2018's Ten Best Contemporary Christmas Songs

2018's Ten Best Contemporary Christmas Songs
Photo by Evaan Kheraj
Rays of sunshine beat down on palm trees instead of snowflakes raining down on redwoods every winter, but that doesn’t steal away the magic of Christmas for Floridians. There’s a reason snowbirds hailing from up North flock down in hordes to our bright beaches and idyllic holiday weather here in the Sunshine State.

Although the chance of snowfall this year is about as likely as an Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson reunion, temperatures dropping below 80 degrees is a blessing in and of itself. Yet another gift from the skies above is the sweet melodies of banging holiday tunes. No disrespect to the classics (who doesn’t get down to "Jingle Bells?") but it’s 2018 and about time we jazz up those Spotify tracks. Jackson 5 meets Justin Bieber in Billboard's Holiday 100, and there's no springboard quite like ratings to reveal what the people are listening to — and loving.

Like a cup of decadent hot chocolate and rich whipped cream, it’s all about blending the old with the new this Christmas. Modern meets classic in this list of top ten contemporary Christmas tunes.
1. Michael Bublé “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” Is it news to anyone that Michael Bublé is the undisputed King of Christmas? If so, point me to the rock in the middle of the desolate, Arctic wilderness you've been dwelling under. With 40 million copies of 2016's Christmas sold to date, Bublé owns the airwaves every winter. Picking a favorite track is torturous: Could the best one be his take on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas?" Or, do Bublé's swoon-worthy vocals win the contest for "Baby Please Come Home?" Lest we forget about the emotion-packed "Blue Christmas?"

Such a choice feels impossible, but at risk of just shirking the idea of a list entirely and suggesting everyone listen to Bublé on a loop forever, we'll narrow it down to the top contender: "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." Is it the fact that the track rests as the number one song on his album, perfectly setting every listener up for a whirlwind of merry melodies? Or is it because once you first hear Bublé's Frank Sinatra-reminiscent tone gliding over each peppy, joyous word, you desire a candy cane and silver lane aglow? Truthfully? It's a blend of both.
2. John Legend “The Christmas Song.” We may not be out here literally roasting chestnuts over open fires as much as we are hitting late night drive thru’s, so empathizing with the content of "The Christmas Song" can be tricky these days. But what isn’t difficult to grasp is the immediate ease that overtakes any one person who hears Legend's velvety chords. It just isn’t Christmas without those melodic chestnuts, and no one covers a classic quite like Legend does.

Legend's recently dropped version of "The Christmas Song" is one of those jams that makes the outside world melt as soon as the first bars begin. A calming sense that all is right in this catastrophic world settles over the listener as they hit "play" on Legend's A Legendary Christmas cover of the original 1945 tune. Pair his impeccable range and throaty croon and he almost sounds like a 2018 version of Nat King Cole — whose beloved cover is timeless — but more quintessentially modern-day pop.
3. Mariah Carey "All I Want for Christmas is You." Bublé may wear a crown as king of the holiday season, but in the provincial court, the queen rules over all. All hail the royal monarch of the number one Christmas song. As the 11th best-selling single of all time and the number one most downloaded Christmas song, "All I Want for Christmas is You" has obliterated records in the 24 years since its original release. “It’s very retro, kind of like [the] Sixties,” Mariah Carey said of the best-selling track in 1994. Carey just broke yet another record, too, as Billboard recently announced that AIWFCIY is the highest-charting yuletide hit in 60 years.

At the time of its conception, she and co-writer Walter Afanasieff had no idea it would go on to redefine modern Christmas music, a genre that had not yet gained the popularity it would have in later decades. For Carey, it was just about spreading festive cheer: “I wrote it just out of love for Christmas and, like, really loving Christmas music,” she said in 2015. Harmony-wise, "All I Want for Christmas is You" is an innovative track. Admit it: you're humming it to yourself right now, aren't you?
4. John Lennon "Happy Xmas (War is Over)." Widely considered one of the greatest musicians of all time, former Beatle and songwriting phenom John Lennon was a peace activist whose songs were adopted as anti-war anthems throughout the late '60s and '70s. He made no secret of the causes he supported. From boycotting the Vietnam War to supporting striking minority sanitation workers, Lennon spoke out against issues he believed to be unjust, both lyrically and verbally.

"Happy Xmas (War is Over)" stemmed from a 1969 peace campaign launched by Lennon and Yoko Ono that broadcast the words: "War Is Over, If You Want It" in 15 major cities across the world. He and Ono urged young peace protesters to speak up and create enough public pressure to stop the Vietnam War. He spoke on the meaning behind it in an interview at the time, saying, "All we have to do is remember that: we’ve all got the power. That’s why we said ‘war is over if you want it.’"

