You’ve got Mariah and Paul, but what you really need is some Carly on your Christmas playlist. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)
You’ve got Mariah and Paul, but what you really need is some Carly on your Christmas playlist. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)

MusicDecember 1, 2021

How to make a great Christmas playlist

You’ve got Mariah and Paul, but what you really need is some Carly on your Christmas playlist. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)
You’ve got Mariah and Paul, but what you really need is some Carly on your Christmas playlist. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)

A few useful tips to help you make a Christmas playlist that doesn’t drive your loved ones mad.

Picture this: it’s December 25. You’ve been given the aux cord to play some music and if you make any mistakes, you, personally, are going to have ruined Christmas for the family. You don’t want to walk into that situation unarmed, so I’ve prepared some things to think about before you even start scrolling your music streaming app of choice.

Firstly, we have to acknowledge that some people just really don’t like Christmas music, some of them so much that they make it a core part of their personality. My advice here would be to slowly cut them out of your life, year by year, Christmas by Christmas, until you no longer have to suffer their presence. But that’s not practical in most cases, especially if you’ve just been handed the aux cord out of nowhere.

So let’s go on assuming that your audience – your Christmas party – is at least tolerant of festive music. Work with that!

Tip 1: Know your audience

Ask yourself some questions to begin with. Does anybody have one song they particularly love? Or, alternatively, one song that makes the sirens from Kill Bill go off in their brain the moment it starts? Did anybody in your family work even one Christmas season in retail or hospo and now has a deeply unsettlingly psychological reaction to the sound of sleigh bells (the instrument, not the band who inexplicably do not have a Christmas album)?

It’s important to know these things so you know what are the absolutely must-haves and the absolutely must-nots.

Song ideas: Not yet! Figure out who’s on the guest list first.

Tip 2: Don’t be afraid to be fresh

Every year, there are approximately 5,000 Christmas albums released. It’s an easy way for an artist to cash in without having to write an entire album’s worth of new songs. While there are a lot of artists cashing in, including the old hat (Michael Buble), expected (Carrie Underwood) and weird (Goo Goo Dolls), if you look between all the ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’s and ‘Last Christmas’es, you can find some real pop gems.

This is the easiest way to freshen up your Christmas playlist, and to also give a party some breaks between the bangers. Throw in some pop songs that people might like but haven’t necessarily heard, throw in a little indie guitar, throw in something jazzy. You don’t wanna follow up ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ with ‘Feliz Navidad’. Don’t do that to Aunt Mavis’s knees.

Song ideas: ‘It’s Not Christmas ‘Til Somebody Cries‘ by Carly Rae Jepsen, ‘Ain’t no Chimneys in the Projects’ by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, ‘One More Sleep’ by Leona Lewis, ‘Home To You (This Christmas)’ by Sigrid.

Tip 3: But don’t ignore the traditional

In saying that, there’s a reason why those classic songs hold up: they’re often really good, well-put-together songs. ‘Carol of the Bells’? I could play it any day of the year. ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’? I start every December 1 off with it. ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’? Cancelled!

As with all of this, your mileage may vary. But if you’re ever at a loss, type an old favourite into YouTube or Spotify, and find what comes up.

Song ideas: As above, ‘Carol of the Bells’ by pretty much anybody that isn’t Pentatonix, ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ by Darlene Love (accept NO substitutes), and ‘Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl (she can say it).

Which brings me to…

Tip 4: Get under the covers

Somebody call Bed, Bath and Beyond, because the Christmas season throws so many cosy covers at us that we’re drowning in ‘em. Nine out of 10 Christmas albums are collections of covers, and while that mostly makes for dull listening, it means that there’s a ridiculous amount of content to choose from when making your own playlist.

Some artists take to Christmas music like a duck to water. Sarah McLachlan? Absolutely. Megan Trainor? Schmaltzy like a cream donut. Sinatra? Quack quack, ho ho. Others, like Celine Dion, take to Christmas music like a duck to an oven. Her version of ‘Feliz Navidad’, for instance, implies that Dion is more familiar with the Spanish language as a vague concept rather than a reality. It’s delightful.

It’s a simple formula: Pick a singer you like. Pick an old song you like. Put ‘em on the playlist.

Song ideas: ‘Feliz Navidad’ by Celine Dion (obvs), ‘River’ by Sarah McLachlan, ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ by Cat Power, ‘Fairytale of New York‘ by Sol3 Mio and Bic Runga (she does not say it)

Tip 5: Know your audience: part II

This follows on a little from the earlier tip: if people in your Christmas party have a favourite singer or band, give ‘em a google and find out if they have Christmas music. The results honestly might surprise you. Got a little gay nephew who has found Katy Perry comparatively late in life? Katy Perry, Kacey Musgraves, Big Freedia, RuPaul. Grouchy masc figure in your life? The Kinks covered ‘Father Christmas’, don’t worry. Want something for literally anybody? Dolly Parton.

At the point when you’re refining, and you need things to fill out your playlist, think about what artists your Christmas party likes and simply fill out the playlist with Christmas (or Christmas adjacent) songs by those people.

Song ideas: ‘Frosty the Snowman’ by The Cocteau Twins, ‘Looks Like a Cold, Cold Winter’ by Ingrid Michaelson, ‘Christmas Always Makes Me Cry’ by Kacey Musgraves

Tip 6: F**k around, find out

Honestly, take a risk or two. Throw in a comedy song, throw in a metal song, throw in something that will make your loved ones go “are you OK” when it comes on the playlist. What’s the worst that could happen?

Example: One of my favourite Christmas songs, even though it’s on a Christmas album, is the above Kelly Clarkson cover of an Imogen Heap song (‘Just for Now‘) that is pretty explicitly not about Christmas. But if you slap the melody of ‘Carol of the Bells‘ on a song? Boom! Christmas song.

Song ideas: ‘Drink My Way Through Christmas’ by Karen Kilgariff, ‘100 Degrees (It’s Still Christmas To Me)’ by Kylie Minogue and Dannii Minogue, ‘Make It Jingle’ by Big Freedia

Tip 7: It’s not about you

As someone who makes a lot of playlists for one-off parties, something I have to keep in mind is that it’s not about me. A party playlist should be for everybody at the party, and intended to make them have the best time possible. In a way, it’s like Christmas itself: it’s about who you’re with. 

A Christmas playlist should be about underscoring the warm vibes. Whether those vibes are backyard piss-up, a dignified candlelit dinner or just people who love each other being in the same room, the playlist should accentuate the feelings that are already there.

Which is all to say, don’t put ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ on your playlist. Nobody likes it.

This story was made possible thanks to the generous support of our members. If you value what we do and want to help us do more – tautoko mai, donate today.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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