Sure, everyone loves Andy Williams telling us it’s the most wonderful time of the year (it is) and Nat King Cole extolling those chestnuts roasting on an open fire (even if we never roast any ourselves). But in a sea of literally thousands of holiday melodies, it seems that every radio station plays the same two dozen songs over and over. (If I never hear about grandma getting run over by a reindeer ever again, it will be too soon.) 

It’s time to put a new spin on your seasonal playlist. Our crackerjack UCLA Magazine team has dug deep into the Yuletide canon to assemble an eclectic mix of 25 amazing seasonal songs — some completely obscure, others offering creative twists on the classics — that will have people at your holiday party asking, “What playlist is this?”


African Noel

Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus

Based on a Liberian folk song, this rousing anthem, written by acclaimed African American choral composer Andre J. Thomas, has been covered by numerous choirs worldwide. It’s the kind of song that makes you raise your hands in the air and shout with gratitude for being alive. 


Aires de Navidad

Willie Colón featuring Héctor Lavoe

This kicky call to jump into the holiday swing is dedicated to the jíbaros, the mountain laborers and farmers in the countryside of Puerto Rico. Sung in Spanish and containing the island’s celebratory “le lo lai” call, the tune’s irresistible charm is in its insistence that everyone join in the fun, with lyrics exclaiming, “Even if you don’t want to/I come to sing to you.”


Big Bulbs

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings

The kind of sassy song that takes you by surprise with its playful funk, jazzy melody and winking lyrics. It’s as if you’ve stumbled into a basement party with the most fun people you’ve ever met, and they hand you a drink and insist you join in the gaiety. 




A cheeky New York sextet gives us the gift we didn’t know we needed: a Weird Al Yankovic-style riff on Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” with clever lyrics hilariously extolling the eight-night festival of lights. It opens with “I’m feeling pretty great/Got latkes on my plate.” It only gets better from there.


The Cherry Tree Carol

Mia Doi Todd

The daughter of a Japanese American judge and an Irish American sculptor, Todd, a Silver Lake native, has made a name for herself as a piercing indie-folk singer. An apocryphal retelling of the Nativity, this song actually dates back to 1500. It was popularized in the 1960s by Joan Baez and has been covered a ton since, but with an arrangement of quiet sparsity and spellbinding cadence, Todd’s haunting reimagining seems to transcend all the versions that came before. 


Christmas Ain’t Christmas Without You


Who knew the pop landscape was missing “Believe” with bells? This just-released banger from the ageless one-named diva marries a Mariah “All I Want for Christmas Is You” feel with an impossibly catchy hook that will have you joining along to implore Santa, “Come on, hurry down the chimney/With a kiss for me.”


Christmas in the Sand

Colbie Caillat

Perhaps unsurprisingly given her California girl roots (she grew up around Malibu), the pop singer-songwriter delivers a fun, flirty number that imagines a surfing Santa washing up with the tide, rolling with belly laughter as he does. You can almost picture the sleigh parked at Will Rogers State Beach.   


Christmas Lights


A tinkling piano solo leads into lyrics of tender sadness (“Christmas night/Another fight”) delivered with quiet desperation by lead singer Chris Martin, who laments the loss of love during a season that celebrates it in abundance. But the song’s closing message (“May all your troubles soon be gone/Those Christmas lights keep shining on”) reminds us that this time of year is about many things, but most of all, hope. 


Christmas Medley


Born Henry Ifeanyi Orji, this Nigerian gospel singer delivers a brief (just around two minutes) feel-good melody that, a decade after its initial release, remains one of the most popular holiday carols in Africa. It’s hard to tell which is more captivating: the jaunty rendition itself or the boyish joy Henrisoul exhibits as he croons it. 


Christmas Rappin’

Kurtis Blow

The very definition of an oldie but goodie: this 1979 too-cool-for-school number, one of the first hip-hop holiday songs ever recorded. Clocking in at over eight minutes, it carries strong echoes of the legendary Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which bowed that same year. It’s the kind of song you want to show off knowing the lyrics to — and it’s perfect for dancing in the kitchen as you pour another eggnog. 


Fa La La La

Jim Brickman, featuring Olivia Jade Archbold

How this song has not become more ubiquitous remains a Yuletide mystery — it’s the kind of infectious, bouncy tune you just can’t help singing along with. It’s easy to picture a montage from a Nancy Meyers movie unspooling with every line.


Ha Ha Holiday

Madeleine Peyroux

The Athens, Georgia, native spent her teenage years busking on the streets of Paris, and that influence is evident here as she exudes a carefree mirth, extolling passersby to laugh their way through the season. Mixing together rhythms from French, African and U.S. folk music, this delightful song offers a lightheartedness that’s a welcome tonic for the hectic side of the season. 


