I was already a fan of Chris Willman’s work in the early ’90s when he singled out U2’s greatly misunderstood, hastily dismissed album Pop as the #1 record of that year. I was glad to find somebody who was listening closely enough to appreciate the complexity and stylistic audacity of the record. I already knew about his appreciation for Bruce Cockburn. Many years later, I’d have the privilege of meeting him during a press junket for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in L.A.

So I was already impressed with his discernment and his tastes. Today, though, I must say — the dude is resilient. He has sustained a prolific writing career through all of the ups and downs of an ever-changing media world.

You’ll find his work in the archives of Entertainment Weekly, and more recently in Rolling Stone. (And he had a rather memorable and ongoing, um, conversation with Michelle Shocked a short while back, but let’s not go there.) He’s writes for TV Guide, Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, The Los Angeles Times, Parade, New York magazine, The Wrap, The San Francisco Chronicle, Spin, Billboard, People, Relix, Country Weekly, CMT.com, M: Music & Musicians, T-Mobile magazine, JCK, Popdust, and for various record label and management clients. He’s spotlighted Jack White, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, The Dave Matthews Band, Alan Jackson, Taylor Swift, Natalie Maines, Rod Stewart, Pink, Fleetwood Mac, LeAnn Rimes, Buddy Miller, Aerosmith, Kacey Musgraves, and many, many more.

Further evidence of his credibility: Kanye West once told him to kill himself.

Impressed yet? His name is also on the front cover of a book! He’s the author of Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music.

I figured it was a long shot to ask for Christmas music recommendations from a guy who’s that busy. But that’s the thing: For Chris Willman, it’s a labor of love. And he loves Christmas music. So it is an honor, a privilege, and — personally — a thrill to introduce him to you here, even though you probably know him already.


I’m a Christmas music fetishist. My storage bills will attest to that; being a record collector is bad enough, but having boxes and boxes and boxes full of nothing but nearly identical recordings of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” testifies to some kind of Post-Tannenbaum Stress Disorder. How many versions of “Little Jack Frost, Get Lost” does one man need to own? But a lot of it really comes down to the search for the needle in the manger-side haystack — finding that one obscure 45 that will crystallize the true meaning of Christmas, at last.

Asking me to pick favorites is like asking Mia Farrow to pick a favorite child: Why, of course I’ll try. In years past, when I was at EW, I came up with a list of the 50 greatest Christmas records; since that hardly began to satisfy the completest in me, I subsequently did a list of the 100 best sad Christmas songs, and even that barely scraped the surface. Why so obsessive? I think it’s partly because it’s a chance to go genre-skipping in a way I don’t find time for the rest of the year — jazz feels beyond my sphere, except in December — but largely because holiday music is a canvas upon which to paint the most unabashed sentiments and emotions, pumping up both the childhood exhilaration and adult melancholia. Or childhood melancholia and adult exhilaration. These are a few of my favorites.

Judy Garland, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (film version)

To me, this is the great Rorschach test: is it a hopeful song or a heartbreaker? I even wrote a substantial feature about it for EW some years back, interviewing the song’s writer, Hugh Martin (since deceased), about its creation and the multiple versions of the lyrics that exist. Most of today’s singers use the rewritten, happier lyrics that promise to “hang a shining star upon the highest bow” instead of the original “until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” I have to admit: I judge anyone who sings the cheerful version quite harshly. (I may be revealing a bit too much about my character here.) None of the tens of thousands of versions that have been recorded beat the original use in Meet Me in St. Louis, where Judy Garland sings it to Margaret O’Brien as an attempt to stop her from worrying about the family’s imminent move out of their longtime homestead. O’Brien is so cheered up that she bursts into tears and destroys a snowman. In its original downtrodden form, it’s that kind of song. Really, it’s the goyim version of “Next year in Jerusalem,” knowing that, no, there is no such travel budget.

Bill Monroe, “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’”

For many years, I would put together a holiday music compilation every year, and I would always start it with a different version of this bluegrass chestnut, by Monroe or Emmylou Harris or Ricky Skaggs or Rhonda Vincent… until I finally ran out, since the song is not in any danger of being recorded enough to start turning up Mel Torme-level royalties. For many people, the anticipation of Christmas is sweeter than the day itself, which can turn out to be a letdown for any number of reasons. Whether or not Dec. 25 turns as joyful as hoped, there’s something about the promise of reuniting with family, home, and hearth. And all the urban complications of that journeying slip away in this more rural rendering of the lead-up to a trip back to the land of your roots. “Tall pines are humming”? That’s so much more idyllic-sounding a runway toward home than the one that runs through Chicago-O’Hare.

Chris Stamey and the dB’s, “Christmas Time”

For me, this is the rock equivalent of the Bill Monroe song, celebrating the holidays’ homecoming spirit with sheer jubilation — but also a spot of young-adult wistfulness from the singer who laments that his girlfriend is “far away in (her) hometown.” “Time stands still at Christmas,” he sings… if only it were so.

Roy Wood & Wizzard, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day”

This early ‘70s rocker is much better known in the UK than in the States. It ends with a children’s chorus, but up until then, its sax-laden wall of sound is about as Spectorian as pop got after the ‘60s. As puffy as holiday music gets, it still captures the childhood wish for the season to never end… and doubly appeals to me since, when I was a kid, I was very much into the glam-rock that Wizzard tangentially represents.

