The Playlist: Sean Ono Lennon’s ‘Xmas’ Wish and 11 More Holiday Songs

Every Friday, pop critics for The New York Times weigh in on the week’s most notable new songs and videos — and anything else that strikes them as intriguing. Just want the music? Listen to the Playlist on Spotify here (or find our profile: nytimes). Like what you hear? Let us know at [email protected] and sign up for our Louder newsletter, a once-a-week blast of our pop music coverage.

Miley Cyrus and Mark Ronson featuring Sean Ono Lennon, ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’

In a performance filmed at Electric Lady Studios in New York, Miley Cyrus and Mark Ronson remake “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” the 1971 plea for peace and reconciliation by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It comes with dynastic approval: their son, Sean Ono Lennon, plays guitar and sings the countermelody — “War is over/if you want it” — by Cyrus’s side. (All three played the song on “Saturday Night Live” last weekend, too.) Ronson backs her with a synthesizer-laced Wall of Sound, complete with bedrock backbeats and sleigh bells, and Cyrus’s earnest belting gets grittier as the backup swells and the harmonies ascend. After her “Merry Christmas” wish and the last reverb dies down, she happily swears. JON PARELES

Lucius, ‘Christmas Time Is Here’

A reverbed guitar and a distant snare drum, gradually accumulating a self-effacing studio ensemble, accompany the suspended-time vocal harmonies of Lucius in “Christmas Time Is Here.” It recalls the slow-motion doo-wop of the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You”; with “sleigh bells in the air/beauty everywhere,” it’s dazed and bemused. PARELES

Wynton Marsalis Quintet featuring Oni Marsalis, ‘Winter Wonderland’

For the second year in a row, Wynton Marsalis invited his daughter, Oni, to sing a Christmas carol, joined by a combo of expert Jazz at Lincoln Center-affiliated musicians. The 10-year-old sings “Winter Wonderland” in a sweet, well-pitched voice as the elder Marsalis skates around her, his frosty-toned trumpet in harmony with the clarinet of Camille Thurman. GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO

Johnathan Rice and Courtney Marie Andrews, ‘We Won’t Be Lonely This Christmas’

“My mother took me by the hand/We jumped into the Rio Grande/We swam until we reached the promised land.” That’s how Johnathan Rice begins “We Won’t Be Lonely This Christmas,” a Christmas song in the best Woody Guthrie tradition of humanizing ordinary people. Mother and son hope to reunite with a migrant farmworker father; they’re apprehended by the Border Patrol and separated. But in this delicate acoustic bolero, they still cling to hope. PARELES

Leon Ware featuring Nikki Grier, ‘Be Like Christmas’

Leon Ware, a singer, songwriter and producer who worked with Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and Maxwell, died in 2017, leaving behind “Noel,” a set of Christmas songs including one new one: “Be Like Christmas,” written by Ware and Richard Rudolph with lead vocals by Ware’s frequent backup singer Nikki Grier, though Ware himself sings on the other “Noel” tracks. In “Be Like Christmas,” a recurring piano lick, a melodic bass line and hovering synthesized strings hint at the insinuating grooves that Ware brought to Gaye’s “I Want You” and Maxwell’s “Sumthin’ Sumthin’,” while the lyrics brood in minor chords about a joyless world, plaintively wondering “Why can’t every day be like Christmas?” PARELES

Alfredo Rodriguez and Pedrito Martinez, ‘Jingle Bells’

Two present-day Cuban masters whose virtuosity usually feels both overwhelming and totally fun will release their first collaborative album next year, with Quincy Jones as the producer. Consider this a two-minute teaser, in the form of some syncopated Christmas cheer. RUSSONELLO

Swae Lee and Rae Sremmurd, ‘Ear Drummers Present Christmas at Swae’s’

Here’s some unrequited love or lust at Christmastime. “I didn’t have you under my tree this Christmas/But I had you all over my wish list,” Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd moans in Auto-Tune. “Ohhh … you’re not under my mistletoe.” With an echoey piano and wind chimes in a Mike Will Made-It production, it’s a mantra of lonely yearning. PARELES

Nigel Wilson and His Electronic Orchestra, ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’

The analog synthesizer tones of Walter (later Wendy) Carlos’s 1968 “Switched-on Bach” reappear with all their plinky, wavery, slidey, not-always-in-tune charm on Nigel Wilson’s album “Have Yourself a Merry Little Synthmas,” a 50-years-later homage. From sparse beginning to tentative counterpoint to chordal pomp (with glissandos) in under two minutes, “Angels We Have Heard on High” doesn’t outstay its welcome. PARELES

Bernice, ‘Leonardo (and What He Wants for Christmas)’

Bernice, a band from Toronto, wrote this enigmatic whiff of a song around lyrics from a 9-year-old in a children’s hospital, in a program run by the Sing Me a Story Foundation. “Leonardo wants a hoverboard,” it begins. It’s a track with a fitful beat and bass line, an amiably asymmetrical melody and puffs of electronic chords that refuse, in the end, to settle on just what key the song is in. PARELES

Jeff Coffin and Chris Walters, ‘Santa Digs Me’

Here’s a new holiday ditty in a Randy Newman mode, sending up Christmastime consumerism with a loving pat on the head. It’s written and performed by the vocalist-pianist Chris Walters and the saxophonist Jeff Coffin (an affiliate of Bela Fleck and Dave Matthews). Walters’ New Orleans roots shine through clearly as he sings from the perspective of a wide-eyed kid: “iPhones and Teslas make me complete/You say it’s gaudy, I say, ‘Meant to be’/Why? Santa digs me.” RUSSONELLO

Soak, ‘Driving Home for Christmas’

Chris Rea sounded sanguine and relaxed, utterly unperturbed by slow traffic or distance, in his 1986 original version of “Driving Home for Christmas.” The Irish songwriter Soak finds longing and angst in it instead, slowing it down and performing it solo with a guitar, lingering over lines like, “It’s been so long” and “I sing for you, though you can’t hear me.” The Santa hat she wears in the video can’t make her jolly. PARELES

Vitamin String Quartet, ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’

This serviceable rendition, played by a string quartet specializing in semi-hot takes on pop tunes, only affirms that the Greatest Christmas Song of All Time doesn’t need Mariah Carey — or any vocalist, even — to stand on its feet. Still, fat chance you won’t head straight to the original after watching this. (Unless you were at the mall earlier today, in which case you’ve already heard it.) RUSSONELLO

An earlier version of this Playlist misstated the nationality of the singer Soak. She is Irish, not English.

Jon Pareles has been The Times’s chief pop music critic since 1988. A musician, he has played in rock bands, jazz groups and classical ensembles. He majored in music at Yale University. @JonPareles

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