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Best Christmas Soul Songs: 10 Soulful Winter Warmers
List & Guides

Best Christmas Soul Songs: 10 Soulful Winter Warmers

From gospel-powered renditions of old favourites to risqué original numbers, the best Christmas soul songs have made their own traditions.

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If the hundreds of Christmas albums released since the LP era began, in 1948, are anything to go by, the music industry truly loves the season of goodwill. Indeed, one of the first long-playing releases was Bing Crosby’s highly influential Merry Christmas, which was so successful that it sparked a trend of holiday albums that continues today. From Springsteen to Sinatra, Elvis to Ramones, and Bon Jovi to Willie Nelson, artists from every musical genre have embraced the season of good cheer – and the best Christmas soul songs show that such soul and funk artists as Donny Hathaway and Prince have been no exception.

Indeed, some of the most inventive yuletide grooves have come from the R&B world. One of the first soul artists to dedicate an entire record to Christmas tunes was a Texas-born singer-songwriter called Charles Brown, with his 1960 album, Charles Brown Sings Christmas Songs. The success of the release – which spawned the US hit single Please Come Home For Christmas – encouraged the Motown, Stax and Atlantic labels to enter the lucrative Christmas market, By 1968, James Brown, the self-proclaimed “Godfather Of Soul,” was making festive records, unleashing the world’s first Christmas-themed funk album. Since then, multiple R&B artists – from Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack to Cee Lo Green and Musiq Soulchild – have sought inspiration by summoning the Christmas spirit.

The best Christmas soul songs offer a mixture of gospel-infused arrangements of traditional yuletide tunes and daringly original alternative Christmas numbers. Expect a contrasting blend of holiday cheer, sober reflection and forlorn wintry laments, all infused with a soulful spirit and occasionally enlivened by an irreverent playfulness.

Listen to our Noël Chill & Soul playlist here, and check out the best Christmas soul songs, below.

10: Booker T And The MGs: Jingle Bells (1966)

Scoring a No.1 R&B hit in 1962 with their debut single, a catchy instrumental called Green Onions, Booker T And The MGs played a key role in putting Memphis and Stax Records on the soul-music map. The multi-racial instrumental combo made 11 albums for Stax during their ten-year spell at the label, including the 1966 holiday album In The Christmas Spirit.

That record captured the band injecting some greasy Southern soul and funk into a collection of Christmas songs and carols, opening with their jolly version of Jingle Bells, which spotlights Booker T Jones’ soulful organ. A much-loved festive song, Jingle Bells was written in 1850, by the US songwriter James Lord Pierpoint. Its first recording took place in 1889, when Will Lyle sang the song it into a primitive recording device called an Edison Cylinder. Since then, over 1,700 versions of Silent Night have been recorded, ranging from those by smooth crooner Frank Sinatra to British punk group The Yobs (aka The Boys). Other soul artists who have recorded Jingle Bells include Al Green, Gladys Knight And The Pips and Natalie Cole.

9: Booker T And The MGs: Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (1966)

What have Fred Astaire, Bruce Springsteen, Bugs Bunny and Michael Bublé all got in common? They’ve all recorded Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, a popular 1934 song written by J Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie that was a hit that same year for US singer Eddie Cantor, who popularised the song and quickly helped transform it into a Christmas standard.

Over 1,200 recorded versions of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town exist, including several notable ones by some of the best soul singers ever to have walked the Earth. In the early 60s, the vocal groups The Miracles and Patti LaBelle And The Bluebells both put their stamp on it; in the 70s, Motown acts The Temptations and Jackson 5 infused the tune with a distinct Motor City vibe; and in the 80s, The Pointer Sisters gave it an all-girl electro-funk twist. Again while assembling In The Christmas Spirit, Booker T And The MGs were one of the first acts to reframe this yuletide classic as one of the best Christmas soul songs, delivering it as a bluesy midtempo soul gumbo seasoned with Steve Cropper’s piquant guitar work.

