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Christmas music: The 10 biggest holiday playlist mistakes

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

Image: Shutterstock, of course.

Doubtless, if you are reading this article, it is because you are taking time out of your holiday preparations to catch up on the latest Mac news. This is a wise choice by you, partly because Jason does a fine job packaging Mac News You Can Use in a compelling and engaging way, as does the other guy whose name I forget. Scott? Steve? I want to say it’s Steve. Anyhow, nicely done, Steve.

But your decision to temporarily postpone your holiday ramp-up to visit this particular corner of the Internet is fortuitous for another reason. Because at some point in the build up to the Festive Period, you are going to put together a Holiday Playlist, and you are going to get it spectacularly wrong.

I say this because I’ve been at this for a dozen years — as long as Apple has made buying a la carte music as simple as tapping on a Buy button — and the holiday music section of my iTunes Library is a horror show. Should a panel ever be convened to examine musical crimes against humanity — and under President Huckabee, I put the possibility at even money — I will probably be called as an expert witness and, even more probably, will be first against the wall for my history of regrettable downloads.

The difference between you and me is that I’ve learned from my mistakes, and I’m here before you today to serve as a warning against following my regrettable lead. Think of me as Jacob Marley offering a chilling warning to all of you Scrooges out there. Instead of being bound by the heavy chains I forged in life, I’m lugging around a metric ton of 99-cent downloads I’d just as soon be able to return for store credit. Mark my horrible errors in judgment, and make sure you don’t repeat them.

These are the 10 mistakes people making when assembling holiday playlists.

1. You Buy Some Pop Star’s Christmas Cash Grab

Every holiday season, some pop singing sensation rushes out a hastily assembled collection of vaguely Christmasy-sounding tunes, and every year, their devoted fan bases snap it up, and the only people ho-ho-ho’ing it come Christmas-time are the singers’ accountants who are ringing in a happy new year indeed.

For years, my go-to example of a pop sensation hoping to trade in on your goodwill in exchange for a very green Christmas was Mariah Carey and her rendition of O Holy Night in which the chanteuse belts out the song loud enough to drown out a multitude of the heavenly host, but honestly, every year brings new contenders to the crown. I would cite Justin Bieber’s Under the Mistletoe album in general and his version of Silent Night in particular, if you would like to hear the young castrato mouth the words of the classic Christmas hymn as if he was taught them phonetically just before someone in the studio pressed record. Attention must also be paid to Meghan Trainor’s impressively banal I’ll Be Home, which sounds like it was assembled by a committee. Meghan Trainor is only vaguely aware of who Charlie Brown is; how are we to assume she has the first idea about the poignancy of being apart from those whom you love during the holidays?

2. Relying Too Much on Old Reliables

A few years ago, I found myself in a Target staring at a display of Christmas CDs when I spotted Christmas Songs by Sinatra. “Surely, this will be a decent addition to my Christmas collection,” I though to myself. “Who better to ring in the holidays with than Ol’ Blue Eyes?”

The answer, as it turns out, is “lots of people” Christmas Songs by Sinatra features one or two good tracks, and then a whole lot of let’s-record-this-in-one-take, throwaway numbers in which Frank does a by-the-book rendition of a Christmas standard backed by the Sominex Sleepy Time Choir. And it continues even today: iTunes is currently promoting an album called Christmas With the Rat Pack, which takes the bland Christmas numbers Sinatra cranked out and multiplies them by a factor of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. Particularly egregious: Sammy being joined by a chorus of conscripted children on the treacly Christmas Time All Over the World and Frank going through the motions on The First Noel as if Ava Gardner and a shaker full of martinis were waiting in the next room over.

3. Pulling the Trigger Too Quickly on Novelty Songs

Hey, I liked Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer the first time I heard it, too. The next 1,000 times? It kind of lost its charm. And that’s the danger of any novelty tune you add to your holiday rotation — if it can’t stand the test of time, you’re going to find yourself doing a lot of explaining every December. For every Nuttin’ for Christmas — which I adore — there are dozens of variations of I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas, which I plan to introduce at my trial as evidence that I can’t be held responsible for my actions.

4. Snapping Up Too Many Charity Records

By my count, various assemblages of Band Aid have released four different versions of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” That’s certainly at least three versions too many, as the banal lyrics and tepid sentiment behind the tune haven’t improved with age. Seriously, you want to help someone around the holidays? (A noble sentiment!) Write a check. Don’t encourage Bono to keep shrieking at you.

