The Christmas Playlist

Josh Breeden and Leah Harrison team up again to bring you their mix of classical and popular Christmas tunes

According to Walgreens it’s been Christmastime since mid-October. These two writers think this is stupid. In protest we held out on writing a holiday playlist so we could give the pilgrims our undivided attention. Well, the turkey’s been devoured and as I type, Scrooged is on TV –– Santa’s time has come. We’ve compiled the ultimate mix of popular and classical tunes to put you in the credit card-swiping mood.


Christmas Pop with Josh Breeden

“White Christmas” by Ottis Redding

Bing Crosby cut the definitive version of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” in 1942 for the Holiday Inn soundtrack and everyone flipped their wig. America was lulled into collective psychosis by Crosby’s melancholic croon (also, the whistling). Oh the memories. Oh how farming sucks.

The King of Soul (you heard me James Brown) covered the Crosby original for Atco during a mid-60s recording session and Atlantic released the track in 1968, almost a year after Redding's death. There are no flutes and no languid orchestral stuff, just a lot of soul. Redding grinds through plodding guitar, Motown brass, and gospely organ runs. His quivering vocals emphasize the loneliness that lies within the song’s lyrical roots. It’s Christmas with more feeling and less stage makeup.

Listen here.


“Mistletoe” by Justin Bieber

The Biebs touts two unyielding passions: Jesus (check the tattoo) and the ladies (check Selena Gomez). Somehow he’s managed to synthesize these loves into one catchy holiday slow jam guaranteed to garner multiple paternity tests.

“Mistletoe” isn’t a My World 2.0 production. Usher’s pastier little brother is finally embracing the aging process and has assigned Santa the task of delivering this message to his tweenage fandom. “I don’t want to miss out on the holiday, but I can’t stop staring at your face,” sings Bieber over a stripped down guitar-bongo-jingle-bell instrumental (Jason Mraz sad-face). The voice is deeper, the forehead is visible, and Christmas is sexier than ever.

Listen here.


“Hooray for Santa Claus” by Sloppy Seconds

The original recording of “Hooray for Santa Claus” was sung by school children and featured in the 1964 science fiction film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Ebert’s fave). It’s no surprise then that Indianapolis punk outfit Sloppy Seconds chose to cover it for their 1992 holiday album Lonely Christmas.

“When we hear sleigh bells ring, our hearts go ting-a-ling,” rasps vocalist B.A., channeling creepy, egg-nog spiking uncles everywhere. Guitarist Ace Hardwhere chugs out some Joey Ramone-like grime while Steve Sloppy (drums) and Bo’Ba (bass) fill in the edges.

Thank Jesus for the Sloppy Seconds, Christmas was so, well, Christmassy without them.

Listen here.


“Christmas in Hollis” by RUN-DMC

Die Hard is a fantastic movie. It’s got Bruce Willis, the infamous Hans Gruber, Jimmy Trivette, and the dude from Family Matters. In addition to this earth-shattering ensemble cast, the film includes the most legit Christmas tune ever: RUN-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis.” 

Recorded for the producer Jimmy Lovine’s A Very Special Christmas, the track showcases Rev. Run, D.M.C. and Jam-Master Jay at their peak, Raising Hell days. Over samples of a few holiday classics, the Reverend details a run-in with Santa at the park (the big-man’s got a mil. in “cold hundreds of G’s”) and D.M.C. tells us how hella-awesome his moms is at cooking. “Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho.” 

Listen here.


Christmas Classics with Leah Harrison

“Glory to God” from Handel’s Messiah

Messiah has long been among the most popular grand, widely known works in America. It's been associated with the Christmas season since its first American performance (despite oratorios being written for and performed during Lent in England). In its telling of Christ’s biography, Messiah is unique among Handel’s oratorios in that its narrative uses only biblical text. In pieces 14-17 of the 53-piece masterwork, we hear the recitative—used to communicate information and move the narrative along—setting the scene for the bright chorus, “Glory to God.” This part of the story, from the gospel of Luke, is the magnificent moment when a choir of angels, the most glorious messengers, is sent to tell humble shepherds about the birth of Christ. 

The text:

Soprano recitative

14: There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.

15: And the angel said unto them: Fear not; for behold, I bring you great tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

16: And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heav’nly host, praising God, and saying,


17: Glory to God, glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth. Good will towards men. 

Listen here.


“Salvation is Created” by Pavel Tchesnokov

Composed 99 years ago, this choral work is one of over 400 sacred compositions written by Russian Pavel Tchesnokov. “Salvation is Created” is among the very last spiritual pieces Tchesnokov was permitted to write, being forced to abandon spirituality as a musical subject by the Soviet Union. The influence of the Russian Orthodox Chorus sound is evident in the deep bass, but as the ranges spread, the soul is stirred by something unconfined by genre. The text comes from Psalm 74 and simply explains the significance of the nativity events: “Salvation is made in the midst of the earth, O God, O our God. Alleluia.” The straight-tone climax is completely penetrating. 

Listen here.

“The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite

Perhaps an obvious choice, “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is iconic because of its membership in the Nutcracker Suite, but also because of the tinkling instrument that plunks out the melody: the celesta.  The keyboard instrument that sounds like a music box was invented in 1886 by Auguste Mustel, and makes its unique sound with hammers that strike steel bars with wooden resonators rather than strings (like on a piano). Tchaikovsky would have experienced this instrument as shiny and new, beginning the Nutcracker Suite just five years after the celesta’s invention. Practically every significant 20th century composer wrote for the celesta, Tchaikovsky possibly serving as the door to the world of the toy sound. Nonetheless, “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” remains the most memorable. 

Listen here.


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