When the war ended and the '80s came around, Lennon explained why it had a timeless purpose. "'Happy Xmas,' Yoko and I wrote together... It was still that same message — the idea that we're just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. As long as people imagine that somebody's doing it to them and that they have no control, then they have no control." Following Lennon's death that year, the song charted and persisted as a ratings success.
5. Sam Smith “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” So many artists have covered "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that it's easy to lose count. But Sam Smith's delicate emotion and powerhouse range has propelled his version to over  19 million views on YouTube. Donning a Bond-like debonair suit, Smith sings the holiday classic with only sparse grand piano accompaniment. Jazz melodies melt into Smith's smooth, defining R&B-marries-pop sound, and the result is a cover that's charming as hell. We dare anyone to listen and not get immediate goosebumps.
6. Wham! "Last Christmas." Who hasn't heard — and danced — their way through this Christmas song? Lively and positively bursting with festive joy, Wham!'s "Last Christmas" packs everything from sleigh bells and a drum machine into a tune that has become a modern pop classic. George Michael wrote and produced it in 1984, and he and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley released it to roaring success.

The song has been covered by Ariana Grande and Carly Rae Jepsen, among many others. More than three decades after its premiere, the bouncy tune has sold 2 million copies and reached a total of 22.3 million radio plays and 14.4 million streams in the U.S. On December 10, 2018, the record breached the U.S. Billboard top 40 for the first time in history. The track took on a tragic undercurrent after George Michael passed away on Christmas Day in 2016, but the song that cemented Wham! in holiday music history lives on.
7. The Jackson 5 “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” Funk and festivity merge on the Jackson 5's "Santa Clause Is Comin' to Town." Say goodbye to any cynicism this holiday season, because the Grinch himself couldn't listen to this song and not immediately feel the urge to dance.

"Santa Clause Is Coming to Town" has been covered by over 200 artists, but the Jackson 5's take brought something fresh and excessively catchy to the original 1934 song written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie. When the American pop band first dropped their Christmas Album in 1970, the collection as a whole became an instant hit, driving it to become the best-selling album of the year. To date, it has sold 3.5 million copies. Wildly successful for its mood-boosting morale (and for MJ, let's be honest) this is one merry tune that needs to stay on your seasonal playlist.
8. Ariana Grande “Santa Tell Me.” It's not really a modern pop Christmas list without at least some reference to Ariana Grande. A Boca Raton native, Grande dropped her second holiday EP, Christmas & Chill, in 2015. The entire album is relatable listening for anyone who lives in hot climates during the time of year we're told it should be snowing. Grande gets it and her songs on the album narrate the prototypal heat, palm trees and humidity that every Floridian (or snowbird lying on the beach December 25) knows all too well.

She's also having a general moment with her latest astonishing success on "thank u, next," a track that's an outright anthem for self-empowerment that has demolished streaming, Vevo and single records in the weeks since its release. So, showing some love to the young pop goddess heralding in the power of women and positive vibes this holiday season by blasting "Santa, Tell Me" is a no-brainer. Complete with her mesmerizing soprano and R&B, trap and classic pop influence, "Santa Tell Me" is a must-listen for your Ugly Christmas Sweater party.
9. Justin Bieber “Mistletoe.” Hear us out before instantly scoffing at this wholly millennial suggestion: "Mistletoe" is strangely magical and reminiscent of Justin Bieber's bowl-cut, pre-adulthood days. Busta Rhymes, the Band Perry, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, and Usher all appeared on the then-adolescent's holiday EP Under the Mistletoe, and that should speak to the genre-defying quality of the Biebs's contribution to the world of Christmas music.

51 weeks of "Mistletoe" on the Billboard Holiday Albums Chart also unveils something: people are listening to the contemporary song in the non-judgmental solace of their homes, and we believe it's time to come clean about your guilty pleasure. Yes, it's a Bieber song, and yes, there's a world of embarrassment to admit to your colleagues, friends and loved ones that a bowl-cut boy wonder is bringing you all the feels this Christmas, but it's time to cast aside those doubts and shout it from the mountaintops: "Mistletoe" is a national treasure. Hear one, hear all.
10. David Archuleta "Christmas Everyday” Uh, can we first pause as we find a way to manage all the #tbt feels over knowing American Idol alum David Archuleta has returned to the record-making space? A decade after the young star's breakthrough on the hit singing competition, Archuleta has returned with new music after a years-long hiatus. The Idol alum recently opened up about his mental health struggles stemming from his time on the reality singing competition.

In a season where new singles are dropped left and right, it's invigorating to absorb a holiday original such as "Christmas Everyday," which deserves to blast from every radio station just as often as Carey and Legend's songs are played. Why limit it to just one of Archuleta's takes on this time of year, though? You should treat his entire 2018 holiday album Winter In The Air like a slice of mouth-watering, multi-layered, raspberry chocolate cake. Once you take a bite, it's against the laws of nature not to continue until the entire cake is gone.
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Ayurella Horn-Muller is a South Florida native, Florida State University alumna, and freelance journalist. She covers arts, culture, and music for Miami New Times and news for New Times Broward-Palm Beach. You can also catch her work in Forbes, Elite Daily, Film Threat, Elephant Journal, and Face the Current.