How to make the world's greatest Christmas playlist

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Few things are as satisfying as a well-curated playlist. A playlist can set the mood (or ruin it), and can also become your personal soundtrack for a while. And, best of all, you can return to it later and be transported back to the time when you made it. Dreamy!

But, let’s be honest – a lot of playlists suuuuck. Especially Christmas playlists. But, you are looking at (reading at?) the CHRISTMAS PLAYLIST CHAMP. When I was a teenager, I used Napster and a first-gen CD burner to make my friends a truly kick-ass, totally curated Christmas CD every year. And those bad boys LIVE ON because they were actually great playlists. How can you make an equally legendary Christmas playlist? Read on my friends.

Why do some playlists suck?

Why do they suck so hard? What makes them so sucktastic? A few things, usually. First, songs you hate that interrupt your flow. You know how it goes… you’re really feelin’ a playlist (obviously not made by you), then one of your most-hated songs of all time comes on. It… kind of throws things off. For me at Christmas, that song is “Last Christmas” by Wham. UGH! Get that shit outta here. (Everyone’s got “that song” at Christmas, and when you use pre-made playlists, it sneaks in there!) To avoid this, make your own damn playlists that you truly love.

Another thing that ruins otherwise good playlists are song transitions that are too jarring. This one’s easy to fix in your own playlists by listening to the starts and ends of each piece back to back (no need to test the whole playlist at once – just test the transitions). Reshuffle the order of tracks where it feels yucky (it’s probably because the tempi – speeds – of the pieces are too dissimilar, and not in a pleasing way; or, because the keys of the pieces don’t jive well, and your ears will tell you that – no need to over-analyze). And don’t play your own playlists on Shuffle until you’re a little sick of them. You’re better than that.

Finally, and most importantly, the thing that makes a lot of pre-made Christmas playlists so shitty is that there isn’t enough variety. You know what you like, and that’s great… but that can also mean playlists that are a real snooze. If you like the singer-songwriter/indie/alternative genre most of the time, super. But a whole Christmas playlist in that style can be… really boring. As well, even if you DO have variety, you’ve gotta put it all together and mix it up in terms of order, otherwise you’ll have unequal distribution of different genres. No sense in having two sappy ballads back to back when you’ve got a whole playlist to work with.

Great, so how do I make a better playlist?

Ok, so obviously you know I’m gonna tell you to put some classical and jazz on there. But don’t worry, I’ll show you how to do it in a decidedly non-sucky way so that you don’t hit a random, kind of crap classical piece and skip it every time.

So, my friends, FIRST I’m going to tell you how to build your base playlist.

THEN, I’ve put together a list of 10 classical pieces and 10 jazz tracks for you to slot in there to spruce it up and take it to the next level.

Are you ready?! Let’s do it!

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How to make a LEGENDARY Christmas playlist

Oh, it’s about to get REAL up in here

Let’s make the best Christmas playlist of your whole damn life

1.     Obviously, create a blank playlist (in Apple Music or Spotify or on YouTube – you do you.) Give it a cute or hilarious name. Don’t you dare just call it “Christmas.” Have fun for once in your life, Gary.

2.     Pull up the pre-made Christmas playlist on that platform that MOST appeals to you. Maybe it’s “Christmas Pop” or “Traditional Christmas” – doesn’t matter. Just pick one where, when you open it, you generally like the vibe and know lots of songs.

3.     Go through and add songs from that playlist into your awesomely-named personal Christmas playlist. The trick here is to only add songs you already know you LOVE. No “well, that song is okay…” or “well, I think other people like that song.” It’s YOUR damn playlist, Linda.

4.     You get to make one more pass through the same playlist to see if there are any songs you DON’T know but that are by artists you already love. Have a quick listen to the beginning of the song. Are you instantly drawn to it? I usually know if I’ll love a song in about 15 seconds. Feeling wishy-washy? THANK U, NEXT.