(The exceptions to this warning, as always: You are free to download the Kustard Kings’ mash-up of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “Snoopy’s Christmas.” It is also OK to purchase the Richard Cheese cover of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” since that version is over in 88 seconds.)

5. Purchasing Any Christmas Song From a Beatle

I’m pretty sure medical science has proven that Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime is the single biggest Christmastime atrocity. But let’s not let the rest of the Fab Four off the hook here. George Harrison’s Ding Dong, Ding Dong bests McCartney’s effort only by having a catchier tune and 10 more words in its lyrics. John Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War Is Over) is pretty unobjectionable, save for the presence of Yoko Ono. And the less said about Ringo Starr’s I Wanna Be Santa Claus the better, particularly if you’re able to grit it out until the bitter end of the song. (“What would you like for Christmas, little girl?” Ringo asks, in the kind of audio clip that usually winds up as Exhibit B in the prosecution’s case against you.)

6. Buying a Christmas Song Based on a Children’s TV Show

Once, in the midst of what I assume was some sort of uncontrollable fit, I downloaded I’m Giving Santa a Pikachu This Christmas, which is exactly as terrible as you might imagine it to be. (Sample lyrics: “It’s chilly at the North Pole/So I’m told/But with so much love in both their hearts/They’ll never feel the cold.” Now imagine that sung out of tune, and you’ve tapped into a fraction of the horror that unfolds over the 167 seconds of this song.)

It is disturbing enough to think that there is a Christmas song centered around Pikachu, and only slightly more disturbing that it is but one of 12 tracks on the Pokemon Christmas album. But most terrible of all is that the gap-toothed, inbred stepchild of novelty Christmas songs — the novelty Christmas song based on a popular kids’ TV program — continues to produce musical atrocities unabated. There is a My Little Pony Christmas Album for God’s sake, and if one of you terrible people clues my daughter into this, I am totally going to cut you. I am not kidding.

7. Downloading the Wrong Version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

Here’s a quick-and-easy way to make sure you’re getting a good version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which — when done right — is the best of all Christmas songs. If the singer belts out “Through the years, we all will be together/If the fates allow/Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” you’ve probably got yourself a winner; if that last lyric gets swapped out for “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” you’ve likely download overly sentimental pap. (The exception: Frank Sinatra’s cut off the otherwise lamentable Christmas Songs By Sinatra.) I find the cover by FEAR to be oddly affecting. Maybe steer clear of the pitiable versions recorded by Idina Menzel, Lady Antebellum and The Pretenders. Especially The Pretenders.

8. Including Any Song That Ends in a Horrible Death

“Wait a minute,” you sputter. “Didn’t you just tell us you like the version of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ that explicitly invokes the dark specter of Death? YOUR RULES ARE CONTRADICTORY AND SELF INDULGENT.” This is certainly true. But really, if this rule keeps The Christmas Shoes out of your holiday rotation, you should thank me for my arbitrariness.

I am already on the record as denouncing the Christmas Shoes and all its empty promises. But you know what? It may not even be the most exploitive Christmas song, not while people are still getting misty-eyed over Cat Carol, a song in which a cat literally freezes to death before the final verse. “Merry Christmas, children — THE GRIM REAPER COMES FOR US ALL.”

9. Listening to Advice From a Horrible Crank

I mean, really — did you read my advice from last year on which songs to include on your playlist? Clearly I’m not to be trusted.

10. Buying Any Version of “Santa Baby”

As I’ve gotten older, certain absolutes I once clung to have not necessarily stood the test of time, save for this: “Santa Baby” is the worst Christmas song ever recorded. No one does it justice, largely because the song doesn’t deserve justice and should be treated with brutal, arbitrary cruelty. The lyrics are nothing more than a litany of demands, a paean to material comfort, the theme song Mammon plays as he contemplates his riches. Ask a lady singer to croon it, and she will immediately descend into a third-rate Betty Boop imitation, long after you beg her to stop. It has felled everyone from Taylor Swift to Calista Flockhart. Has Madonna recorded an ear-splitting version? Oh brother, has she.

If you ignore all other advice in this column — and I wouldn’t blame you if you did — please, please, please stop feeding the massive industrial Santa Baby complex. Tell Kylie Minogue the jig is up. Explain to Ariana Grande this aggression will not stand. Politely inform the cast of Glee that they can shove that song in their pieholes — every one of their pieholes if that’s what it takes. And then we as a nation can agree never to play this terrible song again.

At least until someone records a version of that song sung by screaming goats. The goats will give “Santa Baby” the dignity it deserves.

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