The Definitive 10 Worst Christmas Songs... Period
Everyone has one, right? Their personal not-so-secret list of the Ten Worst Christmas Songs, with footnotes for why each is the worst. It's hard not to understand: we're forcibly subjected to these earworms in every public place for as much as five or six weeks every year.
As a matter of good mental and emotional hygiene, I try not to overindulge in making listicles of the "Worst blank of blank" genre. I feel, however, that I occupy a relatively unique position. As a trained musician who has never worked in retail during the holidays, I don't have a rabid hatred of certain songs that was cultivated – not because of particular lack of said song's musical merit – but simply because I was forced to listen to them ad-nauseam while ungrateful and/or irate customers screamed at me. To me, that seems like less like the mark of a bad song, and more like a PTSD trigger. Heard enough times, and associated with stressful conditions, any song can become reviled to the listener.
I also have a guilty pleasure for several Christmas carols, many of which are loathed by others. I was in numerous carol-singing youth choirs as a boy, I enjoy crooning along to the likes of Bing Crosby, and when certain I'm alone, I'll even shake my tush to Mariah Carrey's All I Want for Christmas is You whilst I work in the kitchen.
There's also the participatory element of Christmas carols. The Twelve Days of Christmas isn't as fun to listen to it is to sing, and one could say the same of songs like Jingle Bells or Frosty the Snowman. These songs are less meant to be listened to as they are to be sung.
With that (low?) bar firmly set, when I say that I HATE a certain Christmas song, you can bet that it's because said song is, objectively, a terrible song. Your mileage may vary, but this is my list – and in my list, these songs are the WORST.
Two ground rules. First, I'm not going to focus on individual recordings of a song. I'm trained as a composer, and it's my firm belief that while you can have better or worse performances of any given song, a truly bad piece of music will always be fundamentally bad. Second, while there are plenty of awful holiday songs in this world to choose from, I don't see the point of picking anything I've never heard played on the radio, or in a public space such as a store or party.
So, without further ado, and brooking no further argument or debate, here are – in order – the 10 worst Christmas songs:
10 - The Christmas Shoes
This song almost didn't make the list, for the simple reason that its not nearly as popular here in Canada as it is South of the border. Nevertheless, I have heard its generic Christian rock tones played over a mall's soundsystem – thus, it has qualified. Appropriate that it was heard in a mall, since this song seems to be less about the spirit of giving and more about how consumerism is the ultimate expression of love. In fact, six years ago, Jezebel crowned it their number-one worst Christmas song out of battle-royale bracketing of thirty-two. If you're American, and you have to listen to this steaming garbage song on a regular basis, I say: "The worst? Fair enough." (also, my condolences).
9 – I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
I don't especially mind the tune of this one, which is why it hasn't earned a lower rank. Nonetheless, like many tunes on this list, this song is a conceptual nightmare. The lyrics are either heard from one of two awful perspectives. The first, that mommy seems to be committing some kind of soft adultery with Santa Claus, and all the upsetting and disturbing overtones that go with that. Or the second, that Santa is just your dad in a costume: "Surprise kiddo! Santa's not real!"
There's also the fact that there exists no good recording of this song. My parents owned an LP with a truly bizarre (and weirdly serious) adult men's chorus performance of the song. The many, many screechy child-vocalist recordings are the other side of the coin. The Jackson Five recording of the song, which I have heard mercifully few times, is shriekingly dreadful: "I did! I really did!" Yes, Mikey, we heard you the first time.
Bonus Immature Jibe from 8-year-old Jesse: "They didn't see me sneak... down the hall to take a leak..."
8 – We Three Kings
I take it relatively easy on the "classic" carols, but this one is such a snoozefest, one of the ones I remember loathing to sing as a child. This song is less listened to than it is endured, for – like its subject matter – it requires endurance. If there's one thing you can say about the artistic merit of We Three Kings, it’s that the song seems to accurately capture the utter boredom of slowly plodding through a desert at night.
Every single stress is on the downbeat of its never-changing rhythm: "WEEE three KIIIINGS of OOORRRient AAAARE..." combined with the song's droning harmonies, it is not hard to picture the thudding footsteps of one's camel, but frankly, imagining that does not feel festive (the California Raisins made a valiant, though futile, attempt). There's also the confusing fact that, someone considered the nativity story, looked at the three kings and said to himself, "Man, these guys need their own carol!" Well, John Henry Hopkins Jr., you were wrong. WRONG.
7 – The Little Drummer Boy
In 1941, a teacher-composer named Katherine Kennicott Davis, wishing to follow in John Henry Hopkins Jr's boring footsteps, decided that there weren't enough boring characters in the nativity story to write more boring carols about. So, she simply made one up, and wrote a boring song about him. Besides the dull subject matter, my hatred of this song also stems from its slogging pace and that obnoxious onomatopoeia.
I also have a fair bit of trouble imagining some kid with a drum being able to play something soothing for a baby. More than likely, this kid came running in off the street, banging his cheap drum as hard as he could. The wee baby Jesus started bawling, and Mary was like, "WTF? We just got this kid down, and you woke him! GET OUT!" before one of the kings picked up the puerile percussionist and pitched him out the barn door, to the approving applause of the abiding assemblage.
Bonus Immature Jibe from 8-year-old Jesse: "Pa-rum-pa-pum, this song is dumb."
6 – Silver Bells
If you had asked me why I disliked this song as a child, I would have answered the same as the previous two: it's dull. As an adult, while I've come to appreciate the tune a bit more, my hatred of the song has blossomed due to the subject matter. The song romanticizes the crowded hustle of urban shopping close to Christmas, but as anyone who has ever endured such an experience can tell you: it is utter HELL.