5.     Do that same routine with no more than three pre-made playlists. Myself, I usually start with a pop Christmas playlist, an alternative or singer-songwriter Christmas playlist, and finally, a “100 best Christmas Songs of All-Time” or similar playlist. (And obviously this is BEFORE I launch into classical and jazz.)

6.     BONUS STEP! If you have a ballin’ playlist from last Christmas already, here’s where you cross-reference and do a quick scan through that one to see if there are any beloved favourites you missed. For example, this year I missed “Text Me Merry Christmas” by Straight No Chaser with Kristen Bell, which I ADORE, so it made this year’s playlist as well. 

7. Have a look through what you’ve got and put it in an order you think works. The trick is to get as much variety as possible from song to song (i.e., a ballad then an up-tempo pop song, and you also want to try to mix genders of singers back-to-back, groups versus solo, old versus new music, etc.)

8.     Okay, y’all. You probably are dreading this next step if you aren’t already into classical and jazz, but OH JUST YOU WAIT FOR HOW AWESOME YOUR PLAYLIST GETS! Now we’re going to find a handful of classical pieces and a handful of jazz tracks to mix in. Like smarties in trail mix, they’re about to make this beast SO MUCH BETTER.

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Classical & Jazz additions to uplevel your Christmas playlist

“Damn, Sandra – you are SO classy!”

CLASSICAL PIECES TO MIX IN TO YOUR ALREADY BALLIN’ PLAYLIST

1. “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah

Look, I could try to be cool and suggest a different movement from this choral spectacular, but – let’s be real – you want this on your playlist so it will FEEL LIKE CHRISTMAS, MAN! 

2. Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker: Waltz of the Flowers (Act II, No. 13)

As with Messiah, you’ve gotta have a couple “greatest hits of classical Christmas music” on your playlist, and what’s more quintessential Christmas than The Nutcracker. Obviously, it’s jam-packed with great music pretty much start to finish, but I love Waltz of the Flowers the best. Can’t beat those french horns.

3. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248: “Jauchzet, frohlocket!” (Part I, No. 1)

Again, this is one of those classical essentials. I like this grand opening by Bach, because it captures that epic-feeling of excellent Christmas church music. Tuck it after a loud-ish, uptempo tune to smooth out your playlist… that intro will sneak up on you otherwise!

4. Anything by the Canadian Brass

Brass = Christmas for me, so you MUST include a brass quintet. I love their Carol of the Bells or God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.

5. “Lo How A Rose E’er Blooming”

Gotta pick a choir for this one – the harmonies are just incredible in human voices. This always makes me want to have a pot of tea, cuddle up by the fire, and pretend I’m in a little English cottage like in The Holiday. I found a lovely recording by The Cambridge Singers on Apple Music, if that’s your jam.

6. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”

I sang in a very good children's choir through high school, and we did an epic, proper Christmas concert at the beginning of every December. For me, it’s not Christmas until the descant kicks in on this bad boy (that’s where the sopranos sing way up high above the melody and it’s WONDERFUL). Also, did you know this is actually by classical giant Felix Mendellsohn? You’ve GOT to pick a real choir for this one (aka, not Mormon Tabernacle, who I think are terrible for a variety of reasons). Choir of King’s College has a few quality recordings, but you know you’ve found a really good one if it starts with the brass fanfare.

7.  “Maria Wiegenlied” by Max Reger

I ADORE the recording from Carnegie Hall with Kathleen Battle & Frederica von Stade (André Previn conducting). It is UNREAL.

8. “Night of Silence”

There are lots of beautiful instrumental versions of Silent Night, but – pro choirnerd tip – there’s nothing like the arrangement for choir called “Night of Silence.” Oh my god. It’s so beautiful. I found a lovely recording by Canadian women’s choir Elektra. (Choir buddies – I bawled when I listened to the Elektra version. So many memories of children almost starting each other’s braids on fire with their candles…)

9. “Panis Angelicus” by César Franck

This is one that’s been recorded by a lot of “popera” or “crossover” singers (like Josh Groban, Sarah Brightman, people you’ve seen on America’s Got Talent etc.), so by all means go for someone you already like if you want. But, if I were you, I would pick the sublime opera legend Jessye Norman with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, if you can find it.

