Holiday songs are no longer elevator music for the month of December—nor, as seems to increasingly be the case, for late October and November. The BMI repertoire is stacked with new classics that command attention, channeling lovesick blues, winking irreverence and funk-laced grooves into original odes to the season. In no particular order, here are 15 favorites from the BMI catalog:
“Please Come Home for Christmas”
Originally recorded by Charles Brown and written by Brown and Gene Redd, “Please Come Home for Christmas” is a definitive new classic. The song’s thrust rests in its gut-wrenching paradox: As warm seasonal images of bells and choirs are evoked, listeners are reminded how much more lonesome lonely feels around the holidays. Fans should also dig into Brown’s “Cool Christmas Blues.”
“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) ”
Written by power trio Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” also extols the added beauty seasonal fun assumes when it’s enjoyed with the one you love. After Darlene Love made it one of her signature songs, U2, Joey Ramone, KT Tunstall, Mariah Carey, Jon Bon Jovi, Death Cab for Cutie, and many others recorded versions of the tune.
“All I Want for Christmas is You”
“All I Want for Christmas is You” reveals Mariah Carey’s stealthier weapon: her songwriting. Written by Carey and Walter Afanasieff, the original recording showcases Carey’s dynamic vocals, and the song has assumed increasingly iconic status after anchoring the soundtrack to 2003 holiday cinematic gem Love Actually.
Leave it to Willie Nelson to harness the seemingly ordinary and transform it into something magical. Roy Orbison scored a hit with the Nelson-penned “Pretty Paper,” and others including Asleep at the Wheel and Glen Campbell have brilliantly recorded the tune, but listening to Nelson’s own deceptively simple vocal delivery of the humble street vendor pushing holiday tinsel would convert even the most cynical scrooge.
“Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy”
Buck Owens’ ode to childhood confusion sparked by a holiday encounter has assumed a folkloric status. Written by Owens and the incomparable Don Rich, “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy” prompts laughs and nostalgia in one fell swoop.
“Christmas Vacation” (Theme from Christmas Vacation)
As Mavis Staples sings “Christmas Vacation,” the theme to the National Lampoon film of the same name, visions of Chevy Chase in a Santa cap and Randy Quaid in a dickey dance in listeners’ heads. Written by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, the song has become one of the most beloved—and hilarious—ways to ring in the season.
“Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”
“Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” was written by James Brown, Hank Ballard, and Alfred Ellis. The Godfather of Soul also recorded the song, packing a heartbreaking, groove-fueled punch as he reminds Saint Nick to visit the neighborhoods where he’s needed most.
“Merry Christmas from the Family”
Written and recorded by Robert Earl Keen, “Merry Christmas from the Family” is a laugh-out-loud ode to the familial dysfunction that ensues this time of year. Keen is a longtime Texas favorite whose songwriting skills have cultivated a devoted following outside of the Lone Star State, and his holiday gem manages to emit sparks of literary brilliance as it captures the festive side of a “bag of lemons and some Diet Rites.”
“Christmas in Hollis”
Run-DMC created a classic for a new generation with “Christmas in Hollis.” The rap icons bring the holiday to Queens, spinning an expertly crafted tale of good deeds rewarded, good food cooked, and good cheer spread.
“Christmas in Dixie”
Written by Jeffrey Cook, Teddy Gentry and Mark Herndon and recorded by Alabama, “Christmas in Dixie” pays tribute to the American West, East Coast, and everywhere in between, even as Randy Owen’s mellifluous drawl makes it clear that during the holiday season, his heart belongs to the South’s piney woods.
Written by Chris Butler, The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” offers a droll holiday play-by-play courtesy of the new wavers. In the song, a serendipitous encounter means that the off-again holiday is back on again after all, leaving nothing but good cheer and a happy, head-bopping ending.
“Back Door Santa”
Recorded by Clarence Carter and written by Carter and Marcus Daniel, “Back Door Santa” gives the holiday a mischievous helping of Delta-soaked soul—a must-have for hipster party playlists.
“Step Into Christmas”
Elton John’s toe-tapping invitation to “Step Into Christmas,” which he wrote with Bernie Taupin, topped Billboard’s Christmas chart when it was released in 1973, and it hasn’t stopped charming listeners since.
“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”
With “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” John Lennon and Yoko Ono took the holiday’s original message to heart and crafted a poignant call for peace that is now one of the season’s most cherished classics.
“Christmas Time Is Here” (Theme from Charlie Brown Christmas)
Charlie Brown Christmas has become a holiday staple, and “Christmas Time Is Here,” written by Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson, is woven throughout the short film. An effervescent children’s choir delivers the performance, fueling much of the warm glow cast by the classic cartoon.