8: En Vogue: Silent Night (1991)

Originating in Austria, where it was written in 1818 by school teacher Franz Xaver Gruber and Roman Catholic priest Joseph Mohr, Silent Night holds the record for being the most-recorded Christmas carol of all time. Over 4,000 recordings of the song exist, among them versions made by musicians as stylistically different as Elvis Presley, Taylor Swift and André Rieu. Of the soul singers who have included Silent Night in their repertoire, Percy Sledge reached Holland’s Top 10 with a version recorded in 1969. A few years earlier, Booker T And The MGs infused it with a distinctly sanctified feel thanks to Jones’ sweetly piping organ, and later, in 1976, legendary soul group The Impressions cut a warmly harmonised, gospel-tinged version as a single for Cotillion Records. Perhaps the most radical remake of the song – and the one that earns a spot among the best Christmas soul songs – came in 1991, when the all-female harmony quintet En Vogue welded its chorus onto a New Jack Swing groove featuring chiming Christmas bells.

7: Brook Benton: Soul Santa (1971)

“Santa is a fine soul brother, he loves all his fellow man.” So sang the velvet-voiced singer Brook Benton on Soul Santa, his 1971 non-album single for the Cotillion label. For his hip reimagining of Father Christmas, Benton co-wrote a mellow groove that was arranged and produced by Arif Mardin, famed for his work with Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway and Chaka Khan. A year earlier, Benton – who was born Benjamin Franklin Peay, in North Carolina – had collaborated with Mardin on Rainy Night In Georgia, which became Benton’s seventh and final US R&B chart-topper. On Soul Santa, Mardin framed Benton’s soulful voice with a jazzy flute and an ethereal choir, discreetly mixed into the song’s background. Halfway through, the tune switches into a rousing gospel groove. Santa never sounded so soulful.

6: Solomon Burke: Presents For Christmas (1966)

A prolific hitmaker for Atlantic Records in the 60s, Philadelphia-born Solomon Burke – who began his career as a child preacher before becoming a gospel singer – had already scored 14 hits on the US R&B chart before he released the single Presents For Christmas in 1966. The song didn’t set the charts alight, but it is now regarded as one of the best Christmas soul songs of all time. Befitting his role as a beneficent bringer of seasonal mirth and joy, Burke’s preacher-like enthusiasm is infectious on a tune that features tolling bells in addition to punchy horns and churchy organ chords over a bouncy groove. “I’m fat enough to be the world’s biggest Santa Claus,” jokes a self-deprecating Burke, referring to his legendary girth, which he attributed to his love for fried chicken. Presents For Christmas appeared on one of the best Atlantic Records soul albums, the 1968 compilation Soul Christmas.

5: Charles Brown: Please Come Home For Christmas (1996)

Co-written by proto-soul pioneer Charles Brown, who took the song into both the US R&B Top 20 and the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961, Please Come Home For Christmas eventually went on to top the US Christmas chart in 1972, selling over a million copies. It also inspired over 200 cover versions, from artists as disparate as Eagles (as a standalone single, in 1978) to Cher (on her all-singing, all-dancing 2023 Christmas album). One of the most distinctive takes on Please Come Home For Christmas came in 1996, from Roger & Zapp, an iconic Ohio funk act famed for their use of an electronic “talk box” effect. They infused the tune with an ear-catching Kraftwerk-meets-doo-wop flavour.

4: Otis Redding: White Christmas (1968)

An Irving Berlin song written for the 1942 musical movie Holiday Inn, White Christmas is indelibly associated with the resonant-voiced crooner Bing Crosby, who sang and starred in the film and took the song to the top of the US pop charts for 11 weeks that same year. Considered the best-selling single of all time, White Christmas won an Academy Award and sold over 50 million copies worldwide. The song also spawned almost 2,000 cover versions, several of which came from soul artists of the 60s and 70s, including the Detroit groups The Miracles, The Supremes and The Temptations.