Holiday Party

Dan + Shay

For anyone who’s dashed exhausted from party to party during this most frantic time of the year, secretly longing for the simple pleasure of a cozy night at home in pajamas, drinking mulled wine and watching an old holiday movie, this is your song. 


I Believe in Father Christmas

Greg Lake

The title notwithstanding, Lake — part of the brilliant trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer — once said that he did not intend his brooding melody to be considered a holiday tune. While it’s been covered a bunch in the 48 years since its original release, nothing compares to Lake’s original mélange of quiet echoes and gorgeous guitar strings, questioning the commercialization of the season while simultaneously trumpeting its glorious aura of possibility.


I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday

Leona Lewis

She may best be known for wailing about her “Bleeding Love,” but with this rollicking tune the British chanteuse trades in melancholy for merriment that carries with it Wall of Sound reverberations of the Ronettes’ legendary 1963 version of “Sleigh Ride.” Even the Scroogiest will find it difficult not to bop along. 


Jingle Baby

Stephanie Mills

With a soulful, horn-heavy arrangement, this R&B number from the legendary Broadway star of The Wiz serves up both a chipper melody and kittenish lyrics (“Look for me underneath your tree/And I’ll be your favorite toy”) that tightly weave together to create a singalong-able tune that manages to be both naughty and nice. 


Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

Sufjan Stevens

The queer indie folk artist delivers a stunning rendition of the 1945 Jules Styne holiday staple, stripping away the jingle and putting forward a version that is more like a breathy echo, one that will make you feel like you’re walking through a beautiful, faraway, snowy forest. It’s the kind of recording Rufus Wainwright might have made.  


Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

Ryuichi Sakamoto

The famed Japanese pianist and composer died in March at the age of 71, but he left behind a brilliant body of work. A prime example: this lilting, deeply affecting piano instrumental, the title track of the 1983 David Bowie film of the same name (Sakamoto also co-starred in the movie). A song made for looking at the tree and counting your blessings.


Nicki and the Crew

Treetop Sisters

Three young sisters known for peppy bubblegum pop create a brassy pajama party of a song, which sounds like something you’d get if you put some kid singers from America’s Got Talent in a blender with the Brian Setzer Orchestra. You’ll never look at December 23 quite the same way again.  


On Christmas Day

Gloria Lynne

With her Dinah Washington tone, Lynne — a jazz stylist of the highest order — is one of those singers who should have been more famous. Her mellow, honey-glazed vocal extolling her joy and gratitude for finding love on Christmas Day will warm even the coldest heart.


Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree


The original, released in 1958, proved a smash for Brenda Lee and remains in heavy rotation on contemporary holiday radio. But this version, by 1960s icon Dion, crowns the familiar tune with a dollop of doo-wop joy that conjures an image of a ragtag group of guys on a street corner on a chilly night, singing a cappella around a trashcan fire. 


Santa Claus Blues

Duke Robillard featuring Maria Muldaur

This song was first released almost a century ago. But this version, an impossibly catchy ditty — with vocals delivered with suitable bluesy gravel by “Midnight at the Oasis” chanteuse Muldaur — is at its merry best during its intermediate instrumental interlude, marrying rockabilly verve with sitting-on-the-front-porch, jam-session energy. 


Silver Bells

Jacob Miller and the Inner Circle

Miller was a Jamaican reggae artist who died tragically in an auto accident at the age of 27 in 1980. His holiday album remains a popular annual listen throughout the Caribbean, and this track shows why. Swapping the title bells from this holiday staple for those from steel drums, he exudes an infectious joy that will have you mentally swaying in a balmy Christmas breeze.


Text Me Merry Christmas

Straight No Chaser, featuring Kristen Bell

You wouldn’t think a lyric that says, “So please remember/This December/To fully charge your phone” would open the door to a cute, catchy Christmas tune, but you’d be wrong. Bonus: a supercute stop-animation music video that doubles as an homage to those classic Rankin/Bass holiday specials from the 1960s. 


What Child Is This

Jana Mashonee

The North Carolina–born singer, of Lumbee and Tuscarora lineage, brings an ethereal timbre and Native American heart to this timeless carol, sung here in Cherokee. With its entrancing, sparse arrangement of piano and tin whistle, Mashone’s version is a spiritual balm that is equally solemn, soothing and positively gorgeous. 


Listen to our Spotify playlist, featuring 22 of these songs plus a special bonus track!

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Fall 2023 issue.