Let's set the record straight on what Christmas songs are though before I start.
There are the carols - the songs everyone knows and everyone covers but few get right. Then there are the pop songs written for Christmas - the melodies are built around carols and sometimes even the arrangements are but most of the time they're given pop arrangements. Pop Christmas songs are not pop songs with Christmas-themed lyrics. I repeat, POP CHRISTMAS SONGS ARE NOT POP SONGS WITH CHRISTMAS-THEMED LYRICS. I hate it when that happens, the songs have to SOUND like Christmas whether it be the melody or the arrangement.
When it comes to my Christmas songs I'm very, VERY picky - I like my carols with classic arrangements and I like my festive pop festive, none of that experimental crap. However if the experimenting is done well, I don't have a problem - I just really hate it when people start murdering Christmas songs. And which is why I draw a line between pop and not pop if Christmas songs are the matter because I hate it when the two get improperly mixed together.
So here are 10 (commercial) Christmas songs that one, really sound like Christmas to me and two, are just brilliant songs/versions/arrangements.
1. Carrie Underwood - Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
I like the song itself as a carol but I like this arrangement in particular - it's got to be one of my personal favorite arrangements of Hark!. The gorgeous piano part and the REAL drums really make a difference. And one of the main reasons why I chose this arrangement is because Carrie doesn't murder the song (unlike a certain Mariah Carey who murdered Oh Holy Night) and her vocals are just gorgeous. Heck, it sounds like Christmas through and through! Hands-down one of the best arrangements of the classic.
2. Britt Nicole - Last Christmas
I know you guys will kill me for saying this but I have to - Last Christmas is one of the cheesiest, corniest festive songs EVER, I can't stand it. So why include it at all? Because Britt Nicole has managed to find/make an arrangement that actually makes it sound somewhere near good. I like her vocals (always have), I like how they changed up the arrangement and made it a little more tasteful and it's got all the elements of a standard pop Christmas song so it passes.
3. DBSK - The First Noel
You must be saying "WHAT? DBSK has a CHRISTMAS album?" because I was too when I first found out. But before we get to their version, let's talk about the song first. The First Noel is personally one of my favorite carols EVER, beside a few other staples, so I won't just settle for a run-of-the-mill version with a super pop-y arrangement (I'm talking to you, *NSYNC.) - I want a damn good one. Then there's the fact that I like boybands doing Christmas songs. I do, a lot. I like the a capella lines and I like everything about them doing Christmas songs.
This arrangement of The First Noel has a gorgeous instrumental - the violins, the bells, everything is just beautiful. Although the Carrie Underwood arrangement is a close second, I'd have to go with the DBSK one. Then the vocals are spot-on, there's little screaming and the harmonies sound great if you listen to them as a whole but even better individually (although, I like the *NSYNC harmonies better, it's just that the arrangement is bleh). Gorgeous.
4. Varsity Fanclub - It's Christmas Again
I'd rather all these bands do what Varsity Fanclub has done than bastardize all these beautiful carols with crap-ly-executed pop arrangements and excessive vocals. There's a certain kind of song you can do that to but NOT and I repeat NOT to carols. Not only have they done that, they've managed to make it sound like Christmas - the bells and the melody are the main reasons. But I actually like the bells on this song in particular - they're especially Christmas-y. And the way they made it like a pop song without losing that festive thing is just brilliant. You can't listen to this any other time.
5. BoA - 12월 27일
Although on songs like this BoA's vocals tend to be annoying and she's not particularly my favorite singer, this song has sort of become my anthem this year. It's a gorgeous, gorgeous waltz (3/4 time signature - waltz.) with a string section and all but I love how it sounds like a Christmas song but doesn't sound like a Christmas song. There are times when the string section sounds like every other pop Christmas song but then suddenly out of nowhere it turns into something straight off The Corrs' repertoire - that's when I go like WHOA. The melody is a giveaway that it's Christmas and the lyrics (at least the ones I can understand) are even more obvious but I like how it's not in-your-face Christmas.
6. *NSYNC - O Holy Night
You can't have a Christmas post and leave out this song, you simply can't. This a capella arrangement has been used by a ton of other boybands after *NSYNC (including my beloved DBSK when they debuted) and so I think this version deserves a mention. A lot of their other Christmas arrangements are too pop-ized for my taste - this is probably the one that sounds the most festive of them all. The harmonies are beautiful and I mean STUNNING, if there's one thing these guys know how to do it's make the best harmonies. Throughout the song the harmonies are not only gorgeous but really well-executed - they're very tight and it sounds brilliant.
7. SM Town 2006 - Snow Dream
There was a time earlier this month when I couldn't get enough of this song - it's catchy, it's pop and heck, it sounds like Christmas. It may be in Korean and it may sound like an American pop Christmas song but isn't that the point? The bells, the arrangement and the vocals - they threw all the best SM vocalists into one gigantic pot, mixed it together and gave the crap singers like 5 seconds singing time. My ears are in heaven.
And this kinda also reflects what kpop is - you can't not have a rap part, it's criminal. LOL. But really, this is what the genre is and has been for quite a while now so to put it in a Christmas song is pretty ingenious.
8. Libera - O Come All Ye Faithful
Choral music is MY turf, my grandmother formed one of the most influential children's choirs in the country, so when it comes to choirs I know my stuff - sometimes even better than I know pop. But that also means that my standards are much, MUCH higher. O Come All Ye Faithful also happens to be probably by favorite carol - I love how epic the song can get but only if you want it to be.
Libera are to a certain extent commercial but they're to a certain extent not commercial - they're pretty good either way. I've heard better choirs than them but they're a little more well-known so why not.
In choral music less instruments is more - vocals have to take center stage. To a certain extent that's good because then you don't have to worry about the instrumentals not sounding like Christmas, just use a simple piano arrangement and it'll sound great. That is if the choirs is good. I like their harmonies at the end and I like how the vocals are very light - usually if a choir's to sing this song they'll just explode and keep pushing at the end. Solid effort.
9. Aly & AJ - Greatest Time of the Year
There are your usual pop festive songs and then there are Disney festive songs - about 60% of the Disney festive songs scream CHRISTMAS and this is one of them. How this can sound like both a festive song and an advertisement is beyond me. But then again a lot of festive ad campaigns have unmistakably Christmas-y songs so they work.
The instrumental complements the melody and the bells very well, surprisingly. And it's not like other supposedly pop/rock Christmas songs that sound more pop/rock - it is what it is and it's a Christmas song. It ends great though - the middle 8, the break-down and the explosion at the last chorus is brilliant.
10. Girls Aloud - I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday
Girls Aloud do Christmas. Yay. The now classic Christmas EP boasts of some really great pop masterpieces and some of them really do sound apt for the season but this one on particular gets me every time. It's truly Girls Aloud do Christmas - it sounds like Girls Aloud and it sounds like Christmas. I think the vocals are a little iff-y and lack emotion (don't clobber me!), could be better, but the instrumental is brilliant - it's exactly how I imagined a GA song mixed with a carol to be like.