Picking the top 10 classic soul Christmas tunes is no easy feat. For starters, it was hard to determine what makes a song a classic. Is it longevity? Is it vocal resonance and the energy of the song? Is it originality of a song over it being a cover tune? There is a lot to consider.
So, we established parameters. Being that in the last ten to fifteen years there have been stellar R&B holiday records released that are now played in regular rotation with some of the classics that have been around for twenty or more years, we chose to stick to songs that are at least ten years old and have longevity that will probably move into the next several decades or so.
With this list, we took to the internet and asked our readers for their top picks. Apparently, this was no easy task for them to answer. Music podcaster Todd Grundy of the site RhythmsinBlackSatin.com explained, “As we all know, most Christmas songs have been recorded by multiple artists. The real fun begins when you try to determine the ‘definitive classic’ version of a particular song especially if it is not the original version of the song.”
So, we had our readers get specific on us and tell us the song and the singer whose version should make the list. There were some that didn’t make it, but are worth mentioning. Ben Dawson of MYSTStudios.com listed Prince’s “Another Lonely Christmas” as a favorite, if, albeit, a bit depressing, while filmmaker Dexter Nixon shared that Alexander O’Neal’s tune “My Gift to You” as one of his favorites. Reader Rita Booker named Will Downing’s version of “Little Drummer Boy” as one of her top picks, while reader James O’Donnell threw in for good humor Dr. Elmo’s “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”. Check out what we came up with for the top ten list and see if your favorites made the cut.
#10 “Who Would Imagine a King”
Performed by Whitney Houston from the movie The Preacher’s Wife
This song hails from what is reported to be the best-selling gospel album of all time, Whitney Houston’s soundtrack to the movie The Preacher’s Wife. Written by Mervyn Warren and Hallerin Hilton Hill for the movie, this original song has become a classic solo praised for its quiet beauty and reverence to the reason for the season. Whitney’s vocals sparkle and shine on this tune, making it clear why she will understandably go down in history as being “The Voice.”
#9 “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto”
Performed by James Brown
It’s a rarity to find today a song that can speak to poverty and Christmas in the same verse, but that’s what James Brown does on this timeless track. Effortlessly funky with its socially conscious focus, this track is a baby boomer favorite that many from the new generation can relate to still, unfortunately. But, there won’t be any sadness here. Instead, this song is an upbeat taste of reality mixed with an air of celebration. While the lyrics are unapologetically honest and real, the tune is quick to get you hot-stepping, possibly leading you to grabbing a partner to do a tip on the dance floor and get your hand-dance on.
#8 “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”
Performed by The Jackson 5
The Jackson 5 has so many fun renditions of Christmas classics that it was hard to narrow it down. Baltimore-based reader Lyn Honablew helped make it easy to choose though, asserting that this tune deserves to make the list because of its power to elevate her mood. “One of my top 10 is definitely ‘Santa Is Coming to Town’ by the Jackson 5,” she writes. “That song puts a smile on my face and keeps me singing at the top of my lungs.”
#7 “Santa Baby”
Performed by Eartha Kitt
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Sexy and sultry Eartha Kitt literally purrs on this Christmas classic that she originally recorded in 1953 and followed up with an up-tempo version in 1963. Enduring more than fifty years, this classic tune is a fun ode to Santa Claus from a woman who is unabashedly materialistic and accustomed to the finer things in life—from a yacht to a sable mink. Later recordings of this song by more than three dozen other artists in all genres of music—from country and pop to rock and soul—still can’t live up to the original naughtiness easily captured and conveyed by the original recording artist.
#6 “Let It Snow”
Performed by Boys II Men featuring Brian McKnight
Reader Kellie McCants-Price voted “Let It Snow” as one of her top picks. This song, composed and performed by Boyz II Men and Brian McKnight from the 1993 Boyz II Men album Christmas Interpretations, is a beautiful harmonic experience that is welcomed every year. Capturing the reflective quality that adorns every Boyz II Men song, “Let It Snow” reminds you about family, the importance of loved ones, and the celebration of a year completed.
#5 “Every Year, Every Christmas”
Performed by Luther Vandross
Luther Vandross was the consummate performer, exuding perfection in every note. His Christmas song “Every Year, Every Christmas” does not disappoint in bringing that perfection to the listening ear during the holiday season. Released in 1995 and written by Luther Vandross and Richard Marx, this tune is a family gathering must-have and a perennial reminder of the wondrous vocal talent that was Luther Vandross.
#4 “Someday at Christmas”
Performed by Stevie Wonder
Penned by Bryan Wells and Ron Miller who had written other songs for Stevie Wonder during his career, “Someday at Christmas” is a 1967 melancholy beauty that tugs at the heart and reminds of us of what peace on earth really means.
#3 “Silent Night”
Performed by The Temptations
In 1970, The Temptations recorded their holiday album The Temptations Christmas Card on Motown Records, and a holiday classic album was born. Just about every song on this CD is played in heavy rotation on R&B stations across the world each holiday season—from the cover of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. But, our readers voted on one song in particular as being their favorite hands-down.
Author Karen Minors, soul singer Quineice, and radio-host DeWayne Alston of SoulCityRadio.com all report that “Silent Night” by The Temptations is the top pick. “I know that many artists have versions of this song,” Quineice shared, “but the Temptations’ version is the one I grew up listening to. Soul music at its best!”
#2 “The Christmas Song”
Performed by Nat King Cole
“The Christmas Song”, recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946 two years after it was written by songwriter Mel Torme, was recognized in 1974 in the Grammy Hall of Fame for its definitive sound and longevity as a timeless classic. Called many things– from “The Chestnut Song” to “Merry Christmas to You” (an actual sub-title of the song), this tune is a long-standing favorite now, 65 years later, as it was when it debuted.
SoulTrain.com reader Valarie Ashley Banks shares, “’The Christmas Song’ by Nat King Cole [is my favorite]. I still remember how grown up I felt and how my mother bragged to other family members when I memorized it and could sing all of the words. I never truly feel completely Christmas-y until I hear it and then a warm feeling courses all through me. My first time each season has to be on the radio or in a store. It can’t be from my record, tape, or iPod.”
#1 “This Christmas”
Performed by Donny Hathaway
All asked agreed that Donny Hathaway’s classic tune make it to the top of the list. Maryland-based reader Rayona L. Young said it best, “It’s like the Black national anthem of Christmas songs.”
At 21 years-old, Donny Hathaway penned this timeless classic that has been covered by artists from Diana Ross and Patti LaBelle to Dru Hill and Chris Brown. It has found its place on rotation on every urban and adult contemporary station around the world, and has maintained its place of honor as a classic since its debut in 1970. We heard Jamie Foxx perform this song in the 1990s on In Living Color–which first gave us a glimpse into the fact that Jamie could sing for real. The motion picture of the same name is but one movie that has featured this popular song on its soundtrack.
-Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman
Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is an award-winning writer based in the Washington DC metropolitan area. Visit her at KhadijahOnline.com