Oh sure, there's the handful of you who feed off the energy of last-minute Christmas shopping, and I entrench my rhetorical position that there is something deeply wrong with you. For the rest of us normal human beings though, the crowds, darkness, cold, and stress of enduring late-December shopping is not an experience to memorialize in song, but rather one to discuss at your next therapy appointment.
Why aren't there any Christmas songs about deconstructing consumerism? Seems to me the true, "giving" spirit of Christmas is pretty socialist.
5 – Do You Hear What I Hear?
There's nothing like a little phrase-repetition to quickly lodge a lackluster song straight into your brain where it will play continuously until it drives you insane. This song has ample repetition, and little else to it.
Bonus Immature Jibe from 8-year-old Jesse: "Do you smell what I smell? That song, that song, stinking up the night..."
4 – Baby It’s Cold Outside
No. No. NO: this is NOT a good song. As with number nine before, and the next two after, there's a formula that will guarantee that a Christmas song falls flat on its face right out of the gate: trying to combine Christmas and sex appeal. More on that soon...
I have read your heartfelt plea that, in its historical context, this song was actually the empowering story of a woman trying to exercise her sexual freedom by allowing a man convince her to stay the night (their excuse being the "bad" weather). But if we gave a pass to things based on "historical context", there would be a lot less that we labelled "sexist", "racist", or "homophobic".
Consider this: Baby It's Cold Outside depicts a disconnect between what a woman is saying (ostensibly, "No") and how the man should respond to what she's saying (by pursuing more insistently). This is literally "playing hard to get": the idea that with enough charm, effort, and/or convincing, the man can (and perhaps even should) change the woman's mind – change her "no" to a "yes". Context or not, that's a big root of rape culture. I get it: this song may have been subversive and empowering in its day, but it's still being recorded today, and it's heard by audiences in today's contexts. Like many pieces of culture before it, the subversive has not aged well, and it's long overdue for retirement.
3 – Santa Baby
WTF is this hot bullshit? As I stated in the previous entry: Christmas + Sex = NONONOGROSS. There's no song that exemplifies this repellent formula better than Santa Baby. Add in a heaping dose of sexy-infantilism, and what seems to be a sugar-daddy relationship with jolly old Saint Nick, and you have a song that induces vomiting better than syrup of ipecac.
If there is one good thing about Santa Baby, it's that it was undoubtedly the inspiration for (Dan Harmon's former sitcom) Community to produce an amazing parody. Teach Me How To Understand Christmas – from the Glee-parodying season three Christmas special – hits all the notes about why sexy Christmas songs, and Santa Baby in particular, are dumb and gross. Plus, it has the added boon of being sung by the incredibly funny and actually-sexy Allison Brie (bonus points for Joel McHale's deeply-disturbed and confused reactions). So, I suppose grudging thanks to Joan Javits are in order.
2 – Last Christmas
Oh Wham!, how could you? There's nothing that turns a decent artist into a hack quicker than a half-baked Christmas song, and Last Christmas fits the bill perfectly. Stir "Sexy Christmas!" into the mix, add plenty of DULL, then bake for at least twice as long as it should be, and WHAM! – you've got yourself a real stinker.
As others have pointed out, Last Christmas details the dreadful story of the speaker, who after being burned by a callous fling, plans to make things better THIS Christmas by having a fling with someone else – either to soothe their ego, make their ex-lover jealous, or perhaps both. Wow George, I hope you plan on acknowledging your new fling the very next day. Otherwise, way to perpetuate a toxic cycle of hurt and misery.
1 – Wonderful Christmastime
In researching this article, I was pleased to find this song in the top spot of many "Worst" lists, because it so sorely deserves to be there. My hate for it is strong, and to explain, we need to go into a flashback...
Imagine: It's 1979, the heyday of the Beatles is nearly a full decade behind Paul McCartney, and the third incarnation of his band – The Wings – is barely holding together (they would break up for the final time less than two years later). So, McCartney decides that he's going to write a Christmas tune, all on his own.
Often I have pictured him at a piano, tapping a pencil against his head. "Aw Jeez," he says to himself, "Why can't I do this? I just want to write a song about simply having a wonderful Christmastime... Wait! THAT'S IT!"
He plunks down a few chords, singing his epiphany twice over, and quickly scribbles it all down on a sheet of manuscript paper. Checking his watch, he realizes it's almost 3PM, and decides to call it a day, figuring he'll just improv the rest during recording and production.
And so: A Turd Was Born.
I tolerate a lot of musical perspectives, but on this I can be unequivocal: if you like this song, you have zero musical taste whatsoever. It is such a boring, phoned-in, cookie-cutter, fiddling-with-my-Casio-keyboard-synth... such an I-need-a-paycheque-so-I-guess-I'll-write-a-thing-why-not composition. The fact that it is so frequently played, and that McCartney makes an estimated $400,000 USD in royalties from the song each holiday season, is a crime against culture itself.
BONUS WORSTNESS – When You Ruin Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Adding Call and Response
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a perfectly fine Christmas novelty song for children... until someone came up with the idea of having a bunch of kids screech the last word of each line, or provide some less-than-witty retort ("LIKE MONOPOLY!" HAHA) as a call-and-response gimmick. Note that this was not present in the original Gene Autry recording, nor in several artists' recordings thereafter. I hated this performance trope as a kid, and I despise it as an adult.
I said in the intro that the quality of individual performances can't ruin the intrinsic goodness or badness of a song, but this is the exception to the rule. Screechy children's call and response performances murdered this song, and I want justice.