10. “O Come All Ye Faithful” (aka, “Adeste Fideles”)

There’s a wonderful version by the Three Tenors, and another with just Pavarotti. Like the descant in Hark the Herald Angels Sing, it’s not Christmas until I hear the chord change in this one at “Word of the Father now in flesh appearing.” SWOON.

JAZZ CHRISTMAS MUSIC TO REALLY LOCK THIS FUCKER DOWN

1. Mandatory Vince Guaraldi track(s)

Okay. So. I love Vince Guaraldi so much that the Charlie Brown Christmas album could form the backbone of my Christmas Playlist. I always include the instrumental version of “Christmas Time is Here,” plus “Skating” and “O Tannenbaum.” The other classic choice is “Linus & Lucy.”

2. “Sleigh Ride” – Diana Krall

Can’t go wrong with a Diana Krall piano+vocal version of a Christmas standard (her whole Christmas album from about a decade ago is really great). Personally, I like her “Sleigh Ride” with the Hamilton Jazz Orchestra the best. 

3. “The Christmas Song” – Chris Botti

Botti toured with Sting for a long time, so he’s basically Sting playing a trumpet – like, in a good way. He’s soulful, easy to listen to, and plays so beautifully it will simultaneously make you feel really sexy but also want to kick back with a puzzle. His Christmas album “December” is very good, and I particularly like this casually rhythmic version of the fireside classic.

4. “Sugar Rum Cherry” – Duke Ellington

This track is my secret weapon for making an incredible holiday playlist. Seriously. Game-changer. 

5. “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” – Ella Fitzgerald

Not exactly an obscure choice, but it’s just SO GOOD. The ending – oh man. I love how Ella’s lively, colourful tone can break up an otherwise Pop-y playlist in a way that feels natural.

6. “Cool Yule” – Louis Armstrong

Part of what I love about adding jazz to a Christmas playlist is that warm, nostalgic feeling from old recordings. This Louis Armstrong will make you feel like you’re laying on the shag carpet in your grandma’s livingroom, guaranteed.  

7. “The Hanukkah Waltz” – Bela Fleck & the Flecktones

First of all, you’ll feel like less of a jerk when your Jewish friends are over and you’re only blasting songs about the birth of Christ. Second, the clarinet on this track is just AWESOME.

8. “Frosty the Snowman” – Harry Connick, Jr.

The screaming horns at the beginning of this track always make me think of Christmas. (Can you tell my husband is a trumpet player?) This is a great way to spice up a slower playlist. So good.

9. Any version of “The Christmas Waltz”

For fans of Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr. has a very good Christmas album with a delightful version of this song. I also really like the Dave Brubeck version, if you’re more into the instrumental vibe.

10. “Jingle Bells” – Frank Sinatra

Just like with the classical picks, I could try and be super obscure and cool, but frankly – what’s the point. Love Frank. Love this tunes. Fuck it.

 

And, here are a few BONUS TRACKS that are amazing and kind of related but don’t really fit anywhere:

1. “Nutcracker” by Straight No Chaser (it’s hilarious, even if the message is a bit… #offbrand)

2. “Waltz of the Flowers,” from the Nutcracker, as reimagined by Pentatonix

3. “Pennies from Heaven” by Louis Armstrong (because it’s in Elf and I love that part, even though it’s definitely not a Christmas song)

4. “Count Your Blessings” from White Christmas (clearly the best part of that movie, even though it’s not specifically Christmassy)

 

Hope that spruces up your holiday playlist! I know mine is now in the best shape it’s ever been.

I’ll also be sharing my other Christmas playlist secret weapon songs over on my Instagram, so check it out!

Now, to enjoy. Happy Holidays, everyone!

 

/k