George Jones and Tammy Wynette, “Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus”

The parents deserve their own song, too? For those of us whose lives have been affected by dysfunctional families and/or divorce, this might sound as dreamily naïve and wishful as “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” — and George and Tammy themselves didn’t exactly live happily ever after at the North Pole. But its domestic contentment isn’t just aspirational for everyone, thank God.

Dwight Yoakam, “Santa Can’t Stay”

Reba McEntire, “Santa Claus is Coming Back to Town”

Is it too abrupt just to proceed right to the Christmas divorce songs? Both of these ‘90s country picks deal with a dad who comes back to visit the ex-wife and kids — played for tears, in Reba’s case, and laughter through the tears, in Dwight’s. “Santa Can’t Stay” is really my favorite kind of song: musically exhilarating to the point of nearly obliterating a fairly tragic lyric. Are those bells we hear, or sirens responding to a domestic dispute?

The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl, “Fairytale of New York”

I almost hesitate to include this one because it’s so well-known nowadays, as pretty much the token go-to for anyone who wants some rock & roll dysfunction in their holiday mix. But its ubiquity — well, in the musical circles I run in, anyway — doesn’t make it any less great. I’ve always been a little disappointed that Broadway and rock didn’t overlap more, but this adversarial duet really gets at that theatrical sense of how a song can truly be a dialogue. And while most of us will never spend Christmas in the drunk tank, there’s one exchange here that year after year keeps coming back to haunt me… and to make me laugh: “I could’ve been someone.” “Well, so could anyone!” When I look back at some of my own lost professional dreams as a year comes to a close, that equalization just about sums it up.

Nancy Griffith, “On Grafton Street”

A lot of my favorite “Christmas songs” are the ones that don’t have anything specifically holiday-related in their titles or even many of the lyrics. Joni Mitchell’s “River” is a good example of just such a song that somehow, improbably, is suddenly being recorded by about three-quarters of the people cutting Christmas records. Nothing wrong with that, but I wish some of those artists would be adventurous enough to find another sad, barely-Christmas-themed ballad to pick on… like, say, this one from Griffith. In a far-away land, she’s suddenly reminded of a lover she hasn’t seen or heard from in years, even though there’s no good reason to get lost in that kind of reverie at that moment. Except: that’s what the holidays do. You’ve been there? Don’t worry, I’m not asking for raised hands.

Joni Mitchell, “Face Lift”

Here’s Mitchell’s other “Christmas” song. Already in middle age, she takes a boyfriend home for the holidays, only to have her much more aged mother object to the sleeping arrangements. It’s a very particular kind of domestic disagreement being described, but it speaks to how many of us grown-ups revert to our childhood roles, agreeably or against our wills, when we rejoin family at Christmas. Fortunately, unlike “River,” there’s a happy ending here, as Joni determines her own holiday happiness, however mama chooses to feel.

Jackson Browne and the Chieftains, “The Rebel Jesus”

Not to ignore the elephantine reason-for-the-season in the room. As spirituals go, Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas album is my favorite, but it’s hard to choose a single favorite from that collection — although I don’t blame Joe Henry before me for going with Cockburn’s epic Nativity original, “Cry of a Tiny Babe.” But I’m taken by the take on Jesus by Cockburn’s non-believing pal, Browne. Much of the religious Christmas music we hear is about infantilizing the Christ child, as if to say, “You were such a beautiful baby — why’d you ever have to grow up?” Browne aims to bring the adult messiah into this, and very nearly overturns the moneychangers’ tables before wryly adding that he doesn’t want to disturb our party. Although he later recorded a solo version of this track, I prefer the one he first did with the Chieftains, which sort of disguises it as an old European folk song — and warms it up as well — instead of having it come off as a blatant political complaint.

Darlene Love, “All Alone on Christmas”

Home Alone 2 didn’t contribute a great deal to our understanding or enjoyment of Christmas, but it did as a side effect produce one of the greatest holiday songs of the modern age. Steven Van Zandt and the E Street Band looked to reunite Love with the glory that was Phil Spector’s early ‘60s Christmas album, even lyrically referencing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” (which is my favorite Christmas record, but too universally beloved to require any evangelizing from me). Joy and melancholy don’t get any more expertly intermingled… By the way, she makes her last Letterman appearance Dec. 19. When we come to the final Friday before Christmas of 2015 and there’s no Darlene Love on TV, I for one, will really feel what it’s like to be alone at Christmas.

Over the Rhine, “We’re Gonna Pull Through”

I almost always end a holiday compilation with a New Year’s song, and it helps that they’re invariably upbeat, since I’ve usually included so many downer Christmas songs. This one is the rare Dec. 31 anthem to split the difference between despondence and hope, with the title providing an obvious tip as to which side they mean to err on. I love all three of Over the Rhine’s holiday collections, and could have pulled just about any song from any one of them, including the one that just came out in 2014. But this track had some meaning for me when it came out in 2008, right as I was getting laid off from my long-time gig at EW, at the height of the recession. I did pull through… so roll over Judy Garland, and tell Margaret O’Brien the news.