One of soul music’s most distinctive renderings of White Christmas came from Otis Redding, the raspy-voiced Georgia-born singer dubbed the “King Of Soul”. Aided by subtle backing by Booker T And The MGs and The Memphis Horns, Redding stamps his authority on what’s considered one of the best Christmas songs of all time, injecting White Christmas with a cathartic, gospel-powered intensity that takes it to another level. The track was released as a posthumous single on Atco Records in December 1968, a year after Redding’s tragic death in an airplane crash, and was also included on that year’s Atlantic Records holiday compilation, Soul Christmas.

3: Clarence Carter: Back Door Santa (1968)

Few could imagine that a Christmas song could be deemed subversive, but in 1968 a blind singer-songwriter from Alabama called Clarence Carter came up with the controversial Back Door Santa. Describing an illicit love affair, the song exuded a raunchy funkiness that may have upset some listeners, especially those who preferred the safe haven of traditional Christmas carols, with their messages of holiness, glad tidings and goodwill to all. But Carter, who wrote Back Door Santa with Marcus Daniel, was having none of that. He sought to distinguish himself from the safe image of Father Christmas, stating, “I ain’t like old Saint Nick/He don’t come but once a year.” Rather than bringing presents to children, Carter’s Santa bribes the kids with “a few pennies” so that he can be alone with their mothers.

Produced at FAME Studios, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, by the legendary Rick Hall (whose myriad credits include cuts by Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Eddie Floyd and Candi Staton), Back Door Santa climbed to No.4 on the US chart, despite – or perhaps because of – the shock factor of its risqué humour. Artists as varied as Bon Jovi, BB King and The Black Crowes later covered Carter’s tune. In 1987, the New York rap trio Run-DMC sampled Back Door Santa to create their festive number Christmas In Hollis, forever enshrining as one of the best Christmas soul songs in history.

2: Prince: Another Lonely Christmas (1984)

“Every Christmas night for seven years now, I drink banana daiquiris till I’m blind,” sings Prince, without a hint of irony, on Another Lonely Christmas, a song in which he mourns a lover who “died on December 25th”. Packed with vivid reminiscences of happier moments – “Remember the time we swam naked in your father’s pool?” – it is essentially an elegy for lost love. Though the lyrics have a maudlin quality, the sonic character of the song – a stirringly dramatic slice of gritty soul-rock with impassioned, echo-drenched vocals – offers an element of anger that offsets any sentimentality.

Prince’s only known foray into the world of Christmas songs, Another Lonely Christmas was recorded in February 1984 and issued worldwide as the B-side to I Would Die 4 U, the fourth single lifted from his Purple Rain album, while also being given a Japanese release in its own right. The only time Prince performed the song in concert was on Boxing Day of that year, at a charity show in St Paul, Minnesota. In 2021, The Knights, a contemporary US orchestra, reconfigured it as a lush large-ensemble piece on their album Before Christmas.

1: Donny Hathaway: This Christmas (1971)

Snuggly ensconced at the top of this list of the best Christmas soul songs is this winter warmer by the St Louis-born soul singer Donny Hathaway. Co-written by Hathaway with Nadine McKinnor, This Christmas was released as a non-album single in 1971 but didn’t chart. The key to the song’s appeal is not just its infectious instrumental hook and warmly festive chorus, but also its lyrics, which reference all the classic Christmas ingredients: presents, cards, mistletoe, a Christmas tree and carols.

Now regarded as a bona fide holiday standard, This Christmas has been recorded over 300 times by artists from diverse musical worlds; soul legends (The Temptations, Gladys Knight And The Pips), contemporary R&B stars (Mary J Blige, John Legend) and British pop idols (Seal, Gary Barlow) have all covered it, as have cool jazz cats (Harry Connick, Jr; José James). There’s even a version by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. But most agree that Hathaway’s original of This Christmas is definitive. Hathaway co-authored one other Christmas Song, Be There, which was originally issued as This Christmas’ B-side. In 2022, Hathaway’s daughter Lalah, a five-time Grammy-winning singer, revived This Christmas as a duet with her father using studio wizardry.

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