. He found thousands of them.

“Oh, Christmas lights / Light up the street.

Light up the fireworks in me.

May all your troubles / Soon be gone.

Those Christmas lights / Keep shining on.”

— Declan Garvey

My favorite Christmas music is an EP by the Oh Hellos. It has four songs, three of which meld several Christmas hymns together. I got to see them perform it in concert a few years ago, and it was a pure delight. The first song, “Rejoice! Rejoice!,” features a stormy rendition of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and leads into a portion of the “Coventry Carol,” which is about King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents. It transitions from something ominous into a hopeful instrumental portion of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” What sets this EP apart is how effectively it builds anticipation and conveys the stakes of the Christmas story.

The second track, “Begin and Never Cease,” is the best, in my opinion: It’s so joyful and masterfully organized. It combines portions of “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “The First Noel,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” You can watch a performance of it here.

The third track is a sweet version of “Silent Night,” and the final track features “Joy to the World” and “I Saw Three Ships,” with a final return to “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” 

It’s easy to get caught up in the music, especially if you’re a fan of string instruments. The EP does justice to classic hymns and creates something new and beautiful in the process. (As a bonus, I recommend Josh Garrels’ Christmas Album, The Light Came Down. It’s just gorgeous and so tender. The full audio is available on his Youtube page here, as well as all the major music services.) — Haley Byrd Wilt

Alec Dent is a former culture editor and staff writer for The Dispatch.

Rachael Larimore is managing editor of The Dispatch and is based in the Cincinnati area. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she served in similar roles at Slate, The Weekly Standard, and The Bulwark. She and her husband have three sons.

Ryan Brown is a community manager for The Dispatch. He previously served as a researcher and production assistant for Meet the Press.

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.